With the cinematic and terrifying beauty of the American South humming behind each line, Jon Pineda’s Let’s No One Get Hurt is a coming-of-age story set equally between real-world issues of race and socioeconomics and a magical, Huck Finn-esque universe of community and exploration (available March 20, 2018).
Fifteen-year-old Pearl is squatting in an abandoned boathouse with her father, a disgraced college professor, and two other grown men, deep in the swamps of the American South. All four live on the fringe, scavenging what they can―catfish, lumber, scraps for their ailing dog. Despite the isolation, Pearl feels at home with her makeshift family: the three men care for Pearl and teach her what they know of the world.
Mason Boyd, aka “Main Boy,” is from a nearby affluent neighborhood where he and his raucous friends ride around in tricked-out golf carts, shoot their fathers’ shotguns, and aspire to make Internet pranking videos. While Pearl is out scavenging in the woods, she meets Main Boy, who eventually reveals that his father has purchased the property on which Pearl and the others are squatting. With all the power in Main Boy’s hands, a very unbalanced relationship forms between the two kids, culminating in a devastating scene of violence and humiliation.
IF I CONCENTRATE, I CAN see where the river should be. It almost doesn’t exist, like the blue of skim milk. Or tailor’s chalk I’ve watched Dox brush away after sealing a stitch. But I know it’s there. The river waits for me, and that’s all that matters.
* * *
My father shuts off the engine. The pickup rattles. We sit and stew. After a bit, we can smell the random field. It’s been torn open, that’s what I say. My father winces. In my head, he corrects me: “Aspire to precision, Pearl.” When he talks this way, I feel like he’s gone back in time, like I’m one of his students being forced to listen to him.
* * *
“Pearl,” my father says now but doesn’t say anything else. It means get out. It means, at the very least, get a handle on the dog. Marianne Moore is off the pickup and jumps the grass ditch. Though the dog has bad hips, she is doing smooth ovals, making a dirt necklace in the open field. She is smiling.
I slam the truck door. There’s a tinny ring, even though the sides are mostly rust and primer. I grab a shovel and some rope from the back. There are mouth-sized holes in the truck bed. Marianne Moore hunkers down like she’s already been shot.
MY EYES FOLLOW WHERE THE rows of broken earth head north. They end on the spongy loam. From there mix gaps of pale sky and lit leaf canopies the amber of fresh motor oil. The river is just on the other side of those trees. It’s a smear of acrylic. On the river’s surface float plywood skiffs and other vessels of scrap wood.
For the last few years I’ve had no choice but to become someone else. I’ve been around these kinds of boats, these quick creations. Sterns weighed down with piecemeal outboard motors, the shells endlessly dented out of frustration. Metal casings entirely removed. The dampened guts of tinkered-with chokes puff, held open by paint-coated screwdrivers and pastel pink putty.
Everything is makeshift.
* * *
My father reaches behind the bench seat, unzips one end of the leather case I’d sewn for him myself, Dox having been good enough to show me how on a scavenged sewing machine. My father pulls out the shotgun like he’s unsheathing a sword. He breaks the gun’s neck and checks the empty barrels out of habit.
He picks up a crushed box from the floorboard and shakes it, then slips into his suit-vest pocket the last of the shells, lipstick red and the size of quartered candlesticks. His vest is a light blue pinstripe. It’s a miniature of the tilled field, a riffle where the river shallows.
* * *
My father has become the kind of man who likes to wear a vest without a shirt. He is ripe and smells like what I remember of store-bought spices, back when my mother used to do all the shopping. He’s a dank mixture of cumin and turmeric, if I’m trying. His graying hair reaches past his shoulders. I turn my head the moment I see his nipples peek out from the sides of the vest. His nipples are brown and wrinkled like pecan meat.
* * *
“You ready?” he says.
“I think so.”
“Either you are or you aren’t.”
“I’m prepared to do this one thing that will make you proud of me.”
“That’s better. That’s my girl.”
“How come we have to do this?”
“Because she should’ve been put down a long time ago.”
I let that sit out there for a bit.
I try to nod.
* * *
I hate when he calls me his girl. Not because I can’t be anyone’s girl, but because if I’m anyone’s girl, I’d have to be his by default. I’m trying to make peace with this idea. It’s been getting more difficult. The more I catch glimpses of what kind of man he really is.
* * *
Marianne Moore curls up the size of an alligator snapper, or one of those antique circular hatboxes I’ve found in one of the hallway closets of the boathouse. She waits for us in the dirt. I could kick her where she is and send her rolling between the rows. Sometimes I want nothing more than to let her have it. Don’t get me wrong, I love her, but I can’t help thinking about how that would look, the dog on her back like a flipped turtle, with her legs going through the motions all herky-jerky.
