My radio was playing, and Angel was on my mind. Sammy Schultz and me were stacking hay down on the Harper place. We were about to be seniors in high school, and it was my first job. Sammy had hired me on at two and a half cents a bale. He owned the tractor, an old John Deere B. He was forking up bales to me on top of the haystack with the tractor, and I was busy trying to keep count. My shirt was off. Alfalfa leaves were stuck all over my chest. The words to ask Angel to the homecoming dance that fall after school started kept getting jumbled up with the numbers in my head. It would have been our first date. The fact is I’d never really talked to Angel before, just looked.
Sammy stopped at bale number seven hundred sixty-three and waved at me. He got off the tractor and disappeared down the creek bank into the trees. I sat on a bale of hay, turned off my little transistor radio, and tried to times out my wages. I still couldn’t get the numbers to work out. When I looked up, I saw Sammy coming back out of the trees. He was carrying a six-pack of beer. The way I remember it, he was holding one of the cans in his hand and the other cans were hanging down below, dripping creek water, but I’m not sure if they made them plastic six-pack holders yet. Sammy ripped a can off and tossed it up to me. My uncle was the town preacher, and I was the church deacon. I’d never drank beer before. But I’d never made as much money as I was making then either.
I popped the can and stuck the silver tab on my ring finger. I took a swig of beer and it fizzed up my nose.
“This beer tastes like horse piss,” I said, trying to sound like I drank beer all the time even though I knew Sammy knew I didn’t.
“Oly was the only kind I could get,” he said, he opened a can for himself. “Come down here. I’ve got something to show you.”
By the time I had climbed down the haystack, Sammy had guzzled his beer and was drinking another. I grabbed my shirt from off the ground and wiped the alfalfa dust off my face and chest. My chest was turning red where it was supposed to be white. Sammy handed me a second beer. I’d left my first one on top of the stack on purpose. I popped the top and put that tab on my finger with the other one. I brought the beer can up to my head and rolled it backward and forward.
“I took Angel out last night,” Sammy said.
“You can’t do that. She’s your cousin,” I said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “Mom sent me over there with some eggs, and I asked Angel if she wanted to go for a ride.”
“That’s not taking her out,” I said. I pushed the beer can hard against my head. The can dented in, and the beer sloshed out down my face and arms. I knew something was up, the way you just know. It’s like an old rusty railroad spike up there in your head poking around and saying something bad is up.
“We drove down here,” Sammy said. “Jimmy down at the Silver Spoke sold me a whole case.”
“So?” I said. I squeezed the beer can harder against my head.
“Angel wanted one,” Sammy said, “and you know how Angel is once she’s got beer in her.”
“No, I don’t know. And you don’t know either,” I said. “Trash. That’s all the talk is. Trash.”
“Trash?” Sammy said. He was laughing. “Well, it might’ve been trash before, but it ain’t no more.”
Sammy sat his beer can on top of the tractor’s back tire and unbuttoned his pants. His fingers fumbled over each other as he forced the buttons loose. Sammy pulled down his pants, and pointed at a big spot, blood, on his underwear.
“See? Proof,” he said. “I popped Angel’s cherry, and I got the proof.”
I lunged at that blood spot, spiking my head into Sammy’s crotch. Sammy was the star running back on our football team. There’s no way I should have been able to hit him, but hit him I did. He toppled over backwards against the tractor tire, and I jumped on top. He jerked his knee up, and his knee clobbered my jaw, knocking me onto my back. His pants still down around his legs, Sammy crawled over on top of me, and clobbered me in the face. Blood came spewing out of my nose. I always did get bloody noses easy. I shook my head hard, and blood splattered over the two of us, in Sammy’s face, on my bare chest, on Sammy’s shorts. Sammy was yelling something I couldn’t understand. I rolled out from under his legs and ran toward my car. Sammy tackled me from behind. I thought he was going to hit me again, but for some reason that I didn’t understand then and still don’t today, he hugged me, just held me and hugged me.
Sammy opened another beer and poured some of it onto my hands, and then the rest of it into his hands and washed the blood off my face. He climbed back on the tractor and I climbed back on top of the haystack.
Sammy didn’t say anything more about Angel, and I didn’t either. He didn’t know about me and Angel. Nobody did. Not even Angel. He probably thought that I was in love with the red-headed girl in our class, Alice, what with the poem I’d written her last year, the one she’d showed around to the girls in the girl’s bathroom. You don’t know how many times I’ve wished that I’d just pointed at that blood spot and said “That doesn’t prove anything. You probably caught your dick in your zipper.” But 1 was just too crazy about Angel, and that spike in my head hurt too much to talk.
