Red Star

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

First the bowling alley, ablaze in its queer mechanical light; then the parking lot and the strip mall sidewalk, the road, the cars, the slick puddles under cars. All of this she recalled later, at the police station. She remembered crossing first the parking lot, licking salty cheeseburger crumbs from her fingers, and then the road, which was wide. Much wider, she thought, than seemed necessary, like a child’s drawing of a road. She imagined its purpose as a road must be complicated by farm equipment, and she pictured intimidating machines, apparatus the color of runner beans with tires tall as a house. Some kind of mesh, some metal teeth at the side—something about corn, she thought. Shelling corn, the soft white strings of corn.

When the light turned, wind came up and snapped her dress. Arms tight at her sides, she crossed the street through the oily streetlamp light and went straight down across the marshy divot running along the opposite side, and on up to the Dairy Queen, where she continued round to the back and knocked twice. Cheryl opened right away, like she’d been standing there.

“Take your time, why don’t you,” Cheryl said.

“Jolson wouldn’t get to bed.” Jolson was her stepfather, whom she liked, but who had talked her mother into moving them all to Nebraska over the summer. He’d been aggressively optimistic about the move. Up-and-comer, he’d kept calling the town, crisp and pleased, siting ramrod straight at the steering wheel. Victoria had looked Kearney up before the move. It had a good Little League team. Bill Clinton went there once, and now he was the president.

“Go wild,” said Cheryl. She passed a glass pipe to Victoria, candy-striped, with a white, alkaline smell coming off the powder packed inside. Past Cheryl, the restaurant was empty and shining. The gray tile floor reflected the electric shine of the menu: bowls of ice cream, hot dogs nested in white bread, crazy-colored shakes looking unreal and faintly radioactive, the menu section dubbed Arctic Rush. Cheryl had turned up the radio station that was piped over the corner speakers. A pop singer was telling a boy about her relative size: tiny, nothing at all, compared to the size of her love for him. Victoria took the lighter and inhaled one sharp pull. Cheryl told her, “Rag’s up on the shelf. I got the kitchen. The tables are all you.”

Victoria nodded, still holding the breath inside her. She took two rags from the high zinc shelf, along with the bucket of solution dissolving its blue tablet, and went toward the dining area, past Cheryl’s focused scrubbing, seeing how long she could hold the breath. She took quick steps to the nearest table and then let the breath out with a big whoosh as she set the bucket down, suds sloshing over, her vision darkening briefly at the corners in a dizzy way she liked.

But the cleaning was what she liked best. When the chemical pull she took started to speed everything up, she loved to take the blue cloth, wring it in the clean water, and go about the tables, shining them: puzzle pieces, she thought, putting everything in its place. She worked with energy, scrubbing at a gummed-on syrup puddle, and as she cleaned, she admired her fine strong arms, her young skin like a caramel chew, her nail beds square and pink. She was tanned from long afternoons reclining in the sun. She loved the sun. She bent her arm at a right angle as she cleaned so that she could admire the tone of her skinny bicep. It was a nice arm, a nice clean arm. Victoria was a little jealous that Cheryl was sixteen and allowed to work past ten p.m. Victoria thought: I could be a really good worker. She moved from table to table, ticking them off an invisible but critical list, feeling little gold coins roll into place. As Victoria cleaned, she pictured an enormous glass beaker, like those in the high school science lab, notched with black marks, and as she cleaned each table, the beaker was filled to the next notch with a sweet, clean substance. When she finished the dining area, the beaker would be full.

After the dining area, the girls took to the tempered glass of the ice cream display freezer. Cheryl went along cleaning the inside, and Victoria went along the outside.

“I could just die,” said Cheryl, “just one hundred percent die when I think about where the milk comes from in this shit.” She shook her head while she sprayed the glass with more Steramine sanitizer.

“I like milk,” Victoria said. “It builds your bones and lots of animals are nuts for it so it can’t be so bad.”

“I’m going to tell you one thing.”

“No.” Victoria cracked the knuckles in her thumbs. “Don’t.”

Bovine somatotropin. There. That’s all.”

“Don’t,” Victoria said again. Cheryl was chewing on the insides of her cheeks.

