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Lipstick, a short story by Meghan Helms

Out of Ireland summer fiction series: a mother dealing with drought and a missing son

“They drive up to the same spot and the same man gets out of the first truck. Instead of getting to work, he walks towards the trailer.”

They came last night in big rumbling trucks with tanks in the beds and took water from the lake. I should have been sleeping. Tim’s gone because I’ve lost my job and I’m worried about him so I was lying awake in bed. I was worrying about what I was going to eat for breakfast because I’ve run out of fuel for the generator so everything in the fridge is spoiled. And I couldn’t leave a light on for Tim if he decided to come home that night. I heard the first one drive up. I thought it was Tim, that maybe his friend had decided to drive him home, so I got up out of bed. But it rumbled. Normal cars don’t rumble like that so I grabbed my little smith from the top drawer of my bedside table, checked that the chamber was partially loaded and then watched through the horizontal slats of my trailer window. The truck drove down to the water with its lights off.

A man got out and hooked up some sort of hose to the tank and put the other end in the water and turned on what I’m guessing was a pump that made a low humming sound. Three more trucks pulled up but the drivers didn’t get out. The first driver set up the same sort of hose and pumps on the other three. It took a while to fill each of them up but one by one, once they were filled, they drove away. It was a clear night and a bright night so I could just about make out the numbers on their licence plates and see the man who did all the work. He looked to be in his 30s, a strong handsome man you know. They always look more handsome when they are up to no good. I wondered if they would have avoided my beach had I left the lights on. Monsters only come once they lights go out, or at least that’s what Tim always thought when he was little. I wondered if Tim would have come home if I had left the lights on last night.

Takes a moment

Some mornings you wake up and even though you’ve lived in the same place for eight years, it takes a moment for you to figure out where you are and what is going on. I wake up this morning in my trailer by Lake Valle outside of Blakesville in Conejo, California. Tim, my 16-year-old son, is still not here. I get up and pick the shorts and T-shirt I wore yesterday up off the floor and put them on. I don’t bother brushing my shoulder-length blonde hair and pull it back into a low messy bun that accentuates my brown and grey roots. The water tank is empty so I couldn’t shower if I wanted to. Later today I will have to go down to the lake with the hose and fill her up. For some reason, stealing lake water feels less illegal when you do it in broad daylight.

I dig through the top drawer of my bedside table – old tubes of lipstick, dead flashlights and two working vibrators – to find three more bullets. Eight bullets are not going to cut it. Enough to fill the chamber but no room to miss. I could make it at least another couple of days without heading into town for supplies but those trucks showing up at my beach last night have left me feeling uneasy and I would much rather have a fully loaded gun and a working generator if they show up again tonight. I eat the last Pop Tart for breakfast. No fuel for the generator means no electricity for the fridge so the milk has gone chunky. And I’m running low on drinking water, though aren’t we all. The lake looked farther away from the trailer last night. My beach is getting farther and farther away from my beachfront property.

I sit down on the kitchen floor between the stove and the sink and carefully pry the baseboard off from under the cabinet below the sink. Tim had knocked the board loose years ago when he was suddenly obsessed with hockey after finding my old Minnesota Wild jersey. I don’t think Tim has any memory of seeing ice that wasn’t floating in a cup of cola. The linoleum is surprisingly cool through the seat of my cut-offs. Tim and I have spent a lot of time on these floors with matchbox racecars, racing along the patterns in the linoleum. When he got bigger, we would redecorate them with my nail polish, carefully painting them with the little brushes and tooth picks to draw their racing numbers on. It’s too soon for him to be out of the house like this. But I can’t force him to be here anymore.

Behind the baseboard there is a tin with $47.23 in it. I have my grandmother’s jewellery stashed away in my room. Well, what’s left of it. But that’s all I got. Tim left the same time the motel fired me. But the boys get paid on Friday so all I need is to last til then and one of them will surely come knocking. I take $30from the can and leave $17 as a pathetic emergency fund.

