Kampf Prize

Past Recipients


by Jocelyn Rodal

    I wonder how it would feel like to be pregnant, with some boy's fat greasy greedy baby inside me. Sometimes I lie flat naked and stare over my tits at my big belly. I imagine it bigger, enormous. Then I pinch me, wish I were skinny, and it was flat. I imagine me run over by a road-smoothing truck, flat as a hotcake.
     I do all that at night when my sister's breaths have gone all regular in the bunk below, but Trudy don' like to let me wonder, and most the time I can feel her red devil eyes on me, making a hole in my forehead.
     "Clementine? Clementine where you got to? Clementine!" Trudy doesn' speak, she jus' always hollerin'. She's like a hyena inside, a red-eyed hyena. "Clementine, you spos'da mop Momma's floor!" She tosses her straight stringy mousy hair and puffs up her chest when she talks. She got good round hips and no tummy at all, but her tits can't compare to mine. At 17 Trudy's wearin' a 34B, but at 15 I've got a 36C. It makes her damn, pissy mad.
     "Uh-uh, that floor don' need mopping. I'm goin'." I grab Trudy's cigarettes off the dresser.
     "You're too little for that. Don' you love yo' Momma?" She takes them back.
     "Naw-ah I'm not! I sho' do, but that don' need no moppin'." I'm givin' Trudy the most defiant look I can, but she's got the cigarettes in her fist something fierce, so I gotta turn tail and leave without them.
     "Don' you be goin' after that Rick! Ya hear me?" Her voice is like a screech. Lord knows who she thinks she is anyhow, going all sweet Mary on me all sudden. All Mooresville and Iredell County know she'll fuck any boy she can. Two months she been takin' pills for that mulatto boy 'cross town, and she think she's all woman, but if Daddy finds out she gave her sweet self to some Negro, I know he'll take a belt to her backside, 17 and 34B or no. I'm cleverer than her anyhow, 'cause she got the cigarettes, but I still got one of her pills in my pocket, and she don' even know it's gone.
     Rick lives in a trailer on down the road with his Momma, but she ain't never 'round. He don' smoke his tobacca, he chews it like my Daddy and like them baseball players, and he think that makes him more man. I can see him with it on the stoop, chewin' and spittin' as I walk up pulling down at my skirt, all sweaty in the August sun.
     "Clem." He ain't much for greeting and he always calls me Clem, and that sounds 'bout as dumb as his puny tobacca spits, but Rick's all right though still. And I can see how his yeller eyes always want me and my tits, and it makes me feel all proud, so I let him call me what he wants. I can see now how he's grinning already at the prospect of gettin' to touch my tits. He keeps chewing for a time though, like to pretend he don't care I'm there. Rick's real keen on not carin' 'bout stuff.
     "Clem, you hear 'bout Mr. Dell, down Cox Chapel Road?"
     "Course I did."
     "Naw-ah, you din' hear."
     "Shah, what then?"
     "So I'll tell ya!" His head grows and his eyes go gleeful yeller again, to get to tell. "You remember Mr. Dell, got left by Mrs. Dell, back four, five years ago?"
     "Whole county knows that story, she got a real divorce and everything, went up North to live in a city."
     "Shah, but there's more, still, see Mr. Dell, you know how he lived all these years alone but for that big dog, with the red hair like Mrs. Dell? Well then that dog, he just dropped dead, and Mr. Dell, he took out his rifle and done shot himself! With a rifle! Like he just some sort of animal or sumpin'! And he stayed there stinkin' up the place for more'n a week, afore Mrs. Simpson next door found him, all bloody, and with a note and everything, all 'bout how he can't live without that red-haired dog." And Rick's all glad and excited now, and he makes his last tobacca spit, grinning all yeller, and finally grabs at my tits, since the story done put him in a fine romantic mood now. Only as his hands go over me all gleeful all I can think about is how my arms wouldn't be long enough to reach a rifle trigger, and how maybe Mr. Dell coulda' rigged it up somehow, like with some line to pull on.
     And then Rick's hands get down over my belly and I push him away all nervous, pullin' my shirt down. Rick laughs like a chuckle. "Ah Clem, let me get back. Your big big belly be the finest thing on this earth." Bastard, pretending like he's all mellow. But I realize how my arms are crossed on my chest like I'm all a baby, and I ain't, so I grab the pill from my pocket and stick it between my teeth so he can see it, like teasing. But Rick don' even say nothing to that, he just come at me from both sides altogether, and with a hand up my skirt and another down my belly I just keep seeing that red-haired dog. They made fun of that dog, all funny-lookin'. Rick, Rick he used to hurl stones at that purdy sad red dog. And all sudden I'm whimperin' and gone, with my bra hangin and my skirt all undone, running and fighting back tears.

