When I climbed the tree, Sam asked me why that was, why everything on me was brown instead of just pink, and I didn’t know. She ran laughing into the house and I stayed in the top of the tree and stood to let my secondhand dress uncrumple beneath me. I planted a foot on the adjacent branch and I leaned into the midwestern breeze like the captain of a ship and wondered if I could see New York from up there. You couldn’t, of course, but you could see that car wash with the vending machine.
Miss Becky made me borrow Sam’s shorts which were too long and too wide. We tied a rope through the belt holes and listened to Miss Becky play the piano until my mother arrived.
While they talked, I wiggled my fingers through the yellow cord until the shorts fell to the floor. I left through the screen door to the driveway, to my mother’s car where two quarters were waving at me from the console. Then I was on the sidewalk, and when I looked up, I saw the vending machine. I dropped those quarters into its hungry mouth, pressed the button, and heard the clunk of the can.
In the driveway at home, she struck me and struck me, my dusky skin burning pink with handprints. No shoes! No underwear! By myself! Disappeared! Stealing! Embarrassed! Embarrassing! Embarrassing!
She left me in the car to think, she said. But all the while my eye was on the silver in the floorboards.
She’d forgotten about it, or maybe didn’t notice the way I’d palmed it in my tiny hand, or that I’d wedged it between the seats. I cracked open the can and pressed my lip to its cold metal edge. Sweet sarsaparilla, crisp and caramel, aluminum and bright.
I never learn, she says. I never learn.