We can’t get the hang of smoking.

Lilyanne con’t

None of us can get the hang of smoking, but I’m the one who promised Shannon I wouldn’t give up. We cough and tear up until our mascara runs, but Shannon says that’s because we aren’t inhaling. Frankly, I think smoke tastes worse than medicine, but I’ll keep trying because I want to be cool. Now, I’m the only one Shannon will give her Tareytons to because she says she’s wasting them on Angie and Ramona, and it’s only a matter of time before I get the hang. Once I start inhaling, I’ll never look back.

I hopped in the car, dumping everything on the floorboard. The first thing Shannon did was hand me a cigarette and push in the lighter.

“How did everything go on your end?” Angie asks me.

“Piece of cake,” I tell her, forgetting to light my cigarette and Shannon says, “Damn, the heat is gone. Now I’ll have to push it back in.”

Her Mustang is wonderful but there’s a short in the lighter. It still works, but not well. Shannon says her dad won’t get it fixed because he thinks she doesn’t need it, and I laughed because Shannon smokes like a train and he’d have to be blind not to notice. That’s all I meant.

Angie is so nervous she starts talking about getting back even before we even leave the secondary road. “How long do you think we have?” she asks.

“Almost three hours — it’s only fifteen minutes to the church,” Shannon exhales through her nose. “God, I’m glad I don’t have religion. You Holy Rollers worry about everything.”

Ramona giggled, but I snapped, “We’re not Holy Rollers, we’re Baptists.”

Shannon checked her mascara in the rear view. “Same thing.” Then, she pressed her foot down and we zoomed onto the blacktop in a cloud of dust.

It didn’t take us long to get to the flea market. Shannon took a short cut through Dairy Road that led to Route 60, and we were going faster than ever. I checked my seat belt. We passed two cars on a double line, but when we got to Callope County, traffic hit and Shannon slowed down because she hates cops. She also put out her cigarette, turned off her radio, and placed both hands on the wheel.

It seemed like we waited forever before we could turn off into the field, and Shannon said, ” I’ve got to find a place where we won’t get blocked.”

Shannon thinks of everything.

The flea market was packed. An enormous man in bib overalls was standing on cinderblocks directing traffic, wearing a ball cap screaming with hot colors. He’d fit it on, then take it off, waving it at drivers as if he was swatting bees.

Shannon pulled right up beside him and told him we needed a parking spot that wouldn’t get blocked because Angie and I had to go to church.

The man stepped down and looked in the car. “Going to evening service, huh?”

“They are,” Shannon replied, pointing first at me, then at Angie. “Me and her are coming back.” She tossed her head at Ramona.

“Name’s Theodore Roosevelt Vance,” he said, spitting out a huge wad of chew. “Everybody calls me Rosie.”

Rosie leaned in the side of the window, and the car actually tilted. He was that heavy. Shannon didn’t move, even though they were almost touching. Up close, he was younger than I thought. I mean, he wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old like my dad. He glanced at all of us, then turned to Shannon who’d somehow worked down her peasant top. Rosie noticed.

“Are you going to help us?” she asked.

Something like a flame moved in his eyes before he cleared his throat. “Sure.”

He gave us directions that, if Shannon followed correctly, would lead us to a pick-up truck, mostly maroon. It was his truck and he knew the space beside it was clear because he’d stuck a NO PARKING sign at the foot of it. All Shannon had to do was pull up the sign and stick it back in after we left because his children used the spot. And to be careful when we pulled in as his youngest, Arabella Raine, liked to play under his truck tires. She was curious and might dart.

Arabella Raine

I’d been holding smoke in my mouth, hoping some of it might go down my lungs, but when I heard this, my mouth dropped open and a cloud rolled out. A small child playing under truck wheels? Not all of the smoke rolled out because suddenly my chest felt tight and I choked something down. Shannon looked over and smiled. “You inhaled! Now, do it again before you forget how.”

When she saw the parking spot, she braked, got out as if her shoes were on fire, and yanked up the sign. She pulled in so fast she didn’t even shut her car door.

“Well, are we here?” asked Ramona. It was meant to be a joke but nobody paid attention because all the attention was on me. I’d taken another drag, then another. I felt dizzy-wonderful and nauseated at the same time.

I opened the door and, after a few tries, found I had a little trouble walking. At first, the ground wasn’t where I thought it should be, and I might have fallen flat if it hadn’t been for Angie. She grabbed my arm and said, “What wrong with you?”

