Joyland

The South |

We Sell Wonder

by Coleen Herbert

edited by Laura Chow Reeve

We don’t know who it is yet but someone wants to blow up the Wonder Christmas parade this year, most likely cause they’re a terrorist or hate Christmas or just parades. I feel em.

We know about them because they keep mailin the Chester County Police department about how they’re gonna bomb the parade. But I think maybe they don’t wanna bomb the parade at all; they just wanna let you know about how they wanna bomb the parade because Christmas sucks so hard. Or maybe they want you to know how much they want to want to bomb the parade, because if they wanted to just do it they wouldn’t bother tellin no one. Reverse psychology. Or maybe they just want attention. Or are lonely.

My best friend Agnes is the gothest person I know, and so the smartest. She says that if the bomb threater is real and serious then they are probably associated with a group of senile farmers she believes is our own Illuminati of Wonder, the old white men who talk to fire hydrants and stand too close to you in the hardware store. But she can’t tell me who she thinks is actually responsible, since knowing this group of elders requires lifelong vigilance and secrecy.

Agnes is a really pretty, sad girl with a long dead person’s name like me, and our moms used to work together at the Wonderful Diner, so we’ve known each other since before we even knew how to go to the bathroom. But she’d really be a knockout if she lost fifteen pounds, or maybe sixteen and a quarter. I am a firm believer that losing weight really can change your life. When I got my period in the fourth grade I was the first girl in my class to get one because I was a lardo. Now I don’t even get my period, so I can have sex whenever I want to without my nasty blood ruining everything. All the hot girls at Wonder Junior High don’t have their periods.

Agnes’ mom and dad are both nurses now who visit real sick people and sometimes people who are already dead, so that’s probably how she got goth, since she’s from a family of death and all. Agnes also says the bomb threater is probably a very tortured soul. She hasn’t told me but I just know that tortured is her favorite word because she says it real delicate like she’s got a crush on it .

“So tortured are they that they cannot even execute a bomb threat with repetitive declarations of intent that will get the FBI involved,” she said, stroking her ferret.

Agnes always looks her smartest when she’s petting her rat dog in her dark bedroom and staring out the window, like a good villain lookin at a town of piss poor heroes. But sometimes I think she’s too smart for her own good. And her hands look a lil weird, because her wrists have too much fat for her skinny arms. They’re like those weird stump tumors you see on slender trees.

“But that’s likely because they’re mentally feeble, though I don’t know if I want to put the individual threatening to end all our lives in a box like that.”

***

Bombings do have that weird way of bringin people together who normally hate each other, kinda like Christmas and school. And I would know. I live on a Christmas tree farm and me and Agnes have to rot in Wonder Junior High for at least like 900 days every year.

Wonder probably could use an explosion or two just to make it less lame as hell. It’s just dead pigs we turn into hams, dirt roads, and a tiny Christmas tree farm. Nothing happens here that matters and when something does happen that matters it’s a horrible thing, like when the Anderson’s cows all drowned in the Ni River last year. Jimmy left the gate open to go finger some cheerleader at Wonder High and the cows walked three miles before they leapt into the river to drown. It’s like they had it all planned just to traumatize us. Nature’s out to break our hearts just in case we humans can’t do the job well enough. That’s what I told Ms. Reines, the guidance counselor. I haven’t had to go back to see Ms. Reines in a while on account of the bombing hype most likely. I usually have to see her at least twice a week for “crude language” or sleeping or one time I got sent in there after Ashley White walked in on me gettin brain from Bert Lewiston. People are pretendin to act real scared instead of just admitting nothin else is going on.

The Chester County Police tell everyone how they’re all here to “serve and protect the community” but what that really means is harassing people who are doing nothing wrong. If the Chester County Police wanted to end the bomb scare today they could just get the Virginia State Police or the FBI involved, but since no one cares about Wonder they probably woulda done nothing, so it woulda made no difference if they had. At least it gives them something to do. Sheriff Daniels stopped by yesterday to talk to my mom about being on high alert for “suspicious activity” leading up to the parade this Saturday. His mustache always has neon cheese dust in it. Usually he comes around every month to tell my mom that she better register our two alpacas, Baby Girl and Skillet, with Chester County or he’s gonna send them back “wherever them alapacs came from.” This summer he made my mom close her garden because she didn’t have no license for a garden; ain’t no such thing. It was either that or pay a fine of 500 dollars to keep the garden in operation illegally.

“If you see something,” he said, lecturing my mom with a drawl even bigger than he is on the other side of the half-open door, “say something.”

“Will do, Sheriff. Thanks for the tip,” my mom said out of the side of her mouth, chewing while she said it.

