I always though Tammy came from the suburbs, like me. She was white, well-dressed, and went to the same school district I was in. Not a lot of folks could afford a house in St. Charles, and there were almost no renters.
My neighborhood was segregated, in a way, but it was by money, not color. We weren't in the upper-class, not by a long shot, but my folks both worked and we did okay. We owned our house, at least. We'd be doing much better, had they not signed a ten-year note on our house to pay it off sooner and save on the interest. That was nine years ago.
They were both working full-time back then, and the money was good. After Mother got her Master's, she started working part-time, mostly because the firm needed her exact expertise less often, and because she was now making thirty dollars an hour. Still it added up to less than we'd had before.
Once the mortgage was paid off they could afford to save for Gina and Robbie's colleges, but I was kind of S.O.L. That's why the Peace Corps looked so attractive, money for school and I didn't have to kill anyone.
At any rate, I was better off than most—I was in a good school district.
I knew she rode in to St. Charles in the morning before she got on the school bus, so I wasn't surprised to get on a bus heading toward the denser packed but poorer suburbs nearer downtown. We had a few transfer students.
A half hour later, we got off at Hanley Station.
"This isn't too bad," I punched her in the arm. "The University is just to the east."
She shrugged, and I followed her out of the station. She walked right up to the Metrolink teller and bought two fares.
"You take the train? How far do away do you live?"
We got on the train and sat down just as it started to move.
I was mildly surprised to see Normandy pass by, but more like impressed when we approached Wellston.
"You live all the way out here," I asked her, not sure how long this ride was going to be. We'd been on for forty-five minutes already.
"No," the answered with a wicked smile.
"Is it much farther?"
Ten minutes later, we passed Forrest Park and the train turned east. There were some bad neighborhoods here.
"You live downtown?"
The train barreled down the tracks, passing through the old neighborhoods.
The buildings there were a mix of squat, ugly boxes built for their utility and disreputable mason-and-brick houses, laid out along untidy avenues.
We passed under I-64, then suddenly, it changed.
We were passing through a rail yard adjacent to the old industrial center.
This whole place had been bombed out in the mid-Forties and the architects had taken pains to integrate travel, business, and leisure into the new monolithic production mega-factory.
While many of the neighborhoods we'd passed through were Edwardian or even older, beyond these rail yards, it might as well be Logan's Run. It looked so new; concrete and steel, and more ads than the eye could read at this speed.
But we still didn't stop. Instead the train turned north.
"Tammy, where the hell do you live?"
We went through downtown but she didn't move at any of the stops.
"Do you live in Columbus Square?"
"North St. Louis?"
Any further wouldn't make sense. It would have been easier to take a straight route.
The train lurched and we turned down Washington Avenue. The Eads Bridge was ahead.
"Do you even live in Missouri?"
She didn't answer.
We passed north of the arch and crossed the bridge into Illinois without so much as a hiccup. We crossed front street, with half of its low-rent shops boarded up, and then under I-64 again.
We slowed down and turned left.
When the train pulled to a stop, it was in front of a 50's style building with a tatty vinyl sign that said "5th and Missouri".
"Here we are," Tammy said, bolting past me.
I followed, trying to keep an open mind.
We headed south, through a small knot of solid middle-class houses that nonetheless looked tired if not run down.
We passed through a cluster of tall building, crowding around Old Missouri Avenue like so many hoboes around a tire fire.
Then we were suddenly in the third world. The buildings here weren't old, so much as used up.
There were windows out, and brick facades teetering dangerously out over the road.
The most shocking thing was there were people living in it, going about their business like a thousand tons of rubble might not come down on their heads at the slightest headwind.
Demolishing these building would be like playing a giant game of pickup-sticks. They didn't look sound enough to dynamite.
Bombing would have been an improvement.
A few blocks further south and we were in the mean streets. The few people out walking looked cold, hungry and desperate. We were the only white people—a fact I'm sure was on all of our minds.
Never mind the dark alleys; I didn't feel safe walking these streets in broad daylight.
But nobody bothered us.
To the left was a row of houses, facing away from Old Miss. Every one of them had a wooden fence, which was set back from the road mere inches in some cases, and what little right-of-way was left sprouted thickets of Chinese sugarcane and Johnson grass.
Tammy pulled me in between two the stands and sidled between a foot-wide gap between two ancient privacy fences.
How she did it I don't know, but it looked way easier than it was. I imitated her side-scuffling gait and got about four feet down the passage when I got stuck.
"Hey Tammy, I think I'm stuck."
"I'm here, on the other side of the fence. There's a crawlspace about eight feet further, can you make it?"
"No, don't leave me. Tammy, I smell something...like a fire."
"I don't smell no fire."
"It smell like...burning alfalfa."
"That's not alfalfa, country mouse."
"Never mind. Get me out of here."
"Let me get what I came for. With luck Leroy won't catch me."
"Who's Leroy? I though your Daddy's name was Harlan, like your little brother."
"It was, but my Daddy died."
"Why didn't you tell me this? You talk like you got a daddy."
"No, he died."
"What about Leroy?"
"He ain't my Daddy. He ain't nothin' to me."
"Why don't you like him?"
"Cause he's mean to my Momma."
"What does he do?"
"Mind your own business, friend."
"Tammy that's not right."
"What am I gonna do?"
"You don't have to put up with abuse. If it's not safe, something should be done. Are you all safe?"
"I keep myself safe."
"What about your mother?"
"She makes her own choices."
"It don't have to be that way."
"It does is if she chooses it that way."
"You have a choice."
"No, Dani, I don't. I have the choice to bear it, or die."
"You are bearing it, and pretty damned well. I had no idea you lived out here, and I've been your best friend for five years."
She wouldn't say anything. I had to goad her futher.
"What about Harlan. Can you promise me he's not going to get hurt? It's a hard world, as I'm sure you know, and you'll never forgive yourself if something bad happens to your baby brother. Tell me, Tammy, is Harlan Junior safe? "
"He's safe," she said in a sad, soft voice I could barely hear. "And I promise you, Dani, that prick can't hurt him."
"Are you sure?"
I heard noises, but it wasn't her. They were human, I think, but not voices. They were quiet at first, but the longer I listened the more I could hear. It worked like night-vision, I guess.
There were two of them, one a bird-like shriek, the other an angry bass. They weren't words, they were moans. The high-pitched voice was rhythmic, almost like heavy breathing. The bass was more of an occasional grunt.
I'd never overheard two people making love before. My parents must be very quiet, and I'm certain no one else in my family is sexually active.
It was disturbing, especially that distant slapping sounds.
I heard a louder sound and then a tap on the fence.
"You there, Dani?"
"Okay, I got heom and my costume. I'm coming to get you."
She crawled back to me and forced me out of my bind.
I couldn't see where she was hiding the kitten, or what she was doing to keep heom from running away.
I backed out into thicket.
Tammy crawled out after me, on her hands and knees. She was pulling a sack along.
"Let's see it," I squealed.
She stood up. Still not cat. Was it in the bag?
"Where is it?"
"Right here," she reached into her jacket pocket.
"How small is it?"
She brought out a closed fist, knuckles down, and opened it slowly, like a flower blooming.
There was a kitten in her palm. It was little, and broken, and made of clay. Topher had breathed art into hoem himself.
"This is Lefty. Heo's been banged around, but heo can still stand up. Hira soul never broke, like mine did when I destroyed all that beautiful stuff Topher made. I couldn't break heom too."
"Lefty," she held him out to me, "this is Dani; she's a neuter. You can talk hir. Tell hir anything you like and hit'll still be your friend."