Her sisters, one 11 and the other stuck in perpetual childhood because of her mental handicap, play jacks on the scalding sidewalk, set up paper doll houses along the garage wall in the cool grass. They drink Kool-Aid until their tongues are thick and dyed purple; they melt Fizzies on their tongues then drool green spit, rolling their eyes like mad dogs.
She smears herself with baby oil and sunbathes in the back yard in her red, white and blue bikini -- the first she's had with a built-in bra. The cups are stiff, formed plastic, like the inside of half a softball. When she lies down on her stomach, they pop inward and she has to crack the dents out when she turns over. She reads To Kill a Mockingbird and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter over and over. She thinks her sisters are the dumbest girls she knows.
She has lined her older brother's double Lovin' Spoonful album cover with aluminum foil to make a reflector. She angles it toward the sun until concentrated rays broil her face. She covets her brother's album collection, and sometimes, when he's away, she sneaks into his second floor bedroom to listen to The Temptations, Otis Redding or Sam and Dave.
Her brother is 17, a rising senior. He barely speaks to her or her sisters anymore, except to be kind to the handicapped one. He leaves with his friends as soon as he comes home from work. He is smart and successful already, immune to the dramas and the incredible boredom of home.
On a Friday morning, the phone rings. Her friend Terry has a job for the weekend, hanging fake tiger tails on antennas or out the gas tank doors of customers at the downtown Esso station. Esso's newest ad slogan is: "Put a tiger in your tank!" They'll pay her 25 dollars a day on Saturday and Sunday if she works ten hours each day. She has never had 50 dollars of her own and she has never worked ten hours. She says yes.
The next morning, she dresses in white shorts, a white T-shirt, white socks and white Keds. Her tanned skin glows. She has bleached a blonde stripe in her brown hair with peroxide. Her brother drives her down to the Esso station. The manager gives her a pair of tiger ears attached to a stiff headband, a tiger-print vest and a fuzzy tiger tail to pin on her behind. She and Terry help each other in the nasty gas station bathroom, then go to work.
A tall cardboard box filled with tiger tails sits on the console with the gas pumps. When a customer drives up, she bends over into the driver's side window and smiles: "Tiger in your tank, sir?" The customers are amused. Some ask for two tiger tails, one for the antenna, one for the tank. Some ask for extras for their little kids and she sneaks them through the window, even though the boss has warned against this.
By two o'clock the first afternoon, her calves ache and the bottoms of her feet are burning from crossing the sweltering asphalt again and again. Gasoline fumes burn her eyes and throat. She drinks more Cokes than she's ever had in a day and holds it as long as she can because she doesn't want to pee in the nasty bathroom.
Around four, her brother and a bunch of his friends drive up in Steve Smith's red convertible. "Tiger in your tank, sir?" she smiles, reaching up to tie a tail on the shiny antenna. "Yeah, baby," the boys growl and laugh. "You can put a tiger in my tank any time." They drive off honking and waving. She thinks her brother has finally noticed her for the first time this summer.
At six, she's off and while she waits for a ride home with Terry's mother, Steve Smith's red convertible pulls up again. "Want a ride home?" he says, twirling a tiger tail on his finger.
"Sure," she says. She climbs in the wide front seat and leans back to soak up the cool night air. He drives boldly through the quiet streets and pulls up in her driveway. Just as he turns and reaches over to pull her next to him, her brother storms out the garage door.
"What the hell you think you're doing, Smith?" he yells. She hasn't heard her brother angry out loud for a long time. She slips out of the car and limps inside. He has noticed her, she thinks. He has finally noticed her.