By Constance Ford
From her bedroom, where she was sewing beads on a sheer black tank top, Juliana heard the brakes squeal on her daughter’s Pontiac Grand Am and felt her shoulders relax, knowing Holly was finally safely home.
She continued threading her needle through the shiny beads, fastening each one in a swoopy, scalloped line that ran across the lower part of the top. She found it relaxing, somehow, the tiny, precise movements that forced her mind to empty itself of everything except the needle and silky fabric in her lap. The top wasn’t new—she’d worn it once, her final day at Rancho High. It was see-through and she’d worn it on purpose, knowing they couldn’t do anything worse to her, since she’d already been fired. She laughed a little at the thought, then held the top up, admiring it. She thought it looked kind of retro, and when it was ready, she would wear it with her black pencil skirt, layered over a camisole or maybe just over her leopard bra, with a cardigan on top for professionalism’s sake. She was an English instructor at the university now, and, of course, there, you couldn’t go around with your underwear showing.
She finished the row of beads she was working on and set the blouse on her lap. The house seemed silent, and she realized she’d heard Holly cut the engine, but hadn’t heard the car door slam. She went to the living room, opened the front door into the hot blast of Las Vegas sun. Holly’s car was parked at a strange angle, but it was there in the driveway and nothing else looked amiss. Juliana looked at the house across the street wondering whether Matty, Holly’s boyfriend, was home. Holly and Matty rented the house across the street from Juliana. They lived there several months before she moved to the same neighborhood. Holly and Matty kept odd schedules, often working all night at Pussycat Tattoo but other times, both would be home for days, no coming and going, just sleeping maybe, as far as Juliana could tell.
She held the door open a minute longer, then went across the street, stepping around the little stone Buddha they’d plunked in the center of their front yard, thinking to knock, knowing they probably wouldn’t answer. They didn’t seem to like it when she came over unannounced, and at the last second, she lost her nerve and went to the car instead.
“Oh—Holly.” She rapped on the window. Holly was behind the wheel, her head lolling back against the seat, her eyes closed. Juliana rapped again, but Holly didn’t respond. “Holly,” Juliana shouted, knocking smartly on the glass with her knuckles, then grabbed the handle of the car door to wrench it open. The handle was burning hot, and the door wouldn’t budge. Sometimes it stuck, so she stretched the fabric of her top around the handle and tried again, but it was clearly locked. She stared at Holly through the glass. It was so hot today—she was sweating herself, from fear and heat, and although Holly was only wearing a tube top and ragged jeans, she could see sweat beads on her forehead and on her brightly tattooed chest and arms. Juliana stared for a moment longer, then ran to the front door of Holly’s house and thumped on it. “Matty,” she yelled. “Come outside!” She tried to peer into the little decorative glass windowpanes, but she could see nothing, no movement. Just a blurred distortion of their coat closet, right inside the door.
A locksmith, maybe? She took her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed her older daughter Alexis. It went to voicemail. “Alexis,” Juliana said. “Please call me back.” Alexis was attending law school at University of Nevada. She’d had a chance to go back east for school, to Columbia, but had decided to stay closer to home. Juliana, Alexis, and Holly couldn’t seem to stretch very far apart, even though Alexis was filled with rage at Holly, always telling Juliana that she treated Holly like a spoiled baby.
The phone buzzed, an incoming call, and Juliana answered. “Alexis, hi, sweetie. Could you help?”
“What is it?”
Juliana’s throat tightened, but she tried to speak lightly. “It’s Holly.”
“What about her?”
“It’s just, she’s in her car and I can’t—”
“Is she all right?” Alexis said.
“At the moment, yes, but—”
“Oh God, I’m in the middle of a class, Mom. I came out to the hall for a minute, but I can’t really talk right now.”
“Alexis, it’s so hot. I’m worried about her.”
“Then call the police!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We don’t have to do that,” Juliana said, her heart rate speeding up, but she did not want to start an argument.
“Never mind,” Juliana said, a little too sharply. “Call me later.”