    And the sun is so hot and nasty, my hair all sticking to the back of my neck and the sweat running down my armpits and 'tween my legs, so when I get back running to the house all sudden I wanna just die right there under the pecan tree. And there under the shade I can see Trudy inside through the window into Momma's room, and it makes me scowl mad, 'cause I can see she's taken a mop to it herself.
     And she's still by the window when I get in, standing there by Momma, lookin' out. Feelin' all guilty I go to take the mop, but she leans her tall head over on me so I can't move, and I just run my fingers all absent like in Momma's still hair, listening to her soft breaths. I can feel Trudy's fingers goin' down through mine, easing out the sweaty tangles, slow and gentle. Her breaths are sharper.
     "Clementine, that Rick just ain't no good. Slow in the head and mean in the fists. He'd leave any time. He'd beat you any time."
     "That Negro boy wouldn' do that?"
     "Rodney wouldn' lay no hand on me." Trudy's strokin' fingers stop at the top of my head and pull me closer, and I can feel her sighin' breath. "But he gone no less."
     I don' know what she's talking 'bout, but lookin' up sideways, there's shine in her eyes.
    "Done got drafted. Off to camp in Georgia. Gone to Vi-et-nam." The screechy voice sounds all dead now, and for a time we just stand. I can feel the cryin' in Trudy's chest, and the dusk comes on as I lean my damp forehead on her wet cheek, and the cicadas start whinin'.
    And we lean there so long, the stars come out and Daddy's truck grumbles in. And when Daddy stops making noises from the kitchen and I can't stand the quiet no more I take the mop and go and finish the floor, as Trudy goes back down Momma's long hair, braidin' and rebraidin', braidin', rebraidin'. I've near to nodded off 'gainst the wall when she all sudden steps back so straight she gives me a start.
    "We're goin'." Her voice is like a whisper and a screech both, and afore I know it she's got Momma up with her from under the armpits, and the grand old rockin' chair going down sideways so I gotta dive for it, 'fraid the crash'll wake Daddy. And then she's already out the door goin' backwards, Momma's poor heels dragging on the ground. She's so crazy, I can't do nothin' but grab Momma's legs myself so they don't fall from the stoop as Trudy goes down. And outside, I start hissing.
    "What you doin'! Crazygirl! Stop it! Stop it! Stop!" But I ain't got no effect, and poor Momma's bein' stuffed all limp in the truck cab.
    "Get in, Clementine. We're just going for a ride."
    "You're crazy!"
    "It's just a ride. Just a little ride. Get in." And she's grinding up the engine and I don't know what else to do, but as we get further from the house I start screamin', 'cause Momma's sat in that chair and looked out that window a full eight years, and now the chair's in a wreckage on the floor back there and I don' even know where we goin'. But them hollers don' even get no response. And looking out back I think I'll see Daddy runnin' mad behind, but the house is little and empty, ridin' away in the dark corn fields. Banging my head on the side of the door I can feel the wind tangling my hair all angered and sweaty.

    In the dawn Trudy's throwin' up at the side of the highway. All tired and hungry with a crick in my neck I can just kinda watch as she collapses back into the car, 'cause there ain't no water for her here, just lotsa hot summer dust.
    "Wha'd you eat?"
    "You sick?" She don' answer, just kinda stares back sideways at Momma in the bench seat behind us.
    "You 'member much 'bout Momma, before?"
    "Just all warm and twinkly like."
    "You were just eight. When she went all crazy." I wanna tell 'er not to call Momma that, but I see her now, starin' out the truck window just like it were the one at home.
    "What you think she sees?" I ask it quiet-like, and Trudy's hushed awhile.
    "You know she was eighteen, when she had me."
    "You'll be that next month." She's lookin' scared empty like Momma, starin' on out the window too. I can almost recall how Momma used'a holler loud, like over nothin', afore she went all silent inside.
    "Yeah." The silence is hot and kinda blue. "We gotta get her some food for the mornin'. Gotta find a gas station or sumpin."
    "We gotta clean her up." And we drive on still stinking with Trudy's retchin', down a road I ain't never seen before.

