The dusty yard feels cool, though the day has been unseasonably warm.
On the far side of the rusted chain-link fence trots a dirty white dog, some mangy stray. Its shadow is long in the setting sun’s light. Its shaggy head sways from side to side as its nose travels the ground. Odessa watches it paw at a clump of wilting weeds and take something in its mouth. Chicken bones, probably. Uncle Daddy always tosses wings over the fence. It makes Mama angry when he does it, but he still does.
Odessa rocks the porch swing with her feet. It creaks, but not loudly enough to cover the noise inside the house. Mama and Uncle Daddy are fighting, though they never call it fighting to her face. They call it working through, like, “we’re working through some things.” They work through a lot, especially since the paper mill closed four months ago. “Ain’t like I’m the only one around here can earn a paycheck,” Uncle Daddy says when Mama starts to nag him about getting another job. “I clean houses. What the hell you do?” Mama replies. That’s when Odessa knows to go to the swing.
Across the road, the reservoir’s still water glitters. The sun’s orange reflection on it looks like a long, shimmering road. Odessa wishes she could dive in and follow it. It’s already early October but it would be a nice night for a swim.
Inside, a door slams. The porch’s screen door squeals open. “Hey Uncle Daddy,” Odessa says when he steps outside. He’s holding his spit cup. “I got the swing.”
“You had the swing.” Uncle Daddy shoos her with a fluttering hand. “Git on up.” Odessa pouts and makes a show of crossing her arms. When Uncle Daddy does not respond, she slides off the swing and stomps to the front step. She drops herself onto it with a huff. The porch swing creaks as Uncle Daddy settles into it. “And you best stop calling me that, too.”
“Calling you what?” Odessa says, but she’s just being smart.
“I ain’t your uncle and I ain’t your daddy.” He spits a line of brown tobacco juice into his cup. The smell is sweet, almost minty, and Odessa wonders what he might say if she asked to try some. Though, in truth, she’s scared that he’d say yes. She’s seen the stuff at the bottom of his cup. It looks like something dredged from a swamp.
She leans back on her elbows and rubs her shoulder blades over the rail. The wood is scratchy and rough; she can feel paint flecking on the bare skin above her tank top. Her eyes go to the willow tree in the corner of their yard. She likes how its branches hang down to the ground, likes how she feels hidden when she sits under the tree. Before Uncle Daddy moved in for good, Odessa took an old picture of Mama’s and Daddy’s wedding day that she’d found in an album and folded it inside an old pepper tin. She dug a hole two feet deep under the tree, clawing out rocks and pillbugs with her bare hands, then buried the tin and marked the spot with a flat rock from beside the reservoir. On days when she got home from school and nobody was around, what she liked to do was sit on that rock with her knees up against her chest, which even now is still so flat the girls at school tease her about being a boy. Especially Patricia, who likes to show off in gym class that she wears adult bras, the kind with wires and a double clasp on back. But underneath the willow tree, Odessa could imagine that she was in a secret cave in some secret world, a world where nobody could find her or tease her or tell her what to do. But now Uncle Daddy is always home, and she almost never goes to the tree anymore.
Uncle Daddy’s foot twitches. Odessa kicks at it. But he catches her foot as she’s pulling it back and yanks off her pink, worn-at-the-heel sandal. The swing creaks as he cocks his arm behind his head, like he’s about to skip a rock over the reservoir, and he lets the sandal fly from his hand. It skids into the yard. Odessa stands up. She plants her hands on her skinny waist and pouts. He chews quietly, his cheek puffed out like a squirrel. She stomps down the steps. The earth feels cold on her one bare foot.
Odessa is in science lab when Kevin Ames asks if she thinks maybe she wants to go to the Homecoming Dance with him. He leans over the table and presses his face between the burners that they never use, and he asks her just like that: You think you maybe want to go to the dance? It is the first time she’s been asked out. What Odessa thinks right then is that it might be a joke. Worried, she glances at Marcia, her lab partner, then across the table at Jared, who is Kevin’s. But neither of them looks like they’re about to laugh, so she says yes.
Mama’s not there when Odessa gets home. Uncle Daddy is on the porch with his Hennessey and his spit cup. “Is Mama cleaning houses?” Odessa asks.
