oanne told her teacher she believed in God. Her Bible class teacher. What the hell else could she tell him?
She fidgeted in her seat, her hand automatically reaching down to smooth the pleats in her skirt. Joanne hadn’t expected the question, hadn’t expected anything like it. Mr. Galloway’s class was usually the most boring hour of her day. He liked to go on and on about King David and the Ten Commandments and Leviticus. Joanne couldn’t have cared less.
She had been staring across the classroom at Brad when the teacher asked the question. Brad was the only boy she knew with red hair. She gawked at him not because she had a crush on him or anything, but because he wore his orangish mane in a tight crew cut like her brother before they shipped his ass to Iraq.
“Of course I believe in God,” she had answered, her head snapping around to face her teacher, her cheeks flushed because – just maybe – she’d been caught ogling Brad.
Joanne struggled with the question. What did he mean by it? One didn’t need a reason to believe in God. It was automatic, something she had done all her life. She believed because her mom and dad had raised her to believe. And because all the priests expected her to. Because her parents had dragged her out of bed for Mass every Sunday for all of her twelve years, and what was the point if he wasn’t real? And she believed because her grade in Bible class pretty much depended on it.
When she couldn’t answer the question, Mr. Galloway turned it over to the rest of the class.
“Because the Bible says so.”
“Because the universe didn’t create itself.”
“Because he talks to me when I pray.”
“Because without him there would be nothing.”
They sounded like good enough reasons to Joanne. She wondered why she hadn’t been able to think of any. She watched her classmates–boys in their starch-white shirts, girls in their plaid skirts and tube socks–work themselves into a near-panic raising their hands, squirming, vying to show off their smarts. Joanne didn’t feel like she belonged. Soon enough, the lecture changed course. Mr. Galloway told the story of Job. Joanne zoned out. She’d heard it a thousand times before. She glanced across the room at Brad.
ater in the hallway, Joanne marched toward math class while Amanda followed her like a sad puppy. Amanda tried to tell her what it felt like to kiss Jason from down the street. Normally Joanne would have been extremely interested in any story about kissing Jason, but just then she was preoccupied by math class. The doorway loomed before her. It would be division today. Long division. Joanne just couldn’t take it.
“Let’s ditch, Amanda, just you and me,” Joanne said. “Let’s skip class and go to the park, the mall–anywhere. Let’s get out of here.”
Amanda looked at her like she’d suggested shooting Father Mattias in the face. Joanne sweetened the deal. She had a little money left over from her birthday. They could buy fast food. And then there were the cigarettes. Joanne had been pilfering them from her mother for weeks, one or two at a time. This morning she’d meticulously wrapped them in a red bandanna and shoved the package to the bottom of her purse next to the letter from her brother.
Joanne could see from the expression on her friend’s face that she very much wanted to smoke these cigarettes. But, inevitably, she chickened out. Amanda was a cunt.
ater, Joanne sat by herself on a park bench. She munched a cheeseburger and sipped Coke through a straw. The afternoon was colder than she’d expected, and she cursed herself for leaving her coat on the rack in homeroom. She’d thought about retrieving it but decided not to risk drawing attention to herself.
She had expected the park to be full of kids. The park was lousy with them on weekends. Now that she thought about it, it made perfect sense that they’d be in school, but the park was weird without them.
The swings stood empty. She considered playing on them but decided against it. The thought of swinging by herself in the empty park depressed the hell out of her.
Her cup gurgled as she sucked out the last of the cola. It didn’t even taste like soda anymore. It tasted like watered-down shit. She put the empty cup and her cheeseburger wrapper on a heap of garbage overflowing from the trashcan beside the bench. Then she fished through her purse for the cigarettes. When she came up for air she held one cigarette, a lighter and her brother’s letter.
She struggled with the lighter. She hated those things, hated the way the teeth on the metal wheel dug into her thumb, hated how it would slip and she’d lose the flame at the last possible instant.
Eventually she got the job done. She smoked not because she particularly liked it but because it was what one did while ditching school. She took another puff and wondered what all the fuss was about.
The letter sat on her lap. It wasn’t going away. She’d made her brother promise to write her every week, and now he’d been gone for six months and this was the first she’d heard from him. The day the letter arrived in the mailbox she seriously considered throwing it the fuck away. Now she had folded and unfolded it so many times she feared the seams wouldn’t hold and it would fall apart into rectangles.
She opened it and read it once again. Her brother began by calling her that nickname he knew she hated. Then he said he was very, very safe and having as good a time as possible, considering the circumstances. He said the food was mostly normal, but he’d tried some Iraqi cuisine once and it was wretched, goat and lamb prepared in the most bizarre way possible. He said sometimes he felt like joining the Army was the right thing to do, and other times he just didn’t see the point, like the war was doing no good and he had given up what should have been the best years of his life.
He asked her to be good to mom and dad. He told her to “buckle down” in school. He told her he loved her. Joanne remembered he’d told her the same thing the day he left, and it had been the first time she’d heard those words from him.
She folded the letter closed for what must have been the thousandth time. Her cigarette was spent. The sun was setting. It was time to go home.
She walked through the park and across the street to the sidewalk that would take her where she needed to go. She noticed an electronics store at the corner by the crosswalk. A newscast played on a big television in the window, and while the news typically bored her, this particular segment was all about soldiers in the desert. Lots of soldiers. She couldn’t hear the anchor, but she could tell by his demeanor that something big was happening.
Joanne noticed her own reflection in the glass. She always hated her hair, not quite blond, not quite brown–a frizzy wreck. An afternoon at the park hadn’t improved it.
A man crossed the street. He stopped a few feet from her and watched the television through the window. He rubbed his jaw and sighed.
“What a mess,” he said, turning to walk away.
“What’s going on?” Joanne asked. “What’s happening with the war?”
“Huh?” the man said, acting like he hadn’t understood her even though Joanne knew good and well he had.
“The war,” she said, pointing to the television. “Is something going on?”
“Oh yeah, yeah,” he said. “The Marines will be in Fallujah by morning.”
“So it’s just the Marines?” Joanne asked.
“No, no. It’s everybody. Tanks, planes–everybody. What a mess.”
The man rubbed his jaw again and left. Joanne watched the television for a while. She considered going home, and then she just didn’t. She leaned against the shop window, watching the cars whiz by while the sky turned dark. She folded her arms against the cold. Then she fished through her purse for another cigarette, pulling out a crooked one. A small ball of lint clung to the filter. Joanne straightened the cigarette and removed the lint. She lit it on her first try.
Joanne thought about the war.
She thought about her brother.
Joanne made up her mind about a few things. She was already late and knew her parents would be frantic, so she decided to go home as soon as she finished the cigarette, or maybe after another. She felt cold but the smoking warmed her. Joanne decided she no longer believed in God.