She Said, She Said
Paige Brandt came home on a Friday evening in the spring of 1988 after nine years in the joint upstate. I'd been up to the Skywater high school gym to work out and had stopped to gas up my VW. Parked at the pump closest to the highway at Stevens' Shell Station gave me a good view as the Greyhound rolled into town, stopped at the corner, and she got out. Her hair was shoulder-length and blew in the wind. She wore jeans and a sweatshirt, and even from a distance, I saw her shiver in the cool Pacific ocean air. She held a paper bag in her hand--that was all. A thick, brown grocery-type bag with the top rolled over and the whole thing creased as though she'd held it in her lap for hours, which she probably had. It's nearly 200 miles from Central Oregon Correctional Facility to this little town of Skywater along the Oregon coast, population 932.
Paige robbed the liquor store nine years ago with Charley Yecke. The Sheriff caught them before they even made it over the Washington border, which was probably lucky in some ways. No federal charges. I heard that both of them were high and drunk and completely out of it, sitting on the side of Hwy 101 near Seaside. They didn't put up a fight when they were arrested, and Paige didn't have a chance when it came to trial before Judge Tremont. Though she was only sixteen at the time, they tried her as an adult over the protests of her mother and the legal aid attorney. In a twenty minute open-and-shut case, her fate was sealed.
The world kept turning while she did her time. I graduated from our shit-hole high school, a place that never gave wild girls a chance. And Paige was definitely a wild one. By fourteen, she'd been drinking and smoking and running with boys four or five years older. Her mama worked at the candy store, pulling taffy, making divinity, cooking up chocolate for fudge and truffles. Nobody knew who Paige's daddy was, and her mama had never married.
Sometimes I thought of her, wild-haired Paige Brandt who stole $760.48 from Pitney's Liquor & Spirits and spent less than a hundred of it before she and Charley were captured. Didn't seem like it was worth it.
Paige couldn't go "home" anymore. Her mama had died the year before. Ovarian cancer. Paige's granddad let her have a room. Mrs. LaBounty was scandalized to have to live across the street from them. Mr. Steele said he'd bought a new box of shotgun shells, just in case.
I work at the candy store as I have since senior year in high school. Paige's mother taught me well. I still miss her.
If you work long enough at a candy store, eventually sweets no longer hold your interest. I've long since stopped caring about jelly beans and peanut clusters, all-day suckers and salt water taffy. Tourists come and tourists go, and they can take the damn candy with 'em. I'm pretty well sick of it.
Paige tapped on the window at 8:55, five minutes before we open, and a thrill of worry sped up my spine. Even though I had wanted to be--had intended to be--less judgmental than the rest of the townspeople, I couldn't help it. She caught me by surprise, before I had the chance to properly compose myself. I met her eyes, and I know she saw the momentary fear. Her face closed off and took on a hardened scowl.
She was dressed exactly the same as the day before, but not holding anything at all, not a gun, not the paper bag, just herself. She crossed her arms over her chest and started to turn away, but I shook my head and mouthed, "Wait."
I had sticky crap all over my hands, so I gave them a quick rinse in the metal sink, then wiped them on my pink apron as I went around the counter. Mr. Tilden didn't need to know I opened up early. He was off to Portland to buy another truckload of sugar and oil and what-not. I flipped the Open sign and unlocked the door, and she shuffled in bringing the smell of salt air with her. The fifty years of pain in her eyes looked bad on her 25-year-old face, and her dark eyes didn't burn with the intensity they had in high school. Instead, she reeked of fatigue. The light brown shoulder-length hair looked like it had been hacked with pinking shears. I was surprised at how pale she was, her high cheekbones not even carrying a hint of color. "You been down to the beach?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Too cold."
I imagined it would be since she wasn't wearing a jacket. The sweatshirt was dark blue and not particularly thick. She must have been wearing it for a long time for it to appear so worn.
Paige stood in the store, her eyes taking in the shelves of candies, little kid toys, gum, and racks of fancy candy behind glass. I couldn't remember when Mr. Tilden had cleared out the tables in the alcove and replaced them with two rows of red shelves, but I knew Paige couldn't have ever seen the change. She turned her back to me, moved over into that alcove, and ran a hand over a display of glittery Barbie candy packs. I suddenly realized she wasn't here to buy anything, but to take in the place, as though she were breathing it in.
