Photograph by Justin Ornellas

Pianotown smelled like hairspray. The courthouse was yellow and wrapped in vinyl siding. Summers in Pianotown started cool in the morning but climbed to heat stroke by noon. As always, Scarlet Hodges dragged her crooked body round and round the plastic baby pool.

Two weeks into the long days of summer, Scarlet dreamed her brother Pal jumped too high on the trampoline beneath the power line and in a clonic spasm popped and crackled for a period of sixteen hours. The trampoline jutted just over the edge of the pool, her only shade.

The very next day, Pal jumped too high on the trampoline, spied the drooping cable, and grabbed it because he could. He smelled hairspray. A hum of current cinched his hands around the line and rippled his jaws. He saw the distant yellow courthouse as a filmstrip caught in a fan.

Scarlet frowned. Brown cars with vanity plates passed on the way to the yellow courthouse. A blind man tapped the sidewalk with a raspy cornstalk. Scarlet slapped the water, slapped the water. He paused and told her not to be wasting water, that it was summer. He lingered. He’d heard Scarlet was pretty.

As the days passed, the water in the pool darkened to pale yellow and irritated Scarlet’s legs. The burns on her shoulders and face festered. She lay still in the tiny quarter-moon of shade beneath the lip of the trampoline. Pal hung limp, black, and dry on the powerline.

The blind man scratchity scratched up the sidewalk with his cornstalk. He smelled ammonia, hairspray, and meat drying in the sun. He listened for the sounds of a ten-year-old boy named Pal jumping on a squeaky trampoline. “Hi there little crooked girl,” said the blind man. “Are you eating some meat dried in the sun?” He kicked a can of hairspray. He listened. He moved his stalk toward the ammonia smell.

Scarlet pushed against the pool and slunk. The yellow water ate into her shoulders. She trembled, ecstatic and terrified.

That evening at seven, Scarlet’s mother limped home from the hairspray factory and found the blind man drowned in the pool. She rearranged the hairspray cans in the yard. Scarlet wouldn’t let go of the blind man’s cornstalk so she let her keep it.

Tommy Thornbottom read on the side of a hairspray can that a blind man went to heaven. He waited for the brown cars to pass and walked across the narrow street that led to the yellow courthouse. He picked up a hairspray can and read about Pal drying in the wind above the trampoline.

“What’s your name?” said Tommy.

Scarlet lay on her back in the baby pool. The dark water tickled the bottom of her knees. She held tight to her cornstalk.

Tommy picked up a hairspray can and read that her name was Scarlet Hodges, that she was the crooked girl who spent summers in a baby pool. “I’ve read about you,” he said. “Can I jump on the trampoline?”

Scarlet struggled to sit up. The night before she’d dreamed that Tommy Thornbottom would take her cornstalk. She reached over the side of the pool,  grabbed a can of hairspray, and held it out to Tommy.

Tommy read, “By all means, Tommy Thornbottom, be my guest and jump on the trampoline. You want to take my cornstalk, but why not jump on the trampoline first?” He thanked Scarlet, jumping higher and higher. He saw the sagging powerline and some meat drying in the sun.

That night around seven, Scarlet’s mother limped home with a bag of hairspray and a bag of old bread she’d found at the duck pond. She hand-fed Scarlet a few crusts and placed cans here and there in the yard. She smelled fresh meat drying in the sun. A fire truck raced by on its way to a grease fire and she waved.

Russell Helms has had stories published in literary magazines such as Drunken Boat (forthcoming), Litro (audio), Versal, Bewildering Stories, Assembly Journal, The Moth, Soliloquies Anthology, antiTHESIS, Qarrtsiluni, and in the anthology A La Carte (2010, Main Street Rag). He was born in Georgia, is from Alabama, lives in Kentucky, and has traveled widely including volunteering in Ethiopia and Haiti. He is the coordinator of Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University.

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