I didn’t go to the homecoming dance with Angel, but Sammy and me saw her there. I’d asked Alice instead, and Sammy, he’d went with this blond freshman girl come in from California. The dance was a sock hop, not because those were the days of sock hops, but because the gym floor had just been varnished. Angel was up by the band, up next to the foul circle, dancing all the new dances. One of those sparkling balls was hanging from the ceiling above her and was turning around and around. No matter what, I couldn’t keep Angel and her long, black hair out of my sight. I tried keeping Alice between me and Angel, but the floor was too slippery and Alice too good a dancer. If I moved one way, she moved the other. Finally I gave up and laid my head down on Alice’s shoulder and slow-danced all the dances, never taking my eyes off Angel through Alice’s red hair.
Angel had come to the dance with this eighth grade guy. She was only a freshman herself. I can’t remember much about the guy, except that he had a scrawny moustache. I think he must have penciled it in. He just kind of stood there, hands stuffed in his pockets, shuffling his feet from side to side, watching Angel, like I was doing.
I slumped a bit, and Alice pulled me tight. She brought her hands up my back, one bone at a time. Her hair felt thick like straw against my cheek. That’s when Angel started walking over through the crowd our way. The sparkling ball up above her made it look like she was shimmying as she pushed her way toward us. Her hips moved one way, her hair another, but her face was stationary, frozen in my direction, at least that’s what I thought, though more likely she was looking at Sammy and his blond freshman girl. I spun Alice around and buried my head in her hair, down deep trying not to see.
Sammy stopped dancing and came over to Alice and me. He had his arm curled around the blond California girl’s waist, and his hand was slipped inside her sweater. I could see his middle finger stuck inside her bare belly button. With his free hand, Sammy pointed at the door, letting me know it was time to go. Specks of light from the turning ball caught his class ring and sparkled in my face. Over his shoulder I could see Angel still shimmying toward us through the crowd. I’d been avoiding her, though I’m sure she didn’t know it, since Sammy showed me the blood spot, turning around, pretending to be going some place else, whenever I saw her coming down the hall. I grabbed Alice’s hand and hurried toward the door.
Sammy drove down to the campground next to the river, me and Alice in the back seat. A full moon was shining. Maybe that had something to do with it. The moon reflected off the river and bounced back up into the car. Sammy pulled the blond freshman girl in next to him, and Alice slid over next to me and pulled me in tight too.
Alice pressed her legs against the door, and she leaned over on top of me and kissed me, sliding her tongue in my mouth. The muscles on her back made a valley between them. I slipped my hand under Alice’s blouse. Alice wouldn’t have allowed anything else, she planned on going to law school, and I wouldn’t have tried anything else either. God was still strong back then. Her red hair hung down over me, cutting the moon apart. Angel’s face was disappearing, and Alice’s hair went from straw to silk.
Sammy started laughing. His laugh didn’t sound like he was laughing at me, but I looked up to make sure. Sammy reached down inside the blond California girl’s sweater and pulled out a wad of pink toilet paper. He held it up in the moonlight, and it kind of shimmered. That’s the word — shimmered. A piece of it still trailed out of the girl’s sweater. Sammy switched on the dome light.
“Surprise,” Sammy said, tossing the toilet paper back at me. “Look what I found.”
The blond California girl pushed away from Sammy, opened the door, and ran down toward the river. Sammy looked at Alice and me there in the back. I could feel Alice’s back tighten even tighter. Sammy slid across the front seat and went after the California girl. I watched Sammy put his arms around the girl there on the river bank, hug her, and I pulled away from Alice. I grabbed the toilet paper off the floor and stuffed it into my pocket.
About then is when it happened. I found out about it the next day in the boys’ bathroom.
Sammy waved to me in the school hall and pointed to the door of the boy’s bathroom. I stuck my hands in my pockets, squeezed my fingers around the pink wad of toilet paper, and got ready to tell about the blond California freshman girl. Sammy went in first and I followed after him.
The bathroom was crowded and noisy. Sammy pushed through the guys, and we stopped in front of one of the two stalls. Everybody was talking at once, jabbering about Angel, telling it their way. Seems like after Mr. Carlson, the school principal, shut down the homecoming dance at midnight, all the seniors hopped in their cars like usual and headed up the hill to the county fairgrounds. Angel got up there somehow. Nobody was saying how. Sammy and me had decided not to go on account of the two college football scouts that had been out to see him play that afternoon. Sammy didn’t want anything messing up his getting out of the valley. One of the guys poured a can of gasoline onto the wood that they’d carted up there after the game and one of the cheerleaders torched it. The fire lit up the whole hillside, the football players tapped the keg that they’d brought up there with the firewood, and the beer started pouring. I don’t know what happened to Angel’s eighth grader. Nobody was talking about him.
