The Balcony

By Amy Parker

In the lull before morning recess, David looked up to see his mother’s head framed in the window of the classroom door.  She grimaced, peered in, pressed the mesh with her vivid mouth. David sat in the back row, but even from his distance, he could see that her cheeks were flushed.  She caught David’s eye, pointed frantically down at something out of sight, and waved.  Her red kerchief sat askew on her hair.  David, heart pounding, bowed his head. He sat hoping to himself that it was still early enough in the day that she hadn’t become wild.

David erased a problem in long division, concentrating on the pink rubber shavings, the pencil smear.  He blew them away, erased again. He erased so hard he bore a hole in the paper.  He liked long division, liked imagining the numbers entering a little house, fitting in neatly, with the remainders confined to the roof.  The door squeaked, and his mother came in, slipping a little in her high heels.  She weaved between the desks.  Her perfume was like a blow.

David kept his head down. He dropped his pencil, bent to retrieve it, and came nose to nose with his basset hound, Orla, who gave his face a tentative lick, like she knew she was in the wrong place and needed to make an apology. He sniffed her tortilla scent and wished he could stay down there on the floor with her and never come back up.

Children scraped chairs and clustered around her, patting the dog’s head, scratching between her shoulder blades.  The boys crouched and grabbed her paws; said “shake, shake!” and the girls bent over her, fondled her long ears and kissed the furrows on her forehead and cooed.  “Aww, she’s cute!”

“Class!” Mrs. Michaels, his fourth-grade teacher, rapped her desk with a ruler.

His mother teetered beside him, and the leashed swayed and tautened. Orla sat like an anchor.  David held his breath.

“May I help you, Mrs. Marsh?”

“Oh, shoot,” his mother laughed breathlessly.  “It’s Bowman now! Davey’s daddy and I are D-I-V-O-R-C-E-D.”

David kept his eyes down.  He had not told Mrs. Michaels or anyone in the class about his daddy leaving. His Gigi said to hush on it.  And to hush on his momma’s friend Nestor Roche.  Ain’t neither of them any good, his Gigi said.

His mother popped the clasp on her pocketbook and fished out a box of Benson and Hedges.  She shook one out and held it, unlit, between her long fingers.  Her bangles clattered.  She considered Mrs. Michaels, with a grin and a squint.

“Davey sure does talk about you,” his mother said.  “He’s always going around quotating you and trying to get me to sing those rounds you teach him.  I hate rounds.  They get stuck in your head. It’s not like you can sing them on your own.  Rounds don’t work if you’re alone.  It’s dishonest, don’t you think? Teaching kids songs that never end? Everything ends, doesn’t it, and everyone ends up alone.”

David saw with horror that tears were forming at the corners of her eyes.  They thickened her voice when she quavered: “My dame has a lame tame crane.  My dame has a crane that is lame.  Pray every day that my dame’s lame tame crane feeds and comes home again.”  Her voice sounded terrible, like the Wicked Witch.

Around him, his classmates stared at his mother, or kept their eyes firmly on their desks.

His mother rubbed the back of David’s neck in the way that he hated. Mrs. Michaels glanced at Orla, who was licking her privates with utter concentration.  She looked at David’s scarlet neck.  She met his eyes.  David looked away.

“Let’s step outside, Mrs. Marsh,” said Mrs. Michaels.  She fingered her little cross.

“No reason for a tête-à-tête, teacher. I’m taking my son out of school.  There’s been a situation. Family. Not your concern.  Davey, dig through my pocketbook and find me some matches.”

Mrs. Michaels looked at David.  He shrank in his chair. His mother was close, he could tell, to flying off the handle—‘right off the handle of my broomstick, baby’.

“Davey, get me a light.”

She threw her pocketbook on his desk.  Lipsticks clacked, loose change jangled.  A squiff of tissues poked out from the hinge. Gingerly, David fished for a pack of matches.  If he took long enough maybe she would give up.

Digging through his mother’s purse usually excited him.  The smooth metal curve of lipsticks, the scent of perfume, the slippery silk lining with the tear where bobby pins or pennies fetched up, the ring of keys, the little hairbrush and compact, the crisp money she flung, loose, at the bottom of the bag, sprinkled sometimes with face powder.  She liked him to go through her purse for her in the evenings before she went out, and he felt furtive and grown up.  But here in the classroom, the open purse seemed to him as naked and shameful as a drawer of her panties.  He bent his head over it, pretending to search.

“Mrs. Marsh—

“Bowman.”

“Is it possible you just returned from a festive lunch?”

“I can’t find any matches,” David lied.

