Rusty and Her Big Ideas
Rusty was going to Colorado in the spring, soon as she had seven hundred dollars. She had five hundred already and she would of had six, but her rotten tooth started hurting her. She ended up dropping two hundred at the dentist in November, and she'd been wanting to leave that next March. I know she hated to take the money out of the bank after she said she'd never touch it, no matter what. She was going to pull her tooth out with needle-nose pliers, but I told her she'd just get infection down in that hole and they'd put her in the hospital and nobody comes out of the hospital with money in their pocket. And anyway needle-nose wouldn't work. They'd slip right off.
So that put her behind about two months while she got the two hundred again, which with her making one seventy-five an hour, wasn't too easy. Even if we kept the trailer heat down to sixty, which we did. And the gas the dentist gave Rusty made her sick, so she missed two days' work. Redskin Brooms didn't pay sick time. But Rusty wouldn't have wanted to go to Colorado with a bad tooth hurting her, and what's two months? It's eight weeks, is all, eight weeks and four paychecks, I told her, and she'd be back where she was, plus that tooth wouldn't be hurting her either.
Here's how I found out about Rusty wanting to go to Colorado: I was home reading the Sunday paper on the couch, and I couldn't find the funnies to read Apt. 3-G. Me and Rusty used to say the girls in 3-G must be in love with each other, else why didn't they get married and move out? So I was running my hand underneath of the sofa to see if the funnies was under there, and my hand come on something and I scooted it out.
What I’d got hold of was a yellow folder like we used to have in school, and there was COLERADO wrote on the front, real neat in magic marker. Inside was a card with a chart on it, where you look up how much it costs to fly to different cities. On the back of the card was all kinds of numbers multiplied times one point seven five. Rusty had been figuring how many hours she'd have to work for a plane ticket. I knew Rusty done it because the numbers was all wrong. There was picture postcards in the folder too, and pages tore out of National Geographic,and a square picture that somebody took with a Brownie box camera. The picture had blue mountains and no houses or people or telephone poles.
Rusty'd been talking Colorado for a while, but then I'd talked a red MG or getting my own double-wide trailer on two or three acres. So I looked at all the stuff, then I put it back like it was and stuck the folder underneath of the couch again. But after that, I'd slip it out every once in a while and see had she put anything else in. One time there was a vocational school thing that told where you could get your G.E.D. in four months. Getting her high school equivalence was just about as high-flying as Colorado, really, because Rusty couldn't read for shit, or write either.
I seen other stuff in the Colorado folder too, like catalogs for hiking clothes. Rusty was too lazy to hike but she would of looked good in the clothes. People thought she worked out all the time, but she didn't. She didn't do push-ups or anything, it all just come natural. She always said it was her German stock.
But what ruined her was two big scars on her face where she wrecked her motorcycle. In the movies there's princes that have a scar where they fought a duel, but hers didn't look cool like that. It just looked like she'd been in a wreck.
Even before she got scarred up, Rusty wasn't very pretty. Neither was I, which really was kind of good because when we was going to Arsenal Technical High School we didn't have to go out much. If we went out, we always doubled, with like the Easterday twins or somebody like that, and we made them take us to the Twin Aire drive-in. The boys had to sit in the front seat together, and me and Rusty sat in back and ate footlongs and caramel corn and if they didn't like it, well tuff stuff—they could take us home. We seen some good movies.
On Friday nights we was climbing in and out of a Pontiac back seat, trying to keep our skirts down where they ought to be. We wore dresses all the time then, which, look at us now. Then you had to wear a dress to school, and church, and dates. We looked like hell. There's this one picture I still got of Rusty that her old lady took when we was in tenth grade. In the picture Rusty is dressed up because her cousin Melba got married to Randy Oakes. She has on a white sheath dress and white heels, and she's standing on the sidewalk in front of the Oakes's house. She's got her heel turned so if s pressing on the inside of her other foot to make her shoes into a V which was how a lady was supposed to stand. Only on one side of the picture you can see about half of an old wrecked Plymouth, because the Oakeses had a body shop right next to their house. So every once in a while I used to get that picture out from where it was hid and say I was going to run it in the classifieds of the newspaper and underneath of it make them write RUSTY STONE IS A SECRET FEMME.