Leather strap

I close the tin and replace the baseboard. Despite the cool, my legs stick to the linoleum as I stand up, making a sound like painters tape being pulled off a wall in long strips. I grab my bag, the worn brown leather strap hugging my shoulder, and leave, locking the door behind me. I park my car behind the trailer so that it’s shaded from the afternoon sun, but in the mornings it’s sweltering. The steering wheel is hot to touch and I’m careful to avoid the metal of the seatbelt as I buckle up. It takes three tries for the buckle to take and even when it does I worry that it will randomly spring out when I’m half-way into town. With my luck, right as I’m driving by a police officer. For once, the ignition lights with one try but its not a steady hum coming out of the engine. I watch for the fuel gauge to rise but it doesn’t. F*ck. I hit my hands against the steering wheel. I turn off the car, unbuckle quickly and go back inside the trailer. So much for a $17.23 emergency fund.

I stop at the gas station on my way back from Blake’s Goods Store. It’s not a grocery store or a clothing store or a fishing shop or gun shop. It sells all of that sh*t, so it’s a goods store. They sell bullets at Blake’s but bullets are $0.10 cheaper at the gas station. I put three gallons of gas into the car and one gallon in the jerry can I keep in the trunk for the generator. Inside, I buy a pack of Legends and a box of bullets from behind the counter. Mason is working today. He’s in school with Tim.

“The guys were in here earlier buying ammo,” Mason says as he begins to ring me up.

“Oh? Was Tim with them?”

“Yes ma’am. They were going down to the Dead End to shoot some snakes and lizards.”

“The Dead End?

“You know, where Main kind of just dead ends out there past the old block of warehouses?”

So that’s what they call it. Mason’s dad, I think it was his dad, took me out there once and paid me $20 for a blowjob. He drove a new car, a Ford with a sunroof and cool leather seats. I haven’t seen him around recently. I wonder if I could suck another $20 out of him.

“Is your dad around, Mason?”

“He’s just out back. I can go get him?”

“No worries, it’s fine. Just tell him I say ‘hi’.”

“Of course.”

“Will you join the boys out at Dead End after work?”

“Yeah. My dads letting me borrow his shotgun. Have you ever shot a snake with a shot gun?”

“No.” I look him straight in the eye, unsure as to how I should react to that comment. His father was a bit of a weirdo if I remember right. Maybe it’s in their blood.

Too excited to notice my reaction, Mason adds: “They explode!”

Turn back

I nod, smile slightly and gather my things. I think better of it initially and then turn back to him and say “have fun” before I walk out to my car. I guess Tim is doing well. I hope he’s okay. I wonder who has a gun and how they are getting out there but I guess he does have his bike. Though, that doesn’t have any lights or reflectors on it. I hope he’s careful.

I drive back with the windows up despite the heat. Someone told me once that driving with the windows down burns more gas. I turn the radio on, hoping that some music will cut through the heat but Tuesday mornings Pastor John is on the radio and there is nothing like religion to raise the temperature with all that talk of fire and brimstone. I change the radio to 305.3, the country station and its some oldie singing about rainy nights. DJ Burn over in Salton County is a cynical bastard.

Along the road, cardboard signs nailed to wooden posts punctuate the flat landscape. The county council put these up months ago, hammering them into the dry dusty ground telling people to conserve water and warning of the fines for using too much. I don’t remember how much the original fines were but they are at $500 now. I could do so much with $500. I don’t know who they had print these but now half of them have faded in the sun so my drive home is peppered with signs that just say “WATER” in big black letters. It makes sense in a weird way as I am driving towards the largest body of water in the tri-county area. I don’t even think it’s a natural lake though. Jesus, it’s hot. Humans were never supposed to live here, but we’re stuck here now. The county council were probably the brilliant ones who decided to fill in what was once a desert valley with water from somewhere else to make this chunk of sand more livable. I guess it worked for a while but now that the rain has stopped, who knows how long we can stay. The field hands are starting to go back home to Sonora, looking for work back in Mexico. The lake water that was taken last night is probably being carefully spread over dry vineyards and fields.