Later, Victoria waited while Cheryl emptied the buckets into the huge industrial sink and finished the rest of closing. Then Cheryl changed, standing in the middle of the dining area—she stripped down to her underwear while Victoria lounged on one of the red vinyl benches. Cheryl’s stomach was flat and sallow, with small raised moles speckled over her body. Her hair was blonde and long and smooth. Victoria watched her fit her head through the neck of a small shirt, and she was happy for her friend, happy for her to be so beautiful—on another night seeing Cheryl’s body might have made her feel like a rodent, a little brown damp shrew, because her stomach was not flat, her waist not pinched in like a vase, but on this night she was glad for Cheryl to have her beauty, glad for beauty. Victoria had brown hair, the texture of a horse’s mane, and she wore her sister’s old clothes. Cheryl had a bathroom cabinet of perfumes and lotions in delicate, jewel-colored glasses; her bedroom had deep, soft carpet, and she spoke about celebrities with a personal kind of familiarity. Once, Victoria had put on one of Cheryl’s going-out dresses. The dress that looked so lush on Cheryl had squared off Victoria’s hips and made her feel like a child. Now, she tore narrow strips off a napkin and rolled the bits into tiny balls and flicked them at Cheryl, whispering, zap, pow. They picked up the napkin bits before they left.

“Are you meeting Brandon?” Victoria asked Cheryl as they left the Dairy Queen, Cheryl pushing against the back door with her shoulder to speed its close. Cheryl shrugged carefully. They walked quickly against the September wind and the heat still thrilling their limbs—it was chill and clouds were being driven along in the sky like great lumbering animals, netted by ice.

“He thinks he’s so great,” Cheryl said after a while.

Victoria waited. Her opinion of Brandon was shaped solely as an antiphon to Cheryl’s evolving take.

“You know what he did?” Cheryl’s voice lowered with anticipation. “He told me he’s never let a girl leave his car without—without coming.” To the scorn in Cheryl’s tone, Victoria added a snort. “So he pulled over—right behind the Carmel nursing home—and—you know.” Victoria raised her eyebrows, waiting. “Used his fingers.”

The girls laughed, but it gave Victoria a sour, bruised feeling. The laugh came from a warehouse inside her that was difficult to access without the speed pipe. She was beginning to suspect that her opinions on lots of things were wrong, and that she was guilty for having them. She knew she needed to say something, but she also sensed her vocabulary was off. “Was it good?”

“Good?” Cheryl scoffed. “Yeah. Okay. Brandon? Three in the afternoon, behind the nursing home, in his Chevrolet? And him—” upon which Cheryl made exaggerated, terrifying jabbing motions, crooking her arm in the air. Wherever she was sticking her hand, she was sticking it up to the elbow.

Victoria laughed with horror. “All right.”


They turned left when they got to Fourth Avenue, heading away from his house and toward Pioneer Park, to see if anyone else was hanging around there. Now that she wasn’t alone, Victoria liked the empty streets. With a friend nearby, they seemed more like a playground, there for the taking, if they wanted it, which they didn’t. Every once in a while a car would drive past, and maybe honk at the girls. Cheryl gave the passing car the finger with happy enthusiasm. They walked with quick, springing steps, between the road and the drainage ditch that ran along the road.

Four blocks from the park, they saw a small patch of whiteness up ahead, sticking up from the drainage ditch. As they kept walking, the whiteness resolved into a foot. They got very close, not believing it was a foot, until a few yards from it they slowed to a stop. They stood in the grass for a minute, staring ahead. Wind cut through their clothes.

“It is a foot,” Victoria finally said. “Right?”

Victoria’s mouth was dry, but when she searched for fear, she couldn’t find any. She knew fear—glass in the throat, wasps in the belly—but now she felt only a deep and abiding interest, like this was a film she could turn off at any time.

Cheryl wondered aloud, “Should we cross the street?”

“I think we should see if they need help.”

“It could be a homeless person.”

“A homeless person,” Victoria repeated quietly—they were both speaking quietly—but all the time moving very slowly closer to the foot.

“Yes. Sleeping. Or a drunk, or a rapist.”