My mom says there’s no reason to open a door all the way to let in strangers to your house you don’t even like, especially men. She says everyone becomes a stranger if you love them hard enough for a long enough period of time. When her and my dad met she was still a waitress at the Wonderful Diner and he was driving a truck all the way down 460 to Frankfort. When I was born he quit with trucks after he up and decided that his real purpose was to be a salmon fisher in Alaska after seeing it on TV. I think that was probably what he always wanted since Alaska is like the last frontier before Canada, and my dad never got to do the Boy Scouts. He was sore about missin out on that. He moved to Fairbanks, and my mom bought my uncle’s Christmas tree farm after he moved to New Mexico for some lady on the Internet, and I still haven’t met my dad because he lives in Alaska.

I’ve never seen my mom open a door for anyone but me.

“You’re the strangest of them all, Loamie,” she says sometimes. That’s her mom thing she says to me.

***

You may not guess it, but living on a Christmas tree farm in Wonder is actually very depressin and eerie. Late fall and early spring are when it’s the most depressin and eerie on account of the hog fog from the plant. Dependin on who all you ask in Wonder, they’ll either tell you it smells like dead hogs and dry blood every morning, or country ham. I think it’s the first, and if you don’t think it smells horrible then you have to admit it looks like one of them plagues out of the Bible. From my bedroom window you can see the lil tree triangles all high up—those are called the leaders of the trees—in the thick, cold haze. When I go out on those mornings to feed Baby Girl and Skillet I can’t even see em. I just reach out into the abyss for their furry little necks and guide them to my hands so they can get nourished good.

On mornings when I can see the trees and our farm real clear in our town where the hogs come in alive and leave as bacon, I always think about what happened to my uncle and that woman he went after. My mom says it was for meth. I like to think he didn’t go for anyone or for drugs, but to sleep in the desert and maybe get a pet armadillo and never come back to Wonder. Just to be alone, and to forget, and to watch the night swallow the day uninterrupted by the leaders of all these stupid trees.

From far away all the trees are identical. Once you’re all up in the trees, though, you realize your ass got dropped into a green forest of hell where everything is just almost so irksomely similar. Prickly Fraser Firs. Fuzzy Virginia Pines. Wispy Eastern Cedars. Strong Norway Spruces. And worst of all, the most beloved tree in all of America: the soft Scotch Pine. The Scotch Pine is our best seller. People drive hours just to get our Scotch Pines, since the loam of our farm is so rich. Loam’s the best soil for growin most things. It’s like a dirt barbeque sauce made up of equal parts sand, silt, and clay. The sand bits (they’d be like all the spices in BBQ I guess) are big and can’t hold much water so they’re real good for aeration, and the clay is all lil itty bits (like all the molasses and whatever) that sucks up water and ain’t good for aeratin. The silty bits are like the ketchup of the loam cause they’re like the base. They all are the medium bits. Real good loam holds good amounts of moisture but also drains well so that air can get to the roots so they don’t suffocate and die. My mom loves loam so much she wanted to just name me after it, but my grandma, who was still alive then, told her she ought to change it to something people would at least recognize as a human’s name. So she named me Leoma—which is what most everyone calls me by—but she calls me Loamie just to have her way.

This morning I went out to feed Skillet and Baby Girl before school just like I do every morning, and Skillet was tryna get some with Baby Girl even though Baby Girl is clearly too hot for him. He usually doesn’t act like that until at least February, but I guess alpacas are people with needs too. We don’t even talk about animals bonin’ in FLE—that’s Family Life Education. I guess that’s okay though because I wouldn’t want to encourage bestiality, and there are enough weird kids at Wonder Junior High that I’m sure at least one or two kids have messed around with a horse or a hog. I feel like I had to just think up sex on my own since it was never really taught to me, but I guess practice makes you better. It’s also real good exercise; you burn at least 100 calories during rough sex.

Agnes sits next to me during FLE so we can commiserate together. We gotta do FLE every Tuesday and Thursday, but school’s out tomorrow for break so today we’re watching a movie. Mrs. Joyner’s the teacher, and I don’t know how they get the teachers here at Wonder Junior High, but I doubt she’s qualified at all to teach FLE since she doesn’t even have a family. She’s a million years old and she’s got a big ass bald spot and she wears pleated jeans. Agnes doesn’t think she’s tortured. She says, “That woman is a damn mess,” whenever I bring her up, and then she pets her nameless ferret, who probably would agree if she could talk. They both have the same beady eyes that are all shiny, like they’re glass, like you could break ‘em with not lots of force.