“Give me that. I have to do everything myself.” His mother grabbed her purse and dropped the cigarette. It rolled on the floor between David’s feet.  He brought down his shoe on the cigarette, looking his mother in the eye.

She was a witch.

He ground the cigarette under his shoe.

His mother smacked him.

A girl in the back began to cry.

Shock and anger darted across his teacher’s face.

“Mrs. Marsh,” said Mrs. Michaels, “I believe you owe everyone here an apology.”

His mother stood for a moment, cocky and squinting.  She blinked.  She looked down at Orla, who rolled sanpaku eyes and listed against Davey’s ankle. She looked at Mitzi Tomkins, crying, and at Ben Henshaw who had his hands over his ears, at Carly Swift who was gulping down laughter, and at Mrs. Michaels, who had an arm around David’s shoulder.  She put her hand over her mouth in dismay.

“My baby,” she said, “I’m so sorry.”  She kissed David’s cheek. Her mouth felt sloppy, and also greasy, as though she’d been eating butter.

Mrs. Michaels didn’t seem particularly moved by his mother’s tears. She just frowned and fingered her cross, but she stood aside as his mother straightened up and took David’s hand.

“Lipstick, David,” said his teacher.  She indicated her own cheek.

His mother laughed and thumbed his cheek clean, her tears forgotten.  She snaked a tissue from her bag and blotted her face.  She reapplied her lipstick, gaily. When she was done, she tugged David’s arm.  She tugged Orla’s leash.

“Goodbye, David,” said his teacher.  Her face was very red and perplexed.

The door slammed.  David stood waited outside it for a moment, hoping to hear what, if anything, Mrs. Michaels would say. But the classroom was silent.

“God Almighty, David,” said his mother, “I never knew you were such an apple-polisher!”

She handed him Orla’s leash, lit a cigarette and strode down the hall, her skirt swinging jauntily.  Her smoke cut through the school smell of bleach and floor polish.

“Come on, baby,” she said in the laughing voice he loved.

She flicked a dead match into the path of the janitor, and did a Gene Kelly move, scuffing her shoes through the janitor’s cleaning foam. All at once the sound of his mother’s high heels on the linoleum filled him with excitement, like the clatter of a train, and he ran to catch up with her.  Orla’s nails chittered and her stomach swung as she struggled to keep up.  He looked down at her fondly.

“Come on, girl!”

The school corridor felt like an unfamiliar, enchanted tunnel.  The light turned the hallway sepia, and David remembered the moment in “The Wizard of Oz,” the best moment, when Dorothy crept through the shadowy umbers of her fallen house, opened the door, and to a swell of music emerged into Technicolor.

His mother reached up and straightened her kerchief. It flashed red as she turned the corner.  David ran to catch up with her, Orla at his heels.  They burst out the doors all three of them together, running to the curb where her red Mustang waited, blazing in a world of light and color.

Part Two

David had just about fallen asleep in the back when his mother said in a sharp voice, “Get up here baby, and take the wheel.  I’m driving blind.”

David scooted forward over his spill of school papers and elbowed Orla to one side.  He rubbed his eyes.  They were still speeding through the hill country.  Heat pools shimmered.  The sun was hot and the light jab-jab-jabbed against the punching bag clouds.

“What do you mean, mama?”

“I can’t see the road!”

Her voice, normally lazy Texas with an uppercrust lilt, angled sharply.  David glanced around the car’s interior, looking for bottles.  Had she stopped while he was asleep?  He knew her flask was empty; he’d seen her finish it in the school parking lot.  But there weren’t any bottles, as far as he could see.

“Take the wheel, goddammit!”

She was going 90.  The road seared at that speed.  She let go of the wheel and clutched her head.  The speedometer crept to 100.  David, terrified, leaned across the gap between the bucket seats and steered.  They started to weave.

“Mama, you’ve got to slow down.”

She kept her hands pressed hard against her eyes, her foot flooring the accelerator like she was trying to speed herself back into sight.  David held the wheel in both hands, struggling to keep the car straight.  The road began to curve.

“Mama!”

He let go of the wheel with one hand and struck her as hard as he could on the knee.  Her foot didn’t budge.  The car veered into the opposite lane.   He yanked them back.  Up ahead in their lane he could see a blue Chevy, travelling much more slowly.   The Mustang gained speed.

“Mama, take your foot off the gas!”

He leaned over and grabbed her by the shin, pulling her foot.  She just pressed the gas harder.

