Made in the U.S.A., page 1
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2008 by Billie Letts
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: June 2008
Also by Billie Letts
Where the Heart Is
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon
Shoot the Moon
To Dennis, my “Broadway Star,”
who trusted the wonder of love
Humbled by how much I don’t know, I want to thank the dozens of folks who provided me with information and encouragement as I worked on this book.
First, to those who know about circus life because they live it: Barbara Miller Byrd, Deedee McGarvey, Kristen Para, Katrina Perez, Obed Perez, and Ken Rawls, I am indebted.
With gratitude to the medical professionals who both answered my questions and tried to keep my body and mind functioning, Dr. Harold Battenfield, Dr. Jocelyn Idema, Dr. John Carletti, Dr. Bob Bruton, Dr. Scott Anthony, and Dr. Barry Eisen.
In Las Vegas, I was guided gently by Lenika Coleman and Mike Valenti.
Help in learning more about how the homeless of our country survive came from Sandra Lewis and Mary Battenfield.
Amy King shared with me her experience in gymnastics; Don Morrall knew all I needed to know about heavy equipment and construction sites; Jan Dougless gave me the great idea to include Draco; and Barbara Hendricks taught me about golf balls.
For the current jargon of teenagers, I turned to Malica Marlin, Sam and Jack Stewart, Brad Cushman, and the Nicolo gang—Michael, Daniel, and Nic.
For Spanish translations, I followed the lead of Hector Uribe, Arturo Ruiz-Esparza, Miguel Figueroa, José Ramírez, and Selina McLemore.
Thanks to the good folks at Brookside Piercing & Tattoos.
A nod to David Hoffman, author of Who Knew?, a delightful collection of whimsical facts, which provided Fate with some of his offbeat trivia.
To my friends who offered encouragement: Molly Griffis, Renee Nicolo, Georgeann Vineyard, Teresa Miller, Russell Andrew, Arlene and Wes Johnson, I send my sincere gratitude.
And to my family, always pulling for me: Barbara Santee, Vicki Mooney, Dewey Dougless, Dana and Deborah Letts, Shawn and Shari Letts, Tracy Letts and Nicole Wiesner, I give my love.
I would never have finished this book without the help of Wilma Shires, special friend who put my work on disk (because I’m typewriter addicted); and to Blanche Jamison who proofed for Wilma, here’s a big hug.
Finally, kisses to my editor, Jamie Rabb, and her assistants, Sharon Krassney and Sara Weiss; to my agent, Elaine Markson, and her assistant, Gary Johnson; and to my agent in Los Angeles, Lisa Callamaro—friends all . . . who guide me, support me, and nudge me ever so gently down the right road.
LUTIE MCFEE STRUGGLED into the too tight red, sleeveless turtleneck, smoothed it across her ribs, then checked herself out in the mirror of the Wal-Mart dressing room.
She was almost pretty but still had the not quite finished look of a teenager—unlined skin dappled with sand-colored freckles, cheeks not quite shed of baby fat, frizzy hair too wild to be tamed by gel or spray. Her hips were as narrow as a boy’s, and her feet looked too big for her tiny ankles and spindly legs.
But worst of all, she was convinced—not for the first time that day—that her breasts were never going to grow beyond the two walnut-size bumps on her chest. The best she could hope for was a Wonderbra, but she doubted even that would perform the miracle she needed.
After she got kicked off the gymnastics team, she was free to eat again—whenever, whatever, and as often as she wanted. So she began to satisfy her yearning for chili-cheese fries, chocolate malts, double-meat hamburgers, coconut cream pie, and banana-nut muffins slathered with warm butter.
She figured if she’d pile enough weight onto her stick-figure body, she’d eventually be able to replace her training bras with triple A’s, or maybe even doubles.
But it didn’t happen.
She jumped from one hundred and six pounds to one eleven and remained a size two. But most disappointing of all, the additional five pounds didn’t go anywhere near the training bra, though if she used the right kind of socks for stuffing, she could pull off a size A.
One of the consolations for all the hours she spent in the gym before and after school was the shelf in her bedroom crowded with trophies, ribbons, and medals, all for her balance beam performances. Margie Holcomb, who replaced her, hadn’t earned even an “also mention” certificate. Not one.
Coach Stebens had fought for her, taking on the entire school board, but like Lutie, she’d known from the beginning, the day the lie started circulating from classrooms to lockers, from the cafeteria to the parking lot, that it was a lost cause. Why? Because Superintendent Holcomb was Margie Holcomb’s grandfather, who thought if Lutie lost her place on the gymnastics squad, then she—Margie—would win all those trophies. Of course, that plan didn’t work out. Margie was a mediocre gymnast at best; but Lutie was the greatest ever produced not just in Spearfish, but in all of South Dakota. And many said she had a good chance of going to the Olympics. That’s how her first dream of all her dreams was born.
