Excerpt for The Square Donut by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

the square donut

a novel by

Lauren Crane

Smashwords Edition published by

Backyard Bird Publishing

Pleasant Ridge, Michigan 48069

The Square Donut Copyright 2017 Lauren Crane

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.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, locals, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. Exceptions to those statements include the Vietnam War, which was real and tragic. The Holocaust of WWII, which was real and horrific. Celebrities named and films mentioned, which were real and notable. And artists and their music, which are highly recommended. Also, Pearl and Lefty were the first names of the author’s grandparents, and although fictionalized and placed in this made-up story, little bits from their lives were sprinkled about as colorful mementos. Oh, and Lake Erie is a big lake in the real state of Ohio.

A note from Smashwords.

Licensed for your personal enjoyment only, this ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Jacket Design and Artwork: Sarah Sarwar


This book is written with gratitude for life, love and the beauty to be found in nature—human and otherwise.

Table of Contents

Chapter one: So, Anyway

Chapter two: Missing in Action

Chapter three: It Was Trying to Rain

Chapter four: Not a Good Idea

Chapter five: How it Came that Carolina Moved In

Chapter six: The Rolling Stone

Chapter seven: Tru Lov

Chapter eight: I Love You (Wait, I didn't mean it.)

Chapter nine: Her Habit of Leaving

Chapter ten: Cold Coffee

Chapter eleven: Found Alive

Chapter twelve: Table for Four

Chapter thirteen: The Law of Gravity

Chapter fourteen: Forbidden Fruit Pies

Chapter fifteen: Muggy as Hell

Chapter sixteen: Such are Boobs

Chapter seventeen: Sinkers

Chapter eighteen: My Wildest Dreams

Chapter nineteen: Police Drama

Chapter twenty: Lardass

Chapter twenty-one: The Enlightened

Chapter twenty-two: Why is it Like This?

Chapter twenty-three: What Do You Do?

Chapter twenty-four: The Runaway

Chapter twenty-five: Turnpike

Chapter twenty-six: Living Backwards

Chapter twenty-seven: Write On

Chapter twenty-eight: The Deepwater Blues

Chapter twenty-nine: The Antidote

Chapter Thirty: The Big Donut

Chapter Thirty-one: The Jacket


About the Author

the square donut

Chapter one

So, Anyway

I hate this town. It’s all bunched up, limp and sour, like a dishrag. Dishrag, Ohio, that’s where I live. Now, I’ve got nothing personal against dishrags. I just hate everything.

Oh, yeah, I’m Toby. Toby Renfrew, future heiress reluctant to The Precinct Donut Emporium: Home of the square donut with the amazing pink icing. My dad came up with the slogan because he’s a regular donut laureate. Hey, I’ve got nothing personal against my dad; he’s just teetering with the rest of this town, on the brink of the great stink-lake Erie.

Now, you probably think I’m down about everything, and maybe I am. What can I say? I’m nothing if I’m not honest, and believe me, I’m nothing. I’m a blank wall staring at a blank wall. I’d say my life is vanilla, but vanilla is a flavor. My life has no flavor, just like the pink icing.

I’ve got to make some changes.

A girl was in our shop the other day. I didn’t think she was from around here, so I wasn’t obligated to hate her.

Funny how she just suddenly appeared; I turned around and there she was, sitting on the stool I’d just finished duct taping. My dad calls it duck tape. Quack.

So, anyway, this chick came in and ordered a jelly-filled and some coffee and pulled out a cigarette. She was about my age—seventeen, I guess—and giving me the eye, I think. Then I wondered what I was thinking. 

“Got a light?” she asked.

I was bored, I had a book of matches, so I struck one and held it up. She leaned forward and started puffing, not taking her eyes off mine. I poured her coffee real slow.

“Sugar?” I asked.

“Yes, dear?” she asked.

“I mean, um, do you want sugar?” I fumbled.

“Um, yes dear,” she said.

I grabbed the dispenser from down the counter and before I could put it in front of her, she pointed to her cup, indicating that I should pour it in. Being in the service industry, I of course obliged.

Before the sugar could reach her cup, she put her hand out to catch it. I jerked to a stop. She licked the sweet stuff from her palm, eyes still on mine. My heart was playing a conga. As she tipped her hand for more, my eyes lingered on her wrist. I saw a botched suicide stitched across the soft part. She saw me see. I winced out a fake smile; she stared. I pretended someone else needed coffee. 

For a brief moment, I sensed a taste of something. Then nothing, except maybe a decent tip. 

My dad opened the shop when he was single. (My so-called “mother” joined him sometime later.) My dad wanted to be a cop, but didn’t meet the height requirement. My guess is he thought the next best thing, short of being a cop, was to hang with cops, so he opened The Precinct Donut Emporium. My brother, Friday, was the firstborn. I showed up next, circa 1960, sliding headfirst into a world of grease, bad coffee, and abandonment—my mom ran off with the sugar supplier when I was two. She came around once after that, I heard. I was about six, I think. We weren’t introduced. I don’t know if she’s still with the sugar guy or not with the sugar guy, because everyone’s hush-hush on the subject. That’s okay. I really don’t care. Much.

My mother was an orphan, so they say, no relatives to speak of—and like I said, no one does. My dad obliterated any and all photos, which means I don’t even have a picture of her other than the one in my head. I see her as being a lot like that actress Suzanne Pleshette. I have tried to hate my mother, but who can hate a woman who looks and talks like that?

My dad’s still bitter. And paranoid. We buy our sugar at the Pick 'n Pay.

We’ve lived above the shop always, my dad and Fry and me, in a skinny, two-story brick building that’s ancient, creaky, old. In the winter, the furnace belches and the radiators hiss. It gets pretty cold here by the lake, and those radiators get hot. (Understatement.) Friday and I used to have contests over who could keep their feet on the radiator the longest. (His brainy idea.) It kind of hurt, so I’m not sure if the winner was actually a winner. 