Sun is high

My car leaves a wake of dust as I drive off the main road and head towards home. The sun is high enough now that I park in a bit of a shadow behind the trailer. I get out and walk down toward the shore to see where they were last night. I swear the lake seems lower, as if they somehow were able to take enough water to actually make a dent in it. I’m just not used to it being this far away. There are faint tyre tracks in the dirt, which get deeper as they get closer to the water. I stand at the shore with my brown paper grocery bag in one arm, carefully balanced on my hip. Looking out over the water, I fish a cigarette from my purse and hold it in my mouth while searching for my lighter. Front pocket, back pocket, purse. Alcohol would probably be better for me but I don’t want to fill that stereotype. Plus you can’t drive with a bottle of Wild Turkey in one hand and the steering wheel in the other like you can with a packet of Legends. If I don’t leave here, I’m going to be stuck. But I don’t have the money to get Tim and I out of Conejo now that the job at Motel 7 in town has dried up. And without the motel, I can’t go back to f*cking full time with Tim living with me in the trailer. Plus even then, the field hands are going back to Sonora to get f*cked by their wives and cheaper Mexican prostitutes. I can’t compete with that. But at least I have this view. This is the closest I will ever get to beachfront property. I contemplate taking my shoes off and putting my toes in the water but my groceries are heating up quickly and I don’t have any sunscreen on.

Inside, I put my groceries away. Enough for one for at least a week or enough for two for a couple of days. I think Tim is at James’s place. He has been there for the past week. I miss him but he had to move out eventually right, kids don’t stay with their parents forever. Hell, I left Minnesota when I was 14 but look where I ended up. I guess things aren’t as bad as they could be. My son will hopefully go to college, if I can convince him that would be better for him that mucking about with his mother. Hopefully the fact that he’s been gone for the last week will convince him of this. Plus I know his friend James is a good kid and his family is the type of family that will send their kids to college, if they can afford it. Jesus, all Tim has to do is write his college essay on the sob story that is his mother and he will be offered a full scholarship. If he mentions life without a father they will probably throw in an allowance for books and housing.

Bathing suit

I head back to my room to put some sunscreen on and change into my bathing suit. I forgot to close the blinds before I left this morning, they are still slightly open from last night. A tube of red lipstick, carelessly left on my bedside table, has melted into a bright red puddle right in the spot above the drawer where I keep my gun. The splash of red stands out against the otherwise grey room. I pick up the small black tube, pinching it between my pointer finger and thumb to avoid the crimson puddle. It drips thick red drops. I hold it for a moment, the tube and I dripping in the heat. Of course lipstick can melt, of course lipstick would melt in this heat. I remember the time Tim had left crayons in the backseat of my old Camry on one of our long drives south, one of the many long drives farther and farther down that finally landed us in this trailer by this lake in sunny southern California. His crayons had melted in the sun on to the fake leather of the back seat. Red and green and blue and purple in a psychedelic puddle in the middle of the back seat. I wasn’t even mad at him. He was a child and I should have known but I had never been anywhere where the sun could turn crayons into puddles during a 30-minute lunch at a roadside diner.

I walk back into the kitchen holding the black tube with one hand under it catching the red drops and throw the lipstick into the garbage beneath the sink. I wipe my hands off on a dishtowel, the water tank is still empty so I can’t wash them. Back in my bedroom, I contemplate the red puddle. Looking in the mirror I have behind my bed, I dip my pointer finger into the puddle and carefully spread the wet red lipstick onto my dry lips. I rub what is left on my finger into my cheeks. Not bothering to clean up the puddle, I change into the bikini I got at the little boutique down in Briarfield. The shop girl had asked me if I was buying it for my daughter and I would have walked out of there had it been any other bathing suit, but I love this green and with the red lipstick on I look like Christmas in July.

I take the gun out from the drawer and put the last three bullets in it. I set it down next to the red puddle then go to the kitchen and take the box of bullets out of my bag and bring them into my bedroom where I leave them on my bed.

I need to refill the water tank and put fuel in the generator but before I do I decide to call Tim. I go find my phone in my purse. He doesn’t answer. I am silent after the beep, trying to figure out what to say.