Angel opened all four doors on one of the cars and turned the radio on to KOMA, her favorite station. On nights like that night, when it was clear and the moon was out, KOMA came in clear as crystal all the way from Oklahoma. She grabbed a couple of football players by their hands and pulled them over next to the fire and started dancing. Everybody soon joined in, dancing and drinking. I’m sure the guys must have been pouring Angel beer after beer, what with her reputation, fighting for a chance to dance with her.
The moon was real bright when it happened. Everybody agreed about that. Angel took one of the guys—I don’t want to say which one—and led him away from the bonfire, over to the pick-up they’d brought the beer up in. She opened the door to the pick-up and pulled the guy inside on top of her. It didn’t take long. Everybody was saying it went real fast, the guy came back carrying Angel’s bra. He stuck it on top of the antenna of the car with the radio playing. Then they all jumped in their cars and drove off.
I tried to stop listening. The spike was turning around, spinning around in my head. I squeezed tighter the California girl’s toilet paper in my pocket and ducked into one of the stalls. Somebody was saying how the guy had forgot to zip up his pants and how one of the cheerleaders had told him as they took off down the hill to check his barn door before the swallow got out. Under the stall, I could hear people laughing about Angel, about her being left up there by herself in that pick-up to sleep it off. I sat down on the toilet. I took the toilet paper out, and I tossed it in the toilet and pulled the plunger. I yelled at Sammy through the stall door to tell Mr. Carlson that I didn’t feel good enough to go to class.
Angel didn’t come to school that day. In fact, she didn’t go back to school at all, not till three years later when they put her in the senior class. Angel, she was pregnant. I know it’s not supposed to happen that way, but that’s what happened.
Sammy told me about it right after he found out about it. He passed me a note in the middle of American history class. It was on yellow paper, I remember that. Alice was seated across the aisle from me, and I could feel her reading it over my shoulder. I passed the note back to Sammy.
Sammy whispered, “Will you go with me?”
I nodded my head. Sammy raised his hand and asked the teacher if he and me could be excused to deliver a load of old clothes to the orphanage. We’d collected a load for my uncle’s Christmas poor folk’s fund three weeks before. I was surprised when the teacher said yes.
We drove in my car over to the trailer where Angel and her mother and her sister lived. I got out of the car first, faster than Sammy, and I walked over and I knocked on that trailer door, the trailer sounded hollow inside. Angel came to the door and she smiled at me—she smiled a big smile, she was wearing a pair of dirty jeans, and you could tell she’d been working on the flower beds around the trailer. The snow had been scraped off and they were all dug up. Flower packages were stuck on the ends of sticks like flags, telling what in the spring was going to be what. Angel’s little sister, Amy, was tugging at her knee and smiling up at me too.
I stared at Angel, my eyes going down from her black hair and fixing on her stomach. Then I just blurted it out, straight out, right there in the doorway of that trailer house.
“Angel, will you marry me?” I said. Where it came from is beyond me, but it was out, finally.
Angel didn’t know. There’s no way she could have known. Sammy, he didn’t know either. He just stood there, not saying a thing. Amy started giggling, her long black braids swinging backward and forward.
“Shush,” Angel said to her sister. She brushed her hands off on her pants and held one hand out to me and the other out to Sammy. “Come on inside where it’s warm. It’s nice of you two to come and visit. Mama, look who’s here.”
“Hi, Aunt Ruth,” Sammy said.
Angel’s mother didn’t look up from the television show she was watching. She was stretched out on her recliner, a magazine on top of her huge stomach, and a half-smoked, unlit cigarette in her mouth. The trailer had a thick moldy smell.
I looked up at Sammy and he looked at me like I was crazy.
“My uncle would do it,” I said. “He could marry us.”
“Don’t be silly,” Angel said. “Sit down and I’ll make you boys some hot cinnamon tea.”
Angel’s mother pulled herself out of her chair and headed toward the bedroom.
“No eggs?” she said over her shoulder.
“No eggs,” Sammy said, “but I’ll be sure to bring you some tomorrow.”
Amy sat down in Sammy’s lap, and I sat down on the couch next to the two of them.
“Do you know how to play cat’s cradle?” Amy asked.
“Nope,” Sammy said.
“I’m going to learn when I grow up,” Amy said. “Angel’s going to teach me.”
I picked up a ball of red yarn out of a basket filled with needles and knitting stuff next to the couch and broke of a long piece of the yarn. I tied the ends together, doubled it over, and strung it around my hands and through my fingers.
“Come here. I’ll teach you,” I said.
Amy climbed off Sammy’s lap and over onto my lap. Angel came back into the living room and sat down on the couch between Sammy and me. She filled two cups with steaming cinnamon tea and sat them on the coffee table. I turned to say something to her, to propose again. The words just wouldn’t come. She took the yarn between her fingers and twisted it off my hands and onto her own.
“Amy’s been after me forever to teach her this,” she said.