They hung up without saying good-bye—what they always did when they were angry at each other—and she hurried back to the car. She wasn’t going to call the police. The neighbors would see, no doubt, and it was bad enough already. Matty and Holly had escapades in the front yard plenty of times. Once, Holly had come outside in her underwear, yelling after Matty, saying she didn’t care what he did, or if he EVER came home. Juliana tried the car door again. Wasn’t there an extra key somewhere? Or did Matty have it now, he with his stringy hair and scrawny arms?
She didn’t really like Matty, but Holly had been so excited to move in with him. Holly said she loved Matty and loved the small house they shared. It had a backyard with a grapevine-covered trellis and a treehouse in a big spreading oak, an amazing find in Vegas, even in the Arts District. In the evening, Holly said, she and Matty could see the Stratosphere from their yard, its sparkling lights, its thin spire pointing into the sky, and the fireworks that were shot off from the tops of the casinos on the Strip. Juliana could see them in the treehouse at times, Holly and Matty, wisps of smoke coming from the tree. “Is there a drug problem?” she’d wanted to ask Holly, but she couldn’t quite get the words to come out of her mouth, imagined Holly shrieking with laughter. She had asked her what that smell was, once, when she’d come into their house, almost choking on the thick scent. “It’s just incense, Mom, part of our meditation ritual,” she’d said. “Buddhism is about discipline. Matty knows all about that kind of stuff.”
Juliana didn’t understand why his name wasn’t just Matt. Or Matthew. Matty seemed so childish, especially for a man who was 32 years old, and Holly, just 24. But Matty was a tattoo artist, too, and standards were different for artists, as far as names, as far as everything. She understood that. It was Matty, in fact, who’d done Holly’s first tattoo when she was 16, a tiny stick of dynamite above her right hipbone. Now she had tattoos everywhere, and vivid red roses bloomed on both sides of her neck, difficult to cover with clothing, guaranteeing that, for Holly, most ordinary employment would never be possible. But Holly said you had to go all out to be an artist, playing it safe wasn’t what it was about. Something about that struck a chord in Juliana—she admired that kind of thinking, wished she could be more like that. Years ago she had wanted to do something with fashion or design—she’d made some interesting bead jewelry, had sold it at several shops, even. But then she’d met Rex, in her second year of college, and he seemed so sure of himself and his goals, and somehow, becoming an English teacher seemed more acceptable to him.
And she had doubts about tattooing, it was true—needles digging into skin, the potential for disease and infection—the shops with their loud music, endless drawings on the walls of skeletons and naked women wearing sailor hats. On the other hand, she respected people who could make their living doing a craft they loved. So she’d been supportive of Holly in her goal of becoming a tattoo artist, much to Rex’s dismay, even at the expense of finishing her art degree at University of Nevada. Although she still hoped Holly would finish it. It seemed like the practical thing to do, in case—what? In case she needed health insurance at some point. If she got her degree, went on for an MFA, she could probably teach art. In case she wanted to have a steady paycheck someday.
But Holly didn’t seem to be getting anywhere since she had moved in with Matty. He even claimed Holly had hit him once, had taken pictures of himself with a blackened eye, but Holly had said he punched himself in the face, to make her look like the bad one. Sometimes Juliana heard Holly crying, clear across the street, or thought she did. She and Matty seemed to be stuck in a cycle of fighting and making up—some sort of entrancement, apparently, with the highs and the lows. The hideous and the gorgeous, all mixed together. Like one of those majestic marble Gryphons standing guard in front of Mandalay Bay, slick and shining, with web-like wings and dagger claws. Like the whole city of Las Vegas, a jumble of glitter and grime. Although how they imagined their fighting went along with Buddhism, Juliana wasn’t quite certain. Suffering, she thought vaguely. Maybe that was it. Except wasn’t Buddhism supposed to be about learning to avoid suffering?
A thought struck her and Juliana ran around to the passenger side of the car. The lock was broken on that side and she yanked on the door. It opened. “Holly,” Juliana said. “Thank goodness. Holly!”
The car was stifling, every inch of it burning plastic and metal, reeking of vodka and cigarette smoke. Juliana put her bare knee on the hot vinyl and jerked it up again, leaned across the seat, trying not to touch anything. “Holly,” Juliana said, jiggling her shoulder.
