A smattering of freckles, pale gold, a constellation, practically; and Starrett close enough to touch the lovely shoulder dusted with them. He sighs at the memory, reaches for the pitcher of beer on the table.

       “More?” he asks Simone.

       She’s opposite him in the booth, curled into the corner to leave enough room for Frankie when she comes back from the jukebox. Frankie, who got her into this in the first place by slipping out of the booth a few minutes after Starrett climbed the stairs to the second story of Moe’s and poured them each a mug from his pitcher.

       Simone nods. Beer is possible—once she get past the acrid foam of it, if it’s cold enough. That beer makes her gag is her dirty little secret. A cigarette helps, so she fingers one from the box that sits on the table between the pitcher beaded with condensation and Starrett’s battered blue Bic. Equidistant with them, she thinks, because her mind is already on math. Starrett beats her to the lighter, lights her cigarette with a gentlemanly flourish. She looks at his neatly-braided, graying hair. The last sip of beer he took foamed his sandy mustache. He brings his wrist to his lips and dabs, a delicate gesture.

       Simone’s mind is still on the math. The march to the capitol Starrett keeps going on about, when he was close enough to reach out and trace Jane Fonda’s freckles—is it the same one Simone’s mother occasionally mentions, her businesslike tone softened by nostalgia? The one that took place a lifetime ago on the street that unfurls outside the front door of Moe’s, back when Simone was too little to know what she was being dragged to?

       She knows there’s no way to make the numbers add up that excuses what she and Frankie are doing. Kissable lips, Starrett said, looking at hers, after he climbed the stairs and found her and Frankie leaning over the pinball machine in the corner, the only other people in the game room—because who really has time to play pinball or video games this early? Starrett set the neatly wrapped bulk of his hoagie on a table and made a beeline toward them. I’ll play you, he said, jingling a handful of quarters, and Frankie had stepped back from the machine and given Simone a look, arching one eyebrow.

       There’s a pretty good chance Simone and her mother were at that same march that has Starrett so sentimental, but this is not a line of thought it does Simone any good to pursue. Kissable lips, Starrett said, setting the wheels in motion. Simone and Frankie let him buy them a pitcher, are now duty-bound to obscure the fact—known to all three of them but left unmentioned—that they are too young to drink.

       Frankie has chided Simone more than once over her baby face. The piercings she added in an arc along Simone’s ear, above the one bought at Lakeview Mall six months ago, were her attempt to counteract it.

       Because who, she had asked, the safety pin thumbed open and thoughtfully poised in one hand as the two of them sat on the floor of Simone’s bedroom—because who would let their under-aged daughter go around looking like this? Simone had come up with the kohl that served to uptilt her eyes on her own, a quick trick with the stubby black eye pencil.

       “What?” she asks. Starrett is offering her something; Starrett, who so far seems to have only a few conversational gambits: her kissable lips, Jane Fonda’s shoulders, the night he spent in county lock-up, after that long-ago protest. The non sequitur —intended to impress, she guesses— that jail is brutal, a place where a bar of soap, wrapped in a sock, can kill you.

       “Sure,” she says hastily, because it sounds like he just proposed another game of pinball. She cuts her eyes towards Frankie, who is still studiously leaned over the curved front of the jukebox.

       To play it is a luxury. Everything costs quarters—a pitcher of beer, pinball, a sandwich if the two of them decide to split one. She and Frankie walked all the way downtown to avoid using up the dollar-fifty Simone’s mother left on the kitchen counter for bus fare. Walked the length of State Street, Frankie veering diagonally across the sidewalk to check the glassed-in payphones they passed for forgotten dimes. Finally made their way to Moe’s, where they can climb the stairs to the game room and whittle away the afternoon.

       School has been out for three weeks, giving Simone time to see the truth of what Frankie has been claiming all spring: guys usually do what you ask them. Businessmen, identifiable by their ties and the pressed white shirtsleeves, stop on the sidewalk, mid-stride, and peer up at Simone and Frankie as they lean over the sill of the second story windows to wheedle quarters for the jukebox. We’ll play the Stones if you do! Frankie shouts down while Simone stands behind her, a hand on either side of her waist to help her keep her balance.

