What You Do For Her
Her name was Amber and she liked to fuck the carnies who came through town.
Winters were a dead time for her, months upon endless months when the skies were more leaden than not, the temperature too low to sustain being outside for more than a few minutes. Being indoors was as boring as the worst prison situation imaginable. These were days that she spent comatose in front of a television, too despondent to visit people or get a job or learn to read. The only real human contact she had was her best friend Kelly, poor unloved Kelly, who would spend those exact same days parked beside Amber on that same ratty, flower-patterned, Seventies-vintage basement couch and watching the same mind-numbing jumble of daytime television. It was a wasteland of suburban trash TV and the dying art of soap opera. Kelly would sometimes try to change it to the Toronto station that played vintage classics like King of Kensington, but it would inevitably go back to some conglomerate network specializing in DNA tests and Betsy DeVos schools and reverse mortgages and the eternal saving grace of garishly styled gold coins. People in suits holding court and passing judgment on people who couldn’t afford them. Admonishments to get off the couch and get that money right, only all of the schools on offer were American and scams anyway. Imagine a winter of that kind of despair on a reel looped continuously. Once warm weather hits you’d do anything to shake off those old lethargic blues.
There was pot in the springtime and beer if someone could swing it. No sex, though—Amber defined the word as scrawny, raw-boned, a skeletal frame poking through like she had been mummified but kept living. Her blond hair was stringy and greasy even after an involuntary, occasional washing. Her eyes bulged slightly, as though a constant build-up of overpressure in her skull threatened, albeit weakly, to come bursting out in a rush of fetid, copper-tinged air. When she was sober those eyes showed a delicate, expressive blue, and they were the one feature she could look at in the mirror and call beautiful. When she was stoned, though, which she frequently was, her eyes appeared both bulged and bloodshot, as unappealing a combination as could be imagined. They resembled blood blisters filled to the brim by seepage and runaway internal pressure, two balls of viscous liquid threatening to burst into a reddened flood at any moment. You look like a fuckin zombie one of the boys she was interested in once told her. Gordie Mayhew, may he be eaten by zombies himself, forever and ever amen.
The bare truth of course is that Amber wasn’t particularly attractive at the best of times and (if she was going to be particularly cruel to herself (often)) Kelly was not second prize at the beauty pageant either. Not that there were beauty pageants anymore, not really, haha, but it was a thing her dad would say when he was in a strikingly good humor and such a thing stuck with her. Kelly was in fact built like her father, a maintenance mechanic at the Creamery—solid, stocky, the clear output of a long line of sturdy genetics. Bred to bend, not break, to wrest something whole and wholesome from the unyielding layer of topsoil that lay compressed atop the rock of vestigial tendrils of the Canadian Shield.
It made it difficult for either of them to trawl for boys. Kelly was a little more successful than Amber, in that sense, at least. She could put herself out there. She could make herself available. It pained her a little to think of it that way, but what the hell else was she supposed to do? Touch herself in a game of solitaire for the rest of her life? She had put in a lot of thought the summer before about maybe being a lesbian because she had seen Alicia Morningstone bent over at gym like a dripping tropical jungle night, but she didn’t have anyone to talk it over with so she knuckled under to environmental pressures and assumed that she was into men. No one taught her to critically examine that assumption and, thanks to Doug Ford, no one would either.
So she put herself out there and swore up and down that there was no way she was some lez and if anyone suggested it she would get mad and if the person was a little smaller she would try to fight them. She’d get belligerent and loud, and even if there was something a little off about the whole thing, like a thin spot on a big bell that would give a much flatter sound, what did it really matter? Men would do what men would do and if she was really that kind of way wouldn’t she feel like that for her best friend? When she was with Amber she didn’t feel anything, no tingling or quick rush of blood or slippery feeling like she got when she convinced a drunk Gordie Mayhew to put his fingers in there “just to see if he’d like it.” Amber was inert, just a person like her dad or her brother, a strictly above-the-waist kind of person. So that was that.
Amber, though, didn’t have any such reservations and internal personal struggles, as far as Kelly could tell. Amber liked men, and in the warmer part of the year that liking became more like a craving, something ferocious and wild, old piss-stained wood chips, barn straw, overgrown fields. Men didn’t necessarily like Amber, though. It depended on where you drew the line at “men.” Men who lived year-round in town—boys in their senior year of high school, boys bouncing between menial jobs and muttering about getting their GEDs, boys whiling away stacking boxes in the Creamery production floor—didn’t take to Amber. The ones that once in a while did were the exact same men that Kelly at her most curious, or Amber at her most desperate, wanted nothing to do with. They gave off an odd feeling like scorched copper wiring or saliva or tinfoil. A Warning – Go No Further! kind of feeling. Guys like Funnel Cake Frank Watkins, who hitchhiked across the country and was robbed for two dollars only a few hours from home; Chester Querengaard, whose name rhymed well with the highly illegal activity he was strongly rumored to partake in; Danny Beam, whom it was rumored would stick a knife in his own grandma if you flashed enough cash or good dope at him. Guys like these were no-gos, out of instinct and the second-hand experience of rumor. No matter how handsy or drunk they were, Kelly and Amber knew enough to make a run for it at the earliest opportunity. Amber kept a screwdriver in her pocket, with a chip out of it that made a sharp edge. That was in case they couldn’t run, which Amber never tired of saying.
