Irma sat on the edge of the bottom porch step of the single-wide. The wood was warped and a split ran down its length, wriggling over the faded grain like the vein of a meandering creek.
Her breath twisted visibly from her parted lips in the chill of the October night as she waited for her ride.
She spun a stolen bottle of cheap liquor store vodka between her palms, the alcohol gurgling beneath the cool glass.
Through the swaying stalks of corn in the field just a few feet from the trailer, muted orange headlights creeped into view. Tires cackled over the loosely-grated gravel driveway and then Lexi Peterson’s ’85 LeSabre screamed around the corner of the field, the wide body of the car lurching, the sideview mirror clipping an ear or two of the harvest.
“Jesus,” Irma muttered as she scuttled across the gravel in her mother’s worn leather cowgirl boots. “Is she drunk already?”
“Get in, Trailer Trash.” Lexi chuckled through the cracked window, where the end of her cigarette dangled, ashes sprinkling over the drive.
Irma let out a breathy laugh and tugged on the sleeves of her beige canvas jacket. Holding the vodka in the crook of her elbow, Irma pulled the cuffs all the way over her fingertips the way she always did, and ducked into the back seat next to Willy. He was bundled in a thick camo jacket and wore a red Oklahoma Sooners beanie over his floppy brown hair.
Irma sank into the seat, the thick rolls of padding, covered in soft baby blue velour, consuming her hips entirely. She dug around in the dark, looking for her seat belt, finding swarms of unidentifiable crumbs and homeless pennies, but no lap belt. Irma wiggled deeper into the cushions and sat still.
“Hi,” Willy said.
“Hey,” Irma replied.
“Thanks for coming out with us.”
“Thanks for inviting me.”
“Isn’t that cute?” Austin Meyer, who occupied the whole of the passenger’s seat, turned a quarter of an inch toward the back and grumbled in his deep vibrato. “Willy and Irma’s first date. So glad we could join you love birds.”
“Be nice, Austin.” Lexi said, laughing, then she flung the car in reverse and stomped on the brakes just before she mowed down the corn field. A few of the stalks curved around the trunk and scraped against Irma’s window. “Oops.”
“Sorry, Irma. I was only joking,” Austin patted Irma’s knee. “How are you doing? Really?”
Irma carefully put the vodka in the valley of her thighs, the neck of the bottle extending from her knee caps like a high dive hoisted above the dark chasm of Lexi’s floorboards. She caught a faint whiff of a sweet and sour odor. Dog pee most likely.
The LeSabre sped down the driveway, a tornado of dust following them like a pesky shadow. Without twisting her head one way or the other, Lexi pulled out onto the dirt road that led to town. Blackened ditches and farmer’s fields stretched on for miles, the lights of Henshaw so dull, they didn’t even sparkle on the horizon like towns did on the TV.
“Vodka. Nice choice.” Willy snatched the bottle from Irma’s lap, spinning it by the neck. “But not as good as the home brew I brought.”
“Is that right?” Irma broke into a smile, directing it right at Willy’s boxy face.
Willy’s foot tapped something on the floorboards between them. Canning jars. The lids rattled from the disturbance and the liquid inside them sloshed against their glass confines.
“Ain’t nothin’ can match ole Willy Shiner,” Willy added.
Eventually, the dirt road turned brick as Lexi spun them down Main Street. Henshaw was a dusty town in Northern Oklahoma, with a lazy population of less than two thousand. The town had boomed once and only once. Years ago, in the late nineteenth century, when settler families staked claim to the copper-stained soil of Indian Territory during the land rush.
As Irma peered out the window, a handful of closed or empty shop fronts stared back. The girl recalled weekend afternoons with her mother. They’d drive into town after lunch and spend hours perusing Cherokee Sport for new running gear for Irma or hunting down secondhand clothes at Mystic Flamingo that they could both share. They’d shop. They’d grab a coffee and a hot chocolate at the only café in town. Then, they’d borrow a VHS tape from the library and sneak into one of the classrooms at their church, using the key Irma’s mother used when she prepared the communion, and watch Audrey or the Princess of Monaco or Jimmy Stewart on the old rolling Zenith, pretending they were in a movie theater, somewhere far away, watching the film for the first time.