“Where else?” Uncle Daddy spits into his cup and sips from the bottle. He swishes the drink around in his mouth, then holds out the bottle as if he’s offering her a swig. Odessa considers this for a moment, then cautiously lifts her hand. Uncle Daddy laughs and pulls the bottle away. “As if,” he says.
It’s another two hours before Mama gets back with a half-cold pizza from Moe’s. She tosses it on the table where Odessa is reading her science chapter under the naked ceiling bulb. Uncle Daddy is still outside. The last time Odessa peeked at him through the window, he was down by the tree, standing there with his legs spread and his back to the house, a dark outline cut into the gathering twilight. She realized that he was pissing and imagined the sound of his water splashing the dust. She ducked down to her knees when she saw him turn.
“Where’s he at?”
“Outside,” Odessa says. “I got asked to the dance.”
Mama acts like she doesn’t hear. She walks to the screen door and pushes it open. “Get yourself some dinner,” she says. The screen door slaps shut and Odessa hears them on the porch, working things through. She pulls two slices from the box and takes them to her room.
Mama takes her dress shopping the next day. They take Uncle Daddy’s truck and drive to the strip mall in town. The department store there has bright lights and smiling clerks with brown name tags. There are racks and racks of dresses by the entrance, but Mama walks Odessa to the back. Odessa sees three racks with hand-lettered signs that say fifty percent off. “It’s all last season, but it’s still good,” Mama says.
“How much can we afford?” Odessa asks.
Mama looks impatient. “Just pick one.”
Odessa understands that there is no money for this dress. Not with Uncle Daddy out of work and Mama cleaning houses. She should not be going to the dance. She browses through a few dresses, then shrugs and pouts her lip. “I don’t like none of these.”
“I got my checkbook,” Mama says. “Just pick one.” Mama stands there with her arms folded over her round chest and waits until Odessa picks out a white dress decorated with red squares and circles. “Well, go try it on.”
Odessa takes the dress into the tiny, mirrored changing room. She studies her reflection in the glass—a skinny, flat-chested girl with frizzy hair. The dress looks like something limp and dead in her arms. She holds it at arm’s length and lets it unfurl, and in that instant she can picture herself beautiful in it, like a queen. Then she looks at the price tag, attached to the back by a clear plastic tether. Forty-five dollars, on sale now for twenty-two dollars and fifty cents. The door handle turns suddenly and Mama pokes her head inside. She grabs the dress from Odessa’s hands. “This the one you want?” Mama asks. Odessa shrugs.
“Let’s go then,” Mama says. “I can fix it at home so it fits you.”
Mama doesn’t fix the dress that night, or the night after, either. It lies in a white heap over the back of the woven chair that sits in front of Mee Maw’s old Singer sewing machine. Over the past two years, they’ve sold their old television, their stereo, the chugging computer they got when the high school upgraded its lab. They even pawned some of the old jewelry that Mee Maw passed down to Mama, a few gold bands and a silver ring with an embedded emerald that Odessa thought looked like a snake’s eye. The sewing machine, though, had remained.
“Dance is in two days,” Odessa says at supper on Thursday. She passes Uncle Daddy the biscuits, but keeps her eyes on her plate. Uncle Daddy takes the bowl and plucks a biscuit off the top. He splits it open and presses half of it into his mouth.
“You fill out those papers today?” Mama asks him.
Uncle Daddy chews his biscuit. His Adam’s Apple bobs up and down. “Ain’t no jobs down that office,” he says.
“How you know if you don’t fill out the papers?”
Uncle Daddy lets the bottom half of the biscuit fall to his plate. “Half the damn town is out of work. You want me filling out papers? The hell good is that gonna do?”
“Tired of you sitting around the house.”
“Tired of hearing about it.”
Mama nods toward Odessa. “Girl’s dress cost twenty-four dollars. You got twenty-four dollars?”
“Not for no dress.” Uncle Daddy reaches back over his seat to Mama’s sewing chair. His fingers probe at the dress and discover the tag, still attached by its plastic tether. “Just keep this on.”
A picture blooms in Odessa’s mind. She is standing at the center of a circle of girls, all laughing and pointing. Patricia, their leader, reaches down between Odessa’s skinny shoulder blades to pluck out the price tag. “It’s OK, Mama,” Odessa says. “I don’t got to go to the dance. We can take it back.”
“You hush,” Mama says. “Finish your supper so we can fit you.”