Back when we went to Tech we used to act pretty wild. Me and her used to get in trouble all the time, and not just for smoking and cutting, either. Smoking and cutting school was just regular for Arsenal Technical. If you didn't kill nobody from eight-thirty till three they would pass you, and they might pass you anyway if who you killed wasn't anybody important like the vice-principal.
We didn't learn too much. Rusty never figured out how to read, and she wasn't the only one like that at Tech. If you could read good enough to copy off somebody, you could get by. Especially if you was in Remedial. Where Rusty made her mistake was, she'd copy off anybody. Me, I'd always sit next to a brain. So I did pretty good, almost all C's and only two F's, but Rusty always had to fix her report card. She could take an ink pen and make an F into a B so you couldn't tell unless you looked hard, and Rusty's mother didn't care enough to look.
But her mother, Vivian her name was, took an interest when Old Lady Hutchinson called from school and started in about Rusty's grades. Vivian was already just waiting to get Rusty loose from school so she could put her to work at G.E. Then Rusty'd bring home the paycheck while Vivian sat on her butt. Vivian told Old Lady Hutchinson that Rusty had always been a problem child. Rusty wasn't learning nothing anyway, and she was seventeen, old enough to start contributing to her family. Vivian would be down to Tech on Monday to take Rusty out of school.
So, the day Old Lady Hutchinson called Vivian, me and Rusty was going over to Rusty's house to watch Dark Shadows, which we cut school just enough to keep up with. Here come Vivian down the driveway to meet us. She was little and fat and didn't wash herself. If she had more than one pair of slacks, I never seen them. Always the same blue slacks and usually some ugly shell top, and nothing pleased her, nothing. So then she started in. Rusty had gone about far enough and it was time for her to get a job and be helpful to her family. For a change.
Right in the middle of this big speech Rusty poked me in the back and said "Come on" and I said "Where?" She didn't tell me until we was already off the 8th Street bus and down the sidewalk to the Army Recruitment Office.
That was Rusty for you. She always had a big plan for fixing problems. She would get this look on her face like Madame Curie discovering some science thing. Rusty looked forward to having a good life, just cause everything was crappy now wasn't any reason to doubt. When we was at Tech, in study hall she'd whis- per at me and get me in trouble. "I'm going to get me some money saved and buy me a trailer and move out of Viv's," she'd say, or "I'm going to learn Spanish and go down to Mexico." The next day she'd buy a newspaper and look in the classifieds for "Mobile Homes for Sale" and price the cheapest ones. Or she'd go to the library and get a book like Spanish Made Easy. Then Spanish Made Easy would get left under the bed and the project come out to be a four-dollar library fine.
Now Rusty's big plan was to leave her old lady behind and join the army. When I was mad at my old lady, I just went to see a movie. But Rusty was going to join the army and see the world.
The Army Recruitment Office was in an old beat-up building that used to be insurance but now it was Ziggy's Bar and Grill. The army office was around the side, just one little room. There was Venetian slat things in the window so I couldn't see in, but a sign said COME IN so we did. Rusty opened up the door and went right in like she was Mrs. Jesus Christ, and I went in behind her. I figured who we'd see was some guy with a flat-top who said stuff like Roger Over and Out. There wasn't anybody like that, there was only La Vonne Williams.
"Look, Rusty," I said. "It's La Vonne Williams."
La Vonne looked pretty cool. Her uniform had a bunch of buttons and patches and even two things that looked like medals. The last time I seen her, her hair was still bleached yellowy white and she was in Remedial English with me (which was extra bad for her because she was two years older than me). Then one day at lunch I heard she was knocked up, and pretty soon she started coming to school wearing her boyfriend's old jacket all the time. I guess she hoped everybody would think they was engaged or something, but it was to hide where she was showing, and sure enough, she stopped coming to school.
Now here she was, wearing army clothes. I wanted to say "What did you do with your baby?" but I knew better, even back then. Besides, I didn't want to open my mouth till I found out why me and Rusty was at the army office.