“Tobacco.” I took a deep breath, trying to clear my head. It didn’t work; I just got dizzier. “Shannon told me to get the smoke in my lungs, but she didn’t tell how it would feel after I did it.”

“How does it feel?”

“Like I want to puke.”

Angie waited until I was standing straight before she hissed, “That’s just like her. Shannon never bothers with details. And what about that little girl? Shannon pulled in so fast she could be mashed flat.”

I shook my head. “We’d have felt something. Besides, I looked under the car and she wasn’t there.” A wave of nausea hit me, and my head spun again. “At least I didn’t see her.”

“Great, so now we’ve escaped to the flea market only to get arrested for vehicular homicide,” Angie snapped, more angry than I’ve ever seen her. “This has turned into one big mess. Did you see that old guy staring down her top? I’m finished with her, Lilyanne,” she gave my waist a squeeze, “even if you’re not. I won’t tell my mom you inhaled because she’ll tell yours. I was tempted the same way but didn’t succeed.”

Right then, I knew Angela Raider would be my friend for life.

We hadn’t gotten out of the parking lot before we saw the man in the bibbed overalls walking toward us. I was hoping he’d come to check on his daughter, but, no, he was talking to Shannon again. I don’t know why she always dances around men — always fixing her mouth in a pout, running her hands up and down her arms and thighs like she’s got an itch she can’t wait to take care of, and sucking in her stomach until her boobs look twice their size.

She flipped her cigarette over her shoulder, even though the ground was bone dry, and shook out another. Rosie dug in his pockets, pulling out a silver wrapper of Mail Pouch, a dirty bandanna, and matches. He kept lighting and re-lighting matches, pretending the wind was blowing them out, but there was no wind. He was using the time to get a good look down her top. Shannon knew what was going on, but she didn’t care, and Ramona stood a few feet behind her, memorizing everything. Soon, she’d be acting that way, too.

My nausea had passed, but Angie still gripped me around the waist. She was shaking with anger, but Shannon’s flirting scared me. Did she have any idea of what she was doing? As they talked, he’d step forward, she’d step back, and he’d step forward again. It was like she was leading him on a string. If the string held, they’d end up at the tree line

“I can’t believe Shannon is doing that,” Angie hissed. “If he’s got kids, he’s got a wife.”

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Do I look okay?”

“No, but you’ll do.”

We’d only gone a few feet when Shannon caught up with us, having detached herself from Rosie Cinderblocks, who was striding back to his perch with a smug expression. Ramona held back, looking from Rosie to Shannon, then ran to us.

“Hey, you guys, hold up,” said Shannon. “Rosie told me all the best places to go.”

Lightheadedness struck me again, and I replied in a voice not quite my own. “Gimme a minute. I’m dizzy.”

“Get over it.” Shannon was both angry and impatient. “I want to see everything.”

I stepped away from Angie. “Okay. Where do we go first?”

“Follow me,” said Shannon.

We weaved our way through the parked cars until we stood at the edge of the flea market. Countless tables were before us.

“Where do we go first?” asked Ramona.

Shannon pointed to a table whose objects glittered in the sun.

“You want to buy glassware?” asked Angie.

“No, jewelry,” Shannon replied. “Rosie told me the lady that sells glass also sells jewelry. From the seventies. I want a pair of dangly earrings. With beads.”

We’d gone about six yards when I stopped and blinked, and blinked again, making sure it wasn’t the effects of the cigarette. Aunt Nonna was standing one table over from the glass lady, watching as a gap toothed woman sold a well-dressed couple a quilt. Her back was to us, but I recognized her hair. She’s got a spiral perm with red highlights and does it herself. There’s not a head of hair like hers for miles around.

I knew she wouldn’t turn around until the money changed hands, so I started looking around for Uncle Jim. I didn’t see him, but that didn’t mean much. He could blend into a crowd anywhere, which means he could step out any minute, pat me on the shoulder and ask what I was doing here.

Angie and Ramona were close enough that I could grab them and pull them on either side of me. Ramona tried to shrug me off, then took a look at my face. “You gonna puke or what?”

“Aunt Nonna is standing at a quilt table next to the glass lady. Right there,” I pointed. “She hasn’t seen us yet.”

Then, I looked down at my navel.

Angie was shaking so hard that now I was holding her up, and Ramona hissed, “Shannon, come back here!”