Today we watched a movie about how to say no to sex even when you really don’t want to. It was about this boy named John with a backwards hat and this girl named Julie with a horse shirt. Julie wouldn’t even let John finger her when her parents weren’t home because she wanted to wait for marriage. John was hotter than her. They talked about everything that could happen when you do have sex, which means you can either get HIV or have a baby or both. They decided to play video games and eat chips instead. All the boys booed John for being a faggot. Mrs. Joyner knit a hat for her bird.

Agnes fell asleep before the movie even started. She said her parents talk to her about sex all the time since they’re nurses and seen lots of people with babies or HIV or both who didn’t want them. Next year Agnes’ mom even said Agnes can get on birth control if she wants to, but Agnes says she doesn’t since “the incidence of fibrocystic changes in teenage breast tissue is distressing enough.” That’s a fancy way of saying she’s afraid of getting lumpy titties. I’m not on the pill so boys either gotta pull out before anything even happens at all or wear condoms and that always ruins the mood. By the time he’s got his dick all wrapped up, I’m dry and he’s limp and it’s just a total waste of time. Maybe we should just eat chips and play video games at that point.

I filled Agnes in on the movie at lunch. We usually sit with Trina and Jayme and some of the horse girls who aren’t that crazy, but since November I’ve been turnin down Carlee and Desirae and Kelsi and the other popular girls who’ve been tryna get me to sit with them since I’ve rebranded myself and lost a lil weight. I’m a size two now and everyone knows it. Agnes is a size six. Agnes isn’t social so I have to steer the conversation all the time. I feel bad for her. But she’s my best friend. You’re supposed to.

She didn’t seem to care at all about the movie, but that might be because she’s goth and doesn’t care about anything. She had two yogurts today and a chocolate pudding so I guess she must be about to get her period. I had a Diet Coke and a candy cane since I was in the mood.

“I’mma probably get a date to the spring fling this year,” I said, crunchin on my cane. Sometimes I’m a size three at Peebles.

Agnes shrugged and put her head on the table. She’s always tired; her metabolism is probably clogged up.

“I’ve heard it’s really lame,” she said, all apathetic. “If you don’t make it, don’t worry about it.”

Why do girls who aren’t skinny hate girls who are?

“Well if I do I’m going even if you’re not invited by anyone,” I snapped.

Then she picked up her head real dramatic.

“Do you really think I don’t have any other friends?” she said real fast, like she meant it and I was supposed to know already. I crunched real nervous on my candy cane for a long time, hoping that one of the horse girls would interrupt with something stupid to say.

I wish we had better stuff to fight about sometimes.

Trina said she’s excited for the parade even if there is a bombing since all the dogs from the SPCA get to be in it and they all get to be all dressed up.

“Not really,” I said to Agnes, but I felt bad as soon as I said it even though I thought it was true. I’ve seen Agnes at the Wal-Mart with Olivia and Kendall but they don’t seem goth enough for her and I don’t even know when they decided to start hanging out or why she didn’t tell me that they were. They’re just the weird, nerdy girls who’ll end up in the marching band. Agnes only hangs out with them to feel better about herself.

The way Agnes’ face looked after I told her I basically thought she was a loser was the most sad I’ve ever seen anyone look after I’ve said anything to them. It didn’t look like she was gonna cry; it looked like she had swallowed all the tears she might have cried already. She took her tray and left without a word. Her favorite black scrunchie fell out of her ponytail and I didn’t even tell her. Everyone went all quiet and got serious with their phones.

Trina asked me what I was most excited about at the parade, but I didn’t answer her. I just thought about Agnes and how weird she was and how you’re supposed to fix someone when you’ve done something as mean as what I’d just did.

“Well, I was gonna march with the Candy Stripers in the parade this year,” said Trina, chewin the end of her ponytail like it was a damn Twizzler. “That was before I got kicked out.”

***

There are lots of reasons to hate parades like if you have agoranemia or don’t like noise, but I hate em since you have to squeeze through all those fat people to even see anything. Agnes wouldn’t text me back after I said sorry, so today I’m at the parade with Desirae and Kelsi and Carlee, who invited me. The parade hasn’t started yet and I think people are all quiet since we all remembered that bomb threater is supposed to be here today. Across the way from all of us is the whole football team of Wonder High, including the quarterback, Harry Jones, who came to the farm two weeks ago to help crippled people take their trees home. Eagle Scouts get raised right. Desirae’s boyfriend Josh is Harry’s best friend and she says Harry is DTF right now since he found out his girlfriend Amy is actually a slut whore, which everyone knew already since Amy works at the Ace Hardware store which is basically also a prostitution ring. Every time my mom and me go in there she’s all in the back room for at least ten minutes before she comes out and helps us, probably being a slut whore and stuff. It’s universally agreed upon that girls can only have sex with five boys before they cross into slut whore territory.

