Pecking Order

Now and again, Dolores had jivy spells. Like some kind of June firefly had flown into her eye, blinking its gold light on and off, flapping little black wings in her brain. Sometimes it felt worse, like a furious tornado in her head, and just like a tornado, these periods came on fast. Mostly, they occurred when she was locked in the dark hall closet after a beating-Ma was given to tempers that steamed up like a tea kettle. Ma had always been like that, but when Pop came home less frequently from working on the container ships, she took to drinking enough for Pop and for herself.

One time, for no reason other than she was in an ornery mood, her mother had done some serious damage to her face. The two of them had run a few ring-around-the-sofas before Dolores escaped out the front door, bleeding. She ran behind the house and hid in the bushes. Her body hurt, but she could hardly feel the pain because of how wired she was. After a half hour, the blood stopped oozing and her mind quieted from all of Ma’s screaming. Since it wasn’t safe to return to the house, she waited, staring at the bird feeder-one of her mother’s few peaceful interests. Beneath it was a bare patch of earth littered with seeds. Five mourning doves were pecking and flitting around left, right, back, forward, just as they do. Pretty birds. All shades of gray and maybe a hint of lavender when the light was right. As she watched, Dolores noticed that five of the doves were fine with each other, but none of them liked one bird that was on the outside of the group. Whenever that dove came in for some seeds, the others pecked her silly until she high-tailed it away, onto the grass. But the bird was stubborn. She ambled around the edge of things, pretending she wasn’t interested in eating, and then she’d try again. Bang! Sharp jabs on her head and tail and body. When she wandered to the other side and crept closer, same deal. Bang! Dolores mused on this for some time, sucking the scene dry. That old dove was like her-always getting pecked and whacked and left out. She wanted to wring the necks of those five birds or pelt them with rocks, but she didn’t want to hurt her special bird.

The next years were no account years. Ma got a cough from smoking Chesterfields and working in the dirty air of the chicken factory. Then Pop came home for Christmas, said it was for the last time. Dolores missed him some but not much. Mostly, she kept to herself, roaming the woods. Sometimes she thought about that little gray bird, especially at school recess, when the girls were skipping rope, everyone gathered round and taking turns, jumping or swinging. Dolores knew she wasn’t so hot at skipping rope. In fact, she thought it was a damned sissy activity compared to baseball, but the boys were tight with each other and had no truck with girls, even girls who could throw and hit as well as Dolores. So that left the girls to play with.

On one Friday, Dolores stood on the outskirts of the dirt clearing, listening to the girly screams, hoping she could slip into the game. Slowly, she moved to the end of the line. When it was her turn, the girls stopped their rhythmic swinging and stood together, a line of dusty-shoed, grimy-handed, freckled kids.

“Get lost!” one girl shouted.

“You can’t play with us!” another said.

“Ew! Do-lor-es is a stinky mess!”

Everyone laughed.

Dolores turned and walked away, feeling the taunts strike her shoulders and back like spears.

The rest of the school day went like usual. In class, she couldn’t remember the answers to questions. The teacher yelled and said she was stupid and lazy. More spears. She walked home feeling pretty well stabbed, those little blips of light starting in on her, scrambling her head, compressing all that anger into a sharp stone, a diamond of fury.

When Delores walked into the house, she saw her little brother, Jed, sitting on the hook rug, his diapers half off. Jed was the apple of Ma’s eye or so she said. Dolores hated his smell of poop, hated his gooey round face. Ma never hit him like she hit her. Ma let him scream a lot, but other than that, he got whatever he wanted. Jed was chewing on a red fire truck. It wasn’t a big truck. It was one of those bitty metal ones. Dolores looked around the living room and saw that he’d been playing with her favorite stuffed tiger, Tony. The thought of Jed drooling on Tony made the lights in Dolores’ brain go jivy. Her face got hot and her fists formed up tight. That old diamond was cutting at her bad. She threw down her school books and jammed that truck down Jed’s fat throat. He didn’t cry much, which was fine with Dolores. The whirls came after. She ran up to her room and lay down on her bed, pummeled by the lightning storm that was going on except she wasn’t sure if it was outside the window or inside her.

Later that day, not one fool adult who “investigated” figured out what happened. They thought Jed had swallowed the red fire truck all by himself. Everyone cried buckets over his death except Dolores. She didn’t mind that he was gone, not that it made things better for her.