Shannon only turned her head. “Come on, you hicks,” she shouted. “Let’s do something!”

I swallowed my anger. I’ve picked my moments with Dad long enough to know now was not the time to lose my temper. I also knew we’d be in deep trouble if Shannon decided to get loud. All three of us must have looked stricken because Shannon’s anger turned to perplexity and she came back, stomping but silent.

“What’s going on?” She looked at us, then focused on Ramona. “Tell me. You’re the one who called me back.”

“Lilyanne’s aunt is standing over there,” she pointed, then put down her arm quickly, as if the least motion might cause Aunt Nonna to turn around. “We’ve got to go someplace else.”

Ramona’s bluntness amazed me. But she’s a gossip, and knows what gossip can do.

“Someplace else?” Shannon nearly exploded, but managed to keep her voice to a hiss. “There is no place else. We’re in Davis County, remember?”

“She didn’t mean we had to leave; she meant we had to go to another section.” I spoke because, after Shannon’s fit, Ramona was shaking as badly as Angie. She’d stood up once today and that was it. “Look, I need a physical shield and we should go,” I glanced sideways and saw a tree ablaze with color, “toward the tree with the stuff hanging on it. This is serious, so get in front of me and shut up.”

I don’t know where the sudden authority in my voice came from, but she took her place in the center and then we all turned, heading in the opposite direction while I kept my head down.My heart was pounding and I prayed every step of the way. Our Bible verse tonight was “And when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?” Yes, Lord, I have faith, and if you’ll get me past my aunt, I’ll have even more. I’m up for re-dedication. I’ll let my light shine. Just keep Nonna focused on the money.

My prayer reached heaven, and we made it to the far side. I raised my head as we approached the tree. It was hung with Elvis Presley tee-shirts — four different colors and four different poses. The pink was my favorite; Elvis facing forward, his hair in a dip. On the lime green tee shirt, he had on a white pantsuit and was holding a mic. On the yellow, he was riding a motorcycle and had extra long side burns, and on the orange he was dancing in black pants and and a black-and-white striped tee. Something clicked and I thought: Jailhouse Rock.

I’d never seen tee shirts hung on a dead tree in my life and I stared, as did the rest. Of course, Shannon recovered first and immediately walked up to the vendor. She pulled a cigarette from her purse. This guy was smoking, too, but he made no motion to light hers, so Shannon did the unthinkable and lit it herself. She looked so perfectly defiant in that moment, the flame touching her mascara-heavy lashes, that I suddenly wished I were smoking, too. But I was still stinging from answered prayer.

Shannon looked perfectly defiant.

Shannon started her routine, while I studied the vendor. I didn’t like what I saw. He was dirty, his jeans were too tight — not “cool” tight, but like he’d outgrown them — and he had a glint in his eyes that I sometimes see in Shannon’s — like he knew more and was waiting for the worst possible time to share, the time when it would hurt the most.

I wanted to be miles away. I glanced at Angie and knew she was thinking the same. Ramona giggled.

Shannon took three measured draws from her cigarette, then started walking around the tree.

“What’s up?” she asked him, her head tilting in one direction while her hips went in the other. That Mustang has gone straight to her head.

The grubby guy had nearly smoked his cigarette down to the filter. His hair and skin were the color of sand, but his eyes were a stinging blue. Sandman, he’s a Sandman, I thought. Finally, he said, “Business.”

Shannon stubbed her cigarette out. She never smokes more than half. She also won’t let anyone drink out of her water glass and will only listen to a song if she can hear it straight from the beginning. That’s why she’s always flipping stations; she looking for the start of a new song.

What kind of business?” she asked.

“The usual.”

“What’s unusual.” Shannon exhaled and grinned. Sandman didn’t answer but ground the butt beneath his boot into shreds. I felt my stomach lurch but not from the nicotine. Shannon’s a fool, a blind fool who can’t see a train coming her way. This guy looked like he might erupt.

“What do you mean by un–ushul,” he repeated. The word collapsed on his tongue. I thought of Mom sliding the beef roast into the scrap bowl.

“You know what I mean.” Shannon was still flirting, but her voice quivered.

“I guess I do, but I’ll tell you right now, I run a clean business. My shirts are paid for C.O.D.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Shannon tried hard not to laugh, then lost it. Then we were all laughing. Sandman looked like he might to explode. “Oh, we’re not laughing at you.”