They were right on top of the Chevy. David hit the horn.  The Chevy swerved.   David swerved.  They clipped its side mirror and kept going.  Behind them, a horn blared, and he heard a man shouting.  David was screaming. His mother was screaming.  The wheel fought his grip.  The car kept skidding. David focused on the dotted lines in the road, casting worried glances at his mother, who sank in a half crouch, holding her eyes, and at Orla, who pressed herself forward to get close to them, terrified, one paw scraping his wrist, the other slipping on the gearshift. The road rushed under them, a grainy blur of asphalt and heat, and the terrible whipping in his ears distracted him, and he felt battered by wind and speed.  Please God just don’t let then crash.

Orla leapt onto his mother’s lap and then burrowed down into the footwell, between her feet.  Her mother kicked the dog, screaming, and Orla scrambled back up, this time onto David, but his mother’s foot came off the accelerator, and the car slowed down.

“Don’t touch the pedals, mama,” said David. “I’m going to steer us off to the side.”

They rolled onto the shoulder, and when the car was nearly stopped, David pulled the hand brake.

“Jesus,” said his mother, “Jesus Christ.”  Then she leaned her head on the steering wheel and he pressed his face into Orla’s neck and they both cried.

“Davey,” she said when they were quiet, “here’s what we’re going to do. I want you to tie my kerchief around my eyes.  Tie it tight. First we’re going to pray hard. Then we’re going to turn on the radio.  And we’re going to find us a song by Patsy Cline.  And when the song is over, I’ll be all right,” she said.

She pulled the red bandana from her hair and waved it vaguely in his direction.  She pushed the lighter in the dash.

“Pass me a cigarette, too,” she said.

She tilted her head back, chin raised to the sky. David knelt beside her and bound the kerchief tight.  She raised her face, wearing the blindfold, lips wrapped in a scowl around the unlit cigarette.

“I must look like I’m about to be shot,” she said.

The lighter popped from the dash.

He reached over and lit the cigarette.  She bent her head to pray.

If God was watching her, what would he see?  White fingers, red nails, blue veins, no ring.  The scarf a red slash across her face, above her mouth where most of the lipstick had worn away, and long black mascara tracks creeping down her cheeks, sunlight through the fuzzy hair on her jaw, her tongue moving softly against her teeth.

When she finished praying, she said “turn on the radio, baby.”

David did.  Buck Owens came on, singing “Together Again.”

His mother sighed.  “That’s a real good sign,” she said.  “You know, it was Gigi that ran off your father. Gigi.  Not me.  You understand? But I’m glad, hear me? I never loved your father like I love Nestor Roche. You’re a smart boy, you’re practically a grown up. I know you understand.”

“Yes, mama.”

“Where are we, now?”

“I don’t know, mama.”

“What do you see?”

“Lots of sky.”

“Go on.”

“Big clouds.”

She smiled.   “You ever notice, baby, how Texas clouds are usually shaped like Texas?”

“They look like anvils.  Like in a Road Runner cartoon.”

“Acme Novelty clouds.”

David watched her bring a forefinger to her mouth, bite her cuticle, and peel the skin to a bright red thread.

“There’s an overpass up ahead,” said David.  “Maybe if we see a car I can wave it to stop.  Somebody could help us.”

“No,” his mother said.

“But mama.”

“No.  You wave at anybody out there and I swear to God I will kill you.”

She turned to the red gash of the blindfold in his direction.  Her mouth was wrinkled and mean.

“I mean it,” she said. “Nobody gets in our business.”

David nodded his head.

“You better be nodding.”

She sank back.  “Then that’s that.”  Her mouth sagged.  She looked confused.  Her hand faltered as it brought the cigarette to her mouth.

“Baby? I just don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Up ahead, under the overpass, swallows flew in and out of their spitball houses stuck up under the elevated road. His mother listed against the steering wheel, digging into it with her chin.  Her shoulder blades poked up like a grasshopper’s. Cars passed.  No one stopped.

“ Nestor Roche is a devil, you know. And I’m a witch.”

“You’re not a witch, mama.”

“I am.  No one loves me.”

“I love you!  I love you!” he cried in a passion, terrified to see her like that, blindfolded and white-faced, with too much skin hanging onto her little skull and her shoulders crooked with despair. The rush of hot feeling was so intense in his chest he thought he might die. He grabbed her around the waist, buried his face in her stomach, felt his heart boom against her, hoping she would turn over, cough to life.

“No one,” she said, listless. “Nobody.”  She unhooked David’s hands.  “No one but Roachie.  You understand now, Davey?  We’ve got to get to him.  I need him.  I need him,” she repeated.  “You understand.”

She propped head against the steering wheel with her right hand bringing the cigarette up in graceful little sips.  Even in pain her gestures were elegant as a dancer’s.

