Mrs. Billingsley asks Rachel’s mother, not Rachel, if Rachel would like to accompany them to the beach for two weeks. “There’s no television, no A/C. It’s almost embarrassingly primitive, but Rachel is just so entertaining. Such a delight. I know she’d make my girls happy.”
This is how Mrs. Billingsley puts it to Rachel’s mother over the phone, one evening after Rachel has been particularly engaging at tennis, and Rachel’s mother, in her outdated kitchen, still humiliated by her divorce, her hatchback, her teeth, replies: “Yes! Yes! Absolutely!” without even asking Rachel if going to the beach for two weeks with the Billingsleys is something she wants to do.
If Rachel’s mother’s own life is unsalvageable, her daughter’s still has a shot. She pictures what Rachel can look like in five years if she goes to the beach and puts on a good show for these folks, meets the people they know. If Rachel is willing to do her little song-and-dance thing at night while the Billingsleys drink Scotch, tell some of those Helen Keller jokes she picked up at summer camp while the Billingsleys scrape crab claws with silver forks, teach the talentless Billingsley girls how to macrame, lip sync, hula hoop; Rachel, if she’s lucky, might end up as decadently bored and unafraid as they are.
Of course, Rachel will have to learn how to starve herself, how to volley, how to operate aging dick, but these are small prices to pay. Rachel’s mother can at least teach her something about the not-eating. Think of your hunger as a wheelchair, she’ll tell Rachel before she leaves for the trip. Something you can never get out of, but something that will get you where you want to go, even if it’s uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to go,” Rachel says when she learns of the plans.
“Too late now,” her mother answers.
Rachel feels like hired help, a jester for the elite. Rachel’s mother feels something akin to hope, like the hand of God is touching her for the first time in a decade.
The Billingsleys fly to the beach in a private King Air twin-turboprop. The girls, Devlin, fifteen, and Davenport, seventeen, straddle Rachel age-wise and know her only through the tennis clinic that Rachel’s mother paid for, like her summer camp, on a low-interest Discover card. They buckle themselves loosely in adjacent leather seats across from Rachel and their mother and exhale in unison.
“Was there not a Lear?” Devlin says.
“Or a Citation?” Davenport adds. Their voices pout but their mouths do not, as if their faces are afflicted by a practiced palsy.
“The girls are used to jets,” Mrs. Billingsley explains. “But this is what we get when the men have first dibs.”
“Fuck men,” Devlin says.
“No thanks,” Davenport answers. “I’m going to be a lesbo.”
Rachel stares at the sisters and they stare back, in such a way and for such a time, that Rachel begins to wonder if this is her cue to begin entertaining everyone. To start diffusing things, as she always does, with her non-threatening plumpness, her simple face, her clever puns. It’s why she was invited, after all: to do what she does at tennis. Introduce the joyless to the concept of joy—if not in a way they can experience, at least in a way they can witness.
“You know any lesbos?” Davenport asks. “You went to camp. Camps are crawling with lesbos.”
Rachel waits for Mrs. Billingsley to chime in, to say something like, “Davenport, please.” or “Knock it off, girls.” But instead, Mrs. Billingsley tilts her head back for a nap even though the plane has yet to depart. “Lesbos,” she snorts with her eyes closed. “What goes where?”
Rachel's mother works in the basement of a bank counting checks with the eraser end of a pencil. She hears three things, eight hours a day, five days a week: the thipthipthip of the erasers, the asylum hum of the fluorescents, the cheery, insufferable banter of her co-workers: all women, all obese, all over sixty. All of them inexplicably—infuriatingly—content with their lives.
“One of them told me a recipe for layered pudding today,” Rachel’s mother tells Rachel the night before her trip. “You should have heard her. You would have thought she was explaining how to deliver a baby. ‘First there’s a layer of vanilla pudding. Then there’s a layer of strawberries. Then there’s a layer of non-dairy whipped topping.’” Rachel’s mother puts her face in her hands and groans. “It’s called Cool Whip, you idiot. It doesn't make you sound smart to call it something else. It makes you sound like someone who’s worked in the basement of a bank her whole, pathetic life who thinks calling Cool Whip non-dairy whipped topping puts a stamp in her passport. Please. Like she even has a passport.”
Rachel’s mother looks up. “This is what it’s come to, Rachel. Pudding people. For a while there, your father and I had a chance to make something of ourselves. We were on the verge of a country club. But now? The city park.”
