folks

You Know This Boy
by Amy Jo Burns

You know this boy, the one they call a cornfield cowboy. He’s the one who did horrible things to a girl while she lay unconscious in the alley behind the high school stadium. That’s only what the newspaper claims, and you know you can’t believe everything you read. You’ve been taught everyone wants to bring a good man down, the golden boys most of all. Folks like to ignite a hero, and they love to watch him burn.

You’ve watched this boy’s life twirl through town like a magic carousel everyone wanted a ticket to ride. You’ve felt his name christen your lips as you cheered him on in last Friday’s football game, and the Friday before that. This is his supernova year—he’ll never be eighteen again. He’ll never shine as bright as he does now, and you’ve been waiting for that light to warm you since the day he was born.

You remember his mother’s maiden name, the periwinkle balloons she hung from her mailbox on his birthday. You felt the tidal hush that swept through the town when the truth got out—his mama was seventeen, pregnant, and still living in her daddy’s house. Sex wasn’t taboo back then. Even you had a quarterback or two lead you beneath the stadium bleachers after the crowd had fizzled, the grass imprinting on your back as your gripped his soiled jersey between your fingers. Sex was fine, sex was expected, sex was welcomed for those star boys to savor. But not for you, not for his mama, not for this girl he left in the alley after he’d raped her.

He’s always been a cornfield cowboy, even before his birth. Almost twenty years back, his mother wore a veil of defiance as her stomach swelled behind the cash register at the tanning salon during her weekend shift. The thin gold band noosing her finger wouldn’t budge once her belly betrayed her. You noticed it each week as you peered through the storefront window on your way to church. She sat by the window, left hand to the glass, daring someone to enter and look her in the eye. You heard the baby’s daddy hadn’t looked twice at her till her own daddy paid him a visit after varsity practice let out one afternoon. Then there was a ring, a wedding, a reception in the church basement all before she was too big to slip into her size six. You always wondered if her daddy had paid him off somehow, offered him a job at the dealership since those things passed from father to son. But you know it was fear. On his wedding day, he stood at the altar gripping his hands in front of his gut like a lollipop-cheeked mama’s boy about to ship off to war.

You weren’t friends with the cowboy’s mother, and you weren’t the only one who didn’t mention the baby until she was married. Then it became a source of great joy, once two rings and a pair of “I do’s” had set things right. Looks like you’ve got a linebacker on your hands, folks liked to say as she wheeled an empty cart through the grocery store. And they were right.

It didn’t take long for the cowboy to start courting a football, not with his daddy serving as the peewee coach three nights a week once his son turned five. He had an arm like a cannon, and it saved his parents from busting apart. They were too young, too sad, too un-in-love to save themselves. But their baby boy gave them something to believe in, and they poured their hearts into his dreams because they no longer had any of their own.

And why should you care? You hoped greatness would lasso him, too. You needed to believe it every Friday night in barren autumn, watching him fight for the beat of every live heart in town. They were his, and he had to take them. Take them all.

Don’t lie to yourself. You took such keen interest because this was the life you should have lived, had your baby survived. That baby’s daddy wasn’t just that baby’s daddy. He wasn’t so faithful when he’d still scored his own touchdowns and led more than one fragile heart through the breach in the fence behind the concession stand. You thought you were lucky then. You thought you were chosen. You thought you might become somebody, tossed in the amber light of his glow. So you let him turn you and take you, spill you and leave you. When you missed your period, you couldn’t wait to tell him. But his three words turned you into the trick he’d always taken you for. It ain’t mine, he said as he cleaned mud from his cleats with a tire iron. It wasn’t even a question. He saw it as fact. And the baby must have felt it, too, because it did not survive.

You wondered for a long while what pleasures might have graced you if your own daddy had found a way to make him step up and be a man. But your father assumed only your heart had broken on their wedding day. I always knew you worshipped that fool, he said when you came home with the bride’s bouquet she’d tossed into a crowd of eager maids. But he ain’t worth the shit on your shoes. You knew your daddy was right, but you couldn’t bring yourself to tell him you didn’t cry for that quicksilver hero, but for the baby you’d never know.

Now you’re pushing forty and still riding the bench while the cornfield cowboy grabs enough local fame for himself and your dead baby, both. You never married because you’ve been waiting for someone to give you that sinful rush you felt with your back pressed against the cinderblocks while a god singed your mortal flesh, but you’ve spent your life chasing a feeling that doesn’t exist.

And now the cowboy is out to brand his herd, just as he’d been taught. It happened much like it used to when you were young enough to turn heads in little more than a worn pair of Levi’s. There was a party. Girls got drunk. One got dragged to the alley because that’s where warriors take their kill and feast. But the risk was greater now because of the record that remained. A woman’s word has never been enough—but a video, a photo, a soundtrack of laughter and chanting she’s so dead is just as damning as it always should have been.

But your town isn’t having it, for goodness sake. This boy earned a college scholarship, the result of his parents’ struggle and sacrifice. Shouldn’t that count for something? He’s just a cowboy, after all. Who can resist a short skirt, an even shorter Friday night? It was only a few minutes, and she doesn’t even remember it. Why should he pay with his freedom just because he took hers?

Here’s what no one is talking about: her. She has no spokesperson, no booster club, no coven of glittered girls baking her cookies or cheering her name. You’ve always wondered what it might do to you if your name had been screamed out under the lights. What you’d be capable of. Whether you’d do more than plant bulbs at the greenhouse—a job you’ve always loved but has led your father to believe you are underperforming in life. You don’t know this young woman, but you suspect she’s not much different from yourself.

You’d bet that Friday night was never meant to be a night to remember. She’d always intended to forget. It’s cruel, the way a body recalls what the mind cannot. She probably liked to drink. So what? She liked sex, too. Alcohol and sex turned her insides molten, like the puddle of aluminum she put fire to in shop class. She liked that they didn’t burn so much as tremble inside her. She dreamed of becoming Homecoming Queen just as you did, but she’d never been blonde enough, busty enough, beautiful enough.

What good comes to Homecoming Queens, anyway? They age just as fast as anyone else. Soon enough they become nameless, nothing more than a plastic crown and a sash. Still, that’s a better fortune than what this young woman got. No one beyond city limits knows her name, but nothing beyond them matters anyhow. Everyone knows her in ways she never wanted to be known. She still gets up and goes to school and opens a locker down the hall from the cornfield cowboy who raped her. He went to bed that night a god and woke up as one. She doesn’t remember falling asleep, but woke up feeling used. You know things that don’t kill you don’t always make you stronger. Sometimes they make you weak.

It’s for this reason you pray she leaves town like you never could. Folks here have short memories for the follies of men and eternal remembrances for the missteps of their victims. Now that you consider it, you could have just as easily had a daughter. You never imagined it because of the truth you feared. Dead daughter or not, her true story will remain untold, just like yours. You wonder if it’s a life you’ve built or a footnote to one. When you see the man you once knew stand beside his son and shout that he won’t pay for a few minutes of fun with his life, you’ll know you’ve paid for it with yours.

You know this boy better than yourself because no one ever thought there was something inside you to explore, and it’s a lie for which you’ve forfeited your heart. This has never been your story, after all. It’s always been his.

Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Jezebel, Refinery 29, Dame, Good Housekeeping, and The Rumpus. She currently writes for Ploughshares and is at work on a novel. 

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