Harry’s extra fine today with his camo hat and camo hoodie and camo pants. It all matches his hair, which is the color of the branches on the camo he’s got on. I like a man with style. We had to push through the Red Hat ladies and the church ladies to get to the front where we can be seen, but the police are everywhere on account of the bomb threater so you can’t see nothin. You can hear the Wonder High marching band playing “All I Want for Christmas is You,” though. That’s the only song they know so it’s the only one they keep playing. It’s the kind of cold outside that stings your lips like spermicide, if you know what I mean. The sky looks especially empty and gray except for the little plume of smoke from the Wonder plant. I had to tunnel through these two ginormous ladies who were so fat they didn’t even bring jackets, and they were both sweaty and gross so now I feel like I need to shower.

It was never really my fault that I was a lardo since I was born a fat baby, which I know isn’t even an excuse but I think in my case it might matter. I really was like a lil chunk of joy; that’s what my mom and all my aunts called me. I don’t know if it’s cause my mom ate lots of Oreos or if all the babies on my dad’s side of the family are born fat like that since I know all the babies on my mom’s side are usually too small. My mom still smoked when I was born, too, so maybe that was it. I saw a picture of a baby once whose mom smoked and it had a horn on its head and talons for hands. She only started to dip when she lost her smoke breaks. I stayed fat all the way up until the seventh grade until I got tired of it. Agnes was literally my only friend.

In gym class Kelsi said she and Carlee and Desirae all weigh about the same on purpose to be egalitarian and whatever and she said she weighs 128.4 but she’s trying to get down to 119 by the end of next spring. She wanted me to tell her how I stay so thin. I told her about cutting out carbs and drinking lots of water, and to never take a day off, which is what I read online. When I was fat I could have never been friends with Kelsi and Carlee and Desirae, but everyone can’t be friends with me fast enough now that I’m skinny and hot. Losing weight drastically has taught me a lot about discipline and math at the same time. Even my mom said she’s proud of me. She said she had to start smoking to maintain her weight, but she’s glad I could do it on my own with no help. Bein thin’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

Just as the SPCA dogs are about to roll up, Desirae says she got a text from Josh sayin that they all think the parade sucks and that they’re bout to go back to Josh’s dad’s house to do pot and drink beer since Josh’s dad is in the parade and that we all should go too. I kinda want to see the SPCA dogs secretly since they are pretty cute and all with their antlers, but obviously the right choice is to go to Josh’s house. We push our way back through all the fat people and walk down to Third Street so we can cross over to the parking lot where Josh and Harry and them are at. Harry has one of them real sexy trucks that’s three stories off the ground. As I’m getting into it, I can see almost all of Main Street, including the back of Agnes’ stupid rabbit hat at the corner of Second Street.

You know how sometimes you realize how bad you miss something before it’s even gone? I miss Agnes so hard when I see that stupid hat on her blocky head I swear the cold makes icicles all up in my lungs and heart that may never melt.

When I slide into the passenger seat of Harry’s truck, he puts his arm all tight around me and I know I’ve made a big mistake already.

***

Desirae and Kelsi and Carlee and me are the only girls at Josh’s house, besides his porn den girls. Girls who do porn have low self-esteem, but they look pretty hot. I don’t think anyone’s titties are all the same size, but I like when things are asymmetrical, like a peace symbol.

Half the Wonder High football team is here, plus Josh’s brother in our grade, Dougie, who doesn’t count, since he’s real weird and will probably stay in his room the whole time playing with his snakes. In the basement Josh puts on Bob Marley, which is what you have to listen to every time you do pot. Drinking beer is easy but I am nervous about the bong since I’ve never done pot before. Luckily the whole room is smoky, so I think I can just kinda look at the bong and tap it and that would be convincing; I can’t risk anyone knowing that I’d never done it before or else they’d know I am secretly a loser. But Harry catches me since he hasn’t taken his eyes off me.

“Would you rather smoke a bowl?” he says, holding out a lil pipe. He lights it up and then he takes a real deep breath and holds it in and then breathes it out.

“Like that,” he says, after he’s done. He gets up to sit next to me and puts his arm on me like he had in his truck, kinda like we are already dating and very in love. Someone changes the music to “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer,” but it also sounds like the music Bob Marley makes.

He passes the bowl to me and lights it for me as I smoke it, but I still don’t know what I’m doing. So he lets me smoke it again and again. By the time I stop, everyone is gone except me and Harry, and I feel like I am either gonna die or seep into the wood paneling. Harry kisses me strong and pulls my hair out. He moves me to the couch beneath all these pictures of the naked porn den girls.