I didn't know what to say, so I went back around the counter, to the work table by the window, and resumed frosting the cupcakes. Every once in a while I glanced over, but Paige seemed lost in thought.
Outside, foot traffic increased in front of my friend Robin's bakery across the street, and I wished for a nice, steamy cappuccino. A big RV hauling a fishing boat pulled up in front and blocked my view. Three teenaged kids spilled out of the back along with three adults from the front. They dodged across the highway to the bakery. I didn't notice Dixie, and she startled me when she came in.
"Good morning, Dixie. And good timing, too. I'm just ready to wrap these up for you." I sealed up one box of cupcakes.
Dixie glanced over at Paige, then frowned and moved up close to the counter. In a voice not low enough for Paige to fail to hear, she said, "What's she doing in here?"
I shrugged and turned away, my hands fumbling with the flaps for the second box. I got it together and quickly filled it with the remaining cupcakes, then stacked and carried them over to the counter. "Anything else you need?"
Dixie pressed her lips together and shook her head. I took her money and rang up the order. She slid the boxes off the counter and headed for the door in a hurry. "Keep the change, Jillian."
I stood holding the two quarters as Paige turned and sauntered toward the door. She saw Dixie and said, "Here, I'll get that for you," and reached for the door handle.
"No," Dixie said sharply. "I can get it myself."
But by then Paige was pulling the door open and stepping back. Dixie shot her a look of pure malice as she raced out, nearly running into one of the kids munching on a donut near the RV.
So that's how it's going to be, I thought. I didn't know what to say, and when Paige met my eyes, I looked away.
"You went to Skywater High, didn't you?"
I nodded. "Graduated in 1980."
"You were a year behind me." Paige gazed over my head at the Coca-Cola clock. "Have you worked here long?"
"Since my senior year."
Her gaze dropped abruptly, and the eyes that met mine were filled with such longing that I very nearly felt my soul sucked right out. "You knew her." It wasn't a question but a statement of wonder. "Oh! You must be Jill. She wrote about you sometimes."
I felt my face grow hot. Paige's mother sent letters to the prison with my name in them? How strange. I didn't know what to say.
"You're not hiring here, are you?"
I shook my head. "Sorry. We're full up at the moment. But lots of places will be needing summer help soon."
She turned away. "All right then, thanks."
"You're welcome, Paige."
For a moment she looked startled that I called her by her name. She trudged toward the door, and I watched her go. I didn't think she'd have an easy time finding work.
One day I drove up to Florence, thirty miles up the coast, and Paige Brandt was a topic of discussion at the Dairy Queen where I stopped for a cone.
Only my mother seemed to have any perspective. "People change in nine years, Jillian. That girl went into jail a scared but cocky sixteen year old, and now, after all this time, she's probably a different person. People shouldn't judge her until they get to know who she is now."
I agreed with my mother, but the two times I had seen Paige in town, she'd stalked by me, her face angry and hard--like she wanted to kill somebody. Really, the townspeople here are merciless. I don't know how she stayed. I'm not even sure why I had.
As Mr. Kaiser was leaving, Paige came through the door. She wore a navy blue windbreaker and jeans. I looked at the clock and saw that it was two minutes to eight, then turned to finish wiping down the fudge table.
I got that funny feeling you get when someone is staring--sort of a shiver of apprehension. When I looked up, I saw Paige looking at me from the alcove by the miniature Finding Nemo lunchboxes. She turned away, but not before I saw her look of embarrassment.
I asked, "Can I help you with anything in particular?"
She glanced up, blushing, and shook her head. Her face was hard to read, but she looked reflective, like she had something to say but couldn't quite come out with it.
Just then, Mr. Tilden came up from the back room. "Jillian, I've got one last receipt. Have you cashed out the--hey!" He glared toward Paige. "What are you doing in here?"
Paige's face went slack, her eyes hard and narrowed. Before she had a chance to answer, Mr. Tilden was at the door, pulling it open. "You can just take your thievin' self right out the door, and don't come back."
I raised a hand and said, "Mr. T . . ."