A big blue car slowed down and swung up alongside them on the shoulder.  A man got out.  He had a kind, open face covered in freckles, and crinkles at the sides of his eyes.  He looked like somebody’s father.  He walked over and crouched next to the driver’s side.

“Ma’am,” he said, “you all right?”

At first his mother didn’t answer.  She kept her head down, just breathing.

The man glanced at David.  David’s heart leapt.

“She all right?”

“She can’t see,” David began.

His mother whipped off the bandana and turned a bright gaze to the motorist.

“I’m just resting my eyes. We drove through the night and I realized I needed a little nap, but really, we’re fine. Bless you for stopping, now.”

The man looked doubtful.

“You’re sure?”

No, thought David, can’t you see she’s lying?

“We’re perfectly fine.”

Her eyes, huge and glazed and unseeing, swiveled back and forth in her head.

The man squinted at her, doubtful.  But the day was hot, and her smile didn’t waver. David stared at him, willing the man to stay. Help us. Please.

“A rest stop might be safer for you folks.  It’s just a few miles.”

“We’ll be sure to get there.  We’re fine.”

The man looked up at the sky.

“Looks like it’ll storm soon,” he said.  “Might want to put your top up.”

“Aren’t you thoughtful,” said his mother.  “Bless your heart. Bye now.”

“Well, all right.  If you’re sure.”

He looked back at David and then got into his car, hitched up his seatbelt, and pulled off the shoulder, slowly, like he wasn’t sure it was quite right. Then he sped up and drove away.

“Most people will back down, that’s what Roche taught me,” his mother said, retying the scarf around her eyes.  “Even if they know you’re lying.  Especially the decent ones.  The decent ones are the first to back down.”

Part Three

It never happened, the road seemed to say.  Telephone poles slipped past.  Signs moved toward them, fell back. Mile marker, flick, speed limit, flick, grackles on wires, slip slip slip, the dotted lines on the road riffling along like pages in his composition book, swoop swish, another car, live oaks twinkling with sunlight, the bright blink of Indian paintbrush, and above them the monstrous clouds, pregnant with lightning. His mother steered, shifted, smoked. The afternoon deepened. David was hungry.  He rummaged in the glove compartment.  He ate her last Tic Tac.

“Oh Davey, Davey, Davey,” his mother cried into the wind, “Look at that sky! Tornado weather!”

She threw her arms wide and floored the accelerator.  The car wove.

“I remember once the sky turned grass green and the wind threw road signs like a cardsharper and it was solid thunder and spouts of rain and whiplash electrical lines and no one wanted to go out into but me—cars might’ve floated, and I walked clear across town in it, with rainwater up to my knees. I never felt so happy. When you dance with a storm, Davey, you have to be nimble and strong and full of your own lightning. Three people died in that storm. But I walked all through the middle of it because nothing can carry me away.”

He peed into an empty bottle as they drove.  He crawled into the back seat and emptied it out over the side, watching it stream back along the road.  At 90 mph his pee flew in a banner and atomized to rainbows.  If they got lost again, if she left him off on the side, he could find his way back along the trail of broken glass, the blazes of urine striping the road.

*   *   *

In the motel parking lot his mother cracked the parking brake and tore out of the car so fast she lost a shoe.  She ran that way into the motel office without even turning off the engine.  David, still carsick and blurry from too much wind and haze crawled over and switched off the ignition.  A yellow VW Beetle, parked face-out in front of the motel smiled at him from the next spot. Someone had painted daisies on the hubcaps, purple ones, and flicked streamers of paint around the headlights to look like eyelashes.  It looked so shining and friendly that David wanted to pet it.

Orla looked up at him from the footwell. She thumped her tail once on the crackle of moonpie wrappers, then threw up the paper cup she’d been chewing.  He scratched her head. She burped, softly and then started to lick up her own mess. David felt queasy.

“Don’t, girl,” he said.  He bent to gather up the pukey wrapper, but bending over made black spots dance in his eyes, so he sat up again, leaned his head back on the hot leather and squinted in at the motel office.

He could see his mother behind the plate-glass, lighting a cigarette and scrawling on some papers. Her bare foot tapped the carpet.  The clerk, a fat woman with a grey bouffant, pushed a key tag over to his mother.  The clerk was so bored she didn’t even notice his mother was missing a shoe.

David opened the driver’s side door and leaned out to retrieve his mama’s shoe, and as he straightened up he saw a woman’s rump in a white gauze skirt bending over the bug’s trunk.  Long brown hair slithered down the woman’s back.  She was barefoot.  The soles of her feet were the same color as the asphalt.   Hair on her legs! She swung a knapsack out and shrugged back her hair.  Her breasts swayed under the gauzy cotton.  She had big ones.  David stared at her, open-mouthed, holding his mother’s shoe.  The girl smiled at him.