“Hey honey, I hope you’re doing ok. If you want to come home, you can come home. Love you.”

I hang up and then wonder if he will know it’s me. Of course he will know it’s me I got him that fancy phone last Christmas that tells you those kind of things. Now I have the rest of the day to figure out what the hell I am going to do if he does come home.

They come at the same time. It is dark and clear and the moon lights up the lake. My lone porch light creates a small circle of light as I peer out of from my bedroom window. Tim was wrong about light scaring away monsters I guess.

Someone watching

I had hoped that they would just drive by, that the light would warn them that there could be someone watching. But they drive up to the same spot and the same man gets out of the first truck. Instead of getting to work, he walks towards the trailer. I take a careful step back from the window and reach for my gun on the bedside table. I have owned a gun long enough to know that you need to stay calm in moments like this. I hold it down below my waist cradled between both of my hands. Its weight is reassuring just like the porch light initially was. I know that the noise this little puppy makes would be even more reassuring than that useless light. Not to mention the holes it could make.

I can imagine the dust his footsteps would stir up in the sunlight, the way the particles would momentarily float in the sun before falling back behind him. If I could hear them, each step would make a muted crunch. I want to hold my breath but I know I need to stay calm, keep my hands steady. The lights are off inside the trailer, I know that I have darkness protecting me. He keeps walking towards me. The light must be blinding him, that was the point. As well as to tell him to f*ck off but it obviously didn’t do that. He stops about 30ft from me and stands there looking at the trailer. Yes, this was here last night while you and your friends drove up. Yes, you can pretend that I was out somewhere else last night and you can just go back into your truck and drive back down the road and f*ck off. He puts his hand up to shield his eyes from the porch light, trying to see into the trailer. I want to take a step farther back but then I wouldn’t be able to see him and I know he can’t see me. He can’t see me, I tell myself. The light is too bright and it’s reflecting off the windows like mirrors. It’s an invisible standoff. He doesn’t move and I remind myself to keep breathing.

He drops his hand to his side, turns around and begins to walk away while I, like a magnet, take a step up closer to the window. I take my left hand off the gun and brush the wisps of hair that have escaped from my ponytail back from my face. He goes back, unhooks the hose from the truck he came in and proceeds to fill the tank with lake water, going down the line of three trucks and doing the same while their drivers stay hidden at the wheel. The hum of the pumps drowns out any other sound. There are no frogs, crickets or even wind. It’s as if I am suddenly in a city filled with people and noise. I tighten my grip on the gun. And then suddenly, the pumps stop and I am back on Lake Valle, in the middle of nowhere.

Once the tanks are full, he walks back to the first truck. The sound of the door slamming echoes out across the lake as he begins to lead the dark convo away. They drive up and away from the lake, towards the trailer, passing the same spot that he stood just 15 minutes earlier. I wonder if this will be a nightly occurrence as I try to decide whether to let myself begin to calm down.

As the roar of the truck engines begin to fade, a sudden crash and ding barely rise over the sound of the rumble. I jump slightly and bring the gun up to eye level, peering out the window, wondering what the hell happened out there. The rumble stops and a door slams. An angry voice says something. There is a brief one-sided conversation then a door slams again and the engines growl. They take off, the sound fading faster than before. I wait for it to disappear but I can’t calm down. I put the gun in the waist of my cut offs, take a flashlight from the drawer of my bedside table and head outside. It’s cooler outside than it was in the trailer, but it’s not cold. I walk away from the porch light and try to turn on the flashlight before realising the battery is dead. My breath catches in my throat but I figure if there is anyone out there it would be better to not have a beacon on me so I continue walking, letting my eyes adjust to the dark. My rubber sandals make a quiet flip flop in the sandy dirt. Up ahead I see something shining in the moonlight. I slow down but continue walking. And then it hits me with the force of a torrential downpour on dusty earth. The ding in the dark. A bell on a bike. Tim tried to come home.

Meghan Helms was born and raised in San Francisco. She lives in Limerick where she is completing her MA in Creative Writing at the University of Limerick