The first time a judge placed the ribbon with a gold medal around her neck and her coach handed her a bouquet of roses, she had all she’d ever dreamed of.
But she’d been disqualified so many months ago and now, the summer before her junior year, the dream of competing in the Olympics had died. Not a painless death, either, not the kind that comes quietly in the night, stops the heart gently, and takes the next breath
No, this death was shocking in its suddenness. Mourned. Buried. Grieved in lonely silence. Gone.
Replaced now with a more realistic goal. No longer a dream, actually, but more of a longing for the kind of attention so many other girls got seemingly without effort—popular girls with rounded hips and breasts that bounced like water balloons. But with little promise that she was destined to become the next Pamela Anderson, she thought she could be willing to settle for less.
If she could manage to give nature a boost, she would bleach her dark hair until it was the color of honey with streaks of gold. She would get more holes pierced in her ears and have a pair of kissing lips tattooed on her neck. She might even wear a nose ring.
But until she could find a way to get out of Spearfish, South Dakota, that was not likely to happen.
She took off the turtleneck, folded it into a neat square, then tucked it into the front of her underpants. She’d just rezipped her jeans when someone knocked at the dressing room door.
“This room is taken,” she yelled.
“Lutie, let me in.”
“I’ll be out in a minute, Floy,” she said, her voice edged with anger.
“Open the door.”
Lutie pulled on her old sweatshirt, bloused it around her hips, then unlocked the door.
Floy Satterfield, at nearly three hundred pounds, filled the doorway. She had long ago given up on diets, counting instead on having her stomach stapled when she could put the money together. But that was a dim prospect given her four-hundred-dollar welfare check and the two extra mouths she had to feed.
“I need to go home,” Floy said.
“Go? We just got here.”
“I ain’t feeling good.”
“What’s wrong now?” Lutie came down hard on the “now.”
“Damned indigestion again.” Floy fumbled a roll of Tums from her purse and popped two in her mouth. “You go find your brother and meet me out front.”
“Well, I don’t know where he is.”
“He’ll be where he always is. Now hurry.”
Lutie waited until she could no longer hear the slap of Floy’s rubber thongs before she slammed the door. She readjusted her sweatshirt, and then, satisfied no one would guess she had a turtleneck stuffed in her pants, she ran a comb through her hair and checked her mascara.
She stepped out of the fitting room carrying the ugly flannel nightgown and tweed jacket she’d used to conceal the turtleneck from the dressing room attendant.
Ignoring Floy’s demand to hurry, Lutie made her way to the magazine rack, where she pulled out a couple of movie magazines, then sat cross-legged on the floor and began flipping pages. Each time she came across a picture of Brad Pitt, she ripped out the page, folded it so as to avoid creasing Brad’s face, and slid it into her purse.
Fifteen minutes later, she found her brother, Fate, in the electronics department at the keyboard of a display computer, where he was trying to find out who invented shoelaces.
Though he was only eleven, he sometimes seemed to Lutie more like an old man than a child. He wore thick glasses with wire frames; worried about global warming and the endangerment of pandas; and moved like creeping Jesus. He liked plaid shirts, buttermilk, and old clocks. And he had a habit of running his fingers through his hair, which she predicted would make him bald before he finished eighth grade.
He spent most of his time reading, watching weird TV shows about lighthouses, Roman baths, prairie dogs, Jack Kerouac, and the Khmer Empire—subjects that nobody else would give two hoots about.
And he played games by himself—Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble, and Boggle.
He had no friends that she knew of—was never invited to sleepovers or slumber parties, campouts or even birthday parties. And he never invited boys to the places where he and Lutie happened to be living.
He went for long solitary walks at night and in the rain, he often talked in his sleep, but in strange languages she couldn’t identify.
Lutie wouldn’t be surprised if he grew up to be a shepherd.
“We gotta go,” she said.
“I’m not ready yet.”
“Floy’s waiting on us.”
“I just now got on the Net, Lutie. Some girl’s been hogging it for the last half hour.”
“I need a few more minutes.”
“Suit yourself. But Floy’s gonna be pissed. Big-time.”
As Lutie walked away, she saw several people rushing toward the front of the store, but she was too interested in getting to the cosmetics section to investigate what was going on.