“I like your dog,” she said.  Then she padded away.  David watched the sway of her hips.

“Franklin!  Get your raggedy ass down here and grab the rest of our shit!”

She sang the sting out of the words.

A man, more hair than face, and dungaree-thin, sloped out from under the motel awning.

“I feel like the road’s still moving,” he said.

“Poor baby,” she scatted one hand over his thin chest and they headed toward the stairs.

David’s mother flew out to the car.

“Come on, baby. Quit gawking at that hippie crapwagon and get on upstairs.”

She grabbed a bottle from the trunk and headed for the stairs.

“What about our suitcases?”

“We’ll get them later!”

“Should we put the top up?”  The wind blew leaves in skirling spirals, and the clouds had massed.  Not anvils. Ziggurats

“Later!”

She kicked off her second shoe and took the stairs two at a time. Orla hopped out and panted after his mother.  David leaned into the backseat and weighted his comic books carefully with his backpack and tucked his last moon pies in the footwell where they would have some shade.  He retrieved his mother’s other shoe from the steps. His mother was already a level above him, striding along the walkway, counting doors.  Orla hustled on her bandy-legs, tripping on her own ears, her butt sagging.  David came up slowly.  He felt lightheaded.

The door to their room stood open.  His mother paced inside, already on the phone, scattering ash as she poured herself some bourbon in a cloudy motel glass.

“I’m here!” she cried.  “Honeybunch, I made it!” She slurped her drink.  “I did 90 the whole way and I made it!  No, she doesn’t suspect a thing.”

She motioned for David to come in.  The room was dark and cool, already filling with her smoke and perfume.  His mother shut the door, bolted it and slipped the chain.  She lifted her hair off the back of her neck.

“What, honey?” she said into the phone. Her voice pitched low, murmured, then cracked. “Well, no. No, of course I brought him. I had to.”

She paced, eyebrows and mouth quirked tight like she was trying to pull the conversation up with the muscles in her face.  She rubbed the bridge of her nose.

“I wasn’t lying, I just.  I couldn’t leave him this time.  You said you were serious.  We’re going to be a family.”

David snuck an ice cube from her glass and sucked on it.  The bourbon burned and the ice did too.  He watched his mother try to force the curl out of the phone cord.

“I do love you.  I do.”

David turned the air conditioner up higher.  A thin stream of air, cold as a sharpened pencil on the tongue, blew out, smelling like dust.  He wanted to ask for the room key so he could go out to the car and get his comic books, but he was afraid to interrupt her.  He knew this mood. If he left the room without the key, she wouldn’t answer his knocks until she hung up the phone, which wouldn’t be for a long time. It was hot outside.  So David waited.

“Come on, honey, I’m here. Where are you?”

She slapped David’s hand away from her glass.

“Nothing matters but us.”

She covered the mouthpiece and hissed “Davey, patio, get!”

David didn’t move.  He still felt sweaty and the room was cool.  Orla huffed in the corner next to the air conditioner.  Her eyeballs were red.   David lay down next to the dog.  The carpet made his eyes ache.

“Orla, you sure do smell,” he said to her.  “What? To a dog that’s a compliment.  You are sooo stinky,” he crooned, fondling her ears, “stinky as a pile of poop.”  She licked her chops and rolled to one side, showing her belly.

“Davey, get!” his mother goosed him in the backside with her big toe.  She had on her fierce face; she’d reapplied her lipstick and was looking in the mirror, scrubbing a forefinger along her front tooth.

“Patio, now!”

If he didn’t move now, she would kick.  Barefoot or not, she could land a good one.

He got up on all fours and crawled toward the sliding glass doors to the balcony, panting like a dog.

“He won’t be a problem.  I promise.  He won’t make a peep, you won’t even see him, honeybunch, I swear.  I swear.  David, patio, now!”

“Can I at least go swim in the pool?”

“Not while there’s lightning.”

“It’s not even raining yet.”

“Get!”

She shoved him onto the patio and slammed the door to.  A moment later she opened it again and scooted Orla out. The drapes hitched.  He heard the latch click.

The patio had one plastic-slatted chair beside a pebbled glass topped table. An ashtray, containing a single bent Marlboro butt and dusted with the impatient streaks of ground-out cigarettes sat on it.  The slats of the chair gave slightly when David sat on it.  The smell of the ashtray in the moist air made him angry. He could see the pool laid out below in a little courtyard, and all the balconies of the rooms opposite. Off to the left in parking lot their car was a red and open pit. The yellow Beetle flirted its cute round eyes, and the empty parking spaces waited for Nestor Roche to pull in.