But we were, all of us, and the worst thing was that we couldn’t stop. Shannon’s mascara was running down her face like black rivers, and Ramona, who wiped her eyes, had a smear that met across her nose. Just when we’d almost stopped laughing at Sandman, Angie and I started laughing at the other two.

“Which one is your favorite?” His voice was like a whip. He was looking at me.

I dropped my head at the question, not because I’m a coward but because I believe the eyes are the windows of the soul and he wasn’t going to get a read on me.

“The pink one,” Shannon answered automatically. She touched one of the shirts and I looked over to see a pulse jump in his throat. Shannon tugged again. “How much?”

“5.98 and that’s a bargain. Here, let me get that for you.” He reached for the hanger and when their hands met, Shannon jumped. I swear I heard static. She stepped back and rummaged in her purse, pulling out a ten.

The pink shirt was draped over Shannon’s arm and Sandman had placed the hanger alongside the extra merchandise at the base of the tree. He reached into his jean pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. He covered the money with his hands, like the four of us were going to rob him in broad daylight.

“I got a problem,” he said, “I’m out of ones.”

‘If your yellow haired friend there wants one for four dollars, she can have a tee shirt, too.”

I started to say that four dollars for a flimsy tee shirt that would shrink in the wash was no bargain, but before I could speak, Shannon said, “Pick one, Lilyanne. And don’t get one like mine. We’re not twins.”

I wanted to stay out of the entire situation, but both of them were staring at me. Shannon had laid claim and was daring me to cross the line. Sandman scared me because he wanted to see my eyes.

But I’d inhaled and could do anything.

“Okay, but let’s get one thing straight, Shannon, I’m paying you back tomorrow. I have money of my own.” I looked at her, and then at Sandman. “I want the orange.”

“Hot dog!” He slapped his thigh. “A girl who knows what she wants.” He took it off and the hanger and dangled it. “The Hi-wanian is a pretty sharp, too”

I snatched it out of his hands, looked at Shannon and said, “Let’s go.”

“Now, wait a minute,” Sandman’s voice intruded again. “I gave you a medium, but you might take a small. Go behind a bush and try it on.”

It was a dumb joke, and what was worse, it worked on my friends. Angie and Ramona giggled. Shannon hooted out loud.

I shot him a look of pure venom.

“The medium is fine because I know it will shrink in the dryer. And for your information, I think the Hawaiian is tacky. Elvis looked stupid in a lei.”

I looked across the field and scanned the crowd, but didn’t see anyone remotely resembling Aunt Nonna or Uncle Jim. I was no longer chained here, so I started running in the direction of the parking spot, with Ramona and Angie in tow. I figured Shannon was exhibiting one last jiggle for Sandman and would catch up with us at her own speed.

Angie’s voice was suddenly in my ear, breathless. “Are you sure your aunt is gone?”

“Positive. Aunt Nonna doesn’t waste time, and that table was the only one bringing in real money. She wouldn’t bother with the rest. She has knick-knacks coming out her ears.”

“Are you sure?”

I’m a fast runner, but somehow Angie was keeping up with me.

“Of course, I’m sure. Why are you so nervous?”

“Because if your aunt sees us, she’ll tell your mom and your mom will tell mine and I won’t get a spiral perm for homecoming.” Angie stopped, out of breath. “Punishment for lying.”

I sprinted ahead and called over my shoulder. “Don’t worry. We’re in the clear.”

Shannon’s Mustang was in sight. I touched the hood when I reached it, like I was playing tag and the car was it. I looked under both sets of tires but couldn’t find the little girl. Maybe Rosie had an invisible kid.

Angie had caught up and was bent over, hands on her knees, taking deep breaths. Ramona was still running and Shannon was coming at a pace that could be described as a trot.

When she drew up, she snapped, “Where’s the fire?”

“Look, I want to get out of here,” I snapped back. Then I repeated. “I’ll give you the four dollars tomorrow at school.”

“Lilyanne, you don’t owe me a thing. What’s wrong with you?”

I didn’t thank her, just opened the passenger door and there three of us piled in. The doors weren’t locked because Shannon never thinks to lock them. She started trying to find the beginning of a song on the radio.

As we were pulling out, the unthinkable happened. Sandman came loping across the field. I saw him first and rolled up my window, so he veered to Shannon’s side. She’d already rolled her window down.