I found out pretty quick because Rusty walked right up to La Vonne and went, "Hey, La Vonne, Vivian is acting like a female dog and I ain't putting up with it. Me and my friend Carol, you know Carol, we're joining the army."
"A female dog?" I said. "Oh, I get it. Anyway, I ain't joining the army. They make you march and all that shit. No offense, La Vonne."
"How old are you girls?" La Vonne asked us. She got a pack of Bel Airs off her desk and got one out for herself and held out the pack. Rusty took one and I took one. It seemed funny that the army let her smoke. I didn't think they let you do anything you liked. And anyway, I'd heard it cut your wind.
I didn't like La Vonne calling us "girls" and acting like she didn't know how old we was. I didn't say nothing to her about it. Who wanted to argue with a woman in army clothes? She could put us under citizen's arrest or something. Rusty didn't seem like she cared how weird La Vonne was acting. Rusty was probably thinking how the army was going to send her behind enemy lines with a parachute.
"I'm eighteen," I said.
Rusty said, "I turn eighteen in August.”
"So we talk now," said La Vonne in a cool person voice, which worked cause she was wearing her Ray-Bans indoors. "We fill out your forms now, and we sign your forms when everything's squared away, right? Cause you're not twenty-one and your parents has to sign if s okay, right?"
"Twenty-one?" Rusty said. "My brother signed for himself, he was only eighteen."
"That's men," said La Vonne. "Men only have to be eighteen, girls have to be twenty-one to sign themself in.”
"What if my old lady won't sign it?" Rusty said.
"You can get your old lady's name on there, can't you, some way?" said La Vonne. "We don't discuss this with everybody that's our neighbor, right? Then if your old lady makes a stink, everything's already fixed and she'll give up, right?" La Vonne opened up her file cabinet and got out some color army brochures with smiley army people on them. I wondered how could she see with sunglasses on. The recruiting office was getting to me already, but I knew Rusty was picturing us doing the old hup-two-three-four together. I tried to think of some real good reason why I couldn't join the army even if I wanted to. But I didn't know what had to be wrong with you that they wouldn't take you.
That reminded me of the only other thing I knew about La Vonne besides her leaving school under pregnant circumstances, and that was her miracle fingernail. She showed it to me once, so the story was for real. See, her father didn't have any boys so LaVonne had to cut the grass. Well, her old man could of, but he was a bastard and made La Vonne do it. So when La Vonne was in seventh grade the mower blade cut off the end of her ring finger, just chopped it off down to the joint. She used to love nail polish, right, and wearing tons of junky rings, but now she had this finger that didn't have any nail. A couple years later La Vonne went Jesus crazy and she got it in her mind to pray for a new nail. So every night when she went to bed she said, "Please, Jesus, make me grow a new fingernail." Everybody told her La Vonne, forget it, there ain't no cuticle. But La Vonne kept praying, and one morning when she got up, she had the start of a miracle fingernail growing on the end of her chopped-off finger. And after while she had a little baby nail that she could put polish on.
If the army would take La Vonne with part of her finger gone, then I had to think up something real awful to be wrong with me. I thought about saying I had six months to live, but what if I seen La Vonne someplace six months and one day from then? The only excuse I could think of was my old lady, Marlene, might not sign my enlistment papers. Here was my excuse. Except Marlene usually didn't try to tell me what to do, she was scared I would get mad and move out. Or if she did try and boss me, I just never listened and what could she do about it? She couldn't hit me, I was too big.
"Carol, you got to come too," said Rusty. "It'd be a hell of a lot more fun than Tech."
"I doubt they have fun in the army," I said. "They pay you to be in it."
Rusty ignored me and leaned on La Vonne's desk. "Now, part of the deal is, me and Carol go to the same place," she said, ice cool. "Or no go." Oh yeah, she knew all about it—joined the army once, twice a week regular.
"Sure, hon," said La Vonne. ""Except if there's atomic alert, or something like that, the army has first say who goes where, right?"
“Well, I can understand that," said Rusty. She turned around and give me the eye. "You'd look good in uniform," she said. "You got the shoulders for it."