“Wha—” Holly lifted her eyelids and let them sag down again.
Juliana felt tears come into her eyes.
No one seemed to understand what it was like to have a daughter like this, how fiercely Juliana loved her, how desperately she wanted her to be okay. “We need to get you into the house.” Juliana tried to keep her voice steady. “Out of this hot car.”
“Too tired.” Juliana could just make out her slurred words.
“No. It’s hot. You have to go inside.”
Holly’s mouth had fallen open and she was snoring gently. A tiny tattooed skull pulsed in the soft spot between her clavicles.
Juliana ran back to the front door of the house and pounded on it again, but there was still no sign of Matty. She couldn’t carry Holly into the house without help. Holly was tall and athletically built, like her father, and Juliana herself was not. She’d been surprised when she saw a picture of herself recently, how thin her arms were. She hurried across the street to her own house and grabbed a bag of peas from the freezer, a bottle of water, and a wet washcloth.
Back at the car, she leaned in and placed the wet washcloth on Holly’s forehead. This seemed to make no difference, so she pressed the cold peas on too. “Wake up!” Juliana said.
“I am,” Holly slurred.
“You have to come in the house.” How many times could they repeat this conversation? She held the cold water bottle against Holly’s leg, but she didn’t seem to feel it through her jeans. She pressed it against her neck.
Holly flung her arm up and smacked Juliana in the mouth. “Lemme alone.” Juliana gasped, the pain in her lip sharp. She felt a surge of anger and grabbed the peas, tromped back across the street to her own house, and shut the door. She went to the bathroom and stared at her bruised lip. This will look good with my top, she thought. A beaded blouse and a fat lip. She went back to the front door and stared out at the offending red car, containing her daughter, and pressed the frozen vegetables to her own face.
So let her sleep it off, she thought. If that’s what she wants. The door was open now. She had a bottle of water, a cold cloth. She should just get in her own car, drive down to the mall, go shopping. Get her nails done. A pedicure. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘tripping over Buddha?'” her sister had asked when they talked recently on the phone. “It means when you don’t recognize the important thing, even when it’s right in front of you. You should move here, to San Francisco,” she said. “Let Holly cope on her own. Get your own life.”
Which was exactly what Juliana wanted, truth be known. She’d only moved to Vegas because Rex wanted to—he was a bankruptcy attorney, but when they divorced, he’d moved away and she’d stayed. She had a good job—now she wanted a man in her life, for God’s sake. She was 46, after all. Her life wasn’t going to go on forever. But instead of following her sister’s advice, she had moved from her perfectly nice house in Summerlin even closer to Holly. Right across the street.
Juliana went to the bathroom to look at her lip once more, to make sure it wasn’t bleeding, then sat down on her bed, forced herself to pick up the needle and the small box of beads. It was going to be beautiful, she thought, poking the needle through a bead. Clothes were her meditation. “They’re not going to like that,” her husband had said to her once, years ago, when she was leaving for school, wearing a pair of cute white boots she’d found on Ebay. “Why can’t you just dress like a teacher? It’s like you don’t even know who you are.”
“I’m Rex Jackson’s wife, aren’t I?” she’d said, caustically, stung by his remark. She shrank inside remembering her former job, as a teacher at Rancho High School, where the vice-principal, a man with a head like a bulldog—he was the football coach, or assistant coach, as she recalled—had written her up once after an observation because her bra straps showed through the dress she’d been wearing that day. It was a beautiful dress—pale gray lace, knee-length, loose and swingy—and her students didn’t given two raps about whether her bra straps showed through. She stabbed her needle through another bead.
The students had more important things to worry about than exposed bra straps, like whether they would still have somewhere to live when they got home from school, or whether their father had been thrown in jail, or worse, shot, by the drug dealer he owed money to. And she’d had a jacket with her that day, or was it a sweater? But she hadn’t put it on, because the room was warm, as usual—there was hardly enough air conditioning in the world that could cool a classroom crammed with 38 sweating, cursing 16-year-olds, in Las Vegas, Nevada. It was April, probably 95 degrees outside that day. The vice-principal had spoken to her immediately after class, handed her the written evaluation, and had given her his comments orally, as well. His eyes had not seemed to want to meet hers when he mentioned that her dress was inappropriate, but clearly the point was that she should put on her jacket now. Dress code was of utmost importance at the high school level, she’d noticed. Concern about curriculum took a distinct back seat to rules about flip-flips and spaghetti straps.