My dad got a bargain on the rundown place way back when, about 1950, I guess, and rolled up his sleeves to turn his donut vision into reality. He got his hands on the remains of some out-of-business 1930s soda shop and installed this relic of a wood counter. He put a black and white speckled linoleum top on it and screwed a dozen chrome stools into the wood floor in front. Half of the stools have the original black leather on the seat, four have made the switch to black and white checkered vinyl, and two are in the duct (duck!) tape transition stage. 

On the Employees Only side of the counter, where yours truly has wasted her youth, is the stainless-steel BUNN-O-Matic Coffee Maker that’s always pumping out the brew. Next to that is three tiers of wood shelving speckled with the day’s donuts.

Dozens of people come through our door every day. Some just pick up their donuts and leave, saying things like, “I shouldn’t, but once in a while can’t hurt, ha, ha,” and then twenty-four or forty-eight hours later they’re in again saying, “I shouldn’t, but once in a while can’t hurt, ha, ha.” Others sit in the booths or at the counter, eating donuts, drinking coffee, and discussing their personal matters, someone else’s personal matters, how business is down, how prices are up, how the weather’s too hot, how their spouse is too cold, how the fish are biting, how the government stinks, how the fishing stinks, how the government bites, how their roof toilet hot water heater basement pipes leak, baseball, football, balls of all kinds, liars and cheaters and lovers, oh my. I give some conversations a two-cup rating, some a four; others I know in advance to put on a second pot.

Nearly thirty years of donuts have been baked into the walls here. Seventeen years’ worth baked directly into my skin. I know it’s true because once, some little kid bit me. When asked why, he said, “Her 'mell like a cookie.”

That’s me, a five-foot-five, dishwater blonde, brown-eyed cookie. 

Oh, yeah, and I’m “solid.” One of our regulars, Miss Helen, who is like sixty or a hundred years old, always hugs me and says, “You’re so solid!” Which, to me, is a code word for “fat.” She used to drive me nuts. I've noticed that Miss Helen is looking solid herself these days. 

I am defined by our customers: “Can I get a refill, kid honey sweetie dear blondie young man—oh, I’m sorry, young lady?” 

“Aren’t you a big little grown up immature smart smart-alecky sweet chubby cute tomboy?” Sometimes it’s hard for me to know where the shop ends and I begin.

When my dad started his great donut adventure, he hired his old friend, Kasper, from the bakery in Cleveland—where they both worked when they were kids—as The Precinct's head donut-maker. The big donut-head, that's what Friday calls him. Well, not to his face. Kasper, who is thin, wispy, fair-skinned, and as tall as my dad is short, came from Poland when he was ten, and still has a little accent. He’s a champion metaphor-mixer.

For instance, one of Kasper’s buddies came in when Kasper was at the fryer and couldn’t talk. Kasper gave him a friendly wave and said, “Okay, we’ll get together and chew the shit later, then.” Or if someone’s self-sabotaging, he regularly utters: “I tell you, that guy’s just shooting himself in the balls.” Friday loves it when Kasper butchers a phrase. He lives for it.

Min is our waitress in charge. She takes the title seriously, because she sure acts like she’s in charge, which is another way of saying she’s bossy, but I don’t mind. Min is Olive Oyl skinny with a Jiffy Pop pooch of a stomach. I think she wears padded bras, because her boobs cave in a little when she wears a t-shirt, like when we go on our annual Precinct outing to watch the Cleveland Indians play. She mostly wears a waitress uniform, though—her choice, she says because it makes her “feel like a professional.”

Here’s Min in action: Let's say it’s a Tuesday morning and a couple—we’ll call them Fred and Eloise—walk in at seven-thirty. (Their names are likely to be Fred and Eloise, since Fred and Eloise walk in here every Tuesday morning at seven-thirty.) Fred and Eloise are in their forties or fifties. I don’t know exactly; I just know they’re really old and they’ve been coming here since before I was born. 

So, let’s say it’s a Tuesday morning, and Fred and Eloise walk in the door. Min grabs a coffee pot and has their cups filled before they sit down, and yells, “Hey, Kid, a vanilla crème, a nutty cake, and an original square.” Since it’s seven-thirty on Tuesday, I already have the donuts on the plates. Min flies over like she’s wearing a cape, swoops the plates off the counter, winks, and says, “Way to go, Kid.”

That's when I hear Min say to Fred and Eloise, “When are you two lovebirds going to build a nest together?” And I hear Eloise say, “Oh, Fred and I are just friends, Min.” And Fred says, “Intimate friends.”

Eloise giggles and says, “Oh, Fred.” Which I am mouthing because I’ve heard that conversation three hundred and twenty-seven million times. And now I get to memorize more conversations from open till close, since high school is over for good. (I was supposed to be in the “We Are Great Class of ’78,” but had the credits to graduate with the “Best from Hell to Heaven Class of ’77.” It seemed like a good idea at the time.) I talked to Friday about giving out conversation redundancy awards, but he said it would be bad for business, especially since I wanted to call them the “If-I-hear-your-story-one-more-time-I’m-going-to-barf Awards.” I think Friday lacks an entrepreneurial spirit.

Friday, Friday, Fry. Three years older. A million years smarter. He’s good as brothers go, always protecting me—though if you ask me, he always needed protecting more than I did. He’s not all that tough. Except for this one day.

My friend, Pauline Green, and I were sitting on a bench in front of Wally’s Roller World, eating a Kreamy Thing custard cone. (Wally’s Roller World is two doors down from our shop, and The Kreamy Thing is on the other side of Wally’s. The fun never stops in Dishragville.) Well anyway, these boys came out of Wally’s, and one of them said to me, “Hey, you wanna ball me?” Now, I just thought it was a scream, what he said. Unfortunately for the kid, Friday was walking out of Wally’s behind him, and he didn't think it was one bit funny. The kid ended up running away with a bloody nose. 

My dad reprimanded Friday, but you could tell he was proud of him, too, defending my honor and all. As I said, I just thought the kid was funny. Around here, I need all the funny I can get. 