The carnies didn’t give off the same vibe, at least as far as Amber was concerned. They were at first glance rough, beyond the meaning of the word really. Neck tattoos, likely. Sleeves, of course. White cotton tank tops stained here and there, meat juices, beer. Concoctions of scent: food, drink, strip club bathroom cologne, machine oil, dirt, rust, petroleum jelly, and under everything a certain base coat, the crawling wild sweat tempered by an emotional-nervous response matrix. They weren’t attractive, as far as the feeling boundaries of Kelly’s own sexuality were concerned. Amber came alive, though, needing to touch and breathe and be near. When the traveling summer fairs came she would spend entire weekends there, never leaving the borders established between the fair and the rest of town. In the afternoons she would float from booth to booth. At some point she would linger to the side, watching them try to pull weighted magnetic fish out of a pond, watching them shoot down fish off a rail with a water gun whose pressure varied on a minute-by-minute basis. She had a knack for knowing just when she was making customers uncomfortable, and at that moment she would drift away to the next booth. Kelly would clump along behind her, feeling the weight of gravity in her legs and on her shoulders. Amber would linger near the game-runner. Kelly, less enthused about spending her days solely at the carnival, lurked in the shadows near where the electrical line ran into the tent, shuffling and kicking her feet.
As the afternoon wore on they would shift to hanging out near the rides: the spinning tea cups, the flailing black octopus arms, the kiddie dragon rollercoaster. The men Amber was really interested in hung out near here too, operating the rides and occasionally shutting them down to do maintenance. She would linger even closer while they did the latter, her by then bulging and bloodshot eyes crawling all over the contours of their rat-tough muscles, curving aggressively out of their bunched-ragged white sleeves, torquing and clanging as they twisted bolts and heaved at rails, making sure stacks stayed tight.
Those stacks were impossible: seemingly haphazard, ready to slip and tumble at any moment. Kelly was constantly and morbidly aware of them. She cringed at the slightest breeze when she was near them. Somehow no one else seemed to even notice them. People walked by as though nothing was wrong at all in the world, even though they were walking next to catastrophic tragedies ready and willing to exist. The carnies kept after them, though, checking once an hour or so, and maybe clucking over them a couple of times, as though they were livestock to be petted and preened and fussed over.
One even tried explaining it all to Kelly and Amber once, outlining bracing and centers of gravity and other such concepts of engineering in a voice more suited to a whisky-soaked rumble than a staid lecture hall. Amber, to give her credit, had made a moderate effort at listening, at least in the beginning. After most of a minute, though, she’d grown bored, and when she grew bored around the carnies she grew handsy, and that was the end of the lesson for all involved. Kelly had been put out about not hearing the end of it, and she had been uncomfortable about looking it up online because her spelling was atrocious and who cared anyway, it was just some stupid nerd stuff. She put it out of her head, because that’s what friends do.
Friends also hung out at their fair at night, real night, none of that twilight stuff. Kelly found it fun—others would be there and even if none really liked either Kelly or Amber they at least were moderately tolerant, so there was some diversity to keep Kelly from getting devastatingly bored. There would be laughter, pot, maybe a flask of illicit booze to be shared around. Girls like Sandy Hollingsworth and Alicia Doulton would pretend to want to hold a conversation with her. It was nice, if a little sad. Elsewhere she felt alone, aloof, an outsider pounding without sound on an inches-thick pane of glass. At the fair, at night, she was somebody.
The others would filter out over time, though. By the time the fair finally closed out its official hours the roster had returned to just Kelly and Amber, and the games operators, and the carnies, and the stacks, the silent darkened rides, the whispers of the wind in the trees on the edge of the fairground, the humid night air, the pinprick glowing holes in the black void of reality high above.
After the takedown, the breakdown, the shutdown, and the silence, it was time for campfires. A large one would be built on the edge of the fairground, on the edge closer to the farm fields than to the town. The carnies would sit around it, drinking from flasks or straight from the necks of 26-oz bottles, their gravel-rasp language popping and crackling along with the violent pops of the fire. Amber would linger around two or so of the guys, flirting carefully and trying to drum up some competition. The more they fought, the wider Amber’s smile would become. Kelly liked to see her smile—it made her instantly prettier, not that she thought about her in those words, or not really—so Kelly would sit around the fire, silent as a cold lump of coal, watching the fire twist and writhe. It was the closest thing to an erotic experience she would get on those nights. She ignored and was ignored in equal measures.