“It looks like a woman’s foot,” she said, and then they were a little closer and could see everything. It was a man, a dead man, fully dressed but for the one shoe, which had come off somehow and was lying in the grass above the ditch. His eyes were open. His legs were resting on the slope of the ditch, while his head was at the bottom, so he was bent a bit at the waist. He looked to be in late middle age, with thin gray hair, overweight. The primary impression he made on Victoria was that he was impervious to the elements—surely bugs ran across his hand, and looking at him lying in the damp grass, in just his button-up shirt and slacks, she thought, he must be cold.

“Jesus.” Cheryl crossed herself.

“Do you recognize him?”


“Is he dead?”

“He looks like Mr. Guaro,” Cheryl said thoughtfully. “If Mr. Guaro weren’t a Mexican.”

“I can’t see anything wrong with him. I mean, he doesn’t look—there aren’t any marks on him or anything. It’s like he’s just lying right down.”

They watched him, and after a minute Cheryl whistled lowly, in a tone of deep admiration.

“We should tell someone,” Victoria said. And Cheryl agreed. But who, after all, would they tell? Their parents were asleep. And this strange dark room of the dead they’d entered—they wanted to see what it contained, before they turned on the lights, told the world with its papers and ambulances, before the secret was taken from them, and they had to go back to reality. And the police station must be closed at this late hour, and so for the time being, they continued on to the park.

The kids in their school usually hung around Pioneer Park these days. Before that it’d been the parking lot of the Blockbuster, and before that they’d been kicked off the property of the E-Z Mart, for climbing around on the golf carts. At Pioneer everyone usually gathered in the dim, sheltered area on the square of poured concrete. The girls sat on logs and stumps someone had dragged over, crossing and uncrossing their knees. The boys smoked cigarettes and sat on the picnic tables, their booted feet on the bench. When the girls arrived, Victoria was still buzzing. She was made higher, too, by the secret they’d found in the divot in the grass, the naked foot cold under the moon and wrecked clouds, the body folded by the great empty road. It made her warm and exhilarated, and she wanted to hold onto it for as long as she could. She wanted to kiss every smirking boy on the picnic table—she looked around at their pale, cratered faces thinking, you, and you, and you.

“What a night,” said Cheryl, but she must have had the same thought as Victoria, because when someone asked her what she meant, she just wiped imaginary sweat from her forehead and flopped down on a picnic bench, next to some boy’s feet. She looked over at Victoria and winked, and Cheryl shivered pleasantly. “I’m beat.”

“You sure look happy,” the boy next to her said, plucking at her sleeve.

“Where’s the ice cream? You-all brought us ice cream?” asked another boy.

“Don’t touch,” said Cheryl.

“Where’s the ice cream?”

“I never want to look at ice cream again.”

“I got to get a Dream Cone.”

“Hey,” said the boy next to Victoria, knocking his knee lightly against hers.

“Hi, Frank.”

“Nice dress.” He fingered the hem.


“I hear they put all kinds of chemicals in that ice cream,” said another boy.

“Wouldn’t you like that,” Cheryl tried cheekily, but someone talked over her. All the talk sort of dissolved and blurred together. It was hard to concentrate.

Victoria watched everybody’s faces. A half-dozen of them sitting around. Jason across the table was carving his name into the picnic table with careful, deliberate switches of his pocket knife. Emily’s bangs were stiff, and they twitched a little every time she blinked. Jermy wore a Judas Priest shirt and packed Skoal into his lower lip. Victoria met Cheryl’s eyes and mouthed, got more? but Cheryl shook her head.

Frank got up and started doing a weird dance. He swung his arms with broad, exaggerated movements, like someone trying to run in a dream. He pumped his legs slowly up and down. “And then, at the last second—” Frank threw himself to the side and onto the grass and bounced his head comically off the ground. Everyone laughed except Cheryl and Victoria, who hadn’t been paying attention to the story. “Just nailed him. Four feet from the goal line. Man.”

Victoria closed her eyes. The image of the body burned inside her. She opened them and met Cheryl’s again, and the two of them burst out laughing—Cheryl must have been thinking about it, too.

“What?” asked Jermy. He was sitting next to Cheryl.

“Nothing—just something crazy we saw on our way here.”

“What’s that?”

“Nothing. Nothing.” But Cheryl forced a giggle into her hand.