But what was really funny—and I mean weird funny—was that Friday is not the bang someone in the nose kind of guy. He’s a gentle soul. A perpetual turn-the-other cheeker. As I said, he’s the nicest guy. Just don’t mess with the people he loves.

I saw that girl again. That girl. The one who wasn’t from around here. Again, she walked into the shop without me noticing and sat on that stool. Only this time, she ordered a chocolate crème. I liked her looks. She had a Gracie Slick thing going—dark hair, ice blue eyes, and a cool intensity. She was wearing frayed jeans that dragged on the ground and bagged in the butt. I noticed her butt. Then I noticed I noticed her butt. I decided to brave the situation and talk to her. I was right, she wasn’t from around here. She said she’d just been hitchhiking around for the summer. I envied that. 

She was camping out at the old beach. Her name is Carolina.

Carolina. It’s a really good name for a dark-haired, blue-eyed, skinny, suicidal hitchhiker I can’t get out of my mind. 

The Precinct Donut Emporium is across the street from the entrance of the old Lake Erie Beach Park that’s been closed for a few years. The old beach was huge, but Lake Erie devoured it. Now, all that’s left is a boarded-up beach house overlooking a scrawny strip of sand. But back in the sixties, when we were kids, it was a beach. There was a playground built right on it. We’d jump off the swings and land in the burning sand or rub waxed paper on the slide to see how fast we could go. There were times when old Erie would crawl right up to the equipment so that we could slide directly into the water. That was a blast. 

At the height of Erie’s pollution, when we couldn’t go in, we’d spend the day counting dead fish.

The beach house is made of good lake rock. A massive stone porch runs around all four sides. Way back when, giant-sized screens covered the windows. Wooden screen doors squeaked open and banged shut. Popsicle-painted kids hung from the porch swings that dangled from the ceiling, while their mothers rocked, gossiped, and smoked. Inside, big brown ceiling fans mixed the air into one giant whiff of popcorn, hotdogs, Coppertone, and wet bathing suits. The concrete floor was always cold and forever covered with wet, sandy footprints.

Right in the middle of the place was a circular glass case filled with the best stuff in the whole world: balsa wood airplanes with rubber-band-powered propellers, beach balls, inner tubes, Frisbees, and pinwheels with little silver bells in the center. There were Slow Pokes, Red Hots, Pixie Sticks, and Sweet Tarts, candy necklaces, snow cones, and pop, and ice cream. It was a gourmet’s paradise. Fry and I used to dine there regularly.

They padlocked the beach house after the beach disappeared. I learned how to jimmy the lock a while ago, and sometimes sneak in to sit on a silhouette of a park bench. There, I conjure up a movie in my head. A woman walks through the door. She’s holding the hand of a toddler—a little girl. Both are wearing red and yellow polka dot bathing suits. The woman lets go of the toddler’s hand to light a cigarette. As she’s shaking out the match, the toddler reaches up and the hot match sears her hand. The toddler screams. I touch the tiny scar on my palm. I get a knife-sharp pain that rips from my belly to my throat. The pain never stops me from playing the movie. At least the pain is something.

The old beach is my place, the only part of living here I like, really. It’s rundown and deserted. I can relate to that. When I go there, it’s just me, the shadows and the light, the water or ice and snow, the rocks and sand of what little beach is left, corroded beer cans and my own rusty thoughts.

Chapter two

Missing in Action

Okay, I told you about how my mom split when I was two, which means my life has been my dad and Friday and the donut shop mostly. But it’s been sprinkled with other people, too, like my dad’s brother, Uncle Nick, his wife, Auntie Flo and her son, my cousin Mitch; my dad’s mom, my late Grandma Pearl, and her third husband, the slightly later Lefty Wright; Kasper and Min, of course; and my favorites—grandma’s cousin Emily and her friend, Emaline. This is my family. My blood. My bleed.

Anyway, I grew up, more or less, running around between the donuts and the beach—when it was one—and this bunch I’ve identified as family. It’s a miracle that I turned out anywhere near normal when you think about it.

Take my Auntie Flo for instance; she’s a nut for gold spray paint. If it doesn’t move, she’ll paint it gold. One day, she has green plastic ivy; the next time you visit, it’s gold. Once, when I was a kid, I made her a picture out of macaroni and, beating her to the punch, painted it gold. Next time I went over, she had gold macaroni everywhere. She glued it on lamps and picture frames and Kleenex boxes and cigarette cases. She had taken macaroni art to a whole new level. 

Well, anyway, whatever isn’t gold you can bet is red crushed velvet. Gold and red crushed velvet. Oh, yeah, and mirrors—the ones with the little gold veins running through them. The woman’s got her taste and she loves it, and you’ve got to love her for loving it, since it makes her so happy. She’s someone you really want to see happy since her son, my cousin Mitch, is MIA in Vietnam and all. They put his name on bracelets for people to wear around so nobody forgets him. As if we could.

So, you’d give anything to see Auntie Flo happy, especially at the end of one of those nights she’s downed a few Miller Highlifes. Now, it’s against her religion to drink alcohol, but I don’t think even her fiery God could possibly blame her for it, considering the Mitch situation. If you’re with her on those nights, you get to see the ritual.

“I think I’ll have me just one of those champagne of bottled beers,” she says. 

You sit back as she pours that Miller Highlife into a glass—she’s a lady—and shakes salt in it for some unknown-to-me reason. Then you watch it all unfold. After a few of those salty Millers, she starts leaking like a holey hose. Tears seem to come through her skin. She cries from a deep well that’s never dry. Sometimes I like to be there so I can cry for Mitch, too. Sometimes you just got to.  