When Amber went off into the farm fields with whichever carnie she won, Kelly would keep to the fire and wait for her. The others would drift away to seek their beds and eventually it would just be Kelly, by a dwindling fire, alone with her thoughts and the odd, trembling sounds of the night.
Things are always louder at night. In addition to the lessened level of noise pollution, with fewer cars, shouts, alarms, dogs, airplanes, helicopters, and construction equipment, science says there’s a reason for the increased volume of night as well. Something to do with sound refraction and changes in the air temperature. Her dad used to talk about it in his manic “encyclopedia phase,” which happened to match up with those nights Kelly first started staying out late. During the day, when the ground absorbs solar heat, the temperature close to the ground grows higher. Then the sun sets and all that stored energy releases, making the air cooler. And sound bends toward cooler air. Of course, as Kelly sat by the fire she wasn’t thinking about physics or sound or any of the other boring things she slept through on her second tour of tenth grade science class. She thought instead about how cicadas were deafening when gathered together in sufficient numbers; how the pops in the fire sounded like the snapping of twigs in the middle distance; how the noises coming from the field squelched like a man in rubber boots in the mud; that lone coyote howl seeming more across the fire than in the distance.
The night unspooled loud and threaded with low-grade terror, and like all of those confronted with such terror and no real background in the hard sciences except the kind spouted at you by an anxious dad, Kelly conjured up ghosts and sprites to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. Those weeping, crawling spirits were bad for her mental state but they kept her distracted from the tar pits she knew were waiting somewhere in her overheated brain. When she worried over whether the coyote howl was the wail of a lost specter she wasn’t worrying over whether or not she secretly wished it was her in that field with Amber making squelching sounds and letting barely heard moans settle over her up-close and in person.
Ultimately, setting aside ghosts and unspoken desires, she would sit shivering by a warm fire because that’s what you do for your best friend, if she needed it. Even if she didn’t.
There is a list Kelly keeps, has kept, of the things you do for your best friend, a long one. It never stops growing. You cover for your best friend, that’s often job number one. If she shows you a wallet, giggling in the middle of the night in your backyard, you smile and tell the carnies the next night that you haven’t seen it, but you’ll keep an eye out for it. If a man with a stick-and-poke green tattoo on his forearm swears up and down that Amber stole it, you get up in his face until everyone becomes uncomfortable and the man drops it. When the ones she wins for the night get harder and less clean, crawling with jailhouse graffiti and who knows what else, you keep your ears open and get ready to run. In the end, though, you stay by the fire. She always stays by the fire. Until one night she can’t help blowing up on Amber because at that particular moment, a culmination of everything awkward that came before it, she feels sick to death of mooning around the fair in the wake of her best friend’s particular lusts. She blows up because that's what you do for your best friend. She leaves shortly after, when Amber demands it, because that’s also what you do for your best friend. Even if she’s looking dangerously at the kind of men who hitchhike across the country without a penny to their name, men they had previously agreed to stay away from.
Later, when she awakens to the insistent tapping on her patio door and finds Amber smeared in dried and drying blood she lets her in. She brings her in, fixes her a drink scrounged from her father’s vodka, carefully refilling the bottle with tap water to the previous level, and draws a bath. She even scrubs her back without making a comment or trying to probe for information. Verbally, of course. If Kelly lingers a little long on bruises in secret areas, roughened patches of skin, or the trailing, puckered lines of age-old scars, then that’s also what you do for your best friend. When she traces those scars, and finds a few new scratches among them, Amber looks away. The chipped wall along the bathtub must be interesting. There are things she wants to say, things she feels she’ll choke on if she doesn’t say, but she just watches Amber instead. There’s no disdain from Amber for Kelly touching her, so she traces those wounds old and new and measures the grimaces and the blinks. They speak in gestures and expressions, the drip of the leaky tap into the cooling water the only sound. The blood comes off eventually. Blood always comes off.
When she hangs around sheepishly the next morning, trying to scare up some pot and maybe some eggs, boy is she starving, haha, Kelly makes them for her because that’s what you do for your best friend. When Amber’s parents finally come slumping around, wondering where their daughter got off to, Kelly covers for her and says they were both pretty tired and Amber must have forgotten to call, so sorry. She takes the glares because that’s what you do for your best friend. Days later she does the same when Mrs. Watkins comes along with a picture of Mr. Bad Luck himself, Funnel Cake Frank. Sorry, haven’t seen him since the fair. Eyes hard as agates, but Kelly can hold her own, affect a thousand-yard stare and repeat the same things in the same monotone. Those are all things you have to learn to do for your best friend.
Weeks and months, it’s nearly winter again, and the local farmers are grumbling about needing to spring for extra security for their livestock. What’s in the woods? Why can’t the local wildlife control people do something about it? Isn’t this what they cripple themselves in tax payments for? Kelly hears it all and quietly begins to acquire from folk festivals and consignment shops and her mother’s own scant jewelry horde what items of silver she can find.
Because that’s what you do for your best friend.