Rachel remembers the first time she walked in on her father. He was standing in front of the bedroom mirror, using a can of hairspray for a microphone. “Who here’s happily married?” he asked the mirror. “Can I get a show of hands?” Her father squinted his eyes, as if he were looking out past stage lights and into an audience. “What’s that? Five? Six? Well, there you have it, people. Proof of aliens.”
Rachel’s mother puts both of her hands on Rachel’s shoulders. “This is not a trip to the beach, Rachel. It’s a trip to school. Study these people like you’re going to be tested. Someday, you could spend a third of your year in a beach chair. You just have to work at it hard enough and then—abracadabra!—you won’t have to work at all.”
Rachel’s mother smiles. She sees Rachel living like someone in a soap opera: lethargic with wealth. Her tan arm, now thin, stacked with bracelets to the elbow. A silver-haired man in terrycloth shorts at her side. Rachel’s mother sees Rachel with a husband so taken by her full lips and visible hipbones that he rewards her yearly with a new Lexus. Rachel, on the other hand, sees nothing but a container of Cool Whip. She’s eating out of it with a ladle. Or rather: her hands.
In the air, somewhere between Delaware and the beach the sisters insist on calling “Ass Island,” Davenport gestures loosely at the plane’s amenities: a narrow drawer lined with packs of spearmint gum. A first aid cabinet equipped for hangovers, not engine failure, stocked with envelopes of Goody’s headache powder. A bread basket filled with boxes of animal crackers and buckled into a spare seat, like a neighbor’s child the Billingsleys have agreed to transport but are set on ignoring.
“Animal crackers,” scoffs Devlin. “You see any babies up here?”
“In your vagina,” Davenport says.
Devlin and Davenport lean across the narrow aisle to punch one another in the upper arms for a time, back and forth like papier-mâché marionettes, until their arms are red and welted from shoulder to elbow. It’s as if both have been grabbed and shaken by a middle-aged lover who’s discovered he’s been jilted for a pool boy.
“Trucey trucey?” Devlin asks.
“Vodka juicy,” Davenport answers.
At this, the sisters set about making cocktails, and Rachel watches, spellbound. The girls are a study in contradiction, equal parts crude and classy, mundane and mesmerizing. Their hair is eternally slept on, piled on their heads like Caucasian turbans. Their silk dresses are shapeless but clingy, their expensive loafers intentionally mashed into slides. Their bodies, fed only candy, seem to consist of neither muscle nor fat. They can slump in the corner of a tennis court biting Skittles in half; they can scuff across a tarmac with unwieldy handbags concealing liquor; they can slouch in leather seats, knees agape to show a pearly slice of panties and still, somehow, exude regality. Their only accessible flaws, Devlin’s fingernails and Davenport’s bottom lip, both of which have been habitually and vigorously chewed, only serve, in Rachel’s opinion, to humanize them, to mark them as either inwardly anxious or outwardly bored.
“Here,” Devlin offers Rachel a drink. “It’s a Stoli-and-Diet.”
Rachel takes it and sniffs. Beside her, Mrs. Billingsley naps with her mouth open, gasping, as if she’s slept alone for years.
“That,” Devlin points at her mother, “is how you make a man fuck the nanny.”
“No shit,” Davenport says, tossing back the contents of her plastic tumbler and mixing another drink inside the bowels of her Italian purse. “And yet, they’re still together. Because Daddy likes consistency.”
“And Mommy likes money,” adds Devlin.
For an instant things go quiet. As if an intentional moment of silence has been observed for decency’s death. Then Davenport belches, unblinking, and says to Rachel. “So, who did your dad leave your mom for? A babysitter? A secretary?”
“Don’t say it’s someone not young,” says Devlin. “Because that is the burn of the century.”
Rachel takes a taste of her drink. And then a second. She doesn’t dare say why her parents split. That it was her mother who left her father. That it was her father who left banking for stand-up comedy, because he deserved—his word—applause. That her father now lives in a basement apartment with a recliner and a hot pot and an iguana he agreed to housesit but somehow got stuck with. That her father spends his days making long lists of catch phrases he believes will get him discovered, revered, iconized: And that’s the long and short of it, folks! Trust me, ladies and gents, I’m an expert! And that’s what you call screwed, my friends!