“Don’t be a bitch about it,” Jermy said, and started squeezing the skin that peeked from below her shirt, until she yelped and stood up and slapped his hand.

She looked down at Victoria. “Should we show ’em?”

There was no way around it, really. Now everyone was looking. Victoria stood up and dusted off the back of her jeans.

All the way back up the road, Cheryl kept talking. Victoria floated on her voice, warm and boneless, sometimes at the front of the group with her, sometimes drifting to the back, or off a bit by herself, humming a tune she made up as she went. She called the tune My Little Red Star. Only Frank and Bennett had joined them. When she drifted up to the front of the group, Cheryl was telling a long story about her mother—a punishment her mother had cooked up when she’d found Cheryl sneaking liquor from the cabinet over the refrigerator. Cheryl’s mother had mixed the bottle with some Sprite and told Cheryl to drink the whole thing. Cheryl had had a wonderful night—“Totally loaded, I mean, there’s no drunk like those early drunks, you know, like a first love, everything is just so new and delirious-like, and I couldn’t quit giggling, for hours it felt like, basically crazy with laughing—” until at some point she must have fallen asleep, because the next thing she remembered was pulling herself up from the living room armchair to vomit in the bathroom next to her mother’s bedroom. She heard her mom chuckling a little, she claimed, very low. “She hadn’t liked that I’d been having a nice time before, y’know? She was getting her rocks off, hearing me puke. Like, happy it was finally a punishment—I mean, don’t get me wrong, she’s not—what’s that word? Ven— vendic— you know? Mean for mean’s sake? Spiteful—she loves me, she loves me so much . . .”

They were walking down the sidewalk, past the pharmacy and beauty parlors. Mannequin heads stood in a row in the dark window, lovely and blank. The orange sodium lights cast weird blades of light around the street. The size of the buildings, the slouch of the boys with their hands in their pockets, Cheryl’s circular story, made Victoria feel as though they were going very, intolerably slow. Frank and Bennett had stood up right away when they’d hinted about their find on the road, and a feeling had gone around the pavilion, that any more than this would be a crowd. Frank was a square-looking boy, the son of the postman, who had a funny growth on his neck the size and shape of a peanut. Bennett was his friend, a quieter boy with a dark tooth in his smile. Victoria hadn’t cared much at the time, but now she wished it had been someone she liked more. Frank and Bennett were fine, but there were some boys—Toby, for instance—who, when she talked to them, could spark a fun thrill inside her, a warmness that was like a dim version of the heat she received from the glass pipe. Now that heat was wearing off, and she wanted something more. The night began to settle heavily on top of them.

A sewage smell had blown into town from one of the fields, and she breathed in deep, to get used to it. Here was the shape of Victoria’s thinking: somewhere, and for years now, a house awaited them all. The house always stood just over the crest of the nearest hill. On this particular night, the house, as they walked, was degraded in its architecture, stripped to studs, dark through its mysterious and cavernous hallways, and flooded somehow on both floors, the standing water in the various decorous rooms blackened, twitching with insects. The house did not always look this way, but now it did. They could not leave the sodden house because a violent mob was coming, outside but near, marching, intent on dismantling them. She trudged onward in the margin of the road, quiet.

The boys had moved on to a new subject, and Cheryl’s story had been shouldered out. Cheryl kept making meager attempts to join the conversation that went on behind them. Bennett was talking about a bike accident he’d had last year.

“I got thrown. And landed skidding, and kept going. And all this skin on my leg got ripped clear off—it was—you ever seen a hog skinned?”

Everyone groaned but Cheryl, who said, “No, and you haven’t either—they aren’t skinning hogs.”

But it was more fun to believe him. So Cheryl quieted and went on listening.

“All sorts of black rocks and bits were in it, too, and I picked those suckers out myself.”

“Why in hell wouldn’t you go to a doctor?”

Bennett laughed to indicate his thinking: what a stupid thing to say, and how proud, how reckless and admirable to reject the doctor and devote that energy instead to discussion of his leg.

“That leg was oozing yellow scum for a month,” he went on. And then they were in sighting distance of the foot.

Victoria looked up, and the realization of what they were headed toward clamped down on her just as Cheryl lifted a pretty arm and pointed and said, “There.”

