I am very pretty.
“You are very pretty,” Momma says, and I purse my lips so she can apply some lipstick. It’s a deep crimson, almost the color of a ripe plum, and Momma thinks it’s very nice. Momma grew up in a trailer park, though.
She draws on me, her brows furrowed with concentration, her tongue hanging to the side like it does when she’s real focused, and now I can feel the smooth paint on my lips. “Smack your lips, hon, like this.” She smacks her lips.
I smack mine. Smack, smack. With Momma, it’s always Simon Says.
The hotel smells real bad, like dry vomit, but all the girls walk around in their sparkling gowns and high high heels like they’ve been invited to the king of England’s birthday party or somethin’. Trailer trash, all of ‘em. But of course I don’t say that; instead I stretch my arm real long for a handshake, like Momma taught me. “Nice to meet y’all,” I say. “Where y’all from?”
Ocala, one of ‘em says, and I realize then that she’s too ugly to be pageant queen. I mean, she’s skinny all right, but her face is too round, too chubby and splotchy and pink, like she’s been cryin’. Her nose curls some, too, upward, a pig’s snout. You know those pigs Daddy’s got out there on the farm?
Then I remember I miss Daddy, I haven’t seen him in ages. He hates Momma. And me too, probably. “Ocala, how nice,” Momma says, her teeth like a pack of Chiclets, but I know she ain’t mean that, she thinks Ocala is the armpit of America for some reason, even though in my opinion our town is even worse.
I think she’s just jealous.
“How nice,” I repeat, and Miss Ocala’s eyes glisten like she thinks she’ll win this damn contest. Ain’t no way, though, no way.
My skin prickles because the TV is blarin’ somewhere in the back of the lobby, and this kind of noise, the kind that is like a buzz through the airwaves or whatever it is that the TV comes from — I don’t know, I’m bad at science — this kind of noise always makes me so itchy. Like a goddamn allergy. The news is on; pageant people love the news. They say it calms their nerves before the big show. That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.
The pretty lady on the screen wears a fitted suit and thick-rimmed glasses. Her hair is so brown and nice, I’m jealous. I think that if she were here she’d win this pageant, for sure. She’s prettier than all of us combined, if you could add beauty together or somethin’ like that. Stupid bitch.
“Y’all hear about this one?” Momma asks Miss Ocala’s mother, pointing to the black body bag on the TV screen. It’s an ancient piece of shit, the TV. Looks a little like a lunchbox, with the knobs and dials and all. The screen fuzzes on and off sometimes. You ever seen one of those?
Miss Ocala and her momma nod their heads, somber. Yes, yes, they mumble, dreadful thing, what a terrible thing.
The TV lady talks all prim and proper about this mysterious death, right in our own backyard, in our own shitty ass neighborhood. I know because I’ve heard all about it for the past week. And I mean, I know for other reasons too. Everybody in my town knows. Talk of the town, as they say. “A source close to the police says they found Amy Cordova’s remains behind a dumpster at the local community college,” the TV lady says, her face super-smooth, probably from all the botox and makeup. “The main suspect is a man who is said to have been her lover, John Perkins, a man three times her age.”
Momma tut-tuts and spits on the stained hotel carpet, all for show, of course, like John Perkins isn’t my Daddy and her ex-husband. But she says if anyone else finds out I won’t win the pageant, so I must keep my lips zipped.
Personally, I think it’s kinda cool Daddy’s the main suspect, but I ain’t gonna get on Momma’s bad side now, I don’t want no trouble.
“I don’t think he did it,” Miss Ocala says, and my bones grow all cold. Momma’s face tenses, I can see that, but she’s still smiling that movie-star smile, her teeth all straight, glistening. It’s her only good quality, her teeth, I think. Lucky for her because her parents never had no money for braces or anything like that. I wonder if the reason she won so many pageants when she was a teenager like me is her perfect teeth.
Which reminds me I’ve never won a pageant, and Momma’s probably all disappointed in me, since she’s signed me up for thirty-five pageants to date, swear to Jesus. They all cost money, so it’s a waste. She cries after every single one, too, big, ugly, heaving fat-lady sobs, like the Apocalypse is comin’. Then she’ll smile real small and say, “It’s okay, honey, you tried.”
It’s bullshit, though; I know she’s mad. I think she wants me to win real bad since Daddy never woulda married her if she hadn’t been a pageant queen. Daddy always likes his women in tip-top shape, like Amy Cordova.
Not like the marriage worked out, anyway. Momma got round and her skin droopy and Daddy ran away with all his pigs.
“Who do you think did it?” I ask Miss Ocala, and I hate myself for the unevenness in my voice. Overeager. Stupid bitch, me.
She gets all serious, her eyes small, and her ugliness makes me dizzy. I hope she can’t tell. Pageant girls are supposed to keep their emotions in check, but then again, I ain’t a good pageant girl, so I don’t know. “I think it was a suicide,” she says.
My tummy swooshes with relief, but I fake some big cackling laugh, hah-hah. “Now that’s real dumb,” I tell her, and Momma shoots me a warning glance that means behave. “Real dumb. Why would she kill herself behind a dumpster?”
Miss Ocala looks a little hurt, her eyes glassy and all, but she’s all right at composin’ herself. Maybe she won’t do so awful in the pageant after all. “I don’t know,” she admits. “Whatever! Nice talkin’ to you. Gotta go get ready for the big show.” She looks sideways at her momma and the pair skeddadle off to the ladies room.
Momma squeezes my hand real tight and hisses in my ear. She’s real angry. I know I made a big mistake entertaining Miss Ocala’s idea that it was someone else, but I couldn’t help myself. It happens sometimes. “It was your good-for-nothin’ Daddy, you hear?” Her cheeks are green now, like she feels sick. I do too.
“I know, Momma, I know.”
“We had nothin’ to do with it. Nothin’,” she says, her words like venom, like I really fucked up now.
“Nothin’,” I repeat. “Nothin’ at all, Momma.”
Debbie Lechtman is a 22-year-old writer and aspiring novelist currently living in Connecticut. In the past, she's lived in Israel, Costa Rica, and New York.