A clerk restocking hand cream eyed her suspiciously as she began pulling tubes of lipstick from the Revlon rack. But when two older teenage girls came by and started opening bottles at the perfume counter, the clerk’s attention was divided.
Lutie found a shade of Lightning Red she liked, palmed the tube, and meandered to the other side of the aisle, where she slipped the lipstick into her purse.
Suddenly, the intercom blared. “Code blue. Code blue at register three.”
The announcement sent the clerk hurrying away as Lutie moved on to a shelf of Maybelline makeup. She tried one shade of blush, then another, dabbing color onto her cheeks until her face looked bruised.
Finally, she settled on Purple Twilight, dropped it in her purse, then headed toward the front of the store, where she knew Floy would be fuming.
But she wasn’t the only one going that way. People were rushing past her, and she could see a crowd forming at one of the checkouts.
The intercom crackled with static. “Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers, we need a doctor at register three. Uh . . . is there a doctor in the store?”
When a man in a cowboy hat bumped Lutie with his cart, she said, “Hey. Watch where you’re going!” but he ignored her.
“What happened, Ida?” the man yelled to a skinny woman ahead of him.
“They said some woman dropped dead at the checkout.”
Lutie had just reached the edge of the gathering crowd when a baby-faced boy wearing a starched blue shirt and a security badge pushed past her.
“Did someone die?” the skinny woman asked him.
“Looks like it.”
“You know who it is?”
“Big fat woman’s all I know.”
Lutie felt a knot of dread building in her chest. She called Floy’s name, but with the noise and commotion inside and a siren blaring outside, she knew Floy couldn’t hear her.
She tried to push her way through, but too many people were pushing back, so she circled around, trying to get in from the other side, but no one would budge.
Then she saw a policeman coming through the door.
“Okay,” he shouted. “You folks move back and let me through.”
The crowd grew quiet as they parted to make room for the policeman, who shouldered his way inside the group. Lutie fell in behind him.
And that’s when she saw Floy.
She had pitched sideways when she fell, slamming into racks of batteries, disposable lighters, TV Guides, and candy, spilling them onto the floor beside her. Her head was twisted at an angle that would have been painful had she been able to feel pain, and her glasses had slipped onto her cheeks. Her mouth was pulled into a perfect O, as if she had been about to whistle, and bits of the Tums she had been chewing clung to her bottom lip. Her fingers, adorned with rhinestone rings, still clutched the National Enquirer she had just paid for.
The policeman knelt beside her still body and dipped his fingers into the folds of flesh around her neck, probing for a pulse. Then he bent over her and put his cheek next to her opened mouth. Moments later, he straightened, pretending not to notice the urine seeping through the crotch of Floy’s blue polyester pants and puddling beneath her buttocks.
He stood and faced the checker behind the register. “You know who she is?” he asked.
Then he turned to the crowd around him. “Do any of you know this woman?”
Those gathered craned their necks and waited.
“Is anyone here with this woman?” he yelled.
Then softly, her voice hardly more than a whisper, Lutie said, “I am.”
AFTER THE MANAGER took Lutie to his office, he went to search for her brother. She hadn’t seen Fate since she’d left him at the computer, so she didn’t know if he had seen what happened to Floy.
While Lutie waited, a parade of Wal-Mart employees came by, taking stealthy glances at her as they passed. A couple of them even manufactured reasons to come inside, saying, “Excuse me, I just need to get a file” and “Sorry to disturb you, but I think I left my pen in here.” Lutie never looked at any of them and never said a word, but she could hear them whispering outside the door.
When the manager returned, he had a hand clamped on Fate’s shoulder as if he feared the boy might run. “I’ll leave you two alone in here so you can talk,” he said. “Take all the time you need.”
As soon as the door was closed, Fate sat stiffly in a chair that dwarfed his small frame.
“Fate, do you know—”
“Lutie, I was gonna put it back. Honest.” He dug in his pocket, pulled out a packaged computer disk, and set it on the desk. “Here. You tell them that I—”
“What’re they gonna do to me? Am I going to jail?” Tears threatened, but he blinked them away. “A policeman’s out there and—”
“That’s not what this is about.”
“You think they’re gonna tell Floy?”
“Floy’s . . . well, something happened.”
“I know she’s gonna be mad.”
“She’ll spank me, but I don’t care.”
“Listen to me, Fate. Floy died.”
He grew still, studied his sister for a moment, then flashed her a crooked grin. “Lutie, I know you’re just trying to scare me, but you don’t have to ’cause I’ll never do it again. I promise.”
“Shut up, Fate, and listen to what I’m telling you. Floy is dead.”