By eighth grade, the kids became nastier, even though she’d grown tall and big like Pop. A dead mouse was left in her locker; a dog turd was wrapped in her gym clothes. It was always something. Then, one day after school, a bunch of guys followed her. They were acting strange, touching her with quick hands, and saying things like, “You want it, don’t you?” She told them she didn’t and tried to ignore them, but they kept on circling around like a pack of wolves, tighter and tighter, until near the woods one boy reached over and felt her up. That was all it took. They dragged Dolores into the forest, tearing at her clothes and stripping her and themselves naked. As they did, the lights came on in her head, and the tree branches spun their green spiky leaves like a merry-go-round gone haywire. Electricity shot through her, dancing around her body and zapping out her fingers.

Carmine was the runtiest of the group. Usually, when the kids weren’t picking on Dolores, he was their target. He had slicked brown hair, darty black eyes, and acne pocking his face. Dolores couldn’t figure why he was in with these four boys, but he was. It took Dolores only a few seconds to punch him in the eye and break his arm. The others standing around with their thingies hanging out got spooked and took off except Carmine, who couldn’t.

Dolores dressed herself in the tatters of her clothes and went home. Her bad luck held. Ma was sitting on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and a pint of rum. When she saw Dolores, her red eyes opened wide and she shot off her chair like a rocket. “You whore!” she screamed. “What the hell you been playing at?” Dolores could see that the milk of human kindness had been polluted with Myer’s and took to her heels. That night, she slept in a deer stand a mile from town, damned cold but safe.

Unfortunately, Carmine had spilt his guts about what happened to him but not about the bad stuff they’d done to her. Dolores was called in by the school counselor, but there was no point in telling on the boys or on Carmine because it was accepted fact that she was an evil girl and always in the wrong. The counselor made her go see a windbag shrink after school. She sat in the shrink’s chair and didn’t hear him. That took real concentration, but her mind was skilled at ignoring things.

Everyone thought Dolores had been fixed by the therapist, who said she was just going through a rough patch and would outgrow her behavior and become more lady-like when she turned fourteen in September. But as soon as Ma stopped carting her to sessions, Dolores learned that the boys hadn’t forgotten her. Like sharks, they had a taste in their mouths and wanted more, and they got her, all five of them, one at a time-even Carmine.

So, two days before Labor Day, her mother did the coat-hanger-abortion thing and got rid of what was growing inside Dolores. Although this was a relief, Ma said the humiliation was too great for them to stay in a place where Dolores was called Jezebel and other names. In October, they moved to another town for a fresh start, except, of course, it wasn’t fresh. All that humiliation was nailed across Dolores’ forehead for everyone to see. Her mother frequently reminded her that this was so.


Her life was what it was, plenty of hate coming her way; plenty of hate streaming out. That’s why, after a fight with a snickery waitress at work, she was in her present deluxe accommodations. Now, she made sure the hate was sent out first before it was received.

Forty-three years old a week ago. Some birthday. In solitary. Today was her first day back in her regular cell, with recreation privileges. When she was allowed outside, Dolores practically licked the fresh autumn air, it smelled so sweet. Then she began staring at the courtyard full of women wearing orange jumpsuits. A group was playing basketball. She walked over to the game, but none of the girls threw the ball to her. They passed among themselves even when she was right there under the basket, the tallest of them all. Dolores saw the fear in their eyes, which warmed her up some, but still no one included her. Suddenly, she remembered those gray mourning doves, circling around, one bird set apart, getting pecked on its head-a memory etched clear in her mind. She left the court, strolled over to the dumbbells, and pressed 125 lbs. clean over her head, no sweat. She did this a couple of times to get the blood going and the light show started. It came on fierce, like a summer heat storm, yellow, frizzy shockers sizzling in all directions. Jackie the Knife was pumping iron nearby. She always had a shiv hidden in her sock or somewhere in her cell-Jackie made them faster than the guards could find them. Jackie saw the situation, nodded, and glanced at Witch and Baby, two drugged-up gals who could take down a rhino, and Sugar, a black girl who no one messed with except the other four. Sugar was lounging in the sun like a leopard, but her eyes were sharp.

Delores stared at the women playing basketball, laughing and joshing between themselves. Angry fireballs zoomed between her temples as the ball was passed round and round, from girl to girl, weaving links in a chain bracelet of friendship. Inside her head, the jiving was bouncing off her brain something fierce. Dolores ran over and grabbed that big pumpkin of a basketball. Sugar leapt up and threw an elbow that broke teeth on one of the girls, while Witch and Baby kicked a few kneecaps. When Jackie stepped forward, the basketball players drifted away.

“We’re just five sweet doves,” said Sugar, chuckling.

And though Dolores’ head pounded and the noon light hurt her eyes, she smiled at Sugar, Witch, Baby, and Jackie, and then shot a clean three-point basket.