After we make out for a minute he stops and asks, “How do you like it?” with little droplets of his spit that smell like beer landin’ all up on my face. But it’s okay by me, since he’s so sexy.

I say that I just like it. But then I take it back and say that I like it rough, which is how you should like it. Then I say I like everything, but I take that back. I say I like most things, but not everything. It didn’t seem like a question I was supposed to answer by the way he unzips my pants and starts touchin up on me down there just how I like it, but then I think I answered it wrong because he stops and I look up and it’s like I’ve done somethin even worse than when I was nasty to Agnes. Next he screams in disgust like how we all screamed when we heard about the Anderson’s cows being nibbled by fish and water moccasins and their organs washing up on shore all down the river.

“Ewwwwwww!” he hollers. “You’re bleedin’! You nasty bitch!”

He pulls his hand out of me, and I can see my brown blood on his fingers.

This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. This is worse than any of the horrible things I’ve ever done, which means I especially don’t deserve it. This is worse than everything that isn’t even true about me that I say is true about me instead to cover up the hurt. It’s worse than the sex that I’ve really never had with anyone, not even myself. It’s worse than the dad I have met, who actually just drifts from town to town and jail to jail after he steals things or gets into other trouble and isn’t actually catchin lady salmons in Alaska; that’s just the dream I’ve wanted for myself since I saw it on TV. That’s just the dream I gave to someone I loved so long they became a stranger, and then they just became a ghost, or else they just faded so painfully into time that you got to go make up a version of them to love all over again since you can’t even remember what they were like. But even that’s too much of a reason for all my hurt and lies. Even my best made-up stories aren’t enough to stop my aches. Even when I haven’t eaten nothin for days I’ll bleed; I’ll just explode. Even when I’ll be a size negative three, and have had lots of sex without my period, and be as hot as I possibly could be, and even if I’ve left Wonder. Maybe even when I’m dead my aches will keep livin or be passed on to someone else; that’s how strong and senseless they are. I have to lie to put order into the aches.

I think sadness is supposed to sorta come in seasons of blisters that fill and pop and ooze and heal.

Harry had yelled some stuff about me bein a bitch and a slut while I had been thinkin. Eventually he puts on his sweatshirt and stands over me.

“You really need to grow up, Leoma Murphy,” he says.

And then he leaves me curled up on the couch, gone out the basement door. I can’t even hear anyone else in the house anymore or maybe I’m thinkin too loud. I look up at the ceiling at a picture of a naked blonde lady on a beach with enormous breasts that can’t be real and another shaved pussy.

I close my eyes. I think about what it would look like if the bomb threater blew us all up like they were supposed to. I guess we all would have heard about it by now if they’d decided to actually do it. By now everyone who was at the parade is back at their houses. By now Agnes is petting her ferret and Kendall’s in her room and not me. By now my mom is dippin in the dark, readin about seeds and soil and how to shear trees and fur. It doesn’t do much good to wonder in Wonder, is what she says.

“It don’t do much good to hold on to what you can give away,” she says. I think what she means is too many memories make your heart heavy. That’s how everyone she’s ever loved became a stranger. You got to always be the one to let go first, is what she means. That’s how the trees my mom and me sell have to be put up with bein cut down and dragged and dressed up and adored and then thrown away year after year long before they’ve even started to die.

I reach into my pussy and pull out clumps of my own blood. It’s so thick, like a lacquer, with lil fleshy parts of me. I’d forgotten what it looked like or felt like. I bet Agnes calls it pussy glitter paint in her head or some dumb shit. I miss that bitch. I wish she was here now.

I reach up and start smearin it on all the naked girls in lil circles, then bigger ones. Up and down all those hairless bitches. At first it’s like finger paintin. I’m gettin out some of my stress or shock or whatever. But then I start thinkin about what just really went down and the whole school findin out, and I get harder and faster. I wanna dip the whole wall in my body. I wish I could make them all bleed out. I wonder when’s the last time they did.

I am so tired, but I run out that basement door and almost all the way home to the farm. All the leaders of the trees point up into the open mouth of the clear opal sky and its thousand stars pointing right back.

“We don’t just sell trees,” my mom says when she’s hustlin the farm to people from the city, “we sell wonder out here in Wonder.” She says people only buy what’s beautiful to them, but more often than not you can just tell them something looks nice and they’ll believe you. That’s called charm. Its partner is ambivalence, is what she says, which is being lazy about having your mind made up or making choices, especially difficult ones. When someone doesn’t know what they want, they can do real horrific things.