“Where are we headed?” Irma asked Lexi.
Clapboard shacks and corroding brick one-stories began to replace tall pioneer-style buildings as the group headed to the other side of town.
“We’re chasing the buzz,” Lexi said just as a cat sprang from the night and landed in front of the LeSabre. “Shit.”
Lexi jerked the steering wheel to the right and the front bumper of the car scraped along the side of a silver pickup parked under a leafless pecan tree. The entire car jumped, Willy’s jars of liquor clanging against one another. Lexi pushed the wheel back toward the road and motored on.
Irma raised herself onto one knee and looked out the back window, up the street.
“You can’t drive worth shit,” Austin told Lexi.
“The damage on that pickup truck.” Willy whistled despairingly.
“Did you hit the cat?” Irma asked. “Maybe we should go back.”
“You’re right Irma-Jo,” Lexi said, pulling a fresh cigarette from the pocket of her black skinny jeans. She held it between her teeth while Austin leaned over to light it for her. Irma scrunched her nose at the bitter scent. “We should go back, check on the stray. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s just knock on the door of the guy who owns that truck and let ‘im know who just cost him a week in the body shop. Are you crazy? We ain’t going back.”
“I just wanted to look for the cat is all,” Irma said.
“You feel sorry for it or something?” Lexi took a long drag on her cigarette.
Irma’s lips pinched as she sank back down into her seat. “No.”
As the car sped up and they crossed above the highway, Irma could still smell Lexi’s cigarette. She cranked her window open an inch or two and took a deep breath of freshly turned earth and fallen leaves.
“Gimme a taste of your brew.” Irma eyed Willy, pulling away from the window.
“Sure you can handle it?” Willy asked. “This stuff’ll melt the soft woman right off ya.”
“Just gimme a drink.” Irma waved a hand in the air. “You’re always talking in school about this God-ordained moonshine of yours. ‘Bout time I find out what it’s all about, don’t you think?”
Willy spun the lid off a jar and pressed the smooth glass into Irma’s sweating palm. She took a gulp. It felt hot on her lips, sizzled off her tongue. Irma went back for another sip. Soon, her belly was warm and her cheeks stirred with fever. The car was a rocket ship gleaming through the rural farms, the crops in the fields streaking by outside Irma’s window.
“Holy shit,” Irma said. She handed the jar back to Willy. Braced her knee against the car door and leaned her head against the cracked window.
“I call it the bath tub brew.” Willy took a long drink from the same jar and passed it to Austin in the front.
“Good lord, don’t tell me you cooked this up in your mama’s nasty ass green tub.” Austin took an inch off the top of the moonshine and passed the jar to Lexi. Irma was surprised that she took a small sip. Then again, it was Lexi Peterson. The girl was a hurricane. Wrecking everything in her path and never apologizing.
“I ain’t no city idiot,” Willy said. He urged Irma to take another drink. She did. “I used the water from the tub faucet. Got a sharp flavor, don’t it? Tastes like a bullet, I reckon.”
“You gonna tell us where we’re going, Lexi?” Irma asked.
Austin spun around and waved a hand at Irma. “Didn’t Willy tell you? We never know where we’re going.”
“We just drive,” Lexi said.
“Chasing the buzz,” added Willy.
Irma picked up the bottle of vodka she had brought along and spun the top off. “Well, in that case.”
Willy produced a shot glass from his coat pocket. It was adorned with a sticker of a golden buck, more rack than animal. He held it as Irma poured, her hands barely visible from beneath her jacket sleeves. The liquor overflowed and ran down the sides of the glass, sprinkling onto Irma’s favorite pair of jeans. She giggled and Willy lifted the glass to her lips. She opened her mouth and the shot flung to the back of her throat. It stung, but not as much as the moonshine had.