But anyway, it was over, the humiliation of her past, she thought, firmly. She had a better job now, much better. She’d left her job at the high school in February, and starting the next fall, she was hired fulltime at the university. That wasn’t how it was supposed to work—do a sloppy job at one place, then get rewarded with more pay and better students at a different institution. But that’s what had happened. Well, she had a PhD, after all. She was more suited for college teaching anyway, where there weren’t administrators peering over your shoulder every minute. Although she often felt she didn’t quite fit in at the university, either. The other instructors at UNLV seemed to look at her in a skeptical way, as if they weren’t quite sure what she was doing there. “Look at Juliana’s go-go boots,” one of the English department secretaries had said once to another woman in the office, laughing. She had always liked boots, and even after Rex’s comments, couldn’t quite get herself to give them up. But the ones she’d had on that day had just been low-cut western style, for heaven’s sake, nothing like go-go boots. Now she felt worried every time she went into the office.
She glanced at her watch. She’d been sewing for seven minutes. She jabbed her needle through another bead, and the sharp point went straight into her finger. “Ow,” she said, standing suddenly, and the beads slid off her lap and scattered over the hardwood floor. She knelt, thinking to gather them, then jumped up, crunching them underfoot, and ran back across the street to the car.
“Holly. Holly!” she said, reaching in and shaking her. She couldn’t stand this. The car seemed even hotter than before. She grabbed Holly’s arm, tried to drape it around her own neck. How long would it take for Holly to get dehydrated or heat stroke? And how drunk was she? Or had she taken something, some pills or drug? Surely not. “Come on, Sweetie, wake up.” She put her arm around Holly’s waist and heaved, trying to pull her out of the car, but only succeeded in making Holly slump sideways on the burning seat. She tried once more, but Holly was limp and heavy, her long legs twisted now under the steering wheel. Juliana propped her awkwardly back up, then sat down on a small curb that ran along the side of the driveway and watched her through the open car door, wondering who to ask for help. She’d only lived here for a month, hadn’t met any of the neighbors so far, not a single one. People in Vegas didn’t really make friends with their neighbors. New people came and went so often that it hardly seemed worth it.
She scrolled through the numbers on her phone, looking for someone else to call, but there was no one. No one nearby. A helicopter droned overhead, and she imagined that Alexis had somehow sent help.
A car drove slowly up the street toward her, music thumping, some kind of low-riding blue car. Two kids were inside, each with an arm out the window, holding something onto the roof of the car, a sparkly, spoked saucer-shaped object that looked like it must be the top of a merry-go-round, or some amusement park ride. “Yo, teach!” The driver stuck his head out the window. “Look what we got! It’s sick, ain’t it! We’re taking it to the pawn shop.”
It was Major, one of her students from Rancho High, the one who had helped her move. When he found out she was leaving Rancho he had stood at the door of her classroom, his eyes filled with despair. “You really leaving?” he’d asked. “Yes,” she said. She had told the students that she had been let go, so it wouldn’t look like she was deserting them, but the truth was that she had quit. She just couldn’t stand the ridiculousness of it all, the lack of any serious discussions about literature or writing or any interest from the administrators in actual learning. They just didn’t care, and she hated it. Major used to come up behind her at her desk and start rubbing her shoulders and neck, when he could tell she was stressed. Once he had hugged her, and she could feel him swelling against her. She didn’t push him away—she just didn’t really care. What difference did it make? She let him breakdance in her class- room one day. They moved all the desks back, someone turned on a CD, and he gave a demonstration, whirling around on his head until he finally kicked over a stack of books.