"Nah," I said. "Really?"
"Let's find out," said La Vonne. She started unbuttoning, and then slipped off her army coat. She had a shirt on underneath of it. La Vonne held out her coat, and I was polite and took it. (I have got in more trouble from being polite, I tell you.) '"Here," she said, "slip this on and let's see you."
Well, I put on that coat and that was it. I looked cool as hell, and anybody that's been young and cared about being cool can understand why I said I would come back with Rusty and sign the enlistment papers. I wanted to sign up the same time as Rusty, to make sure her and me got sent to the same place.
I got off the bus at Grant Avenue, and walked home. I had to get Marlene to sign the army papers. I wanted to get it over with quick, Marlene wasn't going to take it good.
When I got home, her car wasn't there. I come in and went in the bathroom to pee. Usually when I come home from school or someplace, I'd go in, look in the kitchen and see was she dead on the floor yet. Two or three days after our check came every month, she'd have enough in her purse to drink herself to death if she wanted. After that she was pretty broke so I didn't worry too much. I'd stick my head in the kitchen and look to make sure.
But since her car wasn't there, I just went straight into the bathroom. There was two wet towels laying on the floor and the Ivory soap bar was melting away in the sink. I put the towels on top of the dirty-clothes hamper, there wasn't no room inside it. I picked the soap up and put it on the sink edge so it would dry out. Then I peed. No toilet paper, I had to drip dry. My clean pants felt nasty now. I come out of the bathroom, and went in toward the living room to see what was on teevee. When I went by Marlene's room, there was a pile of twisted-up covers on the bed, and Marlene too.
"Hey, you here?" I said. "Where's your car at?"
She never answered. If she was in bed at four-thirty in the afternoon, she was passed out. If she was passed out, she wouldn't wake up the rest of the night. If the army would of took me right then, I would of packed up and gone. I took the army paper in the kitchen and I got a ink pen and wrote "Marlene Frehardt" on the line that said Parent's Signature. When Marlene woke up, maybe I could just tell her she signed the paper.
* * *
In two weeks it would be summer and I would be done at Tech. Rusty wasn't going to graduate, she was a year behind me. They had already held her back once. She was going to quit anyway, when we joined the army. The eleventh grade didn't do her no good the second time either. She knew she was never going to be a senior.
Like she had to do a book report, she done Cherry Ames, School Nurse. She showed me what she handed in. It was supposed to be two pages long, but she wrote on every third line to stretch it out. It was a mess. She wrote worse than a six-year-old. I was in Remedial Reading too, but Rusty was beyond remedial. I remem- ber one time, she went to Kentucky to visit her Aunt Shirley and she sent me a letter. After the Dear Carol Frehart I couldn't read a word. Besides you didn't put the first and the last name after Dear and it wasn't Frehart it was Frehardt with a d, which when you've known somebody since grade school you'd think they'd know.
On graduation day, Marlene was supposed to come take a picture of me in my cap and gown. Later on she was going to make me a special supper, all that stuff. Tech let the seniors go home at lunchtime so we could get ready for commencement at four o'clock. Rusty had a regular school day so I didn't have anybody to hang around with. It was raining anyway, I didn't want to go anyplace. I come back home and turned on the teevee to see what was on “Matinee Double Feature." It was just starting, 'Topper," with Constance Bennett and Cary Grant. I watched the whole thing.
When it was almost over, I heard a car pull in the driveway. The engine sounded like it was about to blow up, it had to be Marlene's. I got up and let her in, she had two big sacks of groceries. "Hi, graduation girl," she said. "Guess what? I'm going to fry us up a big chicken and we'll go have a picnic at Garfield Park."
"What?" I said. "It's raining." She was drunk, had to be.
"You want to ask Rusty to come eat with us?" she said. "Whoops, there it goes." She dropped one of her grocery bags, and a quart of milk fell out. The carton wasn't sealed good, so the milk started soaking into the rug. I picked the carton up and give it to her.
"I ought to take it back," Marlene said. "Sold me bad milk." She had vodka breath.
I must of made a face cause she said, "First one I had today. I just needed something for my nerves, getting ready for your big day."
