“The Artist in His Studio,” a photograph by Tim Davis, from his series Permanent Collection. Courtesy of the artist
By Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
hen I wake up my iPhone won’t turn on and the nearest Apple place is in Norfolk at the mall and that’s an hour and a half away. I put on a bright lipstick, brush my hair, and rub my wrists with one of them perfume samples from the paper. It’s spicy and sweet.
On the ride there, my car pulls to the right. My right tire’s been leaking air for a while now. The radio plays “When Doves Cry” by Prince.
Before Weston left me, he put me in handcuffs and held my head underwater in the bathtub. I would have done anything for him. I pass fields and then the fields turn to nice houses and traffic.
In the parking deck the car beside me has brand-new tires. I run my fingers over the treads. I’ve never had much money. This iPhone Weston gave me is the only nice thing I really got. I can’t afford to heat my house. I don’t have any friends. Bri and the rest of them stopped talking to me when Weston moved us across the river.
The people in the mall move in clusters. They huddle outside the Cheesecake Factory. They’re wearing clothes like what’s on the mannequins. Their shoes look new too.
The only house we could afford across the river was an old mill house. It’d been sitting there abandoned for three years before we moved in. Neighborhood kids came in and kicked the railing out the staircase. They wrote FUCK on the dining room wall. Birds built nests in the ceiling fans. Every night I sleep under six blankets and wear two sweaters, pants, and socks. I have one electric heater and I blast it towards my head. And I hope these folks in the mall can’t see that when they look at me.
The man at the Apple store who helps me is named Chris. The store is real busy. Lots of folks are talking and walking around. Sometimes when Weston’s friends would come to visit, he’d film me having sex with them. “Come for me, baby,” he’d say. I didn’t want to be with anyone but him. Me and Chris look down at my iPhone on the table in front of us.
“I just need this fixed please,” I say.
Chris says he understands. I’d like for him to hug me.
I tell him I don’t have much money. I tell him I sweep hair at a salon.
“It’s okay,” Chris says, and then he looks me in the eye and says, “We’re gonna get you straight.”
Chris takes my iPhone with him and goes away for a while.
I pull my pants up from where they’re getting big on me and touch my lips to see if my lipstick’s still there and it is, but I can feel it getting dry and flaky.
It doesn’t take long for Chris to come back with a new iPhone. “Looks like it was a manufacturing malfunction. Unfortunately, your phone was a bad egg,” he says. “But fortunately, it’s still under warranty. You’re getting a brand-new phone for free.” He takes the new iPhone out of the box.
I tell him how thankful I am. I tell him how much I appreciate it.
“I’ll just need your password to get you set up,” Chris says.
“Weston,” I say real quick, like it don’t mean nothing.
Chris looks at me and then back at the phone. “So let’s see, that makes it . . .”
“Nine three seven, eight six six.”
While everything’s syncing up Chris asks me if I like sweeping hair. He says it sounds relaxing. Then he asks me where I’m from.
“The way you say some of your words, it’s different. I think it’s pretty cool,” he says.
“Well, this is how everybody talks back home,” I say. I feel flattered.
But when I tell him where I’m from, of course, he’s never heard of it. Nobody ever has.
“Well, before you head back,” he says, “you should check out the art museum. It’s free and I go there on my days off.”
Chris’s hands look kind; they look gentle. They’re big and he has dark hair on his knuckles.
“It’s a really special spot,” he says. “I think you’ll like it.”
I’ve never been to an art museum before, but I tell him I’ll check it out.
He smiles at me and tells me it was nice to meet me. He wishes me a safe drive home and tells me to enjoy the museum.
I tell him goodbye and go wander around the beauty section in Dillard’s. I find the perfume like what I’m wearing on display and I spray some more on. I find a new color of Estée Lauder lipstick that I like and put that on too. It’s called “Bold Innocent.” A woman behind the counter with shiny skin tells me how pretty my complexion is. She wants to give me a free beauty consultation, but I tell her I’m shy and walk away. I don’t like strangers to touch me.
On the way to the car I pass the food court and see Chris ordering a smoothie. He puts his hair back in a ponytail while he waits for it. When they call his name, he smiles and waves his hand up. “That’s me,” he says. It’s a blue smoothie. Blueberries, I guess.