    I rinse Momma's padded underwear in the sink at the little market we find, and comin' back out I'm surprised Trudy's already got Momma dressed back up. She's got a bag, with dry new underwear and all.
    "Where'd ya get that?"
    "Packed it. 'Fore we left." I wanna scowl. She planned this, and she still ain't even told me where we goin'.
    But we sit by the truck and eat apples from the market, and I'm glad Momma's looking 'bout as content as always, and I'm glad Trudy ain't screechin'. And they're good apples. I can see the orchards stretchin' away behind us.
    Trudy's got a can of mashed peas, and she gives it to Momma, spoon by spoon. And when the green starts coming down Momma's chin, and we wipe her off, get back in the truck.
    "I had to bring her Clementine. She needs us, to take care of her." Momma's still just starin', just like always.
    "I don' know she even knows the difference." The silence is like a low whistle, with the wind comin' in the windows. Little puddle spots start forming on the windshield, and I watch as the dusty ground finally begins the turn to sloppy orange clay. I've got my head all out the window like a dog, feelin' the rain on my face. Pullin' it back in, suddenly I'm askin' her. "Trudy where we goin'?" Like the wet gave me courage to say it.
    Trudy's sigh is soft, but deep like the truck. "Washington. We goin' all the way to Washington. Up northa' Virginia."
    Yesterday I woulda' hollered, but now my mouth jus' kinda glues shut. And then my voice comes out silent-like. "What's Daddy gonna do, without his truck? How'll he work?"
    "Walk?" It sounds like a squeak.
    "Long, long way. 'Most an hour."
    "I had to Clementine. I gotta get sumpin in Washington. I gotta." I don' wanna ask her what. The rain just keeps on fallin', and 'ventually Trudy pulls over in the leftover purple light. We have more apples and peas, and some cold fried okra the market lady gave us fresh, but there isn' any water for Momma. We fall 'sleep there in the dark. It's kinda cold, after the rain.

    And in the morning Trudy's retchin' again. I get out and hold her hair, don' say nothin'. She's shivering a little in the early light, and we hug hard after she stops.
    "There's a doctor in Washington." Her eyes look dark and shiny. Desperate.
    "They got doctors in North Carolina."
    "Not like this one."
    And I know what she's sayin'. I can feel the pill I stole from her, still back in my pocket somehow, pressin' against my hip. I think 'bout how they said Mary-Frances Cowper died, all bloody, with a long angry wire.
    "Safe doctors, like the law don' like." I throw the pill hard, and it falls in the corn growin' high by the road. She don' say nothin', and I can feel the sun rising up behind me. "I don' like that Rodney boy." Getting back in the car my crying is real quiet, so Trudy might not see.
    But then that day the fields start changin' fast, and we're on a bigger road, with cars on both sides, and buildings 'stead of corn and apples and tobbaca. The sun is high up over us, and the shadows of the other cars hover on the road right underneath 'em.
    And where we stop for Momma, the stores are enormous, with all sortsa' things I ain't never seen before. Funny colored fruits and weird lookin' meats, and whole tubs of strange beans and nuts to scoop out into baggies. Trudy gets a whole big covered tub of water, and a little glass bottle of grape juice, and burgers from a real restaurant, where they hand 'em to us right through the truck window. I'm real impressed, but when I look back at Momma I'm kinda scared too. An' I'm scared Trudy'll need to throw up again.
    But Trudy's lookin' at Momma too. "You know they got a name for her?" Used to be Ann-Marie. I know it ain't what she means. I don' think I wanna hear what she means. "They call that catatonic, people like her." Big, ugly word, ready to tie up your tongue. But I think it's got my belly instead. And Trudy still keeps on goin'. "Up north they got whole buildings, with rooms just filled up with people in chairs, starin' out the windows."
    "That don' sound nice at all." My voice is kinda tangled.
    "No. Uh-uh." Her quiet is heavy. "Sometimes they don' just sit. Sometimes they get up, say sumpin."
    "I don' think Momma's gonna do that."
    "No. Uh-uh."