She knelt down and stuffed all the groceries back in the bag. When she tried to pick it up, the brown paper was wet with milk. The whole thing tore out of her hand and landed on the floor. "Shoot," she said.
By three-thirty, Marlene had started a grease fire in the kitchen, trying to fry some chicken legs. There was enough old grease soaked into the floor and the walls to keep a fire going for a week. I poured baking soda on Marlene's fried chicken fire. In home economics, they told us never put water on a grease fire. Then I got Marlene calmed down, she was sitting on the linoleum saying, "Whoops, I burned down the house. Whoops, I burned down the house." I made her go in the living room and lay down on the couch and I put a bedspread on her. I took her cigarettes and lighter away. I went back in the kitchen, where the groceries was still sitting out, going bad. I just left everything. "Hell with you," I thought, "clean up your own mess." I got my cap and gown and put them in a A & P sack and I went out the door.
When me and the rest of the seniors marched into the gym, I seen Rusty up in the bleachers. She waved and I waved back. I sat down in my folding chair, third row back, second seat over. There was two speeches, the principal and a city councilman that had gone to Tech, class of '49. They called us by name, one at a time, and everybody clapped when I went to get my diploma. Nothing personal, we all clapped whether it was anybody we knew or not.
I went over to Rusty's for supper, both her brothers was there. Andy was on leave and Jack's wife had kicked him out. Vivian was there, of course, she cooked the supper. We had mashed potatoes and green beans and fried chicken. It was good. While we was passing around the bowl of green beans, Rusty said, "Hey, Vivian, do you care if I join the army? I don't want to work at G.E. Besides, G.E. could lay me off. But if I go in the army, that'd have security."
"Yeah," Andy said. "There's always a war. In the army you got a job for life."
"How much do they pay you?" said Viv. "Not as good as G.E., I bet."
Rusty said, "Well, the money ain't all of it. They take care of you. No rent to pay, they feed you, uniforms so you don't buy clothes."
"That sounds good," said Viv. "No bills to pay, so you could send quite a bit of your check home, couldn't you?"
"I guess," said Rusty. She put some mashed potatoes on her plate and give me the bowl.
Viv was holding the chicken platter, she didn't hand it to Rusty. "Couldn't you?"
"Yeah," said Rusty. Vivian give her the chicken platter.
The rest of suppertime Vivian acted pretty nice, for her. She didn't make fun of anybody. Rusty was the baby, so when she went in the army, things was going to be quiet at Vivian's. Not that Viv was that crazy about Rusty, she just wanted somebody to bring in money and wait on her.
I was jealous cause Rusty had told Vivian about the army but I still hadn't told Marlene about me forging her name. For one thing, I wanted to tell her when she was sober, so she wouldn't cry. She always cried when she got looped, I thought a grown-up person that cried looked awful. It made me sick.
* * *
The day after Rusty turned eighteen, Rusty and me went back to the recruiter office in August. She signed all the papers first, with big old sprawling letters like John Hancock. One thing you can say for Rusty, for somebody that had no style she could kind of fool you for a second into thinking she did. It was awful in the army without her.
That's right, without her. We was at Rusty's house when we found out the army wouldn't take her. I heard Vivian griping about something while I was using the restroom. When I come out, Rusty was walking back from the mailbox with a pile of letters and junk mail.
"Give it here," said Vivian. "You're gonna drop it all over the floor."
"I ain't going to drop it," said Rusty. "One of these is for me."
"Who's it from, Elvis Presley?" said Vivian. "Ha ha."
"You're not funny," said Rusty. "It's from the army. Maybe they changed our assignments and we got Hawaii, like we wanted in the first place."
"Probably not," I said. "Your brother said navy is what they need in Hawaii, not army. We'll probably get Germany. He told me every- body gets Germany, practically."
But of course Rusty was figuring the four-leaf clover she kept in her billfold was turning our luck good. All of a sudden the army absolutely had to have us in Hawaii so, like, they could teach us Mata Hari code.
Rusty opened the letter and looked it over like she was reading it, then she said, "Well, what do you know about that." She didn't have no idea what it said. She handed it to me.
