Elizabeth Kirschner


As we sailed a small sloop in Chesapeake Bay, Dorothy Heckinger, whose homeliness—modest, unmentionable, was punctuated by pimples that populated her face, like a sad, brown town, our sad brown town, the one we were earnestly sailing away from, was a story with rope burns.

All of fifteen, her greasy brown hair was parted straight down the middle and tied back too tightly. Had a razor been scored into her skull, the way a butcher scores a raw slab of meat?

When there was a sound like a bassoon with a mute on it, one girl started screaming, Overboard, Dorothy has gone overboard!

In placid water, Dorothy flailed, bobbed, went under. It was a sickening, baffling sight, this girl whose face was a homily no one listened to, whose coarse skin was malted by the light’s bookends and whose will to live was an elastic that wouldn’t snap back, well, even her flailing was pathetic.

I can’t say she was someone anyone would want to rescue. Why, I wondered, was she trying to kill herself? Why, why, was Dorothy Heckinger trying to die? Was she beyond clear meaning and any indication of the human? Would her beefy body simply sink, heavy as a tub of margarine?

Her hands were fliers, the kind you pin under windshield wipers, fliers folded into cootie catchers. Kelp wrapped itself around her arms, like cheap bangles. Her mouth twisted into an inverted kiss as she made pufferfish sounds, little blows, weird little nonsense rhymes that set my teeth on edge.

Her reason, where had it gone? With whom was she wrestling? Her father? Hadn’t he hung himself from a ceiling even she could have punched a fist through? Her voice was the lisp inside a drafty flue, raspy, nasty.

Pathetic, I thought, cunning, too, but still I dove into the sea, yes, I dove into it where I grabbed hold of her greasy hair and strapped my arm across her chest, her rough bookish chest, then dragged her while she gasped and coughed and peed, icky pee that made my stomach turn.

I lugged her, a booby prize, back to the boat where my shipmates, Susie and Joy, helped haul Dorothy back onto the deck, then me after her and when I fell on top of her in a sick heap, I started to pummel her, yelling, What the hell were you thinking?

I beat Dorothy with a will I adored—glorious, victorious. I beat her while snorting a Chieftain snort which aborted my wretchedness.

While I pounded this half-drowned girl, who burbled like a Barbie doll, I could hear Dad yell, “The belt. You’re going to get the belt.”

I was screaming, No, no, when Susie’s arms grabbed me. She pulled me off Dorothy, yelling, Stop it! Stop it!

Panting, with my hands on my knees, I belched and glared at Dorothy as her eyes rolled back into her head. When I saw the bruises start to welt up on her face, like leeches or jewels, followed by tears which rolled down her cheeks—these wrung the world right out of me.

Sorry, I whispered, sorry.

Exhausted, I fell down on the deck next to her. What a mess we had made, yet when Dorothy started twining her hair around her index finger as though she could pin curl it, I started twining mine.

Your dad, I said under my breath.

Her head went down. Drops of seawater beaded on her forehead, then fell into her lap, a lap full of worry and uncertainty.

Weren’t Dorothy and I one of a kind and weren’t we both hiding the part of us that stank, like milk thick as leftover grease?

“We’ll be going home soon,” I continued. Our attachment to our fathers, wasn’t this what made our future look like a mortician’s face?

My hand touched hers. Our fingers laced together. In an evening loose with dreamy attention, we held hands, gently, ever so gently.

“Dorothy,” I said, “aren’t we a pair?”

Her smile, slight, boring and small, was far from being swoon-worthy, but it was a smile nonetheless. It filled me with a thin joy as I added, quietly, “Will you visit me sometime?” She nodded her head. That nod was the kind the birds make when aiming to mate.

When I looked up, the evening wheel was flying, far off, dreaming. Soon, we would be, too. C’mon, I whispered, it’s time for bed.

I wanted to add, Safe, it is safe now, but didn’t, because for girls like us, it was never safe. For girls like us, there was only a lock with no key. The best we could do was hold hands and so we did, as I sea-horsed my lukewarm back into the washbowl of Dorothy’s soupy belly.

We spooned each other, snuggling tight, like chipped, unloved Hummel’s.

Like the weaponry in heaven, my blood glistened, glowed while the clouds tumbled, were backup dancers, a flawless cheerleading squad from a more transcendent universe.

Piling up on one another, perfectly—swallowing the sky like a silk scarf—the clouds, silent, powerful, better than me in every way, hustled over the shipwrecked world until forever came out—or not, or not, or not, or not.