“One for you,” Willy said, then shook the empty glass. Irma refilled it and Willy swallowed it quickly. “And one for me.”
“And one for Lexi,” Irma said, her head spinning already.
“Now she’s talking,” Lexi said. “Austin, take the wheel.”
As Austin moved the car from side to side in a slow, fluid motion, like a barge swinging in an inconsistent swell, Irma poured a shot of vodka for Lexi. She drank it facing the backseat and immediately took a long drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke straight into Irma’s face. Irma coughed and lifted the vodka bottle to her lips. She tipped the butt of the vodka toward the sagging blue fabric of the LeSabre’s ceiling and swallowed the steady trickle of liquor rolling over her tongue.
When Irma lowered the bottle finally, Lexi had veered off the road and was driving over the ruts in a farmer’s freshly plowed wheat field, the earth open and awaiting winter planting. The headlights illuminated a small pond on the other side of a barbed wire fence and Lexi stopped the car.
The four of them stumbled over the cold, hard earth, through the loose wires in the fence, careful not to catch the rusty barbs on exposed skin, and sat down around the small pond. Irma had an idea of where they were. South of Henshaw. Wheat field. Probably Bob Duren’s place, maybe Charlie Hammer’s. Old farmers who worked with her daddy on occasion. Nice men in passing, but devils if you cross them dirty.
“Reckon I could use that pond water for my next brew?” Willy sat beside Irma, sipping on a jar while she poured herself another shot of vodka.
Irma raised her head, lengthening her neck, the veins protruding from her thin skin, as she studied the small, teardrop shape of still water, the gibbous moon reflecting on its surface. She shook her head.
“I wouldn’t drink it.”
“But if I filtered it first,” Willy said. “Boiled all the critters out. I’d call it Pond Scum. Shoot it down with a Dr. Pepper chaser. A fine Okie product.”
The glass of Irma’s shot glass clinked sloppily against the ribbed lip of Willy’s mason jar and they drank. They sat beneath the moon and the cluster of trees beyond the pond. They sat. They drank. They listened to the wind find its way over the land. Listened to Lexi and Austin laughing while they swapped dented flasks full of whiskey and rum, leaning on one another when the liquor coursed too quickly through their blood.
Head floating above her body, limbs tingling, Irma kicked back one more shot of vodka and hurled Willy’s shot glass into the pond. A stream of gold tumbling through the sky, comet-like. It broke the still surface of the water, sending shards of moonlight slithering away like water moccasins. Irma sat back, thrust her arms above her, and cheered.
“Irma Jo,” Willy said, bursting instantly into a fit of laughter. “Don’t you know that was an antique?”
“Really?” Irma slurred, her lips inches from Willy’s ruddy cheeks. “Then I better go fetch it, huh?”
Irma bounced to her feet so quickly she fell straight back down, landing half on Willy’s lap. He gave her a hand up and she stripped down to her skivvies, the crisp autumn air nipping at everything. She left her jacket, Ramones tee, jeans, boots—everything—in a pile by her nearly empty vodka bottle.
“You’re gonna freeze your ass cheeks off if you jump in that pond, Trailer Trash,” said Lexi.
“Them ass cheeks is too hot to freeze,” Austin hollered, losing himself after that in the whiskey flask.
Irma strode toward the water, bopping her hips from side to side like the runway models she saw on the TV. The tall oak and maple trees dotted around the water’s edge leered at Irma from high above. She looked away from them, seeming to focus her fuzzy brain on climbing the slab of rock that jutted over the lip of the pond. She rubbed her palms together, not worried about the circular scars exposed on the backs of them, on her thighs, seared into her ribs.
“Jump, Trailer Trash, jump,” Lexi yelled.
With a shriek, Irma launched herself out over the water, hugging her knees tight to her small chest and crossing her ankles one over the other. The world was a messy blur as she fell into the ice box-cold water. Her toes sunk into thick mud and the frays of underwater plant life tickled her legs.