       On the other side of the booth, Starrett sits hunched over something in his lap.  Simone realizes he didn’t offer another game of pinball but the joint he is rolling. Over at the jukebox, Frankie has finally made up her mind and picked a song. She heads back to the table, her clunky boots loud on the wooden floorboards, hands busy knotting the tails of her Indian gauze shirt above her creamy midriff.

       She and Simone have made a pact: whenever they have money enough, they’ll choose the same three songs, their favorites— Shattered and the two by Blondie, Die Young Stay Pretty and Atomic. Frankie slides into the booth next to Simone, squirming a little as she yanks down the frayed bottoms of her shorts. Simone would rather play pinball and listen to music than smoke, but Frankie’s look indicates that pinball is unlikely.

       But Simone has gotten so good at Firepower! She guesses it’s because of all those businessmen, the way they stand on the sidewalk and toss up quarters.

       “It’s crap,” Starrett pronounces. He looks across the table through half-lidded eyes as Frankie shimmies her shoulders to the first few bars of Atomic. But he is smiling, avuncular. He turns his gaze on Simone, lets his eyes linger again on her lips. “Guess we need another one of these,” he says, reaching across the table for the pitcher. “Right back.”

Simone knows: they could just take off while Starrett’s downstairs waiting for the bartender to tilt the pitcher beneath the tap. Could hide out in the bathroom, hands pressed to their mouths to stifle their giggles, until he comes back upstairs, and then slip out the front door. But to do what?

       Besides, Frankie thinks Simone has him eating out of the palm of her hand. She says it almost angrily, like she’s picking a fight, but then she just tosses her hair back.

       “We should get him to take us out to the lake,” she says.

       “Why?” The lake isn’t far; they could walk there if they wanted.

       “Why?” Frankie parrots, her voice mocking. “Why not?”

       Simone looks away, at the two pool tables squared in the middle of the wood-paneled room. The pinball machines are aligned along one long wall, stadiums and racetracks and spaceships airbrushed along their sides in bright, unnatural colors. The sound of the jukebox’s laboring mechanism, the rattling drop of the next ’45, is loud in the silence that falls between her and Frankie.

       “We should get him to show us how to play pool,” she says as Shattered spills from the speakers.

       “My dad has a pool table,” Frankie says. “There’s one in the pool cabana at his complex. Anybody who visits him can go down there and use it, anytime.”

       “I don’t want to go to the lake,” Simone says stubbornly. And it’s true. She’s perfectly content with Moe’s, with the way they have it to themselves and can sit up here practicing smoke rings and French inhaling all afternoon if they want. She likes the way broad bars of sunlight fall aslant through the front windows, the way the whole afternoon unravels while Frankie sits on one side of a table and mouths the smoke from her cigarette like a connoisseur while Simone sits on the other, examining the outstretched incongruity of her legs above the ugly Doc Martens she just bought.

       She looks over at the doorway. Starrett is appearing bit-by-bit with each riser of the stairs climbed toward them. First the neat, white part in his hair, then his shoulders, then his torso. He pauses when he sees them and then plunges across the room to their table, pitcher in one hand. The other is a fistful of freshly frosted mugs. He sets them on the table with a clink.

       “We were thinking about the lake,” Frankie says.

       “Why not?” he agrees, sliding into the booth. He tilts the first mug under the slosh of liquid from the pitcher. “But let’s drink this first.”

       “We’ve got plenty of time,” Simone says as it strikes her. Her mother’s summer teaching load takes place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, including a seminar on the Modernists that runs tonight from 6:00 to 9:30. And Frankie’s home life? Uncertain. Simone has only the vaguest sense of the neighborhood where Frankie lives, the sort of house. Since school let out, Frankie has been the one to knock on the door after Simone’s mother leaves for campus but before Simone has gotten herself dressed or turned off whatever soap is on the single channel the little black and white TV can pick up.

       “Time,” Starrett says. He gives a yelp of laughter. “You do.”

       Simone’s newly poured beer has already gone warm in the heat. She sets down her mug. “Got any more quarters?” she asks him.