When the table is cleared, Mama has Odessa stand on one of the kitchen chairs and pull the dress down over her T-shirt and jeans. It hangs from her shoulders by two skinny straps, sags open at her chest and hangs wide around her hips. “Thing looks like a tent,” Uncle Daddy says from the recliner, where he is reading his sports scores.
Mama ignores him. She fusses over the dress, pulling here and smoothing there. She pulls a straight pin from the corner of her mouth and slides it into a pinched lump of fabric at Odessa’s waist. Odessa flinches at what she expects will be a sharp bite on her skin. “Quit fidgeting,” Mama mutters around the pins.
“You fussing over that like you know what you’re doing,” Uncle Daddy says. “You mess that dress up you won’t be able to take it back.”
Mama pulls the pins from her mouth. “Ain’t there a porch for you to be sitting on?”
Uncle Daddy rocks forward in the recliner and lets the paper fall from his hands. He stands up and pulls his green pack of Skoal from his pocket. His heavy footsteps cross the floor. The screen door slaps shut behind him.
Mama starts to put the pins back in her mouth, then changes her mind and sets them beside the machine. She smoothes the dress with her hands, then pulls out the single pin. She reaches behind Odessa’s back and flips the tag inside the dress so that Odessa can feel it through her T-shirt. “You can wear it like this,” Mama says. “You just put your white sweater on top and it’ll look just fine.”
Odessa feels heat in her cheeks. She nods and rubs at her eyes, then hops down from the chair and raises her arms so Mama can pull the dress over her head. Mama lays the dress down on the table and smoothes it carefully, like her hands are irons. She picks it up by the straps and hands it to Odessa. “Keep it in your closet,” she says. Odessa takes the dress to her room and puts it on a hanger, then kicks off her pink sandals and lays back in her bed. Faintly, through the kitchen, she can hear them on the porch, working things through.
On Friday, Kevin tells Odessa that he only lives two blocks from the school and can just walk over and meet her in the parking lot. The dance starts at eight o’clock and he says that he’ll be there right on time. Odessa barely sleeps that night. She spends all morning worrying about her dress, then all afternoon worrying over her hair. Mama has a late cleaning job, an office the next town over, so Uncle Daddy drives her out there in his truck and then comes back to take Odessa to the dance.
In his old Chevy, Odessa sits on the torn bench seat and listens to the engine sputter as they drive along the causeway into town. She pulls at the cuffs of her sweater, which she has buttoned all the way to the top. She is wearing her pink sandals because her only other choice would have been her sneakers, which are muddy and have holes over both big toes. She presses her forehead against the cool glass of the window, which does not roll down. Uncle Daddy does not talk on the drive.
They are early, but the parking lot has already started to fill with the cars of older students, juniors and seniors who can drive themselves. They spill from their parked cars and trickle across the lot toward the gymnasium entrance. Uncle Daddy pulls up to the bus ramp, where the young and carless are being dropped off by their parents. Odessa scans the sparse crowd for Kevin, but he is not there. They are early, though. He is probably on his way. She pulls on the door handle.
“What time’s all this end?” Uncle Daddy asks.
Odessa hesitates. The dance goes until eleven, but she is not sure whether to say this. She has heard stories about after dance parties and wonders if maybe Kevin won’t ask her to one. And even if he doesn’t, he might want to go for a walk or something. She does not want to leave before she has to. “I don’t know,” she says. “I can call when we’re done. There’s phones in the lobby.”
“You got money for a phone?”
“I can borrow it from Kevin.”
Uncle Daddy blows air through his nose. He straightens out his leg and digs his hand into his front pocket. He pulls out a few coins and jingles them in his palm. In the truck’s dim overhead light, Odessa sees a quarter and three dimes. “Take this. And don’t you even think about calling after midnight. You hear?”
“I won’t.” Odessa takes the coins and slips them into her sweater’s tiny pocket. She can feel the dress’ price tag against her skin. She spent an hour alone in her room after Uncle Daddy took Mama to the office job, studying herself from every angle in her mirror to make sure that no trace of the tag’s outline could be seen through her sweater.
“And you tell that boy if he gets fresh on you I got my gun under the seat. I ain’t scared of doing no time, neither.”
