Jolene studied the neighbors’ line of acacia trees from her kitchen window in the Berkeley hills—giant weeds planted for the sole purpose of busting her view. Somewhere behind them the San Francisco Bay lazed between the myriad cities that nested on the surrounding hills, the late sky awash in yellow and lavender.
She looked down at the box of three-inch copper nails on the counter, a cash-purchase from a hardware store on Telegraph Avenue. Once in the trees they’d green over with oxidization and poison the sap that traveled the trunks.
No more, old gal, she said. This ain’t you.
It was the neighbors’ designer dog that started it, barking through the day until she’d trained it with a dog whistle. First came accusations of animal abuse, then the spite trees with their flourishing cancer of dusty leaves.
Through the thinner, lower branches, the luff of a curtain in the house downhill caught her eye. The neighbor stood hazed behind a screen, her arms crossed.
Oh darlin, Jolene said, you best mind the mama wasp.
This woman and her husband were the typical Berkeley couple—him, a software engineer, an egghead, and not the problem. Her, a trust-fund baby who wore shoes with individual toe pockets, aggressive with her cart in the grocery market and yet a life coach and meditation teacher at the downtown YMCA, continuing the long Berkeley tradition of subscribing to ideals of peace and love while treating neighbors like crap. Jolene was a Texas girl, originally, and saw through the disorientation of the California sunshine.
Jolene picked one of the copper nails from the box—a horseshoe nail in the shape of a miniature railroad tie—and tested the bite of its tip against her finger.
Her two-pound claw hammer rested in the garage, and she made it halfway across the room when a gold locket at her breastbone, cold and hard, reminded her of its own weight and being. It’d hung there since Jolene’s days growing up on the plateau west of San Antonio, salvaged from the last time she’d warred with a neighbor.
You ain’t got a chance, Wallace Rayburn told her. Lucille is taller than you, faster than you and, hell, she’s prettier than you.
Wallace Rayburn and his friends sat on a wood bench they’d dragged beside the long jump pit, their cowboy hats tipped low, the bands darkened with grease. Beyond the boys and the chain link fence at their backs, the country stretched flat for two hundred miles through West Texas. The seven-year drought that calcified the Edwards Plateau had just ended, but the damage had been done. The savannah was littered with the skulls of fallen steer, a kick away from powder, and miles of barbed wire fence hung across the country, all meaningless. Half the ranchers had left for towns elsewhere, and there weren’t enough boys to field a high school football team. Because no self-respecting male would deign to run track and field, the boys of Eremite, Texas spent that afternoon in March watching two girls gun for berths in the state long jump competition.
Girl, ain’t you listenin? You look fat in them britches.
Jolene was stocky, but fat wasn’t in her self-concept. She flicked a look over the boy’s western shirt, with its blue-bonnet print and pearl buttons. Now Wally, she said, you know that piano man, Liberace? His estate called, and they want the man’s shirt back.
The boy next to Wallace spit. You got a smart mouth, you know that? He looked her hard in the eye.
And you, Jolene said, got a spine made of boiled hotdog, so shut it.
You talk real tough for a boy who spends his spare time sewing dresses for his doll collection.
The other long jumper, the girl named Lucille, stifled a smile. The boys were no match.
Lucille and Jolene spent warmer nights lying on a picnic table, their hair splayed and mingled, watching stars and cosmic dust slide down the western sky into the Chihuahuan desert. In recline they spent hours thinking up ways to emasculate the boys. Thinking up, too, the adventures they’d take. It wasn’t unknown to hear of boys who set south for Mexico, seeking adventure. Some found it, some found worse. But the girls on their picnic table set their sights on farther reaches of the world. Tibet. Alaska. The South Pacific. Every month Jolene fished from the trash copies of adventure magazines her father had tossed. True Action, Calvacade. Illustrated covers showing men on foreign soils and seas, guns and knives, scantily clad women tethered to posts. She and Lucille believed none of it except that the places were real, and their heads filled with dreams of northern lights and bamboo jungles.
You’re up first, amiga, Jolene said to Lucille, and nodded at the hardpack runway.
Hold it gals. Their coach approached them with a brick of chalk in his hand. He was a homegrown athlete who’d just missed an Olympic berth in the four-hundred-meter dash, his chest broad, his body absent of fat. His every vein, tendon, and muscle there for the honest world to see.
I marked your starting positions, he said. Remember, if y’all want to make state, I need fourteen feet out of you.
Neither had jumped that before, though they’d been close.
Do your best, Coach Tyler said. Remember now, hit the board flat with your feet at takeoff. No heels, no toes.
The state long jump competition that year was in San Antonio, a city neither girl had seen. What Jolene knew of it came from magazines. Buildings taller than ten stories, neon signage, the chance to sleep away from home in a hotel, partaking of room service on dishes cast in silver. If she could just reach San Antonio, she might hit escape velocity.
Lucille whistled at her. Wish me luck, she said.
You don’t need it.
But Jolene wasn’t sure—beyond her smile, Lucille didn’t look good. She was pale, with purpled crescents under her eyes. Jolene extended her arm and pointed to her friend, to let her know she was loved, that someone believed in her. Because for Jolene, it would’ve been unthinkable to go to San Antonio by herself.
Lucille walked toward her starting line, nineteen long paces off, where she stopped and tapped each foot against the earth fourteen times as though testing its stability. Fourteen taps for each of the fourteen feet required for state. As though convinced that if anything perfect were possible, it’d have to be bookended with ritual. Only Jolene noticed.
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Sean Marciniak is a former borderlands crime reporter, and his nonfiction has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and other newspapers. His fiction, meanwhile, has appeared in J Journal and has been shortlisted for Hunger Mountain’s Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize.