Pushcart nominee, The Sack People, by Katie Flynn
our third nominee, from issue 10.2
The Sack People
The sack people are at it again, singing on the corner about his pleasing light, oh light, how light we feel with only you, only you, oh light. When they really get going, it sounds a little like the fifties doo-wop Mom tortures me with in the LeSabre. She says no one sings like that anymore. I wish that were true.
Three days ago I got my ass handed to me on this corner by the creepy Conrad brothers, light-skinned, light-haired angelic creatures with black souls, even blacker than mine. I could tell they enjoyed it, slugging me in the gut, the big whale of a girl who’d packed them into lockers and stolen their lunch money. Only I’m not a whale anymore, my whole body humming with hunger, so light, oh light, I catch myself singing as I stalk past the sack people. God, it’s contagious—everyone knows it, staying back, playing indoors. Sooner or later, one of our neighbors will call in a noise complaint and the police will come and hassle and heckle the sack people off our block. They’ll go single file, singing down the sidewalk, and find some other block to stand on for a time, but they always come back.
Mom sticks up for them in her tired, half-hearted way. At least they’re spreading his message. What message? It’s a noble message. What message? Do I need to spell it out for you? Maybe I’d listen if their predictions weren’t so dark: We are set to burn soon, so soon it could be tomorrow or RIGHT NOW. You never know! That is what the handsome teenage boy in flip-flops and a brown sack to his knees says to me, “You never know,” and when I wheel on him he gives me a great big grin and I swear he’s flirting with me. I see how this could go if I wanted to be the star of my own teen romance story, but fuck that, I spit at him, right in his handsome face, and he’s stunned—I can see it, how shocked he is that someone would reject him. But he’s wearing a goddamned sack—what the hell did he expect?
I may be small now, but I’m still a bully. Not fists anymore, not even spitting, not usually, wielding what my therapist, Hank, calls psychological weaponry. I think it’s an improvement but Hank says it’s really just the same leopard, new spots, whatever the hell that means. He scratches the red scraggly hairs at the back of his freckled neck and tells me I have to learn to love myself, and I tell him that I love myself plenty, even my body, now that I’ve got rib bones to count and ankles I proudly flaunt in tennis socks. “But these surgeries.” I cut him off right there.
“There’s nothing wrong with my self-image. I see in myself tons of potential. I can be a great beauty. I can.”
I drop my backpack at the bottom of the stairs and sprint up to my room, where I strip down to my underwear.
“Cookie?” Mom calls from the kitchen.
“No!” I pee, step onto the scale, knowing that today is the day, and it’s true, the number, my goal, I’ve reached my goal! I throw on a T-shirt and run downstairs.
“I did it, Mom!”
She’s sitting at the kitchen counter, veiny rubber-skinned ankles crossed, chocolate chip cookies arranged in a star shape on the plate. “Cookie?”
“No, goddamn it.”
She bats at her blonde curled bangs. “Language.”
“Are you listening to me? I fucking did it! I hit my goal.”
“Congratulations,” she says, biting into a cookie.
“Dad said we would discuss it once you’d lost the weight. So we’ll discuss it. Over dinner tonight. And you, my darling, are going to eat.” She points a stubby finger at me, nail roughly chewed.
“There’d better be a salad.”
“Oh, there’s salad,” she says, and it sounds like a threat.
It’s a chef’s salad, with slices of hard-boiled egg, bacon bits and little rectangles of ham, dripping with ranch dressing. But I eat it because the alternative’s lasagna—it’s like Mom’s trying to ruin everything.
“Forty pounds.” Dad salutes me with his wine glass, taking a big slug.
“That’s wonderful, sweetheart.” He grins at me, his chin doubling under dark stubble. He’s still in his collared shirt, tie gone, top two buttons undone, showing a thick gross mat of black and gray chest hair.
“So now that I’ve lost the weight, you said we could talk about plastic surgery.”
“Can we just enjoy our meal?” Mom pleads. She’s put on lipstick for dinner. Lipstick. I can’t begin to understand her.
“That’s what you said—”
“Listen, sweetheart,” Dad says, raising his hands defensively. “You’re sixteen years old, a whole life ahead of you. If you want those surgeries in a few years, sure, we’ll discuss it, but for now, I’d like you to focus on your mental health.”
I drop my fork to the tablecloth, afraid I might throw it otherwise. “My mental health?” The only reason I’m in therapy is because I lied to Mom about how I was so ugly I’d gone all suicidal. I thought that would convince them to fix my face, but it turns out nothing will.
“Fine,” I say, and I run from the table, right out the front door, and I’m standing there, staring at the singing sack people, waiting for Mom to chase me but no one comes.
