On Saturday, while the other girls in their matching yellow pinafores set up their sugary lemonade stand under a yawning canopy of maples, I’m standing on the corner of Stone and Midway, sun blasting my cheeks and toes pinching in my too-small sneakers, selling fake smiles.
The smile I give Mama when she shakes me awake in the night to ask if I’ve brushed my teeth.
The smile I give Mrs. Garbone at Sunday school when she tells me I’m a lamb of God, but only good girls go to Heaven.
Mostly, I sell the smile I give Papa when he cuddles me on his lap and says do I know how very, very much he loves me?
All teeth, no teeth, all teeth again.
The trick to a sellable smile is making my nose crinkle and my eyes squinch like I’m about to cry, as if all my scabs have been lifted from the edges and washed with lemon. Lemon squeezed by the other girls in their crisp new dresses, not hand-me-down corduroys with peeling ironed patches on the knees. Lemon bought by their doting mothers who slice the yellow citrus into perfect cupped halves and even more perfect wedges, gaggling about how sweet it is that their daughters are earning pocket money to spend on candy at the movies.
Just before I smile, I think about the lemonade girls and Mama’s wild eyes and Mrs. Garbone’s beaked nose and how Papa’s sweaty tobacco smell sticks to the furred fabric of his brown recliner chair and his quick-tempered hands, and how the sour mash of whiskey coats the bushy ends of his mustache, and the sour pee smell that pervades everything.
And then I’m ready.
Buy a smile, I call to passersby. Only a buck!
When a car slows, I lean into the open window and let the hot quarters fall into my open palm with all the promise of communion wafers. I don’t care that it’s Mr. McKenna from the Lift-n-Lube garage, or that the air inside his car smells like old fruit and clings to my skin, or that his eyes plead with me like he’s expecting some kind of resurrection. He grabs my outstretched hand like he’s snaring a rabbit but I don’t let myself pull back. I think of the movies, of candy, of my someday lemon yellow dress and pinafore, and split my mouth into a perfect wedge-shape, pulled tight around my teeth so that all my enamel is showing, and I hold it for ten, eleven, twelve-hundred Mississippis, until Mr. McKenna’s grip softens and his shoulders drop and the corners of his mouth rise in satisfaction.
People like to see a kid happy.
Sara Hills is the author of ‘The Evolution of Birds’ (Winner: Best Short Story Collection 2022 Saboteur Awards). Her stories have featured in the Wigleaf Top 50, SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, X-R-A-Y Literary, Cease Cows, Fractured Lit and Flash Frog, among others. Originally from the Sonoran Desert, Sara lives in Warwickshire, UK and tweets from @sarahillswrites.
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