“He banged my French tutor,” Rachel lies, having had neither French nor tutors. “She was twenty-three.”
Devlin whistles and clucks her tongue in mock judgment. Davenport shrugs. “I’ve heard worse,” she says. “At least he didn’t bang you.”
Rachel finishes her drink at that. Davenport makes her another. Halfway through the third, despite her mother’s warning, Rachel gets out of her figurative wheelchair and asks for the animal crackers. Devlin and Davenport watch unblinking as Rachel eats an entire box and then a second.
“Damn, bitch,” Devlin says. “Save some for the Africans.”
Davenport says nothing. She just stares at Rachel as Rachel eats, chews her lower lip as Rachel chews, and it occurs to Rachel, as the plane whirs on slow and rich, as the girls splay warm and drunk, that Davenport’s lower lip is the way it is and Devlin’s fingernails are the way they are, not because the girls are scared or bored, but because they’re starving.
Ass Island turns out to be a private slice of Caribbean land that’s shaped like a hand giving the finger. It’s owned by people as white as its sand and run by people as dark as the rum that Devlin and Davenport keep under their twin bamboo beds.
“This is our room,” Davenport says. “We’ve got a view of the ocean, a view of the pool, a view of where Devlin screwed the Jamaican.”
“How do you know where I screwed the Jamaican?” Devlin asks.
“Because I was watching,” Davenport says.
Rachel sits on a bed while the sisters unpack by tipping their suitcases onto the floor of the closet. They each deposit a pile of silk dresses and sunglasses, bikinis and lighters, Tarot cards and menthol cigarettes, smashed shoes and loose Skittles. There’s a pink plastic case that Rachel guesses might hold a diaphragm. A carved wooden box that must be for weed. When they’re done, they take Rachel on a half-hearted tour of the shingled house and flowering grounds, pointing out useless things: not where Rachel can find an extra roll of toilet paper or a glass of water or a bottle of sunscreen, but where their father once had a seizure from too much cocaine, which window the natives climb into when the Billingsleys aren’t there.
“See these shotgun shells?” Davenport says, opening a drawer intended for silverware. “They come here and do drug deals. They use this house as a hideout.”
“Just doing our part,” Devlin says.
“Community service,” Davenport agrees.
Rachel is too ravenous to be impressed; she cannot help but point to the refrigerator next. “Any diet soda in there?” she asks.
Davenport yanks it open to reveal a lone champagne cork and an old jar of cocktail sauce, then she turns, slow, and looks at Rachel. “Oh, shit,” she says. “You’re hungry again.”
Devlin opens her mouth in awe, then closes it like a fish.
Rachel lifts her shoulders, then drops them.
Davenport thinks with the refrigerator open. “If we take you somewhere, will you eat for us?”
Devlin releases a gasp. “Oh, please,” she whispers. “Pretty pretty?”
Rachel looks from one to the other. This is why she was invited, she sees. This is how to make them happy. “All right,” she says, nodding her plain round face. “I can do that.”
At a restaurant meant for locals but appropriated by the sunburned, Rachel sits while Devlin and Davenport order for her: a double-bacon cheeseburger, a bowl of conch chowder, a plate of coconut macaroons.
“Get her a beer,” Devlin says. “Two”
“God, beer,” Davenport says. “What I wouldn’t.”
Rachel watches them fight over the menu, as if they’ve never held one, as if it’s pornography, a love letter, a treasure map. The waiter lets them keep it to peruse, which they do, producing a pack of menthols while they read it, smoking as if they’ve just had sex. Rachel notices that the Caribbean sounds different from other oceans. It sounds like something Rachel knows, but cannot place.
“Jerk chicken,” Davenport says.
“Fucking potatoes,” Devlin adds.
When the food arrives, the sisters sit back and watch Rachel eat, their eyes glassy with booze and tears.
“Take it slow,” Davenport says.
So Rachel does. She eats the burger as if it’s her first, the soup as if it’s her last. She pinches up each cookie with her soft, ringless fingers and holds them up for the girls to see, sugar in the sunlight. By the time the meal is over, Rachel feels the feeling of a job well done—one hundred stacks of counted checks. A layered pudding, well-layered.
“Take a bow," Devlin says.
"No shit," Davenport adds.
Rachel does not refuse. She brushes the crumbs from her lap and stands. She bows stage left. She bows stage right. She bows right down the center.