“Jesus,” groaned Bennett. He sounded truly annoyed. “Did you two ditzes bring us out to see roadkill? Are you serious?”

But Frank had walked forward, and Victoria watched with curiosity as the realization moved through him: first he slowed, then stopped. Then he stepped forward again with a jerky movement, and walked toward the body, quick then slow again, as his hand lifted to cover his mouth. The discovery was a gift they’d given the boys, and now it belonged to them: she claimed no responsibility; any horror he felt was his alone. In one fluid movement he spun about and started rapidly moving back to the group, one hand now combing through his hair, the other still on his mouth.

“Is that real?” he said. Then again: “Is that real?”

Bennett, detecting that something unusual was happening, jogged ahead toward the body. His voice boomed loudly in the wide, shallow night: “Oh, fuck.”

The four of them walked to the body and stood side by side. The man was still on his back, still looking straight up toward heaven. His eyes stayed open. Cheryl spoke first.

“We just found him this way.” Victoria could hear, in her small voice, that she’d come back hard to earth. There was no more giddy joy, a spotlight had been turned on their secret, and now it was public and grotesque. Sharing had done this. “We didn’t do anything.”

“We should—” Frank started, and then he got down on his knees. Victoria realized what he was doing, and she made a movement to stop him, but then she wanted to watch. Frank crawled a bit deeper into the divot. With his left hand, he made a tight fist of grass, and Victoria could see he was terrified of falling forward, pressing against the body, discovering how that flesh felt—this was the word that came into her head, alone—flesh. But with his right hand, he reached out. He extended two fingers, shaking a little with the strain. Gently, gently, as though he were touching water and was loath to break the surface, he let his two fingers descend on the dead man’s neck, and he hunted for a pulse.

At the very same time, a jaw was opening wide somewhere behind Victoria. A frightening certainty was unfolding inside her with a terrible and deliberate slowness. She understood that violence was coming to her. She would, in the course of her life, be in pain—probably many times she would have violence done to her, and she would feel terror. There was no way to know when this would happen to her, or why. Terrible things were going to descend on her, and there was simply no way to remove herself from their path. Someday she would be on the side of the road, in the cold, and no one would be able to help her. She began to cry, just as Frank announced that the dead man was dead.

“We should call the police,” Bennett said, though he sounded unsure.

“What happened?” asked Frank. From their voices, it was clear that Cheryl and Victoria had badly miscalculated. Victoria thought that this move would put them all on the same team, but instead, they were become cast out.

“We just found him,” Cheryl repeated.

“That’s true,” Victoria added. “We were just walking from the Dairy Queen when we found him, just like this, on the side of the road. It was only about half an hour ago. We don’t know what happened to him or anything like that.”

Victoria backed away then, and she started to walk up the road in the direction from which they’d come. She wasn’t leaving, but she wanted to feel separated from what was happening. She looked down at her feet as she walked, placing them very carefully: heel to toe, heel to toe. She put the next foot in front of the first foot, making a perfect, connected line. The line would always lead to exactly where she was. When she looked up, she saw the headlights of an approaching car.

“Hey!” Bennett was waving at the car, standing in the road. The car—an Oldsmobile in bad condition, the muffler rattling—began to slow, although it was still a good minute’s drive away.

“What are you doing?” hissed Cheryl. Victoria stood with her feet in a line, twisted at the waist to look back at what the children were doing without her.

“Hey!” Frank and Bennett both yelled, though the car had clearly noticed them. The Oldsmobile slowed and then stopped, in the middle of the road, right by Victoria. The driver rolled his window down and stuck his head out. It was a man, a black man, who’d been smoking a cigarette with the windows rolled up. He glanced around the group.

“You all okay?”

“Not really,” said Frank, with a grave air of authority. “There’s a man here who seems dead.”

This was a strange way to put it—seems dead—and Victoria looked at him, a prickle of suspicion on her neck, afraid that Frank might know something the rest of them didn’t. After all, he was the only one who’d touched the body.

The driver frowned. “Hold on a minute,” he said. He rolled the window back up, and for a moment Victoria thought he might speed off. But he didn’t speed off. He parked the car and stepped out. He walked to the body in the ditch and looked it over once, calmly, near professional.