The silver disks are a satisfying stack she lines up on the top of the Firepower machine. She has learned how to spin them out, how to make each one last, earning free game after free game. Starrett slides out of the booth and comes to stand close behind her, his smell of smoke and sweat like a palm pressed against her back.

       To lean into it? To lean away?

       There’s no way to ignore him. She teases the plunger back with her fingers and then lets go. The steel ball rockets up the chute. She steps quickly to the side, out of the knowledge that he’s right there, and noisily works the flippers.

       “Damn,” he says softly, “you can play that.” His hand descends toward her shoulder.

       She angles her hips and gives the machine a nudge. Steel balls cascade into the chute. “Bea-you-ti-ful,” Starrett exhales into her ear. Whether he means her or the game is unclear. His palm grazes her shoulder.

How many coins has Starrett slipped into the slots in the pinball machines by now? He even managed to lure her away from Firepower and over to the tabletop Asteroids machine. She looks across while he blows something up, lunging forward in concentration. His braid falls over the console, a thick coil. His finger on the firing button keeps up its constant tapping: Asteroids’ annoying Morse code. He leans forward again, and then, sitting back, slaps the top of the machine in disgust and stands up, empty mug in one hand.

       How can any one person have so many quarters? He pulls them out of the front pocket of his jeans with a conjurer’s flourish. And she keeps playing, all the while knowing— this generosity is suspect. She looks at the long braid snaking down his back. It’s almost impossible to imagine a person standing in front of a mirror every morning, taking the time to braid all that gray hair. Almost impossible to imagine anyone professing love for Jane Fonda. Can he really not know? About Jane Fonda’s gleaming spandex and flashy aerobics?

       She sits back, deliberately lets herself get blown up. “Easy come, easy go,” she says and stands up. She walks over to the windows, where Frankie sits staring out at the traffic, a leg positioned to each side of the sill for balance. “Give over,” she says, nudging her companionably and swinging a leg over the sill.

       Five years from now, the sashes of these windows will probably be nailed shut in the name of public safety, but for now—why bother? No one even comes here. She cranes her neck to look along the angle of the building where an elaborate stone carving wreathes the word Mercantile.

       Pigeon shit stains the protruding shelf of bricks below their swinging feet. “Room for me?” Starrett asks from behind her.

       It’s Frankie who scoots backward. Simone stares out the window. The view is of sidewalk and the tops of the cars angled into the metered spaces below them and, this time of year, the newly leafed trees planted in the medians. The air smells of moist earth and lilacs, a summery fragrance mingling with the scents of Moe’s—stale beer, old wood, tobacco.

       The smell stirs something in Simone, the same thing that made it so easy to fall in with Frankie, three grades older than she is, in the first place. Back when they got chummy over cigarettes smoked on the breezeway before school, shivering in identical, olive-green Army-surplus parkas.

       Beside her, Starrett digs in his pocket. He busies himself with the roach-end of the joint they smoked earlier, flicking his lighter. He hands it off; left to Frankie; takes it back; inhales once more. He waves it Simone’s direction.

       “How about the lake?” he asks softly. When he lifts the roach clip to his lips and inhales, it reveals the crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. He shifts his weight on the sill. “Or somewhere?” he adds.

       No one answers. One of the pinball machines behind them gives out a blink of lights, a stifled belch of sound. Simone feels the sudden shift and settle of his body beside her.  As she turns to look, he reaches behind his back, feels for the dangling length of his braid and pulls it forward. Leaning close to Frankie, he draws the tip of it down her bare arm, shoulder-to-elbow.

       Simone expects Frankie to pull her arm back, but she just shivers, like a horse brushing off flies. “Quit it,” she says, giving Starrett a wide smile. “Hey, Simone,” she adds. “Run get me my hairbrush.”

Frankie’s slouchy corduroy bag contains crumbs of tobacco, an oblong mirror, a sticky tube of lip gloss. A sweet ghostly residue of cloves, left from the packet of Jakartas she and Simone bought—ages ago—at the newsstand. Simone snaps the flap closed and walks back to the window, idly plucking Frankie’s spun-silver blonde hair from the brush’s bristles.