The walkway to the museum winds through a front yard filled with mirrors. One reflects a small pond. I stand in front of it and wave at myself. I pull out my new iPhone and take a picture of myself waving in the mirror.
The first things I see inside the museum are special ancient toothbrushes and little glass pieces of jewelry shaped like lion heads and butterflies. Then I look at statues of Chinese warriors and people from Italy. I see lots of paintings. There’s benches in front of some of them for you to sit and look. Some people are sitting there writing in notebooks.
I sit in front of a big painting of a naked girl, laying on the ground with a flower in her hand and a little dog on her chest. The mountains behind her are purple and the sky is pink. Her hair is brown. And there’s people in the distance, way back on this path coming around the mountain, heading towards her.
I miss Bobby Labonte. He was my dog when I was little, named after my favorite race car driver. He used to lick my legs when I got out the shower. I’d roll around with him in the yard and we’d both come up with ticks. He’d let me pull cockleberries out of his thick fur.
And I’ve never been to the mountains, but I bet I would like them too. I’ve always wanted to go to Dollywood.
I get up and see who painted the naked girl with the dog on her chest. I can’t pronounce his name. It’s something foreign, but it starts with a G. The name of the painting is “The Virgin.” I take a picture of it on my phone.
When I leave the art museum, it’s raining, and my windshield wipers need replacing. It’s scary driving through the traffic with all the lights reflecting on the road and blurring through the wipers. But I make it back to the country, where I know the roads.
I pass the old houses I always see rotting back in the fields and think about the hole in my living room floor that I stuffed with newspaper. When it rains hard like this you can look down the hole and see the water running beneath the house. I think I’ll eat me a sweet potato for supper, maybe take my clothes up town to wash them. They normally got the TV in there on a Lifetime movie on Monday nights. Last week a girl was kidnapped by this crazy man who thought he was Jesus and he tied her to a tree in the woods.
Last night before I went to sleep, I thought I saw Weston standing out under the streetlight looking in at me in the window. I called one of my cousins who lives the town over to see if she could drive by and see. But she said it was past midnight dammit and she won’t driving around where I live that late at night. She told me it was nothing. She told me to go to sleep.
My right tire pops outside the nursing home about forty-five minutes from my house. And I call my cousin who’s got a wrecker. He says he can’t get there for another hour and a half but to hold tight. I’m outside in the rain looking at my tire torn to shreds trying to figure who I can ask for money for a new one when I hear a woman hollering at me to come inside. I look towards the nursing home and she’s there holding the door open for me.
When I get to her, she asks me if I’m all right, if I need a ride somewhere.
I tell her I’m fine, that my cousin will be here to get me.
Her nurse scrubs has dogs having a tea party on them. They’re drinking out of teacups and wearing hats and everything.
She calls me sugar and tells me to stand right there. She’s gonna bring me a towel and a change of clothes. “This is pneumonia catching weather,” she says. “Poor thing, you’re soaked like a lil rat.”
She runs down the hall and I’m dripping onto the floor. I’m shivering, but everything in here is clean. A man in a wheelchair smiles at me from the corner. The windows have nice long curtains and there’s paintings of beaches on the walls.
Weston’s cousin had a trailer down at Kitty Hawk. He took me there a couple of times. We went fishing on Jennette’s pier and I caught a shark.
The nurse comes back, hands me a towel and dry clothes.
“And put your wet clothes in this,” she says, offering me a trash bag.
She points me to the guest bathroom and I look back at the man in the corner. He’s pushing his feet against the floor, trying to scooch his wheelchair in my direction. The nurse goes to him and squats down in front of his knees. He stops and looks at her, then he looks back at me. “We’ve sure got a pretty visitor don’t we, Mr. Pipeman?” she says. He doesn’t say anything, but the nurse turns to me, smiling. “You know, we’re about to have supper down the hall,” she says, “and I’m the supervisor of that wing and I want you to come eat with us. We’ve got enough to feed an army.” She starts to push Mr. Pipeman down the hall. “How’s that sound to you, huh?” she says to him. She motions her head towards the wing’s double doors. “And see this doorbell here? Ring it when you’re ready and we’ll let you in. We’ll have a place set for ya.”
The clothes have the name “A. Reynolds” written inside the collar of the sweater and in the waist of the pants. The sweater is printed in yellow and pink flowers and the pants are pink corduroy with elastic at the waist. They come up to my belly button like old lady pants do, but they’re really soft. The socks are purple and fuzzy and have the things on the bottom that keep you from slipping.