Irma breached the surface, coughing and sputtering from accidentally swallowing some of the pond water. Someone hollered on shore and Irma echoed their howl, flopping onto her back and floating weightlessly in the middle of the cool liquid.
The seventeen-year-old’s fingertips twirled through the thick velvety water while she watched the tiny silver specks of stars so far away from the flatlands of Oklahoma as they winked down at her. Three of them, sitting in a neat little row, shined brighter than the rest. The belt of Orion.
Irma thought she heard something move just beyond the pond. Her head snapped upright. Treading water above the muck, she squinted into the night. Her eyes opened wide when she realized no one was one on shore. Not Lexi or Austin. Not even Willy.
All had vanished.
She frog-kicked her way to the grass and crawled out of the pond on all fours. She stood up, her underwear clinging awkwardly to her skin as she stumbled over to where she had been sitting. Where only her boots remained. No jeans, no t-shirt, no jacket.
“Shit,” she muttered as her feet dove into the boots.
Irma squinted across the grass, beyond the barbed wire fence. She thought she could see shadows moving inside the clunky old car, so she tromped toward the LeSabre, hugging her arms around her torso, trying to calm the vicious, teeth-chattering throttles that claimed hold of her.
“Y’all are hilarious,” Irma yelled as she slipped through the wires.
The car’s engine sparked to life and the headlights washed the thin girl in an unforgiving bright light. She could hear the laughs escaping through the vehicle’s metal walls, high pitched, blistering.
Irma froze. Lexi threw the car into reverse and backed like lightning into the fallow field. The car spun as Lexi turned the wheel and pulled the gear shift into drive. Idling, the three passengers each flashed a garment of clothing out their opened windows. Austin waved Irma’s t-shirt like a flag at a drag race, while Lexi dangled her jeans in her loose grip, and Willy spun Irma’s jacket around, the arms flapping about wildly.
“Come and get it, Trailer Trash,” Lexi yelled, giving the car gas and driving slowly over the uneven earth.
Irma laughed, fumbling a few steps toward the car. She looked at her clothes hanging out the windows like a challenge, a prize to win. She eyed Lexi through the side mirror on the driver’s side and in the same second they both picked up the pace, jerking forward, slipping on the dirt, Irma’s boots digging into the ruts of the field as she sprinted after the car.
In her mother’s old leather boots, a half size too big, in nothing but her bra and underwear, Irma kept up with the car for a few moments. She thought her old track muscles might kick in. Maybe she could catch Lexi, Austin, and Willy. But Lexi cranked the wheel and turned a full circle in front of Irma, scattering clods of dirt over her skin, bits of the stuff clinging to her long eyelashes. She stopped, blinking the debris from her vision, and when she looked up, the LeSabre was taking off in the opposite direction.
She dug the toe of her boots into the field, but just as soon as she started, Irma tripped over her own feet and flew across the dirt, sliding like a ball player into home. Irma let out a groan as one of the freshly formed rows in the ground dug into her chest. She felt the alcohol bubble up from her stomach and she clenched her fists, trying to keep it down.
The horn honked and Irma looked up in time to see the red taillights pulling onto the roadway, dipping back toward town.
“Assholes,” Irma shouted. She picked herself off the ground. Brushed off her thighs. Started across the field, following the tracks the car made on its rampage across the land.
Halfway over the barren landscape, Irma turned toward the shelter belt of trees to her left. If she was where she thought she was there was a shortcut back to town through the woods. A place to stop at along the way. Sober up before returning home.
A gust of wind swept across the barren wheat field, whistling over the ridges of the earth. Irma rubbed her shoulders. She looked like a hen after plucking. Every inch of her was covered in tiny bumps. Irma tucked her chin into the hollow between her collar bones, keeping her face out of the wind’s path at least.
Just before she ducked beneath the twisting branches, sparsely covered in dying leaves, Irma heard the clink of a glass jar. Heard the steady breathing, the clunky footfalls, of someone else.
“Irma Jo.” It was Willy. His camo jacket and dark wash jeans made him blend into the landscape. “Wait up.”