“Hey, you forgot your receipt.” He handed Shannon a crumpled piece of yellow paper. Their fingers touched, but this time she didn’t jump. “I keep a list of my customers because I get new imprints all the time. Give me your name and number. Letters take too much time.”

“Shannon,” I warned, but it was too late. She was already spilling her name and phone number, which he wrote down on a pad with a pencil stub.

“What’s your friend’s?” he pointed the pencil stub at me. There was no stopping her, even though I jabbed her in the ribs. “You getting any tee shirts with Def Leppard?”she asked.

“All the time,” he said, and then stood, anxious to get back to his tree.

I was so mad, I began undressing. I undressed in the front seat of the car before we got out of the parking lot. I wanted my tan skirt and blue blouse, and I didn’t care who saw my bra, belly, or anything else. I shoved my jeans, sandals, tee-shirt along with Shannon’s top into my bag and dug deep for my clunky shoes.

Shannon glanced over.

“What are you doing. The sailor top belongs to me.”

“I know. I’m leaving it in my gym bag which I’m leaving in your car. Take it out when you get a chance, but don’t forget my bookbag. I can’t carry it into church. Give me another cigarette.”

Shannon, for once without words, did what I asked. She even lit the cigarette for me before the lighter gave out. I took long draws, enough to make me dizzy, then threw it out and demanded gum.

“I’ve got some in my purse,” said Angie. “Teaberry.”

I unwrapped about four sticks and put it in at once. We were all silent now; there was only the engine. Even so, it seemed like I could hear mockery from Shannon, so I lashed out.

“I don’t know why you think this is so funny,” I said, pointing to the gum in my mouth. “Angie and I have to go to church and we can’t go reeking of filthy cigarettes.”

“Hey, I didn’t make you inhale.”

“Did I say that?” I took a deep breath and reached out for her hand. She flinched like she was expecting to be slapped, so I withdrew. “Shannon, I did it on my own. I did it because I promised you, but that was between us. You can’t go giving out my name and number! Sandman is –“

“Who?”

“Oh, that guy, that Reuben Sanders. He’s trouble, and you shouldn’t have given him information about either one of us.”

Shannon didn’t slam on the brakes. She slowed the car like a normal person, then pulled to the side of the road. There’s a first time for everything, and this was the first time I saw Shannon cry.

“You’re right. I could tell he was no good. I don’t know why I did that. I don’t know why I act the way I do. I miss my dad. I don’t care what Marsha says about life being a journey, she ‘s full of shit. Once, I had a family and now you guys are it.”

She thunked her head against the steering wheel and began to sob. I glanced back at Angie and Ramona, but they were useless. Whatever would happen next would happen because of me. The words popped out.

“Do you want to go to church with Angie and me?”

Shannon’s head shot up. She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. “Jesus Christ, give me a break.”

“I’m serious. Do you want to come?” We looked at each other. Shannon had brown eyes with little green specks; first time I’d noticed that. She was on the verge of saying yes, but . . . she shook her head.

“Another time, then.” I threw the Teaberry out the window, then stretched my arm over the seat and Angie silently handed me two more. “Remember to buy gum.”

Shannon laughed, then started up the car. driving again at her regular wild speed, and now the church was just around the bend. She did turn off the radio as we got closer and braked without a screech at the foot of the hill.

“See you tomorrow.” I glanced back at Ramona, then forced Shannon to look at me. I wanted her to know that, no matter what, she was still my friend.” Just throw the bag in my locker. You know the combination. I’ll bring the money tomorrow, Shan, I swear I will.”

“I know,” she said, softly, and I got out of the car quickly because I thought she was going to cry again.

As the Mustang sped away, I saw Ramona climb from the back seat into the passenger side, but I didn’t hear the radio or see Shannon light up again. I don’t know what they did for the rest of the afternoon or what they talked about. They told us on Monday that they’d gone to Ramona’s and played records, but Ramona later told Angie they went back to the flea market and Shannon talked to the Sandman again.

I ran into the church with Angie right at my heels. I let out a breath, which Angie assured me smelled only of Teaberry, and we walked through the vestibule and into the sanctuary. I’ve never been met with a more peaceful atmosphere or a cleaner scent. It smelled as if none of the foulness I’d had a whiff of this afternoon could ever enter here.

Angie and I were twenty minutes early for bible study that night. We knelt before the altar simultaneously. I don’t know about her, but I’d never prayed harder in my life.