The funny thing about Vietnam was that for a long time, I thought being in a war was normal. I saw it, the war, on TV every night. They were always showing guns going off and bombs dropping and guys being carried on stretchers and people ducking under chopper propellers, dust flying, and news announcers in camouflage yapping into microphones. Then they’d show commercials. It was like a soap opera or something. Snap on the TV, find out what happened today, x-number of guys dead, x-number of guys wounded, x-number of guys missing (a.k.a. MIA). They turned people into numbers that flashed on the screen, then try to sell you “a little dab will do you” Brylcreem or the year’s best new something of the century, then remind you to tune in tomorrow, same time, same place, for the next episode of The War in Vietnam. The war was on the tube. The bullets stayed behind the glass, neat and clean. 

And somewhere behind that glass, amidst all that confusion, beneath the shouting you couldn’t hear and dust that left no residue was my cousin. I’d look for him—a guy with zero facial hair, a cheesy grin, and feet so big that he and everybody else tripped over them. I’d sit real close to the set to see if I could see him. I thought I did a couple times.

Friday didn’t go to war; he just missed it. He said he wanted to go and find Mitch, but truthfully, I think Fry was just as glad he didn’t have to. He gets heat rash, and he likes his legs.

My Uncle Nick, like I told you, is married to my Auntie Flo. He’s a mailman, and Auntie Flo keeps his uniform all starched and crisp. When it’s the day she irons the clothes, she props up her Holy Bible and goes at it. The more she reads (her preference leans toward fire and brimstone), the stiffer my uncle’s shirts get. I hear she used to iron his boxer shorts, but that didn’t last long. 

Anyway, my uncle’s a quiet man, a walking hush. He doesn’t say much of anything to anybody. After he delivers the mail, he goes to The Tavern. He’s not the religious kind, so his beer goes down with no excuse. Mitch wasn’t his kid, but my Uncle Nick raised him, and you can tell he’s pretty worried about him. Like my dad, Uncle Nick’s small, but he’s also muscular, so it’s not the mailbag dragging that postman’s shoulders down. 

I can’t imagine what’d it be like taking a kid all the way through high school graduation—you know, all the birthday cakes and bikes and Band-Aids and braces, and all those times teaching him how to catch a baseball and buying him pimple cream and telling him about sex and girls and all that stuff—only to have him become MIA. And you kind of have no choice but to go crazy thinking about him all sad and hurt and lonely, and maybe bleeding or swollen up with infections, or hot with fevers, or bitten up by weird bugs or rats or maybe snakes, on the other side of the globe, in a jungle, probably being starved and beaten and tortured. It could haunt you and haunt you, and all you want to do is get him home and pour him some cold milk and make him your best cream puffs—because they were his favorite. And you remember him smiling with those braces on and remember how he looked the night he went to the prom, all handsome in that powder-blue tux, and he was always nice to everybody and made you feel special, and you hope he’s okay and you pray he’s okay, but you know he’s not and you can’t do one goddamned thing about it. 

Yeah, sometimes the world is truly ugly. No wonder my aunt wants to paint it.

Mitch left in the fall of 1970. A couple days before he packed his duffle for good, he picked me up from school in his brand-new, slightly used, 1967 Deepwater Blue Camaro Convertible. I know the color because he gave me his car catalog to hold onto while he was gone, and the paint color was circled in red about twenty times. It was funny to me, the name Deepwater Blue. In Erie, the water is deep, but rarely blue. It might be called a Drainpipe Grey or a Wipe-your-nose-would-ya Green. But Deepwater Blue? Uh, no. 

“Keep this for me, will you, Toby?” he said, handing me the catalog. “I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle at home.” I caught his drift. My Auntie Flo was quite the collector of things, so there was a lot to shuffle over there. “And one more thing,” he said. “And this is important.”

It was so important that he had to pull over to tell me. We were taking the scenic route home, so he steered the car onto a clifftop overlook, where we could see the lake stretched out in all its grey-greenness below. He parked and turned off the ignition. The top was down on the Camaro (my request) and the breeze coming off the lake was misbehaving, twisting at my hair and making my nose run. It probably wasn’t convertible weather. I’ll never forget the smell of that day, though. Whenever I catch a whiff of the lake mixed with dead leaves, I think of me and Mitch parked up on that cliff.

“Slide over here,” he said, getting out of the car and closing the door. 

I slid over to the driver’s seat.

“I’m going to teach you how to start this baby.” 

“Really?” I asked. “Cool.”

“Yeah, and then once a week, you’ve got to go to my house and start her up. Otherwise, the engine will be dead when I get back.”

“Cool, yeah.” 

He then gave me about a twenty-minute lesson on how to start the car. We’re talking about a manual transmission and a fifth-grade girl, but I caught on and learned to do it. I don’t know now if he was a great teacher or I was just the most willing kid on earth. I’d do anything for my cousin Mitch. 

“I’m going to hang my keys right by the kitchen door of our house. Now, when you come over, make sure you’re a little hungry, because my mom will be looking for somebody to feed.” 

So, every week after that, I began walking the two blocks to Mitch’s house to start that Camaro, and my Auntie Flo would say that Uncle Nick had just started it that morning, or Friday had been around to start it (looks as if Mitch gave him the same lesson). But I’d go start it anyway. Then I’d end up sitting with Auntie Flo, watching one of her TV shows. Visiting. Eating her potpies.

Of course, now I know what my cousin was up to with the car-starting thing. 

Mitch might have had a clever plan for the home front, but I don’t think he knew what he was getting into over in Vietnam. He was always poetic and romantic when he talked about being a soldier. He wanted to be a Green Beret more than anything in the world. He couldn’t wait to enlist—he was not going to wait to be drafted, not that boy. He had set up an obstacle course in the woods, chin-up bars, climbing walls, and hurdles made of tree branches along a narrow path. He and a buddy built it and timed each other. Mitch was trained and ready.

The Green Berets weren’t ready for Mitch, though. He had to settle for being a regular soldier, but he was good with it. I didn’t know the difference. He looked great in his uniform. I carry a picture of him all uniformed up in my wallet. 

Yeah, in all of Mitch’s grand schemes, I don’t think coming up missing or dying played a part in his plan. Dying: that was a word no one spoke. But I guarantee we all thought it.

