IT WAS 101 DEGREES outside, and Madison was sure this was the kind of neighborhood with a pool in every backyard. She could hear muffled splashing, the vibrating aftershocks of a diving-board spring. She imagined girls inside their houses, girls who were fourteen just like she was, putting on new bikinis and getting ready for a summer swim. The jealousy of this burned inside her until it was stifling, until it was hotter than the August air, until it clamped down like a sweaty palm on the back of her neck.
Once, in their old neighborhood in Mississippi, a girl down the street had invited her over to swim in their above-ground pool. Madison had lain on her back and felt the water hold her like an embrace, had watched the bugs land for a moment on the surface and then bounce off again. But that invitation had been only once, and looking back it seemed like a mirage, like maybe she had imagined it, a childhood fantasy she had wished for so much she thought it real.
It had been over 100 degrees every day for the past week in Houston. Two nights ago, they had slept at her mama’s friend Gabby’s trailer, Mama on the couch, she and her sister Stella on the cool floor. But last night they had been in their car, which had never cooled down. Even at four in the morning before the sun rose, Madison could feel her clothes sticking to her with the glue of sweat, shorts to thighs, bra to back. She had felt overheated for days. She wanted to stand underneath a cold shower with all her clothes on. And now their mama had brought them to a neighborhood where Madison could hear individual kids splashing in their individual pools.
They parked their car on the second street of the subdivision, in front of a house with the blinds closed, a small fountain gurgling in the front flower bed. This neighborhood was the perfect target for her mother, a suburban street nice enough to have money but not elitist enough to lack empathy. Two-story homes with Spanish-tiled roofs, vines up the walls, all distorted mirrors of one another. They would probably be able to get through a handful of houses before someone vaguely threatened to call the police.
Once they were parked, everything was routine. They covered their scattered belongings with a blanket. They brushed their hair. Mama stood at the trunk readying the box of products while Stella clung to her leg. Madison counted out the brochures, made sure they had enough. Gabby had helped her mother make them, had walked Madison’s mama through the design process on the computer and then generously printed out color copies. Madison and Stella had folded them into thirds. Madison thought they looked rather convincing. There was a sleek logo on the front, professional-looking pictures of cleaning products inside, all taken from an internet search. The brochure listed countless benefits to their cleaning product, all of which were unfounded.
Stella still bought into it fully. She stood with their mama at night filling their dollar-store spray bottles carefully with water, scented oils, vinegar, soap. She watched carefully while Mama adhered labels to the front. She tried to slide air bubbles out with the tips of her tiny fingers. When someone bought a bottle, on average one a day—sometimes up to five if Mama pushed Madison to use a hypothetical school fundraiser in order to garner sympathy—Stella watched carefully as Mama pocketed the cash at each house, helped her count it out at the end of each day. They had been at this for three weeks and had made almost four-hundred dollars profit.
They used to run an even more nefarious con, using an old school brochure to sell cookie dough, asking for cash at each house which they kept without any intention to return with the promised product. But when her mama came up with the cleaning solution idea, she told Madison and Stella she felt better about it, more moral, like they were doing something real now.
Sometimes Madison wondered what her mama’s first scam was. She wondered if her mama started in school, if she collected dollar bills from friends on the playground to perform some meaningless trick, if she promised girls in high school she could get them name-brand jeans and delivered knockoffs instead. Even when they lived with Madison’s grandmother in Mississippi, her mama was always running some kind of scheme. And when they followed her mama’s boyfriend to Houston, even after he left them, she had somehow tricked him into leaving her his car. Sometimes, when Madison complained about their lifestyle, her mama would snap at her. “One day you’re going to be a woman and then you can worry about all this. Just see how well you do trying to find a way to make money.”
Today Madison was sure Mama would push her to be the school saleswoman. She was proficient in all the potential customer questions, from explanations for why they had never heard of her school (it’s on the other side of the city) to what she would receive if she sold enough (a class pizza party or, more preferably, the ability to keep the school’s music program).
But today Madison wanted nothing to do with it. Today she wanted to be able to sit in the car with the windows rolled all the way down until it got too warm and she had to move to crouching on the curb behind the car’s shadow. She wanted to watch the neighborhood drive by, the suburban moms in the S U Vs with children in the back being carried to swim lessons or baseball practice or computer camp. She wanted to imagine that she was just a kid in the neighborhood, someone who belonged, who was hanging out exactly where she was supposed to be.
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ERIN BLUE BURKE’s work has previously appeared in Hypertrophic Literary and Cleaver Magazine. She is from Huntsville, Alabama, where she lives with her husband and daughter.