That night at the house, the girls show Rachel how they entertain themselves without television.
“Things to smoke,” Devlin says, laying out cigarettes and joints like a picket fence on her bedspread.
“Things to drink,” Davenport says, placing a bottle of vodka next to a bottle of rum on the nightstand.
“And things to play,” Devlin says, thumping her skull as if she’s thinking up something good.
“Like what?” Rachel asks.
Devlin runs an unlit joint under her nose and inhales. “Sometimes Davenport and I pretend we’re regular people. That we’re not rich.”
“Yeah,” says Davenport. “We just lie here and say shit that rich people would never say.”
Rachel frowns. “Such as?”
Devlin licks the joint and smooths it, like a child’s cowlick. “Rachel can judge us,” she says to Davenport. “Rachel can tell us if we sound poor.”
“Oh, wow!” Davenport says, showing an emotion Rachel guessed her incapable of. An emotion Rachel feels compelled to nurture, to cup her hands around and blow on like an ember. “Would you?”
Rachel cannot imagine saying no. “Okay,” she says. “For Skittles.”
Davenport and Devlin further brighten for a brief second, as if Rachel has offered to eat two slices of cake in front of them. “God, I love you,” Devlin says.
Davenport says nothing, she just stares at Rachel until Rachel turns warm, and after an eternal minute, Devlin lights a joint and takes a long drag, thinking. “I'm gonna run to Sears,” she finally says, releasing smoke. “And get me a new jog bra.”
Davenport doles out two Skittles to Rachel. “Well?”
Rachel eats the candy. “That doesn’t sound rich.”
Davenport takes her turn. “Pass the ketchup” she says. “For my steak.”
“Not rich,” Rachel says, eating two more Skittles.
“I got summer teeth,” Devlin says. “Some are here. Some are there.”
Davenport and Devlin burst into an unexpected laughter that sounds both magnificent and terrifying, the howl of two lean dogs. Rachel eats the rest of the Skittles off the bedspread while the sisters, beige and bony, pass the joint between them. Both of them could fit inside her body, she thinks. Davenport and Devlin could be dropped into her torso like two silk scarves into a basket. They could hide there, where the hunger lives, a little, shimmering, satin pool.
“What’s your dad do?” Davenport asks out of nowhere.
“Great question,” Devlin says.
Rachel has forgotten where she is, who she is supposed to be. “Oh,” she says, coming to, declining the joint with a wave of her padded palm, imagining two scarves unfurling, down her throat. “He’s an entertainer.”
Davenport and Devlin look at each other quiet, then they clamp their hands over their mouths like they’re at a funeral suppressing laughter. “Like an actor?” Devlin says.
“Like a rock star?” Davenport adds.
Rachel isn’t sure what to say. “He just has this way,” she says. “Of putting on a show.”
“Oh, our dad’s like that, too,” Devlin says. “He throws big parties and never shuts up. Sometimes he pays someone to play the piano.”
Davenport wets her fingertips and pinches the hot end of the joint without reaction. “One time, he hired a magician for the cokeheads. You know. Cokeheads love card tricks.”
Devlin nods. “And last Christmas he brought in an owl.”
Davenport points at Devlin. “That’s right. He found an owl under the house, down by the stilts, and brought it inside to show to everyone at the party.”
Rachel stares. “An owl?”
“Yeah,” Devlin says. “Did you know there were owls in the islands? I didn’t. I thought owls were from a forest in Germany or some shit.”
“Dad just walked in with that owl on a beach towel. Everybody went out of their fucking skulls and the owl didn’t do a goddamn thing,” Davenport says. “It had to be sick.”
Devlin blinks slow, remembering. “It just sat on that towel and stared. Everyone was passing it around and Dad was standing there like it was no big thing except it turned out to be a big thing.”
“A real owl,” Rachel says.
“Turns out owls are beautiful,” Davenport says. “Who knew?”
“Thanks, Dad,” Devlin says as if he’s right in the room with them. “People were so-so before you brought the owl in, but now they’re happy as fuck.”
Rachel feels something close to fear, rising. “What happened to the owl?”
Devlin lays down on her bed and closes her eyes. Davenport pulls off her shirt and sits there, topless, using her shirt to pat under her armpits. “It’s hot,” she says. “I’m wasted.”