"Hush now." He nodded toward the clock. "It's after hours. Who knows what she has in mind. C'mon, Brandt, get out."
Paige took a deep breath and moved slowly toward the door. Her hands were balled into fists, and she shook with fury. She stopped at the doorway. "I didn't want your crass shit anyway."
He grabbed her arm and forcefully pushed her out. "I catch you back here, your ass is grass." He slammed the door shut, turned the lock, and pulled down the Closed shade.
Out the main window, I caught sight of Paige standing on the sidewalk to light a cigarette. She looked toward me as though she wanted to tell me something, but I was hard pressed to know what it could be. Her head went up, and she squared her shoulders before she walked away fast.
Exasperated, Mr. Tilden put his hands on his hips and faced me. "I don't understand how Aggie could have been such a wonderful person, and her daughter is the opposite. How is that so?"
I didn't know how to answer, but I don't think Mr. T would have cared what I said.
"If that tramp shows up here again, Jillian, you are to call 911. You hear me?" I nodded, and he said, "Okay, finish up here, and I'll see you in the morning."
My boss retreated to the rear of the store and left me with the last of the day's pans to wash. As I stood over the sink, I saw a flash of red outside. Paige stood at the window looking down at the trays of goodies I had so artfully displayed there. When her eyes rose to meet mine, they were full of such sadness and longing that I had to look away.
I drove my VW up to the school. Built in the 50s, it's a rabbit warren full of dark hallways and shabby rooms. I don't think they've painted since I graduated. It smells of dampness, dust, and floor cleaner. Mel and Jorge, the custodians, had cordoned off the gym to re-seal the wood floor, so I took the stairs to the upper loft where the Universal Gym sat surrounded by benches and free weights. The windowless room had never had proper ventilation, and it was much warmer than the sixty-degrees outside. All was quiet and no one else was working out.
Feeling energized by the prospect of solitude, I stepped across mats to the far wall, set down my little workout bag, then sank to the floor to stretch. I had changed back at the store into shorts, a T-shirt, and a black Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. I shifted into a hurdler's stretch, then a variety of other contortions to loosen up. My legs were fatigued from standing most of the day, but my arms felt strong. I decided to focus most on upper body lifting.
I started to rise and heard a distant rhythmic pounding. Bump-bump-bump . . . pause. Bump-bump-bump. Through the door and down the hall was a room, hardly more than a 12-by-12-foot box, where two huge boxing bags hung in the corners. I opened the door and ducked in the dim room before I realized it was Paige Brandt pounding the hell out of the big black bag. She wore red shorts and a baggy gray T-shirt, and when she turned, brown gloves on her hands, her face glowed so red that she looked like she'd been crying. I hesitated. She whirled away and slammed a fist into the bag. Huffing with exertion, she struck at it again.
I watched, fascinated, until she paused and turned. "What are you looking at, candy girl?"
I glanced away, heart in my throat. She resumed her assault on the bag, so I went to the corner and rooted around in the box full of gloves until I found a pair that fit. The gloves were bulky and a little unwieldy, but the rules, posted prominently on the wall, required that no one work the bags without gloves. The insides were stiff and rough against my palms, and I flexed my hands to try to loosen them.
I went to the left bag and gave it a half-hearted poke. Paige peppered her bag with jab after jab, then leaned in, steadied the swinging bag with her left fist, and bashed away with her right glove. I let fly a volley of punches, but I couldn't stop watching her out of the corner of my eye. I wondered if they let women box in prison. I wondered if she'd had to defend herself there. Suddenly, I wondered if I was safe in the same room with her.
As if to answer my question, she squared off and faced me, fists curled up against her chest. "What is wrong with you--with all you people?"
Now that I looked closer, I saw that she had indeed been crying. Her chest heaved, perhaps less from the exertion with the punching bag and more from emotions I easily read in her face. "I can't speak for the rest of the town."
She stepped nearer. "I shouldn't have come here."
"What?" I didn't understand. Did she mean she shouldn't have come to the gym? Or to Skywater? I let my hands drop to my sides as I studied her. She brought one glove up to her forehead as though to brush bangs out of her face, but the glove was too bulky.
