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White Trash

by Gary V. Powell

March 22, 2013

“She called me white trash.” Jeannie flicked a tear away.

It was a crude term, one James had heard used to characterize some of his shirt-tail relatives. He was thinking she’d asked for it. Weird ink slithered up and down his neighbor’s arms, and she wore a gaudy pink tube top that revealed too much cleavage. With the recession, things were changing, renters like Jeannie moving in.

“She cut me off in the parking lot with her big Mercedes. I called her on it, and she said, ‘why, you’re nothing but white trash.’”

James was raking leaves out by the road, but he rested long enough to hear her out, this Jeannie with the three dirt babies, the father nowhere in sight. “So, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Sugar, you don’t know me.”

There was no doubt some truth in that, but this wasn’t his fight, plus didn’t he have problems of his own—his wife of forty years dead of a stroke that spring.

“That’s right,” he said, and returned to raking. “No one knows.”

“You don’t think that, do you?”

He kept his head down. “Think what?”

“That I’m white trash, just because of my ink.”

“I don’t give a damn about your ink.”

“I bet I’m the only one on the street with a tattoo.”

The teenagers at the end of the block wore tattoos. They all did these days. Other than that, she was probably right. He couldn’t imagine Charley or Bill or Margaret with tattoos.

“Every one means something special,” she said.

He didn’t want to get into it. Rain was coming, and he needed to get these leaves up; otherwise they’d rot on the grass and he’d have brown spots come spring. With his wife gone, all the yard work fell to him. A Midwestern girl, autumn had been her favorite season. Every year, she’d talked about the nine maple trees that had surrounded her father’s house, went on and on about how they’d burned their leaves right there on the shoulder. There was no law against it back then, and nothing smelled better than burning leaves.

Jeannie shoved her bicep within inches of his face. “This here’s our Savior Jesus Christ on the cross.”

James squinted. “I can make Him out.”

“This one’s in memory of my first husband. We got married way too young. At least I got my son out of it.”

The designs were intricate. Rainbows, chains, and serpents entwined. “Did it hurt?”

Jeannie shook her head. “Just the ones in my nether regions. Did you ever think about a tattoo to commemorate your wife?”

He looked up. Jeannie hadn’t known Anne. She had no business speaking of her like that. “Never thought about it.”

The clouds glowered at them, low and gray. He felt a drop of rain, then a gust of wind kicked up his pile scattering orange and red. “Goddammit,” he roared. Jeannie grabbed for leaves, nearly coming out of her tube top. Then, she had him by the arm, steering him toward her door “This way. It’s coming up a storm.”

He tried to pull away, but she insisted. In the distance, lightning fingered the tree line. “C’mon,” she said, “We’re closer to my place than yours. “ He dropped his rake and cast a glance over his shoulder. Up on the hill, the blank, empty windows of his two-story stared out at them. A squadron of Canada geese, festooned against a roiling sky, cruised his roof line. Each year, he and Anne had watched the geese depart and waited their return. A drop of rain pelted his face. “All right, then. Let’s go.”

She’d converted the dining room into a playroom. Plastic toys lay everywhere. The baby— James couldn’t remember his name— sucked his thumb and bounced in a walker. The living room sat empty except for a dog’s cage. A big, black cur growled low and mean until Jeannie snapped, “Stop that, you hear.” In the rear of the house, the other kids watched cartoons and ate sugar-coated cereal from a box. Children’s books and puzzles lay in piles.

Jeannie directed him to the kitchen table and asked if he’d like a beer. He told her he wouldn’t mind. She fetched one for both of them, then searched through a pile of papers until she found a three-ring notebook. Outside, the rain fell so hard, he couldn’t see out the window.

“Lookie here,” Jeannie said, settling next to him.

The notebook displayed images of tattoos. Section one showed fantastic creatures: dragons, unicorns, lizards, and the like. Section two was devoted to satanic visions; devils, demons, and death’s heads..Section three illustrated flowers, butterflies, and hearts.

“You could do something like this,” Jeannie said, pointing to a heart pierced by an arrow, the name Lisa etched on the arrow.

James leaned in. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, come on. At your age, who gives a shit?”

He frowned. “Anyway, my wife’s name was Anne, not Lisa.”

The baby started to cry, but Jeannie didn’t seem to notice. She placed her hand on top of his. “It’s just an example. I’ll take you to my artist if you want.”

Artist, yeah right.

He studied her broken nails with the faded pink polish, and tried to remember the last time he’d felt another’s touch. “How much we talking?”

“Under fifty.”

“Where would I put it?”

She looked past him to her kids, their eyes glued to the TV. She giggled, hooked her tube top with two fingers, and flashed a fat, white breast. Just above the nipple, a small red heart embossed with the name Skip, winked at him.

“My first beau,” she explained, covering up.

“Well,” James said. “I’ll think about it.”

The rain had slowed to a fine mist. A lone egret stalked the path that ran from Jeannie’s house to the creek, shoulders hunched, head down. I have no egrets, Anne told him once.

Neither did he. So far.


(This piece originally appeared online at The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature)

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