Willy tossed her beige canvas jacket at her, the sleeves looping around her neck like a scarf. She slipped into it, glad she had bought it two sizes too big, because it covered everything from chin to knees.
The pair started in silence to a discovery Irma had made one day as a girl. A two-story Victorian came into view several sips into a new jar of moonshine. The farm house had been abandoned ages ago, the former family’s belongings deteriorating beneath piles of rotting plywood and plaster.
Irma climbed the three steps and laid down flat on the porch, damp hair sprawled out over the termite bitten slats. She stared up at the haint-blue ceiling, the color of the paint barely hanging on.
“What is this place?” Willy sat down beside her.
“Whatever you want it to be,” Irma said. “It’s abandoned. No one wants it no more.”
“I could bring my moonshine here,” Willy said, looking back at the house. “Store it in one of these rooms—what’s it like on the inside—no one would know the jars was mine. Don’t think anybody’d know this place existed. I didn’t. Lived in Henshaw all my life.”
Irma rolled her head to face Willy, her ear pressed into the age-sanded wood. She stared at the zipper of his jacket pocket.
“I like that you got something you love Willy,” Irma said. “Dreams. A plan.”
“Everybody’s got dreams, Irma Jo.” Willy set the jar of clear moonshine between them, pulled the silver lid from his pocket. “Don’t you have one?”
Irma turned her head so she could see Willy’s pink cheeks, the arrow-straight nose that extended just over his plump lips.
Willy glanced down at Irma, then looked away quickly. Irma reached out and took his hand in hers, the scars fully exposed.
Before Irma fell asleep every night as a girl, her mother would come into the room and sit on the edge of her mattress. She would bend down over Irma, her thin, blonde curls shielding their faces like a tent. Then, her mother would press the tip of her button nose to Irma’s. An Eskimo kiss. It was the softest touch. Barely a brush as their noses rubbed back and forth for a second before Irma’s mother disappeared down the hall, leaving Irma in the dark, the tickling feeling on her nose lingering until the tiny flaps of her eyelids grew stone heavy and fluttered to a close, the little one overcome by sleep.
Willy’s other hand covered Irma’s as lightly as her Mama’s Eskimo kisses. It was almost as if he was hovering, not touching her at all. Irma’s scars were concealed entirely. Nothing left to see.
“I’m sorry, Irma,” Willy whispered. “I’m sorry about your mama and I’m sorry about your daddy and what he did to you. It ain’t right. It ain’t fair. None of it.”
Wisps of teardrops pooled in the corners of Irma’s dead eyes. She dug her short fingernails into Willy’s hand, his flesh caving in. He didn’t squirm away. The tears trickled down her cheeks, pooled on the porch slats, soaking into the wood.
“No you ain’t,” she said finally, her voice cracking.
“What?” Willy asked.
“You ain’t sorry,” she said.
“But I am.”
“No.” Irma inhaled through a clogged nose, a terrible sucking sound cutting through the quiet around them. “You ain’t sorry. You can’t be. I don’t want you to be.”
Willy gave her hand a squeeze. He stared out into the dark trees, moonlight scattering through the slits in the branches.
“You ever make moonshine before, Irma Jo?” Willy asked.
Irma wiped her cheeks with the tip of her thumb. She sniffled, clearing her nose. “Never.”
“I can teach you,” Willy said. “Not too hard once you get the hang of it. Hell, I could probably even teach my coon dog how to make mash. If he can do it, you can, no sweat. I reckon you could be my new business partner.”
“You reckon?” Irma asked.
Willy eased back onto the porch, laying down flat beside Irma. The thick material of his coat pressed into her neck. He smelled faintly of cedar wood.
Irma turned the hand Willy still had a hold of over and laced her fingers through his. Willy’s hand was warm, the heat seeped into Irma’s skin, traveling up her arm, warming her all the way to her toes. She couldn’t even feel the bite of the wind as it shivered through the branches of the trees surrounding the abandoned house, blowing up the dust on the porch.