I picked up my cup and took a sip of the tea. The cup left a round sweat ring on the coffee table. I sat the cup down perfectly on top of the sweat ring, then pinched the yarn and spread it out across my fingers. Amy tore the yarn out of my hands.
“I know lots of knock knock jokes,” Amy said, stretching the yarn and looping it over my neck.
I made Sammy go with me to that trailer house everyday till school got out after that. We used the eggs as an excuse. Whenever Sammy’s mother’s hens hadn’t laid enough eggs, we bought them in town at the grocery store. Sammy always lets me carry them in. And here’s what I’d do.
I’d knock at the door and Angel’d open it, and then I’d blurt it out again, “Will you marry me?” trying to smile and make it sound more like a joke each time. Angel’d just take the eggs and with her free hand pat me on the shoulder or smooth back my hair. She never said yes, she never said no. Her fingers always felt soft and cool against my skin.
Before long, Amy was pushing herself past Angel’s pregnant stomach, taking my hand, pulling me inside. “I will. I will,” she’d say. Then Angel would laugh and I could laugh too and we’d all sit down on the couch and talk, Amy squeezing in between us, telling her jokes, stringing the yarn between Angel’s and my hands.
Sammy and me, we went our separate ways after school, him to Butte as some sort of accountant for one of the mines—he didn’t get the football scholarship—and me to Utah, selling plywood in a Salt Lake hardware store. We wrote sometimes, and he called me once to tell me that Angel had up and married a guy who worked in the saw mill on the day of Angel’s little girl’s second birthday. Mostly I kept track of Angel and of everything that was happening in the valley by subscribing to The Valley Times. I read in there about her divorcing the guy at the saw mill and marrying the foreman at the Broken Sun ranch then divorcing him and marrying Jimmy at the Silver Spoke and ending up divorcing him too. It was there that I read about Amy making head cheerleader, and it was there that I read about what happened the day of the homecoming game.
Traditions are traditions, and on that night the party was going to be at the county fairgrounds after the homecoming dance just like all the times before. But the keg didn’t make it up to the top of the hill and the wood didn’t get laid out for the bonfire. Amy and the rest of the cheerleaders were in the back of the pick-up on their way to the fairgrounds, steadying the keg of beer, when the pick-up rounded a bend in the road, and plowed into a herd of sheep. Amy was thrown out headfirst. A semi-trailer loaded with logs, coming down the hill in the opposite direction, hit her. The driver said there was nothing he could do. His brakes just wouldn’t hold, not with the sheep jammed between his rig’s dual tires. My hope is that she was dead when she first hit the road.
I packed my bags, got in the car, and headed back home, back to Angel. One idea rolled around, poked around in my head all the way back, a thought I hated but couldn’t get rid of. Amy was the lucky one—she broke the string. See, Amy was illegitimate, so was Angel, so was Angel’s mother, and Angel’s mother’s mother before her. Not a one of them had had a father.
I parked the car in front of the Silver Spoke. I figured Jimmy could tell me where to find Angel. It took me along time to get the guts up to go in. I just sat in the car, shaking. There in Salt Lake, I’d gone back to being religious, attending church again, tithing, doing it all, righteous. They’d even made me deacon. I hadn’t been in a bar in years.
I opened the door and the first thing I saw was Angel. I guess that was the way it was supposed to be. Her black hair was just the same, just as long, not gray like I expected, still swinging behind her. Her body wasn’t the same egg-timer shape as before—it was more rounded, softer, but I think that that was the way it was supposed to be too. She was carrying a tray of half-empty glasses and wearing a checkered apron. I walked up behind her, smelling her, feeling her close like back on that couch between Sammy and me. I put my arms around her and buried my head in her hair
“Will you marry me?” I asked, my body sweating, my stomach knotted.
“Lenny, is that you?” Angel asked.
I don’t know why I didn’t say yes. I don’t know why I said what I did. I always blame it on the spike whenever I think about it.
“With Amy gone, I thought I’d come back and try for seconds or fourths or fifths or whatever it is now,” I said.
Angel dropped the tray. The glasses crashed all around us. Warm beer soaked over my pants and into my shoes. I expected her to hit me. Maybe I wanted her to hit me. Instead, she turned and looked at me with those black eyes that look right through you. She took my hand, and she led me into the bathroom, with me crying, with her holding me, looking right through me, for the first and only time Angel said no.
The world’s small. I know that now. I took a job at the Harpers’, at the place where Sammy and me had stacked hay, at the place where Sammy showed me the blood spot. The Harpers are old, and they let me run the place. It’s only half a mile from Angel’s and Angel’s little girl’s trailer. Every night I go there, go visit them in that trailer—alone now, what with Sammy still in Butte. The good part, the good part of it all, is that Angel’s little girl always opens the door and says yes.