literature

Tender

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Literature Text

Tender

In the bleak, searing summer of my eighth year the bad sun parched the earth revealing all the desert's pours and veins. Food and water was scarce in those days and no amount of cussing or fighting would do a body any good. My haggard father and mother sat on our porch for the summer's entirety stripped down to the waist, gnawing on dry pieces of leather. My parent's grew gaunt and old from hunger and our endless wailing. They would send my sister's and me into the desert on grueling errands to collect dry twigs we didn't need or to find water we all knew wasn't out there. I learned fast the purpose of those meaningless toils and hid under the porch when father came to send us out, he never found me. Though disobeying your parents is truly a sin, but I would have gone up with my sisters had I followed them into the dunes.
A week after they buried my sisters the rain fell in torrents. The drops were so large you could have filled a whole glass with just one. I ran through the storm with unfamiliar joy, my thick curls and powder blue dress plastered to my skin. I lowered myself into a deep puddle filled with black water and kerosene by the highway. The pitch blackness of the liquid bound me in comforting isolation. Just above me a car's wheels squealed. A limp black body plunged into the pool with me. When I raised my head out from under the water I saw a large black dog floating next to me. A car, now long gone down the road, had struck him. I had never seen a single dying thing until that moment, but as I looked upon this sad animal I understood that we shared the same impenetrable suffering of a spiritual and physical kind. With only my two fleshy hands to help me I pushed his head under the water until his chest fell still.  
It's been forty years since my eighth year. I spent twenty of those years into the word in the religion of my father and the other drinking liquor like an elixir in dank watering holes of Frisco.
Frisco is a disgusting town, or maybe it's just filled with disgusting people and the smell and haze would disappear if they all left. Only the bereft, be grieved, and begrudged wallow in the city's unsacred aisles between its sloping shotgun houses. Poor men creep around with their nickels and dimes to scratch an itch that can't be soothed by any amount of liquor, loose women, or what have you. The flickering florescent street lights make their lumpy shadows jerk and jolt like robots, like spent automatons.
The night is a furnace as I walk to the Albert street diner on Mooney. Men and women grovel under the fierce heat as they scatter past aged bodegas and weeping palms as if under fire. Even the scarred scared bricks that covered the streets seemed to be digging into the center of the earth to escape the heat.    
The diner was nearly empty save for Jolene, the somber waitress, Daniel the cook, and a young woman. Daniel sat sprawled out in his chair in the kitchen, snoring in short bursts. The young woman sat on a sea-foam colored stool at the counter poking daintily at a slim piece of pie. She wore a remarkable gold sequined dress and a fur shawl that looked like a raccoon hiding under her thick helmet of luxurious bright blonde hair.
"What'll you have Paul?" Jolene asked with a frown. My name is not Paul.
I sat noiselessly in a stool two places from the young woman and motioned for a cup of coffee.
"I guess no one comes here for the crowds," I heard the young woman say.
I sat silently. Jolene placed the steaming cup of coffee in front of me.
"We don't get much business in the wee hours, except for Paul here," Jolene said.
Jolene walked behind the kitchen kiosk, then sat next to Daniel and stared blankly at a small portable television. The young woman watched Jolene with curiosity and then leaned over her piece of pie.
"I guess no comes here for the conversation either," she said with a smiled. "And certainly no ones banging down the doors for the sweets I'm sure." She pushed the plate away from her with reproach. I puffed out a chuckle despite myself. Jolene rolled her eyes and leaned back in her chair.
"Are you going to make conversation, or are you going to let a lady sit here lonesome all night," The young women swiveled in her chair toward me.
"A man sees a pretty woman alone late at night in an inhospitable place he's bound to wonder," I said, stirring cream into my coffee.
"Don't worry, I'm no axe murderer." She said.
"He's bound to wonder about the nature of her mind, or the nature of her occupation," I continued.
She looked at me puzzled and then with dinner plate eyes.
"I'm no prostitute either, and you're horrible for insinuating it!" she said.
Jolene's eyes narrowed at us when she heard the word "prostitute."
"Can I get you anything else Paul?" she said, remaining in her seat.
"Nothing the good Lord can't provide himself." I said.
"Your name is Paul?" the young woman asked. "I'm Tender."
"Tender?" I repeated.
"My parents loved the King. They named me after the song Love me tender. Do you know the song I mean?"
"I do."
"It's an unfair name to have really. It's the kind of name that can either be a perfect description of the person, or sadly ironic if the person is constantly the opposite of their namesake. I wish I had a more moderate name like... Copasetic," She said.
"If that's the worst of your problems you're doing alright." I muttered into my coffee mug.
"I'm not feeling very Tender right now I can tell you. The truth is I'm not even feeling copasetic." she said, furrowing her brow. "You seem like a simple, introspective kind of person Paul, can I ask you question? Did you ever feel like your parent's were forcing you to do something you knew wasn't good for you?"
"I couldn't say it's been sometime since I've seen my folks," I said.
"Your probably wondering why I'm dressed up like this. To be honest I was at a cafe with my daddy, who owns all the Heart Markets in town. Do you know the ones I mean? Anyway, he took me to nice little place on Reading street so we could talk about my plans after university. I go to Brown, by the way, but don't hold it against me; obviously I'm not a snob." She looked at me anxiously.
I nodded.
"My daddy was telling me all about this boy he wants me to meet, and the job he has all setup for me in his main office, and then all of a sudden I turned horribly nauseas. My head was spinning Paul and all I could think about was how my life from this point on was totally planned out for me," she whined. "My life was totally planned out regardless of my own wishes."
"It sounds like your teed up for a pretty good future." I said.
"So I came here to get away, because I had always wanted to come to this part of town but my father said it was too dangerous. He'd never look for me here." Her eyes flashed with girlish excitement. She moved closer to me. Jolene nudged Daniel awake. He wiped his wet lips with his shirt sleeve and looked on at us.
"I want to go out and do what I want to do. I want to spread my wings. I want get out and get dirty." Her voice grew shrill and she rapped on the counter with little pink finger nails.  
"My dad used to say that you can only sit in dirt so long until some of it sticks," I said looking at her. She had bright, confused eyes. Her hands were soft and paper white from buckets of expensive creams and lotions. No woman of this sort had given me any pause before. She grabbed on to my arm, but I pulled away. What does a girl like this want with dried up heap like me. I had grown like my parents, skinny and rough from malnutrition and long days working in the hot sun. We looked like a strange pair this beautiful creature and her bum.
"Go ahead and take your business elsewhere you two," Daniel hollered from his chair. Jolene was wiping her hands in her apron and sneering at Tender.
"You should know better than to entertain her kind, Paul," Jolene said.
Tender looked up dazed as if she had been asleep. Her dewy eyes moved from me to Daniel and Jolene and then back to me.
"Let me take you home," I whispered to her.
I led Tender by the shoulders toward the yellowed glass door. She looked up at me with a weak smile.
"Do you like me, Paul?"
I pushed the door open. The night air blasted in around us, and built beads of sweat around my eyes.
"My name isn't Paul," I said.
I strangled her softly in a deep puddle on the corner of 5th and Height street while the night owl train passed over head. Then, when she was finally quiet, we sat in the puddle's murky water wrapped in each other's arms and watched the night's deep purple haze turn red with morning.     


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