I’m thinking that dying was not part of that Carolina girl’s plans, either. I’m thinking that gash of a scar across her wrist was her deciding to die, but she must have changed her mind, because she’s here now. At least, I think she’s still here. She’s been MIA herself for four days. 

Not that I’m counting.

Chapter three

It Was Trying to Rain

I cleaned and closed The Precinct. My dad likes every corner of the place to be militarily clean. Spit-shined down to the last spoon, which is a fairly gross thought. He’s a very weird man. Not that clean is weird; he’s just twisted in so many ways. A human cruller, you might say, if you knew your donuts.

It was trying to rain. I crossed the street to the old beach, passed the Closed to the Public warning sign, and squeezed through the hole in the fence behind the No Trespassing, This Means You! sign. I noticed that the letters were so faded I could hardly read them. I made a mental note to tell Zeke, the DPS guy.  

I scanned the horizon, but didn’t see her. I hadn’t told myself that I was looking for her until I realized, again, my disappointment at not seeing her. It started to drizzle. I sat on my favorite rock and closed my eyes, holding my face up toward the mist and the sun streaking through the clouds. When I opened my eyes, she’d again performed her appearing act. There she was, at my feet, a silhouette against the Jesus rays.

“Gee-zus.” She made me jump, and there was a thrill in it. “How do you do that?” I asked over my palpitations. 

She gave me no answer.

Carolina sat down in front of me cross-legged, with one Earth Shoe-shod foot over the other. She looked me in the eyes and said, “I feel clean when it rains.”

She is so deep. I wish I were. I wish I could have said something from my vulnerable, honest soul that would have held a simple yet brilliant universal truth. 

“Well, you look pretty clean, I mean, after hitchhiking all over and camping and everything.” I winced at the stupidity of my response.

She was silent.

I stumbled on. “I mean, you look like you shower regularly.” I faded, miserably.

Carolina put her chin on her knees as she hugged them to her chest. Carolina rocked herself. Carolina smiled. The lake, the mist, the rays, and Carolina there in all her Grace Slickiness—what was a girl to do? All I could do was look at her. I blushed and felt something I can only describe as really good. And I felt really good down to the very deepest depths of my very blushed being.

It began to rain. Suddenly, I felt clean.

Carolina had set down stakes and was living in a pup tent at the old beach. She hid it in some of the scruff and trees by the water’s edge. Somehow, she knew she had to hide. Maybe the No Trespassing sign was a clue, or maybe she saw Officer Wheedle, the local fuzz who was always looking for trouble, cruising the place. Or maybe she was just a girl who hid. 

I started seeing her more after her Erie appearance. She’d materialize at odd moments, and we’d go out to get a burger at Steer’s Beef ’n Chips, or go to the Erie Drive-In to catch Saturday Night Fever for the 1.4 millionth time. “Too bad they don't run Eraserhead here,” she'd say. “You'd love it.” Or we'd peruse Records! record store. “Let's go say hi to David.” She'd look at every Bowie record every time. 

Once, Carolina said, “Toby, your main street is Erie and your lake is Erie. A lot of things here are Erie.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Erie, as in eerie, weird, rancid, old, stinky.”

She paused, looking around. “I like cruddy. It’s cruddy, in a cool way.”

Cool? That was a new and unexpected point-of-view. 

I looked at the faded entrance arch to the old beach and our raggedy building. Across from us were the woods where Mitch had built his obstacle course. Next to us is The Tavern, which looks as if it were made of matchsticks. And who calls a bar a tavern anymore anyway? Next to that, Wally’s Roller World, which I mentioned, where everything from the building to the rollers on the skates are worn and a little bit grubby. The Kreamy Thing, next to Wally’s—as I also told you—was built during the Great Depression, which also describes its appearance, although the custard’s pretty good. Cross the side street and you come to a yellow cinderblock motel called 40 Winks, where people used to bring the kids for a weekend by the lake. And where all the friends of the owner’s kid, Bucky Salida, used to bring their high school dates. (Unbeknownst to Mr. and Mrs. Salida.) 

Keep walking and you get to a few rental cottages that have seen better days, Harold’s Auto Parts (complete with a picture window full of found-on-the-road hubcaps), and, sticking out like a beer belly in an all-white dress shirt, the Christ Almighty Baptist Church. 

You’ve got more woods for about a quarter mile, then city hall, the fire station, and the police station. A snappy new and tacky subdivision full of cheap split-levels ends where the big intersection begins. There you’ll find the Texaco, the Pick ’n Pay, the Dye Baby Dye hair salon (Min’s second home), a bunch of stores too boring to mention, and the most beautiful place in the entire universe—Mandelo’s Harley Davidson, a place, I discovered, where Carolina and I stand on common ground.

Unfortunately, I had to stumble over some uncomfortable territory to find it. 

Up to the point when Carolina showed up, I’d always been good at thinking. After, um, not so good. I got a little busy looking at her, staring at her mouth (lips). It’s kind of embarrassing, really.

What happens to me when I see Carolina—she scares me, she excites me, she intrigues me. The way she moves, like a baggie blowing in the wind real fast above the ground, hardly touching. And when she looks at me, she looks right through my eyes to my brain, right through my skin to my guts. I feel gut-naked in front of her. I’ve never met anybody like her in my entire life. She’s my age, but a whole lot more worldly. I mean, she hitchhikes. She has my insides churning like a glass of Alka-Seltzer. 

When she’s not around and I get my brain back, questions surface. One keeps coming back. That scar on her wrist. What the hell?

I know everybody’s got scars, because they like to talk about them. My dad’s friends come into the shop and lift up their pant legs, (or worse, open their shirts). 

“Shrapnel, Dubya Dubya Two.” 

“Enemy fire, Korea.”

“Unfortunate mishap, John Deere.”

Kasper said he knew a guy who had “his whole leg decapitated.”

I wanted to know about Carolina’s scar. Attempted suicide? Why? 

So one day when we’re wading in the waves of Erie, I mention it, kinda casual. 

“Um, so, what’s with the scar on your wrist?”

“Smooth entrée,” she said.