“Jesus, that is one saggy-titted cur,” said Nestor Roche. David glanced down over the railing, quick. He knew better than to say anything, so he played with the Marlboro butt, drawing little swastikas in the dead ash.  He never could remember which way the arms on the crosses went.

“Well, son,” said Roche, grinning up at the balcony, “Enjoy your view.” He closed the door to his truck, with a gentleness that was almost like regret.

Just get closer, thought David, come a little closer to the pool and I’ll land one on you.  He let the spit gather in his mouth.

Roche smiled a cold gloating smile, like he could slit David’s throat with it. David felt such hatred he wanted to bite the railing, taste the hot metal, break his teeth against it.

Roche hauled a clinking paper sack from the bed of his truck.  David watched him take the stairs, turn onto the landing, pass the soda pop machines and the ice maker. He heard Roche’s knock, “open up, it’s the police!” and his mother throwing back the chain on the door and crying “honeybunch!” and then the blare of the TV.

Out on the balcony the air was heavy and still.  Clouds painted over the heat.  The sky was a dull, waiting color, not purple, not green. David could tell the sky wanted to rain, but couldn’t.  Orla panted and drooled against his ankle. His shirt stuck to his back, clammy under the arms. Voices from the television inside the room sounded so certain of themselves, so pleased, they made the studio audience erupt in laughter, and he hated them.  Roche’s boots thumped to the carpet.  David hated those boots

“Jesus Christ, Loretta, you brought the dog, too?”

His mother laughed.  “Worst mistake I ever made.”

Part Four

David sat dazed by the shimmer of cloud cover overhead, tired and thirsty and bored.  He scratched Orla absently.  She shook her head in irritation.  She was too hot to be petted.  David decided he needed to pee.  They had to let him in for that. He knocked on the glass.  The curtains parted with a snap and a swish.  Roche’s face flashed in the gap: livid eyes and a glare of teeth.  He held up one finger, shook his head and racked the curtains shut.

David and Orla sat. Orla rolled to her side.  Dusk fell.  Below them, the pool was a small, dingy rectangle, but the water looked cool. He was so thirsty. He watched the spit drip from Orla’s tongue.  He thought longingly of his comic books, of the bottles of Coke in the car.  He leaned out over the railing and yes, he could just see his pile of comics in the bright open Mustang, Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck slipping out from underneath his backpack.  He had never wanted anything so much as he wanted a swig of Coke and to fold back the slick cover of one of those comic books.

The wind picked up. The air before the rain made him ache. Its heat pressed him like palms on each side of his head and he wanted to cry but couldn’t.   He tried the sliding door again. He sat on the plastic chair.  He put his feet up on the railing.  He got down and knelt by Orla.  He wrapped his hands in her floppy ears and they felt good, warm and alive.

“Orla,” he said, “Shake, girl.”

She sighed.

“Shake!”

The dog growled in a complaining way.

My mother is selfish. The thought, detached and clear, floated forward.

My mother is selfish. The thought was very quiet, and its authority was absolute.

It’s why your daddy left.

He sat up and shoved Orla’s head from his leg.  The loneliness, like the heat, pressed down on him, crept inside him and stuck his tongue to the roof of his mouth.  He wanted a drink of water.  He wanted to be in an icy room on a cheap bedspread beside his mother, glugging down a glass of tap water, even if it tasted rusty, even if it wasn’t cold, and watching anything, even the news.  The grimy glass was locked against him and the ground was two stories down, too far to jump from the balcony into the pool. Orla grunted and resettled herself dinosaur-like, her neck stretched long on the grimy patio.  A liquid gurgling came from the pool.  Underwater lights came on. The pool glowed like a mysterious heart.  David smelled warm chlorine, and something indefinable, a thundery smell that came from the sky.

He heard the squeak of the pool gate and looked down to see the hippie man and woman padding barefoot to the pool.  She had her white dress on and she jumped straight in.  The pool lights turned her magnesium blue, a dazzle of floating dress and limbs.  The dress stuck to her when she came up and showed dark brown nipples and a black triangle between her legs. David looked at her dark navel and round belly, the wet curves of her, how her breasts sprang when she burst up out of the water shaking back her hair.  She moved through the water by bounding, sinking under in a blur of floating dress and then shooting straight up out of the water with the dress clinging and wet and see-through, stuck in the crack of her behind, winding around her thighs, molded to her back.  She popped and spun and brought her arms down flat sending sheets of water up like wings on either side.  She bounded over to the man who dangled his legs over the ladder, grabbed him by the waistband of his pants and dragged him into the water.