The letter was from somebody named John Wiffle or something—John Wimple Jr., that was his name, and he was writing to inform Miss Monica Stone that she had failed the literacy test. Rusty was too remedial to be in the army The army wouldn't take her if she couldn't read and write. She didn't have to read and write good, but she had to be able to do her alphabet to where people could read it.
"They can't do this shit," said Rusty. "We signed everything already."
'They're the army," I said. "The army does what it wants, far as I know."
Rusty tried to make me read the letter over again, in case I missed an important part like “Just kidding, you're really going to Hawaii." I folded up the letter and handed it to Rusty.
"Told you," Viv said. "Told you to get up and open your school books instead of laying on the couch watching that trashy teevee."
"Shut up," said Rusty. "You don't know nothing." She crunched the letter up in a wad and pitched it over toward the kitchen wall, but the fan over the stove blew it back.
"Pick that up," said Vivian. She turned her eyes on me and grinned. "How're you going to like Germany?"
"They can't send me without Rusty," I said. "We got the whole deal signed."
"The army does what it wants," Rusty said. "Far as I know."
* * *
What the army wanted was to send me off all by my lonesome. I argued with La Vonne but she had her Ray-Bans on. No matter what I said, she just said army things I couldn't understand. Except that I better report for boot camp in eight weeks.
"Nobody made you sign," La Vonne. "It's legal now. You and your old lady consented. There's your names on the line."
"That ain't her—" I started to say.
"Oh, that's got to be your legal signatures," said LaVonne. "I seen you sign yours, and you wouldn't put a forged name on a legal government document. You ain't dumb enough to lie to Uncle Sam and get sent to prison. We know you're a smart girl, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "Real smart."
"Thought so," La Vonne said.
* * *
Rusty's brother Jack got her hired on at Redskin Broom Company. Vivian threw her out of the house anyway after Rusty said she was keeping half her paycheck to get herself a car. Vivian acted like it was the money bothering her, but it couldn't be. Viv didn't get no money at all after she heaved Rusty out. Rusty rented a trailer way out on Hunter Pike, she had to ride the bus half an hour to work. It was a pretty junky trailer, but the rent was only thirty dollars a month. She didn't pay nothing for her lights and water.
I put off telling Marlene about the army till a couple weeks before I had to report for duty. I decided I would tell her she signed me up while she was drunk.
That night I made us some supper, navy beans and cabbage and fried potatoes. Marlene come home about six o'clock with liquor on her breath. I dished up our plates, and we took our supper in the living room and switched on the teevee. I couldn't hardly eat anything.
"Uh," I said.
"What?" Marlene said. "You got something caught in your throat?"
"I joined the army," I said. "I forged your name on the papers. In two weeks I have to go to Germany. They won't let me out of it."
"What?" said Marlene.
"I forged your name and enlisted in the army," I said.
"Well, that ain't legal," Marlene said. "That's illegal as hell. They can't hold you to it, you're a minor. Don't worry, we'll get you out of it some way."
"I better just—•" I had to take a swig of Pepsi so I could talk. "I better just go. I mean, I could get in trouble, LaVonne said. And...I kind of want to go. I've got used to it, it ain't such a bad idea. I would make some money. It's only a couple years."
"I want my girl home with me." Marlene started crying. I got up and took my plate to the trash. Marlene followed me in the kitchen. "Carol, what if you wanted to get married? How are you going to meet anybody in the army?"
I raked cold greasy potatoes off into the trash can. "I don't want to meet anybody," I said. "I want to go. Let me go, Marlene."
"I'll be all by myself." Marlene was really crying now. Her eyes was getting all big and puffy, her lipstick was spread all over her face, I felt like I was going to throw up.
"Quit it," I said. "You carry on, and I'll go stay someplace else. You can't stop me."
Marlene went and got her vodka bottle. She took a coffee cup off the counter and rinsed it out in the sink. She poured some poison in her cup and drunk all of it in one swallow. "All right," she said. She'd quit crying. "I'll not stop you. You do what you want. You always do."
The first of October, I got on a airplane and I didn't come back again for a year and a half.