The handsome boy smiles at me, gives me a little wave, though he doesn’t say anything, just goes on singing, probably afraid of me. I march across the street, take hold of the boy’s hand, and pull him from the sack people.
They go on singing, but I can feel them watching. “What? Am I not supposed to touch you?”
“It’s fine.” He smiles, so handsome I can’t stand it. “It’s just a surprise is all.”
“Do you think we can go somewhere? Talk?” I’m not sure what I’m doing, only that I know this will piss Dad off and it feels good talking to this boy, staring into his handsome, smiling face. He looks back at the group, singing and nodding.
We walk a while in the quiet, his feet thwacking the cement in flip-flops, and I’m okay with that. It’s nice—we can hear the trees swaying in my neighbors’ yards, and I don’t even mind the way they watch us from their windows. We walk until we reach the trails that cut through the chaparral and canyon live oaks behind our houses, and he stops to pluck a thistle from his sack. Up close I can see the loose hand-weave of it, brown of course, the color of dirt.
“Why the hell do you dress like that?”He holds the thistle between his fingers, blows it loose over the scraggly brush. Then he starts down the dirt path. “What I wear doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does, or else why would you wear it? Isn’t that, like, the point? That you’ve given everything up?”
“I’ve given nothing up.”
“Oh, stop that.” The oaks grow denser the further we go. It’s nearly dark and Mom’s got to be wondering where I am by now. I feel a sick thrill making her worry like that.
“I’m serious,” the boy says, “I have everything I need.”
I nearly push him off the path.
“What do you need?” he asks.
I stop and he stops and he’s facing me, and I can see that he means it, that he wants to know, maybe even help me, so I say it: “Tell me what you see when you look at me.”
“What do you mean?”
“My face, what do you think of my face?” I can’t believe I’ve asked, but I have a feeling like I need to know, like this boy might actually tell me.
“Well,” the boy says. He moves his eyes over me, nodding sagely. “Yup. It’s a perfect face—two eyes, a nose and a mouth. What more could you need?”
“Damn it! You know what I mean.”
“I don’t think I do.” His face falls, smile replaced with a lame-dog pitying look. I can see it despite the darkness. Still, I don’t want to destroy him. I lean against the nearest tree, slide down its stubbled side, covering my face with my hands. I can feel his fingers on mine, warm and soft, gently pulling my hands down. I open my eyes and see him, his beautiful face, and I kiss it, him—I can’t help myself. To my surprise, he kisses me back.
It’s kind of great for a while. He’s on his knees, leaning into me, our fingers twined. Then I’m on my knees too, and our hands part, our bodies pressed together, and I can feel everything through that sack. He smells gamey, but I kind of like it, his smell. I kind of like everything about him.
We’re lying in this uncomfortable bed of like fallen acorns and twigs, I’ve lost my shirt, and his sack is long gone, when the boys find us with their flashlight. They laugh and hoot as I pull on my shirt and shout, “Leave us the hell alone!” Then the one holding the flashlight turns the light on his face, his blonde hair shining white, and I see that it’s the younger Conrad, Robby, I think, grinning, and I know we’re in trouble.
“Slut,” he says, the others hooting and laughing, and I laugh too because I can tell by the way he says it that he has no experience wielding the word. Then he shines the light back on us, the boy pulling the sack over his torso, and they’re not laughing anymore.
“You,” Robby says, “what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The boy smiles. “I’m merely celebrating his light.”
“His light, huh.”
The first punch is to the gut, and the boy goes down, his pretty face turning in pain. There’s a flurry of punches and kicks and I’m watching, just watching. Then I see a rock on the ground. I pick it up and spiral it at the boys. There’s a yelp of pain, and they all turn their eyes on me.
I know I should run, but instead I spiral another rock, and another, until I’m floored with a punch to the face. My cheek flares in pain, my nose—I hear the crunch, feel it flatten, my vision going black. I’m on my back and I can’t move, can’t see, but I can feel—weight on top of me, my arms pinned back, someone pulling down my underwear. My vision blinks back on, and I see Robby staring down at me, his body so heavy I can hardly breathe, my head sagging sideways. The boy’s on the ground, two kids hovering over him, delivering kicks as he stares up, eyes alight. I lift my own wrecked face to the smogged sky, knowing I want to be there too, wherever he is.
There’s the sound of the singing, coursing through the trees, growing louder. Robby peels himself off me, the boys dashing into the darkness, heading for the houses, hopping fences into backyards, disappearing in the trees. The sack people come up the dirt path single-file, singing, light, oh light, how light, and I feel how true it is, how light I’ve become, lifted up into the air, an offering.