Then he directed them all to get into his car. “I’ll drive us down to the police station,” he explained.

They hesitated at this. There were not many black families in Kearney. Victoria had never sat in the car of a black person. The young people all sensed this uncertainty, and the shame of this uncertainty, and would not look at one another. They did climb into the car. Victoria sat with her hands folded in her lap. She moved so that Frank’s leg would stop pressing against hers.

“Buckle your seatbelts,” said the driver, as the door closed, and the car was full of their own breathing, and they were, horribly, children again. Don’t be scared, Victoria told herself. You’re only sitting in a car. Maybe it was the particular shame of their hesitancy, or a shame more diffuse, that caused Bennett to look sharply at Victoria as they climbed into the car, eyes narrowed, jaw tight, and whisper, “Just keep your mouth shut. You’ve done enough damage.”

She remembered that moment, Bennett’s face pinched and cold, as she sat in another car, twenty years later. Bennett’s face had by then become one of those totems of humiliation that she would pull out and run through, again and again, in moments when she was anxious or unable to sleep. She thought of it now, driving across a bridge in northern Michigan. The face reared up. Just keep your mouth shut. The bridge was famously long, and she was crossing it during a wind storm. She was driving to St. Ignace, where she would sleep in a motel. She gripped the wheel tightly. The wind was trying to move her car off the bridge. She had, by then, been met by the invisible, violent things lying await in her path. Each one—there had been two major ones—had not reached up a paw from below to tear at her, as she’d once envisioned, but instead the two violences—one performed at night on the sidewalk just a block from her home, the other done by a man she’d considered a good friend—had simply sidled up into her life, had not announced their presence; rather she’d understood they were happening only after damage was already done, the edge of the blade already inside her, and so in that way it felt that the violence had bloomed from within her, that she’d created the violence herself, it had been dispersed inside her all this time and only congregated into the dark event at a certain critical point, like a drop of ink spread through a body of water, but reversed. She had never told anybody about the first violence. She had told only one other friend of the second violence, a friend who took off her glasses to listen, was kind, held her hand, said the right things, asked no questions, and then continued to speak to the man, a mutual friend, at parties. She had therefore stopped going to the parties. Had stopped going to all parties, had stopped, as a general rule, telling people things. The wind shrieked around the car.

Driving on the bridge, with no other traffic, Victoria tried to remember: hadn’t she once imagined a house? Wasn’t there a dark, frightening old house, and Cheryl had followed her in, but when she turned around, Cheryl was gone? The wind hissed and clawed. Down below, the Straits of Mackinac were violet and fringed by ice. Floes touched off the banks and spun slowly, in silence. The edges plunged into darkness. The body had lain in the grass. The grass had flattened under the body. She knew only a little about what had become of the others. Cheryl had kept on with the pipe, the chemical smell, the clean beakers and gold coins, growing smaller and thinner. Frank had moved away. Bennett had joined the Air Force, she’d heard, but returned to Kearney after nine months without explanation or money. The Dairy Queen had burned down. The policemen took their dead away. The driver, whose name was Lamont, had been kind, had waited with them at the station for the two hours it took to describe the finding of the man at the side of the road. They were puzzle pieces, yes, and they had become clear and fit together, but never, she thought, gripping the wheel until her knuckles went white, never in the end made a larger picture that she had understood. And how could it have? What tableau could the dead man’s story have ended with, that would have made it all make sense—the night, the road, the years, the ruined house on the hill? Somewhere underneath her blouse was a series of fine scars, evidence of her first violence. But she didn’t think of this, nor of the life of the man in the grass, what he had been dreaming of so deep in his head, a dream of black milk made on a farm where the animals were bred for sweetness and exoticism, docile lambs, gentle and somnolent cows with the faculty of speech, dreaming under Kearney’s clouded stars of the dark exquisite milk he’d sell on his impossible farm—she didn’t. She remembered, without warning, the song she had been singing that night, the one she’d invented, on her way up the road with her beautiful friend. Past the bowling alley, the burning halogen lamps. Walking in front of Cheryl, with whom she’d been so close, for a few hours it was as though they’d shared one mind, two eyes. My red star, it went. My red star. Shine all night, shine all night. Let your light fall down, star, and don’t you tell anyone else but me.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020