       “Pretty,” Frankie is saying, her eyes fastened on Starrett’s hair. “Let me brush it?” She doesn’t look at Simone, not even when Simone hands the hairbrush over and sits down at the opposite end of the sill. Starrett shrugs, but he’s already leaned back, giving the lie to his indifference.

       Simone pulls her knees to her chest. She holds a hand out the window, lets a gust of wind snatch the hair she teased from the hairbrush.  As Frankie stands up and positions herself behind Starrett, the hair vanishes into the late afternoon light that dapples the sidewalk.

       Frankie slips the rubber band from around his braid to one wrist, a grave expression on her face.  Below them, traffic has picked up—there’s a briskness the street didn’t have when they first hit downtown. The street corner is clotted with students waiting for the light to change, the boys bent under the weight of their backpacks, the girls a welter of bright colors, all of them intent on the UW campus barely visible behind the manicured shrubs on the other side of the intersection. “None of us knew how ugly it was going to get,” Starrett says softly, staring out. “Nobody realized the way it was all going to slop over onto campus.”

       Simone thinks:  this is his single best story. Frankie makes a noncommittal sound and starts combing her fingers through his hair.

So now they’re back where they started when he climbed the stairs and saw them: that long-ago summer day, so much like this one, the march on the Capitol, the spread of the glittering lake. The crowds massing on the Capitol grounds, the bedsheets scrawled with sentiment and unfurled from all the dorm room windows. The freckles on Jane Fonda’s lovely tan shoulder.

       “Brothers and sisters,” Starrett marvels, his eyes closed. Any closer and he would have been able to link arms with her.

       “Who?” Frankie says as she coaxes her fingers through his hair.

       Jane, of course. His voice is mildly surprised. Who else? Simone tries to catch Frankie’s eye—does he really think they care? But Frankie’s wielding the brush, gathering up his hair, then releasing it, in a rhythm that tugs his head backwards, over and over again.

       “Nice,” he whispers as the long braid begins to unravel.

       “I could French-braid it!” Frankie says, her voice dreamy.

       “All those big planters,” Starrett goes on, “up and down State Street—bet you don’t know why they’re there.”

       Outside the window the bright slope of Bascom Hill is geometrically outlined by sidewalk, the fountain at its top curving too far away for them to be able to hear its splashing. Beyond that, in the solid bulwark of Bascom Hall, Simone’s mother sits in her office, the papers she’s grading on the desk in front of her gory with red ink.

       “I know why,” Simone says. “That was the march when everybody got fucked, trying to run when the cops broke out the tear gas.”

       After a certain amount of red wine at Simone’s mother’s dinner parties, there’s always somebody from what her mother calls the old days who says pigs, not cops. And even her mother had screamed that, the day she climbed up off her bloodied knees and dragged Simone with her toward the campus chapel, her eyes streaming with tears, choking from the tear gas. 

       “After it, the city put in those big planters, so that many people wouldn’t ever be able to fit there again.” She pauses. “To congregate,” she adds. “So what?  I was there, too.”

       That faceful of teargas was the only time she has ever seen her mother cry.

       Frankie stares at her, the hand with the hairbrush arrested in midair. Starrett looks idiotic, sitting there with his mouth open and all that gray hair French-braided. In the silence that falls, Simone stands up and walks over to the pinball machine, digging in her pocket for the quarters she palmed from the Asteroids machine, shaking her own hair into a curtain that hides her face.

       There’s no reason to turn around to watch Starrett go. Her fingers are delicate on the plunger as she pulls it back. Behind her, she can hear the clink as he gathers up the mugs and the pitcher, the rustle of paper that means he’s throwing out his own trash, in the end a much better citizen than he wanted to make out himself to be. She lets the little steel ball fly; steps back to take in the way it passes up the chute, its headlong, rattling progress.

Katherine L. Hester is the author of the short story collection Eggs for Young America (Penguin). Her fiction has appeared in Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, Five Points, The Yale Review, and Southwest Review, and Best American Mystery Stories 2012. She lives south off Interstate 20 in Atlanta with her husband and two daughters.

Back to Freight Stories No. 8


Katherine L. Hester