“Just wondering.”


There was silence for a while, during which I was internally wigging out, sure I blew everything. Whatever everything was.

“It was an accident,” she said.

“Oh good, a car accident?” 

“Toby, car accidents aren’t good, they’re fabulous, what with the rolling heads, flying limbs and all.”

“I didn’t mean car accidents are good, I—”

“It was an accidental suicide attempt.” 

I likened her story to one I’d heard where some guy claimed he accidentally stabbed his wife seventeen times. It didn’t cut the cake, but I was getting that sick-to-my-stomach-wish-I-never-brought-it-up feeling and was really looking to wrap it up.     

“Listen, Toby, life was shit, complete shit, and I wanted out. So I took a swipe with a razor, only I changed my mind, which is a little tricky once you slice a vein. I don’t recommend it to anybody. People get all hot about it, and the next thing you know you’re in the mental ward of a hospital wishing you had succeeded, and the only thing that keeps you going is the thing you wanted to live for in the first place.”

“Which is what?” I asked.

“A Harley. I thought riding a Harley would be better than dying. Plus, it would get me away from my life.”

“I love motorcycles.” 

“You’d be crazy not to.”

We both jumped on the motorcycle topic, and redlined it until we were miles away from the suicide subject. Even so, the suicide thing, the Mitch thing, the death thing, burns my brain. I don’t get it.  

Let’s say you make it through the rickets and get yourself old. You’ve got scars, sure. And you’ve seen a ton, unless you get there with your eyes closed, which I know some people do. (You meet a lot of characters in the donut business.) Just when you’ve got the fat part of life under your belt, you die. I don’t mean to insult whoever’s in charge here, but that’s dumb. You just die? Where does all that learning go? Into the ground? Into a pile of ashes? Into the mud in the Winner’s Circle at Thistledown Racetrack, like my Grandma Pearl? 

Like I said, my Grandma Pearl was married to Lefty Wright. Lefty was a horse trainer from way back. They raced the horses at Thistledown when the weather was good here. In the winter, they’d climb into an old converted school bus that was painted army green, horses and all. (Well, the horses weren’t painted green; I’m just saying they—my grandparents—would actually get in the bus with the horses and head south to race.) Grandma Pearl and Grampa Lefty, well, they loved it when “their” horses won. They never owned the horses; only fat, rich guys did. Grampa Lefty was fat, in a Humpty Dumpty kind of way, plump in the middle with skinny little legs. But he wasn’t rich, which kept him from owning horses, but not from loving them. So, when the horses Grampa Lefty loved won, man, the old folks got pee-your-pants excited. They’d stand there in the Winner’s Circle, proud as proud, the rooster and his chicken. (He called her “My Chicken.”) There was no place they’d rather be.

So when Grandma Pearl died, she was the first to leave, well, my dad, Uncle Nick, and Grampa Lefty decided the natural place for her to be was in The Winner’s Circle at Thistledown. 

It was raining the day we spread her ashes—those bits of Pearl, as I like to say. I imagined her getting stuck on a thoroughbred’s foot and racing around the track. I was thinking about that while we were standing there. Friday elbowed me and told me to wipe the big grin off my face. I couldn’t help it if I didn’t feel like crying; it was a cool picture.

Two years later, we did the same with Lefty Wright, or as I like to pun: what was left of Wright. He flew around with the leaves and the dust. Some of him blew up on me and got caught in my hair, which meant it was highly likely that part of that big, cigar-chewing old man was washed down the drain with the Prell later that night.

And that gets me thinking…. 

Okay, so you’re living and you’re breathing and you’re making all your choices. And blood is pumping through you, churning around, feeding all your parts, and you haul that body around with you, or I guess I’d say, your body hauls you around with it. Well, why not take chances and be great? You’re just going to end up dried up or rotten or washed down some drain and g-o-n-e gone. Why don’t you do something? Why don’t I do something? While I’ve still got blood in me, why don’t I do something? I feel stuck in a big fat vat of spoiled molasses. Sucked down. I can’t move my arms.

Then I think of Carolina. I see her every day, those X-ray eyes, my seltzer stomach. When she floats into my sight, it’s like I’m being slapped by the hand of February. She’s cold wind in my lungs. She makes me breathe deeper, in sharp bursts. She makes me see clearer, though only glimpses. We take long barefoot walks along the lake. We talk and she’ll make a comment, a smartass comment that I don’t quite understand exactly, and I get a peep of something. I try to hold onto the sight, but it comes and goes quickly. I keep feeling like I’m on the verge of something huge. I’m Christopher Columbus; Isabella’s kissed me off and I’m sailing toward the new shore. I think I see land, the lush green land, and then the sea goes flat. No New World in sight, just the square donuts with the amazing pink icing, which, I must tell you, are not one bit amazing to me. Oh, don’t get me started.

Maybe I should tell you about Grandma Pearl’s cousin, Emily, who shares her house with the sweetest old lady, Emaline. Cousin Emily and Cousin Emaline. Em & Em. That’s what I call ’em. They say they’ve been together since nineteen-forever. 

The Ems live in a big, old, yellow house with one of those attics you see in movies with every bit of junk you can imagine. I used to love playing there up in the hot, dry air, walking on those squeaky floors, sneezing the whole time from the dust. Once, I went nuts over an ancient typewriter, so they gave it to me. They put in a new ribbon and greased the thing up. They told me to type up my thoughts, things I wonder about. I do a lot of wondering while I’m making the donuts. I even wonder in my spare time. I wonder what this old typewriter knows. This was Emily’s typewriter, and I know it means a lot to her. In her day, Emily was a newspaper reporter. In her day. What the heck does it mean? Do we all have a day? What if this is my day? Lord, I hope not. What if I never have my day? “In           her day, ol’ Miz Renfrew was quite the…was quite the…was…what the hell was she?”