“Dammit, Libby!” he laughed, and dunked her, and she leaped onto his back and whispered in his ear.  He flung her backward and as she fell David caught a flash of wet black curls wet between wet white legs.  She even had hair under her arms.  She wound herself around the man and they kissed, barely keeping their feet in the center of the pool.  Lightning pulsed in the clouds and she bit him on the neck beneath his ear and wrapped her legs around his waist.  The clouds urged thunder.  Raindrops pecked the surface of the water.  The sky opened and a sudden burst of rain fell hard and fast as split bag of rice.  They pulled themselves out of the pool and ran, goosing and giggling, for the stairs.

The rain swept sideways onto the balcony.  It was warm and felt good, at first, but it rained harder and Orla’s fur turned dark with wet and the wind blew grit into his teeth and soaked his sneakers and puddled in the pits of the unevenly poured cement. Goosebumps twinkled on David’s skin. Lightning boomed so close he could smell it.  Orla whined and backed under the table. Down in the parking lot their open car became a bucket and he knew his comic books were ruined, everything was ruined and he was chilled and wet and still, in spite of all the rain, so thirsty.  He tried to crawl under the table next to Orla but he didn’t fit.

Inside the room behind him he heard his mother weeping, and the sound of a terrible knocking over and over. The rain sounded like a war.  David tried the sliding door.  He banged it.  He kicked the glass but the flapping rubber sole of his sneaker only smeared.  He pressed his face against the door.  Something flew toward his eyes and struck the glass.  He fell back, startled, staring at the crack that zigzagged down the door like captured lightning. His mother’s shoe, the heel broken, lay on carpet between the curtain and the glass. The knocking inside the room continued.

Rain jeered in the gutters.  Hailstones torpedoed the pool, rattled artillery on the plastic deckchairs and opened fire on the pavement.  Little balls of ice rolled along the balcony.  He put one in his mouth.

Then, just as suddenly, truce.  The hail slowed and turned back to rain, the rain softened to a drizzle and stopped.

Across the way, David watched the woman emerge on her balcony, peel off her wet dress and drape it over the railing. She picked up a handful of hailstones and rubbed them on her neck.  Inside her room the curtain slid back so David could see inside. He saw the man lying on his back with his belt undone.  The woman came in and walked over to the bed.  She leaned deliberately over the man so her breasts brushed his face as she switched on the light. The room lit up like a slide on a classroom movie screen.  The man sat up and reached for her.  She dropped the ice onto his stomach, and he pulled her onto him.

Outside above the motel pool the sky turned deep indigo between chinks of cloud. Lightning wavered in the moving thunderheads.  The couple kissed. David leaned forward, pressing his chest against the railing. The television roared in the room behind him, muffling the sounds his mother made. David licked fat drops of rain from the iron railing. It tasted dirty, and made him thirstier.   David watched everything they did across the way, with the balcony doors wide open and the murky light shuttered with thunder and the rain slowing to hesitant drops and then crescendoing again in gusts of drenching wind.   The rain thickened and he no longer knew what he was seeing and what he simply guessed at. His chest felt strange: fluttery and tight and his whole belly down between his legs and into the soles of his feet melted aching and hot. His heart hurt him and his throat was dry and now he was crying.  He didn’t understand how something so secret and exciting could make him feel so terrible.  It rained and stopped, and rained, and stopped again.

The woman came back out onto her balcony wrapped in a towel.  She leaned over the railing and lit a cigarette.

“You been out there the whole time?” she called.

David nodded.

“You little dickens.”

“It was raining really hard,” he said back, but not too loud, because someone in his room might throw a shoe again. “Everything was all blurry.”

Wind blew water off the trees in a spattering gust.

She laughed and gestured toward her ears, shaking her head.

“I can’t hear you!”

David gave a big theatrical shrug. He suddenly felt very happy.

“You should go inside,” she shouted.  “Didn’t anyone teach you not to watch the rain?”

He shook his head wildly.

“I like your dog,” she called.  “What’s her name?”

“Orla!”

The woman smiled again, indicating that she couldn’t hear him, and dragged on her cigarette.  She looked so beautiful in her white towel, with her glowing cigarette.

Part Five

David bent over and grabbed Orla.  He lifted her onto his lap for the woman to see.  He spread her ears out into a sort of curtsey, grabbed one of her paws to make her wave.  Orla didn’t like this.  She slithered down onto the floor of the balcony and retreated under the table.  David hauled her out by the tail. He felt hectic with his need to show off, to show the woman something special, to make her laugh and shake her head and readjust the towel around her breasts and wave at him.