That was the kind of high school teacher she was, she thought ruefully. A nice one. She told him she’d pay him $50 to help her move to her new house, across the street from Holly, and afterwards, she gave him a ride home. They’d sat in the parking lot of his apartment complex talking for a few minutes. “You giving that to me? Thought you was joking,” he said, when she handed him the money. He grabbed her in a hug, and she felt astonished at the strength of his muscular arms. Rex, for all his stolidness of character, hadn’t been half this strong. She felt something tightening in her stomach. “I have to go now,” she’d said, almost wishing he would kiss her, but right then, a policeman had rapped on the car window. “Step out of the car, please,” he’d said. Another cop car pulled up and they made her and Major get out, separated them, questioned them, made them hand over their IDs. “You’re his teacher?” the one interrogating Juliana said. “No,” she said. “Not any more.”
“But you used to be?”
“I was just giving him a ride home. That’s it,” she said, her face flushing.
“Are you married?”
“No, I’m divorced.”
“What do you know,” he said, giving her a look.
“He and I were just talking, though. We weren’t breaking any rules.”
“You know how old that kid is?”
“Yes, he’s 16.”
The questions went on and on. She could see Major glancing at her from the back of the police car, a frightened look on his face, while the other officer made him spread his arms and legs, patted him down. Finally, they had to admit that nothing illegal had occurred and let them go.
“You’re walking a fine line here, lady. Get a boyfriend your own age,” the one had snapped at her. Afterwards, Major told her they kept asking him if she had tried to make out with him, had touched him in any way that was inappropriate or offensive.
She’d wanted to cry from the embarrassment of it. As if she’d tried to rape him, or wanted to! She had, though—that was the truly awful part. She had wanted to kiss him, at least for a second. The policeman was right. The whole thing made her cringe, and she’d been furious at Major after that, had refused to talk to him, even though he often hung around the grocery store where she shopped, tried to carry her water, offered her rides. It drove her crazy, reminded her of everything in her life that seemed unfair and painful. Her divorce—her husband had left her, but maybe that had been her fault, too. Her tattooed daughter. All of it. Somehow, her own doing. But how? What had she done? The last time she had seen Major at the grocery store, she had told him to leave her alone. “Why?” His voice was pleading.
“Don’t talk to me,” she said, practically yelling. “I’m sick of this. You’re just a kid! I’m getting a restraining order against you.”
He had looked at her, shocked, then shuffled to his car in his low-hanging pants, and sat there, staring at her.
But now, there he was, driving along the street. “Major!” she called, waving to him. She ran down the road after him.
“What’s happening, Ms. J? You talking to me again?”
She pointed wordlessly to her daughter’s car. “Could you do something for me?”
His face, which had lit up when he saw her, changed to embarrassment. “Gotta get going.”
“No, I just—I need—”
He shook his head. “Don’t report me, okay?”
“What? Wait!” Juliana shouted after him. “I can’t just leave her in there!” She watched the blue car, stared at the strange, sparkly contraption on its roof, until it went around the corner at the end of the block. As she ran back through the yard to her daughter’s car, her foot caught on something and she stumbled, falling onto her hands and knees. She glanced behind her, and found herself staring into the little Buddha’s fat grinning face. Do something, she could hear her sister saying.
She crawled into the seat beside Holly and tried to pour a little water into her partially open mouth, but it just dribbled back out, down her chin. Something was really wrong. Was she even breathing? Juliana took a swallow herself, but even the water was burning hot now, and she cried out and threw the bottle onto the curb. Across the street, she saw that one of the neighbors, an older woman with a large shiny clasp in her gray hair, had come out onto her front steps, was staring in her direction.
Juliana felt a sob shudder through her. Her life was a mess; completely out of control. Everyone must think so. She slowly stood up, groping for her phone. Her hands shook, but she dialed.
“This is Clark County 911. What’s your emergency?”
She could hardly speak. “Please,” she choked out. “I need someone to help me. I need help.”
Constance Ford originally from Idaho, earned an MA in creative writing at Hollins University, and a PhD in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2009, she received the Nevada Arts Council Grant for fiction, and her stories have recently been published in Pif Magazine and Switchback. She teaches English and creative writing at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas and is currently putting the finishing touches on her debut novel, Evangeline.