Davenport falls forward on her bed. Her bare, brown back is as slight as a child’s. Rachel stands there, alone for a moment, thinking about the owl. She wonders if they let it go. If the owl let people touch it. She imagines the owl, startled, flying around the living room, the guests both delighted and afraid, Mr. Billingsley really getting his money’s worth, even though it cost him nothing. Rachel leaves Devlin and Davenport the way they are: passed out, with the lights on.
In Rachel’s room, Rachel finds Mrs. Billingsley on the bed, staring at the ceiling, a drink loose in her hand. Her stout arms are pink from sun. Her eyes are pink from Scotch. Her dress, also pink, is hiked up on one side to reveal a pale, dimpled leg.
“My girls,” she slurs. “I do apologize.”
Out the window, Rachel can hear the ocean but not see it. She still cannot place what it sounds like. “Oh, they’re fine,” she says. “They’re fun.”
“Pfft,” Mrs. Billingsley says, shaking her head, jiggling a bit of her Scotch onto the floor. “Thank God they’re rich. If they weren’t rich, they’d be dead. They don’t know how to do anything.”
Rachel says nothing. She wants Mrs. Billingsley to leave. She wants to climb into the bed and think up catch phrases for her father. What do I look like, an idiot? She thinks of the one time she went to see her father perform. It had been late in the afternoon, in a bar that smelled of Pine-Sol. Only eight people had been in the audience and one of them kept saying: “Give it up, man. Give it up.”
Mrs. Billingsley sits up on one elbow, takes a long swallow from her drink, the ice clattering back and forth like bracelets on an arm. “I wasn’t born rich, Rachel. But I wasn’t born poor either. I was somewhere in the middle. Like where you are. In that place where you don’t know how good you got it.” Mrs. Billingsley swings her legs over the side of the bed like she might stand, then she wavers and lies back down, gingerly, as if she’s on a raft in water. “I was thirteen when I met Mr. Billingsley. I worked at the golf house on the ninth hole of the club we couldn’t afford to join, and I served sandwiches to the men. Those were good days. Quiet ones. I worked with another girl. Her name was Beverly. We just listened to the whack of golf clubs. The hum of golf carts. We made lists of what we wanted in life. Cars and rings. Things, Rachel. Then we handed the men sandwiches. We didn’t even have to make them. We just had to keep them cold. When I saw Mr. Billingsley, I told myself to do whatever it took to get him to marry me. So, I did whatever it took.”
Rachel’s hands are stained from the candy. She clasps them together as if in prayer and then unclasps them. Over and over she does this as Mrs. Billingsley talks.
“Oh, Rachel. I just did what it took. And look where it got me.” Mrs. Billingsley reaches her arm down as if to put her glass on the floor, but the floor escapes her by a few inches, so she lets the drink hang in her swollen hand. “You’ll meet him,” she says. “He’s old and angry and handsome and funny and everyone loves him, so I probably should, too. It’s too late and too hard for it to be any other way anyway. Oh, God,” Mrs. Billingsley sighs. “I’m so glad you’re here, Rachel. You’re such a delight. Can you teach my girls something normal? Something useful? Can you show them how to fry an egg? Can you show them how to fold a towel? Can you show them something, anything, they can use in life?”
Rachel thinks of the sisters, across from her at the table, waiting, watching, wanting. Their eyes are as pale as fresh concrete, but whenever she brings the fork to her mouth, their pupils dilate with joy, like black ink dropped into water.
“Yes,” Rachel says. “I can do that.”
Outside, the ocean fades and crashes, fades and crashes. Finally, it occurs to Rachel that it sounds like applause.
Whitney Collins received a 2020 Pushcart Prize for her story “The Entertainer,” which originally appeared in The Pinch Journal. Her forthcoming story collection, Big Bad, won the 2019 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and will be published by Sarabande Books in 2021. Her flash horror is forthcoming in Catapult’s Tiny Nightmares anthology.
Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Chattahoochee Review, Ninth Letter, The Southeast Review, Grist, Lumina, Raleigh Review, The Laurel Review, Moon City Review, and Quarter After Eight, among others. Her stories have earned two additional Pushcart Prize nominations, a PEN/Robert J. Dau Prize nomination, an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train, and Semifinalist for American Short Fiction’s 2019 The American Short(er) Fiction Prize. Whitney lives in Kentucky with her husband and sons.