I took Carolina to the Ems one day. We had a time, the four of us, hanging out. The Ems kept bringing out the food. Carolina eats a lot for a skinny girl. It was a Sunday. I had taken the day off—a rare treat, I might add, Sunday being a big day for donuts. Cousin Emaline asked me if I thought any more about going to college. As if I’d been thinking at all about going to college. How can I go to college if I don’t even know what I want to do with my life? I only know what I know how to do. I know how to make donuts and coffee. I know how to fill sugar and creamers. I know how to mop counters. I know how to pay bills. I know how to post ledgers. I can do every part of this business. My dad can go fishing for days at a time. He can catch walleyes or whales or what-the-hell-ever and know everything will be all right when he comes back. I’m good. And I hate what I’m good at. But I don’t know what else to do. Yeah, I’m stuck in, sucked in, socked in molasses. I’m suffocating. “1-Adam-12, 1-Adam-12: possible suffocation on Erie Street. Over.”

We stayed with the cousins late into the night. Cousin Emily asked Carolina if she’d like to take a break from camping and stay with them for a while. Carolina said she’d think it over and let ’em know. 

On the way back, in the car, she was real quiet, thinking it over, maybe. She makes my heart beat a little too fast. She said she loves the cousins. She asked if I’d like to camp out with her. We stopped at The Precinct (which feels to me like the county jail) to pick up my sleeping bag and tell the old man—which is sometimes what I refer to him as in my head when I’m feeling like I hate this town, which I do more and more every day—what my plans were. He was busy dreaming about the one that got away, so I just grabbed my bag and pillow and Carolina and I headed out for the old beach.

I threw my stuff next to hers in the tent and crawled in. She turned on a tiny battery-operated lamp. I unrolled my bag. She was lying on top of hers, head propped up on her hand, watching me. Silent. I looked over and giggled, kind of nervous. 

“Move your bag closer,” she said.

It was a very small tent. It was hard to get closer, but I obeyed. Once my bag was in place I laid down, a mirror to her, on my side, head in hand, and smiled.

“This is cool,” I said. “I’m glad they haven’t kicked you out of here.”

“Why’s that, Toby?” she asked.

I stumbled a bit. “Um, because, I, like, you.”

“Yes,” she said, “I think you do.” Then she reached over and put her hand under my shirt, running her fingers from my waist up to the bottom of my bra and then down again. I looked into her face. It was soft, like it was lit by a candle instead of a battery-operated lamp.

I felt scared, but I did not want her to stop. No, I did not want her to stop. She looked me in the eyes. “Take this off,” she said, tugging at my shirt. 

I obliged. 

Still staring into my eyes, as if reading me, she undid my bra. A soft sound blew through her lips.

“Oh, Toby, you are beautiful.” 

The word “beautiful” was like a sudden punch to my brain. Only once had anyone ever used a word like that to describe me. I felt dizzy for a minute. She moved closer and touched my nipple with her tongue. The moan that came from me surprised me. She took my breast into her mouth, so warm and wet. I pushed her away gently. 

“Take your shirt off,” I whispered.

She did. Suddenly I knew what beautiful meant.

She kissed me. We kissed. The night was filled with nothing but us. With tongues and touch and magic and a sense of attachment I never felt ever before. And I laughed and I cried. We were wet and awake and sleepy, wired and tired. I fell asleep, eventually, somewhere on a cloud.

I woke the next morning alone in that little pup tent of hers. I slipped my t-shirt on over my naked self and stepped out. It was early; the sun was barely there. I focused and vaguely made out a figure and walked to her. There she sat, the lake washing over her naked body. I jerked my head around to see if anyone else was seeing what I was seeing. No one else was around. She looked up at me and smiled in that way she does.

“Carolina, what are you doing?”

She reached for my hand and I let her take it. She pulled me down next to her. She looked at me sleepily and the waves moved up my legs. She kissed me. Words were whirling in my brain: What if someone? Shouldn’t. No, too naked.  I pulled away a little. “Carolina, you should put some clothes on.”

Carolina put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me down on the sand. She pulled her non-clothed self on top of me, pinning me down, kissing me. I struggled, wanting between the worry. She kissed me harder, touching me gently. I lost my train of thought. A new train pulled in. Forget this town. Forget the donuts. Forget everybody. I hate this town. I’ll leave this town. I’ll never look back. Never look back. Never look back. I drew her in. She looked me in the face and ran her finger along my cheek. 

Then she jumped up and walked, nakedly, into the lake.  

I sat up, confused, staring at her. She looked back, but I couldn’t read the words on her face. I followed her into the water. If the lake had been the boiling lava of Hell, I still would have waded in.

As I got closer to her she disappeared under water, popping up farther away. I moved in her direction. She did it again.


She did it again.

I felt tired. I didn’t want to play. I just wanted her.  She popped up again.


She disappeared again.


She was nowhere to be seen. I thrashed through the water toward the last place I’d seen her. I looked around. No movement. No sound.


I started crying. I stood there like a damned baby bawling my eyes out. I felt something bump my leg and Carolina popped up next to me, smiling. I kept crying. I didn’t try to hide it. I didn’t like her disappearing act. I didn’t like it one bit.

“What’s wrong?”

I cried harder.

“What, Toby, what?”

I cried harder. She started crying.

Carolina’s with crying like some people are with barfing. They see someone else throwing up and they have to heave, too. And me, well, I was just emotional. Now, it could have had something to do with what happened the night before. Between Carolina and me. I. Between us. Anyway, well, I never made love before. I mean I never had sex at all. With anybody. Hardly a kiss. And I knew how I’d been feeling about her, but we’re girls and, well, I knew about the Ems, but I didn’t know much of anything, really. And, well, as I said, I was feeling emotional.

So, I was crying and Carolina started crying. She put her bare-naked arms around me and held me close to her bare-naked heart. My heart wasn’t feeling much too covered up itself. So there we stood, in that stinking lake, my lover and I, my lover and I, my lover and I, in the steamy dawn holding on, bits of dirt and lake gunk stuck to our skin, hair all matted down, bodies damp, tears falling, chests moving in and out, lungs grasping for air.