He grabbed Orla around her fat middle and hoisted her high over his head.  She slipped in his grip, but he held her under the armpits and hefted her so that her paws finally balanced on the balcony railing.

“Tightrope walker!” he yelled.

Orla scrabbled desperately, clawing at his chest.  The woman leaned forward in alarm.  She waved, a wave that meant no, but David, completely carried away, grabbed Orla’s front paw and waved with it again.  Orla struggled backward, digging her claws into him. She was surprisingly heavy and strong.

“Come on girl, wave!”

Orla blocked his view of the lady; he could only hope she was charmed and waving back wildly. Orla twisted and kicked.  Her torpedo body twisted in his grip. He squeezed her harder and she yelped sharply and then jackknifed out of his grip over the balcony rail.

The woman screamed.

Orla fell.

David watched the slash of her tail, the sweet sail of ears as her stubby legs rowed empty space.

Orla smashed into the pool and sank.  David stood, looking down, watching her spiral against the pool lights in the deep end.

“Jesus Christ!” shouted the woman.

David squeezed the railing. His chest was covered in dog hair.  Orla shed furiously when she was scared. The scratches on his arms hurt.

“Jesus Christ! Franklin!” the woman called into her room.

“That kid just threw his dog off the balcony and into the pool!”

The man came out to look.

Orla surfaced.  She paddled frantically, snorting and choking on the water.

“Go get your dog, kid!”

David couldn’t do anything but grip the railing and look down into the pool where Orla was drowning. Her nose slipped under and her rattling barks when she coughed up water filled him with such shame that his knees trembled. Orla panted as she spun in circles, looking for a way out. She paddled the water with stumpy legs.  Her ears floated wide.

“Do something, you little shit,” cried the woman.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.”

David watched her leg it down the motel stairs, damp haired and still wearing the towel. She knelt at the pool’s edge.

“Come here baby,” she called and clapped her hands. “Here, baby girl!”

Orla, struggled to swim toward the woman.  Her nose went under.  Her forepaws diddled the water. She sank again.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” said the woman.  She let the towel fall and dove into the pool and deposited Orla shivering at the edge. She hoisted herself out and wrapped the dog in her towel, rubbing and cooing.

The woman glared up at him from the pool deck, Orla shivering in her arms.  David sidled back into the shadow of his balcony until his head hit the plate glass. The girl hoisted the swaddled dog, let herself out by the gate and climbed the stairs. From far back on his balcony, David looked. The way her breasts moved.  The slit of her backside, her belly, her breasts again. Livid scratches scored her stomach and chest.

He watched her put Orla on the big bed where she had straddled the man.  She was talking to the man, rubbing Orla with the towel, gesturing out the balcony toward David.

The man came out.

“Jesus, kid, what’s wrong with you?”

The man went back inside. The woman poked her head out, looked David dead in the eye, shook her head once, and then slammed the door.  She drew the drapes.

*   *   *

At dawn he watched Nestor Roche cross the pool deck and let himself out by the gate.  When David’s voice came, it was a croak.

“Mr. Roche,” he said.

The morning was so quiet, he knew the man heard him.  But Roche did not pause or look up.

“My dog fell in the pool,” David said.  “Those people took her to their room.”  He pointed to their balcony.

“Please,” said David, “Mama doesn’t hear me knocking.  Come up and let me out.  I need to get her.”

The hippie couple crept out of their room and descended the stairs, trying to move as noiselessly as possible.  The girl had tied Orla’s collar with a bright purple belt.

Roche nodded to them. He hunkered down and patted Orla.

“Nice dog you folks have,” he said. He looked up at David and smiled.

“No!” shouted David.  “That’s my dog! Orla! Tell them!”

Roche slid into his truck and started it.  His headlights flooded the balcony.  David threw an arm against his eyes and missed the moment when Libby hoisted Orla into the back of the Bug.  He heard the car door slam. He heard them drive away.

*   *   *

Five hours later Libby sat up groggily in the back of the Bug, rubbed the drool from her cheek and said, “Jesus, Franklin, that kid.”

Frank reached over and scratched the basset hound behind the ears.  The dog licked his hand. He looked back at Libby in the rearview mirror.

“I know, right?” said Frank. “But the dog seems okay.”

“He was still out there.”

“So?”

“Do you think he was on that balcony all night?”

“What do you care?”

“Frank,” she said, “oh God, Frank.  I think we really fucked up.”

*   *   *

On the road to El Paso, David’s mother spotted a Mexican man at a roadside stand.  He was trying to sell a monkey.  She bought it for David, along with a supply of disposable diapers and half a bunch of bananas.  Then they headed west.