At supper I sit down between two little ladies, one with long hair pulled back in a bumblebee barrette and one with cheery big eyes like a Disney character. They both are going through pocketbooks in their laps like they’re looking for something. Then Mr. Pipeman, from before, sits across from me and he seems to be the only one at the table that notices me until Mrs. Bumblebee drops her pocketbook on the floor and asks me what my name is.
I tell her and then she tells me her name is Reeby.
And then the Disney woman tells me her name is Mrs. Creech and slaps Mr. Pipeman lightly on the arm and says, “This here is Mr. Pipeman. Tell her hello, Pipeman.”
He doesn’t look at me. He stares at the flowers on my sweater.
Then Mrs. Creech giggles and tells me she loves the color of my lipstick. “What’s it called?” she asks.
“Bold Innocent,” I say, and she acts like I wrote the name on her heart.
“I always wore Crimson in Snow,” Reeby says. “My husband loved it. He was in the Navy. He spoke French.”
“Are you married?” Mrs. Creech asks me all giddy-like.
“Yes,” I tell them. “His name is Chris. He works in the mall. He speaks French, too. He even took me to Paris for our honeymoon.”
“Ain’t that something,” Reeby says.
The dog tea party nurse brings our supper by and gives me a big grin and tells me she’s happy I could join them. Supper is mashed potatoes, hamburger steak, snaps, gravy, and fruit cocktail. The food is so good and I’m at the best table in the dining room. There are folks at other tables sleeping and slobbering and nurses are yelling at them to open their mouths.
Weston wanted me to fuck him in the ass. He bought me a dildo to use on him. But he wanted me to put my fingers in him first. We tried to in the shower, but he kept saying my fingernails hurt him. He liked me to keep my nails long and painted because he said they looked good around his cock.
I look at my fingernails now, plain and unpainted, bitten down to the quick. Chris likes to order blueberry smoothies. He likes to wear black pants. He likes museums. He speaks French.
Mrs. Creech leans in then and asks me how old I am.
I tell her and Reeby says I don’t look a day older than seventeen. She says, “You ain’t nothing but a spring chicken.” She pokes at the cherry in her fruit cocktail and says she’s ninety-seven.
Mrs. Creech has got her elbows on the table now, resting her head in her hands towards me. She asks me what my name is again.
I tell her my name is Lacy.
Then she tells me her name again and slaps Mr. Pipeman on the arm again and says, “This here is Mr. Pipeman.”
“Nice to meet y’all,” I say.
Reeby eats a grape from her fruit cocktail. “My husband was in the Navy,” she says. “He spoke French. His family was from Canada.”
Mrs. Creech tells me she loves my hair. She says she’s always tried to get hers to do that. And she asks me how old I am again.
“Well, gosh,” Reeby looks up at me. “You don’t look a day older than seventeen.” Then she looks back down at the fruit cocktail and says she’s ninety-seven.
I don’t know where Weston is now. I haven’t heard from him since January. He called me from a hotel in Charlotte, told me I was a dirty whore, a piece of shit, and said he never wanted to hear from me again. He told me that when he went out to fancy bars he put a pair of my panties in his coat like a pocket square.
Reeby looks at Mrs. Creech and asks her how old she is.
Mrs. Creech says she can’t remember.
“Well, when’s your birthday?” Reeby reaches for her hand on the table.
And Mrs. Creech takes her hand and hangs her head and shakes it.
Weston was the first man I ever let touch me. I loved him. He told me he loved me.
Another nurse comes by and brings all my new friends their medicine in little cups.
Mrs. Creech and Reeby let go of each other’s hands and take their cups.
“Oh look, honey,” Reeby says to Mrs. Creech, “our birth control!” She looks at me grinning and winks before she throws the pills back like a shot.
“Yes,” Mrs. Creech laughs like she forgot she was ever sad before. “Yes, this is my birth control, too!” She throws hers back and then asks me where mine is.
I tell her I don’t need it.
“I’m a virgin,” I say. “My name’s Lacy and I’m a virgin. I speak French.”
They smile at me like it’s the only truth there ever was. It’s nice and I’m warm and full. Everyone tells me they love me before I go.
Excerpted from Sleepovers by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips, to be published by Hub City Press in May 2020. Reprinted with permission.
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