* * *
My father and I walk the field. I carry the shovel. There’s a skin of rust on the shovel’s head. It’s been put to the test a time or two. My father cradles the shotgun in the crook of his arm. In these moments, it’s as if he’s bought into this new life—hook, line, and sinker.
* * *
In the air of the open field there’s the tang of gun oil my father wiped over both barrels. I hold the shovel in one hand and the splintered rope in the other. If I squint like my father, the rope is a single line that leads to Marianne Moore’s neck.
“Princess,” I say, and the dog smiles back, I swear. Like sweet Dox, she has lost most of her teeth. My father calls it a survivor’s smile. Whatever it is, it’s painful to take note of.
* * *
“This is for her own good,” my father says.
I know it, though I don’t let on.
He wants me to put the dog out of her misery, but instead, I’m going to turn her body into lace.
MY FATHER WON’T TALK ABOUT who we used to be because that would mean talking about her, my mother, and what she did to the both of us. I don’t happen to think it was so bad, but that’s just me.
“You’re as crazy as her,” my father would say if he could read my mind.
* * *
I picture my father and me someday striking out for an unknown future. This time the pickup loaded down with every item from the boathouse we share with the two men.
“No Dox and no Fritter,” he says.
“We’ll just leave them?”
I laugh. “They took us in, and we’ll just leave them.”
“They didn’t take us in.”
“What do you call it then?”
“They scooted over.”
“They did more than that.”
“Fine. They made room.”
He’s the one who laughs now.
“Well, they deserve more,” I say.
“We all deserve more.”
“They’re grown men who’ve worked hard, and now—”
My father does a spit take. The air burns, and he shakes his head. “That’s a generous assessment. You’re always so generous, Pearl.”
I decide not to bite.
“You know what they say about you?” I try my best not to make a face.
“One can only imagine.”
“They say you’re the best friend anyone could ask for.”
“Dox does, at least.”
“Dox is a good egg.”
My father can only show me his teeth. They’re chipped mostly, the middle two flat as sugar cubes.
“What?” I say.
“You tell me.”
* * *
Fritter, at over three hundred pounds, resembles multiple copies of Dox sewn together. Unlike Dox, Fritter is motor-oil black, like he was spit out of some great big flame-shooting engine. His dreadlocks are a spectrum of burnt orange. When they’re not swept back, they writhe. It’s a wonder the two are even related.
* * *
When I used to think there was a future for me, I imagined myself becoming a translator, like my mother had wanted to be. The last time I offered the idea up, it was over a dinner of crayfish we’d trapped ourselves and chanterelles Dox scooped from the surrounding woods. My father said it was a nice thought and hoped the world would stick around long enough for it to happen.
“Where’s it going?” I’d asked.
I don’t know why I even bothered.
“The world?” my father said.
“Probably to sleep.”
Dox, glowing at a distance, shook his head. He started the opening riff of “Drown” by Son Volt. The song had the misfortune of having been left on a mixtape in the pickup. I could relate.
My father’s cough pulled me back.
“Best we can hope for, Pearl, is that it’ll just close its eyes and never wake up.”
Dox worked the slide up and down the fretless neck of the cigar-box guitar. The notes wove and blended like pocket water.
“You do know I’m still a child,” I said to my father. “An innocent child.”
“What did I say that was so bad?” my father said to Dox, but it was too late. The image was already having its way with me.
* * *
Most days the door to my father’s room stays shut. He’s like Fritter, except instead of silence, I hear the typewriter going. Its keys plink. Some days it’s a downpour. Other days it’s a trickle. He keeps a stack of typed onionskin papers in a milk crate beside the desk. When he’s gone from the house, I sometimes hold the pages up to a lighter. The words float in the light. I wonder what he’d do if I actually lit the pages on fire. All that work sent to kingdom come.
WHEN I PULL ON THE rope now, Marianne Moore trots over like a horse.
* * *
There are ducks gliding down. They skim the river and settle. Others take flight. It’s like an airport out here, the comings and goings of ducks. The dog jerks, and I have to hold her with some resistance to keep her from running off. Even though she barely has any teeth left, she wants to tear into them. It’s in her nature, and that gives me hope.
* * *
“Where’s that phone I gave you?” my father says.
“Where’s the phone?”
“I thought it was disposable.”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
“I left it in the truck.”
“Okay.” I pat my back pocket.