    It's real sudden, when we finally get to Washington. The buildings just get so tall and white, the light hurts my eyes, to try and see the tops. Trudy's got an address, written in pencil on a paper scrap she musta' torn outa' one of Momma's old books. I don' know where she got the address. I don' know how she finds it so quick either, but she's headed right there. It's out, away from the grass and shinin' white buildings, in with dirt and bricks, where there ain't no trees. And where Trudy stops the truck there's an old Negro woman in a maid's uniform comin' on past us, walkin' like her feet are hurtin', and lookin' like she don' think we up no good.
    "You stay here with Momma." Trudy's kinda' shaky strong. "I just gotta talk to 'em. Gotta get an appointment, I think." The door don' quite close on her way out, so she gotta slam it shut twice, and the leftover Carolina dust billows out. It ain't so dusty here. And I watch her feet, soft tap tap, as she rounds the corner, outa' sight. Across the street little Negro boys are playin', kickin' at the road. One so little he can't hardly walk, toddlin' all uneven, with his grubby baby arms stretched out wide. A girl lookin' 'bout sixteen watches 'em from a doorway, openin' right out on the road. When the littlest falls down hard on his backside she scoops him up, gives him a big wet kiss. His cryin' is strong and loud.
    And Trudy comes back round the bend lookin' full up with purpose. She steps in firm, turns the slow ignition. "Tuesday."
    "Let's look 'round."
    "Sure." My voice don' quite break. And we go back lookin' for the grass. They're real close, those purdy lawns and them dirty brick buildings. Jus' such a little drive. We get out, wonder long, leavin' Momma in the truck. First we don' wanna go too far, but it's jus' like home - she ain't goin' nowhere.
    Eatin' apples by a long pool, we can see a man with floppy white hair and a flannel shirt, sittin' and feedin' fat gray birds from a baggie full up with bread. They come in dozens and dozens, crowdin' round the whole bench, so another man in a black suit has to wade on through, kickin' so they raise up a wing storm all 'round him. Further on down a younger fellow with a big ole hangin' beard flops in a broken-down wheelchair, missin' legs, with a cup at his feet and a sign propped 'gainst the side. "Fucked in Nam." A woman with quick dark hair walks a teeny tiny dog on a red leash, and it yaps angry-like, but with its little tail still all wagging. A lady in a long floaty skirt lies flat on her back, hands holdin' torn up grass, starin' up at the clear out cloudy sky.
    And we just hang 'round, just like that. Starin' at the sky, walkin' 'round, still eatin' apples and okra. Nights, we sleep back in the truck with Momma. Then Tuesday morning Trudy wakes me up real early.
    "Let's take Momma today." She points at a bench, close by. One of them gray birds sits peckin', underneath. And we get her on over, and she sits just like always. I smooth out her hair back behind.
    "You stay here now. I gotta go." She's kinda lookin' past me when she talks.
    "Naw-ah. I'm comin'. You gotta take me for that."
    "It ain't that. Ain't till later. I just gotta go off alone for sumpin else. Just a bit. I'll come back, we'll go on down together." I let her off alone, but when I can't see the truck no more, hidden back into the crowded road, I lean over and hug Momma tight.
    She do come back, but a long time later, when the sun's moved on up high. She comes back walking, without the truck. "I sold it. Done sold it to pay for the doctor." I wanna melt in a puddle. And I don' ask her. I don' ask how we gonna get back.
    "We gotta go now?" My voice is like a sigh.
    "Just leave Momma here?"
    "Yeah." And I grab up Trudy's cold hand in my sweaty one, and we just start walkin'. Lookin' back, Momma's purdy peaceful, sittin' all 'lone on that little bench in the great big green.
    Those brick buildings are still real close, even walkin'. And that same barely toddlin' boy is still there, though I can't see his Momma now. Inside the little office smells all of rubbin' alchohol, but it's still kinda dirty and dark, with folding chairs and an old metal desk. A cold soft woman sits waitin' in the corner, but the big lady at the desk pushes Trudy on through, telling her to wait for the doctor. She makes to tell me to stay put in a chair, but I hold on tight to Trudy, glarin' like I ain't lettin' go, and she don't say nothin'. The new room is smaller, real chilly. The air tastes like metal, and the table in the center has stirrups. We pull up on it together, curlin' into one big ball.
    And Trudy's cryin' hard now, but she's talkin' all determined. "We'll be all right here Clementine. We'll stay here, and things'll be okay. I got a little money left, like so we can get set up." But she can see I ain't so sure. "I couldn' have that baby. I just couldn'. We'll do all right here. We'll get jobs here, like maids or sumpin. We'll do all right. We will, cause we gotta." I'm just holdin' her wet head to my chest, rockin' back and forth. But thinkin' 'bout the old man with the sac of bread, and the lady with the long skirt and fists full of new grass, maybe I can almost believe it.