Odessa does not believe that Uncle Daddy has a gun. But she feels nervous anyway, nervous about how the tag is scratching her skin, nervous because Kevin is nowhere around. She steps out of the truck and smoothes the dress over her hips. “I’ll tell him that,” she says. She slams shut the door, then waits on the sidewalk while Uncle Daddy pulls away from the curb. His taillights vanish down the street. When she can no longer see his truck, Odessa goes to the waist-high brick wall that fronts the school entrance and sits down on it. She smoothes the dress over her legs. She does not know from which direction Kevin will come. She feels self-conscious, as if she is doing something wrong by sitting here even though there are other kids sitting here, too. Kids she does not know, two boys in white blazers and a girl wearing a sparkling green dress that looks like it’s made of cellophane. Cars continue to pull to the curb, and out of them step boys and girls in shiny shoes and glittering clothes who all go straight inside.
Odessa does not have a watch, but she is certain that it’s almost eight o’clock. A car pulls up and a tall white boy steps from it. The girl in the green dress skips toward him. He hooks his arm through hers and they walk inside the gym. The boys in the white blazers follow. Another car pulls up and lets out a pack of giggling girls. Odessa walks to the edge of the curb and peers across the parking lot, which is lit by pale, fluttering streetlights. There are still kids out there, small shadowy groups of them. Some are smoking. She sees no movement on the street.
It occurs to Odessa that Kevin might already be inside. And then a picture comes to her mind, one like Patricia and the price tag except this time she imagines waving to Kevin from across the gym and his eyes passing over her like she’s not even there. It might have all been a joke, after all, and she would have just delivered herself up as the punch line. Everybody would see her, humiliated. Patricia and the other girls. And if Kevin is not inside, Odessa knows that she will have to stand against the wall by herself and wait. She will have to stand in front of everybody, alone.
So she does not go inside. She goes back to the wall and sits down to wait. She does not know how much time passes. A half hour, maybe. An hour. A few more cars pull up, latecomers. The groups in the parking lot drift inside; others come out. Nobody pays her any mind. Odessa kicks off her sandals and scratches with her toe at the inside of her calf. She turns over the coins in her pocket. She worries for a moment that the school’s front doors will be locked, that she will have to go through the gym just to get to the lobby, but when she gets up and tests one of the handles, the door opens. She slips inside, where it is dark, and listens to the coins clatter into the slot. Uncle Daddy answers on the third ring.
The clock on the Chevy’s radio says nine thirty-eight when Odessa slides into the cab. She folds her dress under her legs as the truck chugs away from the curb. Uncle Daddy drives slowly up Main Street toward the causeway. He has a plastic bottle of something cradled between his legs. They are almost to the turn when he pops open the cap and takes a quick pull of what’s inside. Odessa smells the bitter scent of his Hennessey. He pops the cap back on and tucks the bottle between his legs. “Didn’t think you’d be this early.”
Odessa picks at the cuff of her sweater. “He had to get home.”
“Dance ain’t but half over.”
“I had fun.” Odessa presses her forehead against the glass and fakes a yawn. “I’m tired, anyhow.”
“That boy try anything?”
Odessa thinks about the gun. “No.”
Uncle Daddy’s hands grip the top of the steering wheel. His window is rolled down and the air swirling through the cab has a crisp Autumn bite to it. Odessa pulls her sweater more tightly around her chest.
“You was never in that dance, was you?”
Odessa looks out the window as they turn onto the causeway. They are just a few miles from the house. She wonders if Mama is home yet. Uncle Daddy has probably been out on the swing all evening, watching the willow tree bend in the breeze and sipping on his Hennessey with his spit cup beside him. “I’m right, ain’t I?” Uncle Daddy says.
Odessa shrugs. Outside, the dark mass of trees below the causeway makes her think of people silhouetted in the dark, huddled together and watching and whispering secrets in each others’ ears. She is startled by Uncle Daddy’s hand on her back.
His fingers feel thick and rough. His hand snakes beneath her sweater and slides up over the smooth fabric of the dress to her shoulder blades. She feels him reach inside the dress to where the tag lies against her skin. He coils its plastic tether around his finger and yanks. The tag breaks away and she feels the plastic tether’s tip drop down to her underwear.
Uncle Daddy pulls his hand from beneath Odessa’s sweater. The tag dangles from his finger. It flutters in the breeze. He reaches across himself to dangle the tag out the window, then opens his hand and it’s gone.