“You should take her picture.”
“You should take her picture.”
“I’m serious. Look at her.”
I glance over at Marianne Moore. She’s a safe distance from us. I put slack in the rope, and her ears perk up. Her head tilts as she stares at us.
“She looks happy,” he says.
“She’s not happy.”
“Yes, she is. Look at her.”
“I am,” I say. “I’m telling you, she’s not happy.”
“Not even a little?”
“No. How could she be?”
* * *
In a few months, I’ll be sixteen, but my body doesn’t know it. It’s like it stopped in place. I’m still that child my mother last saw. I’m still that little girl watching. I picture something stuck in my mind, playing on a loop.
* * *
“You stay here and finish what you started,” my father says.
“I didn’t start this.”
“Don’t get smart.”
“Where are you going?”
“My feet,” he says, and leaves it at that.
I watch my father on his walk to the pickup. He has to go back because he’s feeling the pins and needles in his feet again. It’s just his guilt. The back of his vest is gray silk. Some creases still shimmer in gashes of sunlight. He stays in one row and never crosses over into another row. He becomes the size of my hand now. I could hold him, if I wanted, but that’s not what I want. Marianne Moore starts to take off after him. I clench the rope. When she whimpers, I shush her.
* * *
Marianne Moore tries to pull me toward the river. The river is no longer a smear. A good stretch of it is mottled tan like deer fur. For a moment, I think about shooting the river instead of the dog. I look at her. I start going through a list of every word she knows. I don’t know why, but I treat them like they’re questions.
Her ears perk up, and she sits.
She drops to the ground and waits for me to throw her a treat. I feel bad because I didn’t bring any treats. Not that she could really chew them anyway. This listing goes on until I can barely speak the last two commands.
She does this one easily.
And now I’m just stuck again.
I’m a wrench in the cogs.
She tilts her head.
I’m almost sixteen, a young woman, and I haven’t started.
* * *
Marianne Moore is trying her best to please me by not moving even an inch.
* * *
I look at the river. My phone goes off. It’s my father.
“What are you doing out there?” he says. “You need to hurry it up. Like chop-chop already.”
“I’m just telling her a couple of things before I end our conversation.”
“What things? What conversation?”
“She knows a lot of words, so I’m just saying them, okay? She needs to hear them. They need to get out of her.”
I wait for him to keep going, but he doesn’t.
“Don’t you want to know what words I’m saying to her?”
“Not really. There are too many.”
“It’s probably for the best,” I say.
“Your words, not mine.”
* * *
I slip the red shells into both barrels. The caps have stamped concentric circles on the bottom, where each pin will hit against the center with exact force. I click the neck shut. I aim the gun. The dog smiles at me, I swear. Then I let out a breath and squeeze the trigger.
THE ROPE TAKES OFF AND heads for the river.
The duck I was aiming for, a mallard with a golf-course-green head, coasts over, but it’s the tan one behind it that falls from the sky like a bag of mice. Marianne Moore is full throttle going after that one. The rope is still around her neck and dangles behind her in rip-cord fashion. She jumps into the river and works her way over to where the body floats. She clamps down on its neck and turns to see me. I’m standing on the loamy bank, my toes sinking into the mossy clay-and-sand mixture.
My phone goes off again, but this time I don’t answer.
I set down everything.
* * *
The river gathers at my waist then runs long, sweeping folds down to my ankles. It feels like a fitted dress. I dive in. A layer from below rises and covers my thighs in gooseflesh. My legs start to kick free. Marianne Moore is just a head bobbing in the distant chop. The body in her mouth is indecipherable.
I get closer by putting my face in the water and crawling forward. I can hear my mother at the pool’s edge, but I won’t open my eyes. I take huge breaths. The river’s bitterness slips into my mouth.
With each stroke I’m putting on a new dress that slips from my shoulders.
Marianne Moore jostles the body to get a better hold. She passes me like I’m not there. I turn and tread in place. I think about grabbing the end of the rope as it glides by. I could drag her down. I could make her breathe water. From here, the landscape is the color of sweet tea. It hurts my teeth to take it all in.
Copyright © 2018 Jon Pineda.
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Jon Pineda is a poet, memoirist, and novelist living in Virginia. His work has appeared in Poetry Northwest, Literary Review, Asian Pacific American Journal, and elsewhere. His memoir, Sleep in Me, was a 2010 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and his novel Apology was the winner of the 2013 Milkweed National Fiction Prize. The author of three poetry collections, he teaches in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte and is a member of the creative writing faculty of University of Mary Washington.