If I wasn’t so young, I’d use the word “weary” here. I was weary and she was a human rest stop. The world was a screaming rock concert and she was the Cleveland Public Library. She was the shush, the Dewey Decimal System. I now knew exactly where I belonged.

But of course, me, Miss Responsibility, eventually realized I had to go to work.

 When I arrived, The Precinct was already open. I crept guiltily up the back steps to the apartment and took a shower. When I went back downstairs to the kitchen, my dad, characteristically quiet, nodded as I came in. I started a new pot of coffee. I felt as if there was a mist around me. Like the white fog of mosquito repellent they spray on summer nights.

Chapter four

Not a Good Idea

So you could ask, “What are you, some kind of lesbo or something?” And I’d shrug my shoulders in a “Who knows?” kind of way. I didn’t wake up and say, hey, I think I’ll kiss some girl. I’m not going to explain too much. I can’t, anyway. But I will tell you that I had been some kind of walking iceberg. I told you right off how I hate everybody in this town. It’s a lot of work, but I do it. Sometimes when somebody does something really funny I laugh, and when I laugh I find myself liking them. But for the most part, my heart’s been ice, my brain’s been numb.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Carolina and I felt what I felt. When I felt like I never felt before. When I felt like I saw other people feel in the movies. Goofy and lightheaded and plop-plop fizz-fizz stomached. When a little voice inside me started yelling like the Wicked Witch, “I’m melting, I’m melting!” If I get any sweeter, I’m going to have to give myself insulin. If I get any more lightheaded, I’m going to float away.

“What are you, some kind of lesbo?” That was Friday’s question. He had this giant grin as he walked into the front room where Carolina and I were watching TV. We were sitting on the couch; I had my arm around her shoulder. To tell the truth and nothing but, if I had heard him come in, I would have moved away.

“Hey, can’t I have a friend?” In retrospect, I see that my response may have been a tad defensive.

“Well, Your Bitterness, that would be news,” he said.

Just then, Carolina leaned over and planted a long one right on my lips. She smiled at me, then at Friday.

“Yikes,” Friday said. Then he turned and left the room. 

I was panicked. I’d been exposed. Exposed by the person I was roses-and-chocolates in love with, to the person I’ve shared well, everything with, my entire life. I suddenly felt like I was going to lose. And lose big.

“Well, he shouldn’t ask the question if he doesn’t want to know the answer,” Carolina said.

I was quiet. He shouldn’t ask the question if I don’t want to know the answer, either.

No, I didn’t say that out loud. You don’t say a whole lot out loud here in pissy Dishrag, USA.  

One day, though, I did get loud. Really loud for me. 

I was mopping up the counter when I saw this big truck hauling two bulldozers pull up Erie and stop right across from our place. I wondered (out loud) what the heck was going on, and my dad proceeded to tell me in his quiet monotone way that the old man who owned the woods died and his family sold them to a developer who planned to build apartments.

First of all, I never knew an old man owned the woods. I’d never given it any thought. The woods were The Woods and they were just there, period. All us kids would play in them for endless hours. It was a very cool place. We’d play war, killing each other with sound effects and arguing about whether we were dead or not. We’d gone in there and caught pollywogs and frogs and snakes. There were two huge old trees that had been downed by one storm or another, or maybe they just got tired of standing; anyway, we tied a couple of ropes on the trees near those that had fallen. We used to climb up on the uprooted part, which had to be as high as one of those flimsy split-levels, and grab onto the ropes and jump. Lord, that was fun. We built forts. Snow forts in the winter. There wasn’t a season that was lost in those woods. So, no, I wasn’t happy with the news of the unknown old man, those huge yellow bulldozers, or with my dad.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded, as if he owed me.

My dad blinked, thinking. “Well, people’ve been talking about it. Where’ve you been, Bee?” 

He’s called me “Bee” since I can remember. Sometimes he calls me “Bum-blee-bee.”

“I’ve been here, I didn’t hear, why didn’t you tell me, don’t you know it matters to me—the woods. They can’t bulldoze the woods, assholes. We’ve got to stop them, can’t we stop them, go stop them!”

I was spewing all over the place.

“Bee. Calm down. There’s nothing you can do,” he said.  Fortunately, he didn’t catch the “assholes.”

But I didn’t calm down. “You going to just sit here and do nothing? Didn’t anybody say anything? Apartments? Apartments? They can’t do this.”

“Bee. They can and they will. You just settle down now,” he said, monotone drone in my ear. “And watch your language.”

“Sorry, but I’m not going to just sit here and let them do this.”

I threw down my dishrag and slammed through the door. I didn’t know what I was going to do but I was damn well going to do it. Just to prove it, I paused to kick the gravel in the driveway out front before stomping across to the commotion. Zeke, the DPS guy was there, “stupidvising,” as my dad would say.

“Zeke,” I said.

“Hey, Toby.” 

“Don’t let ’em do it.”

“Ever seen a John Deere biggis at one ere, Toby?”

“Zeke, you jerk, don’t let ’em tear down the woods.”

Zeke spat tobacco and looked at me sideways, saying nothing. I think he was hurt by the jerk part. I was sorry I said it, but too angry to apologize.

I turned on the next guy, an official-looking one who wore a suit with his hard-hat. Nice look.

“Hey, you, what are you doing?” I said, shoving my finger at him, interrupting his conversation with the bulldozer guy.

He gave me a sour look. 

“You can’t do this,” I said. Yeah, I was tough.

“We can and we are, little lady,” the suit said as he waved me off like I was a gnat. 

Not a good idea.

“Hey you basssssstard, I’m talking to you.” The reference to the circumstance of his birth came out like a 78 rpm record set on 45, low and slow. I slapped down his official-looking metal clipboard. I was so angry I shocked myself, but the woods had always been mine. I was shaking, tears in my eyes, hands in tight fists. I was ready to Mohammed Ali him into bloody oblivion. He was about to be stung by the Bee. That’s when Friday reached down, picked up the clipboard and dusted it off. 

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