"Paige." I moved forward, mouth open, but not knowing what to say.
"You think you're better than me." A glove reached out, tapped me on the shoulder, bumping me back. When the next jab came toward me, I blocked it with my right arm. "Not one person gives a shit what I've been through."
I blocked another jab and met her eyes. "You wanna beat someone up, Paige?" She didn't respond. "Go on--hit me. Just stay away from my face."
She lashed out, a roundhouse that whacked me high in the left shoulder. Holding my gloves high, I braced myself for another hit. Instead, I saw misery well up and leak out her eyes. She turned her face away, defeated.
An unexpected rush of heat started at my throat and traveled straight to my groin. I reached out and touched her chest with the top of my glove. I moved closer, pushed her with the glove again. She stepped aside, alarm showing on her tear-stained face, and I followed as she backed toward the closed door. "You want to hurt someone, Paige?"
She shook her head. "I gotta go."
Once again I met her eyes, and before she looked away, I felt a fire rise up in my belly. For a moment I couldn't breathe. I tightened my fist in the glove and socked her in the shoulder. "Come on, Paige. You're being a chicken."
Now her eyes blazed, and she brought up her fists. I shoved her back against the door. "Jillian, I could hurt you badly. Don't provoke me."
I grinned and cuffed her again, a light blow to her other shoulder. She struck out and caught me by surprise. I didn't have time to react as the brown glove sank into my mid-section and ejected all the air from my body. I let out a gasp and would have fallen to the ground had she not grabbed me. "I'm sorry . . . sorry . . . so sorry. God, I'm sorry! How many times do I have to say it?"
We stumbled, clutched together like two prizefighters in a clinch, but there was no referee to part us. When I got my breath back, it exploded from me in a fire of panting. My whole body was electrified, every nerve ending quivering. I wrapped my arms around her middle and squeezed, pressed my face into her neck, sucked on salty skin. She stiffened, as though surprised.
"Paige," I whispered as I pressed her against the door, moved my knee between her legs, and heard her moan.
Her arms tightened around me, the gloves against my shoulders. She was leaning so hard against my gloves that they were pinned against the door behind her. I was able to slide my hands out. I reached up under her T-shirt, caressed her ribs, kneaded firm moist breasts, and pressed my ear against her neck. The pulse point there raced as fast as my breathing.
She moved against my leg and made a whimpering sound, like a wounded animal. I froze and leaned back slowly, afraid of what I would see in her eyes.
Her irises were huge, a well of deep brown pain. "You smell like she used to, Jill. Just like cotton candy." The brown gloves came up on either side of my head and pulled my face toward her. Soft lips covered mine, drank me in, devoured me. Somehow she got her boxing gloves off, and her hands went up my shirt and unhooked my bra. Hot palms glided around to cover my breasts, and I gripped her waist, my thumbs digging in to her hip bones.
She shifted her hips forward, moved her knee, and suddenly I was impaled upon her leg, the center of me rubbing against her with abandon. She cupped my behind, moved me up higher, and I pulled up my shirt. Her mouth found my right breast and sent shock waves to the hot bundle of nerves between my legs.
It was all I could do to hold on then. I was a throbbing, pulsing being, feeling a high I had never before experienced, eagerly tasting her tongue, her mouth, her neck. My hand found its way into her shorts, down into the patch of soft hair, to the moist wetness within. She gasped and gripped me tight. "Oh, Jillian," she said. "like that, Jill, like that . . ."
We moved together, breathing as one, fighting gravity. I came first--lights and explosions and a humming sound in the distance which I realized was my own voice. I didn't want it to stop--the punch and pound of her knee against my center. As the throbbing dissipated, she, too, called out, saying my name over and over, and she could no longer hold us both up.
We slid down the door, me still straddling her thigh, my face pressed into her neck. My knees touched the floor, and she twisted, slid a boxing glove out of the way. She gripped me tightly, her hands caressing my back, under my arms, alongside my breasts. I felt the fire all over again. "You're good." I gulped. "Very good."
In a voice filled with wonder, she asked, "How did you do that to me, Jillian?"
"That! This." Her eyes met mine, and she looked completely flabbergasted. "How?"
"I guess you stopped fighting."
© 2005 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company