Ella was on the front porch, blowing into an empty bottle with a straw, shivering a fly that was trapped there at the bottom. The fly was woozy and slick with cola, and was rolling and tumbling in the little bottle hurricane that Ella was producing with her straw. The fly was done for, Ella knew that much. It had gotten itself into a pickle, and would spend its last moments at the bottom of the bottle, drunk on cola and flopping itself unconscious.
Roland Schramm came around the side of the house with a globe in his arms and crawled down under the porch. Ella's grandmother had thrown out the globe because it had a dent in Asia, and Roland had fished it from the trashcan out back. Roland's dog, Perry, followed him everywhere and was under the porch with him. Perry was a first-class leaper, and a shy dog.
Roland lived across the back alley and went under Ella's grandmother's porch all the time to smoke. Ella could see him now through the slats of the porch, hunched beneath her with his head down and his dog curled up in the dirt. The smoke from his cigarette came up through the floorboards of the porch. Ella didn't mind the smell; it smelled just like Roland under the porch. Her grandmother no longer made a stink about Roland smoking under the porch, because if you hollered at Roland he would spray paint on your garage or break things. It was easier to just let him go under the porch, where he kept a stash of motorcycle magazines with pictures of men with tattoos.
Ella was bored. It was no good, being a girl in the world. The yards and bushes and woods all around her were full of dirty boys, chasing each other with sticks and throwing things and still hollering into the darkness when she was already in her bed. That's unfortunate, her grandmother would say whenever Ella complained about her life.
Have a heart. That was another of Ella's grandmother's sayings. If her grandmother were to come out to the porch and see Ella torturing the fly in the bottle, that was exactly what she would say: Have a heart, Ella. That poor fly is one of God's creatures.
Ella had never seen her grandfather, but he was in the world somewhere, and her grandmother was sour about it. There was a card on her grandmother's bed stand, which had been there all the years that Ella could remember. The card featured a funny drawing of a man in a tuxedo. The man was holding a tray on which was a sparkling diamond ring. Inside the card someone had written "If you're loving me like I'm loving you, baby, we're really in love." Those words, her grandmother said, were written by Hank Williams, but the handwriting was Ella's grandfather's. They weren't, her grandmother said, worth the paper they were written on.
At least once a day Ella's grandmother would drag her in under her chin, wheeze what sounded like tears into her hair, and murmur, "Bless your little pea-picking heart. Where in the world would I be without you?"
Ella could not begin to formulate an answer to her grandmother's question. All day the old woman sat at the kitchen table, scribbling away at her word search puzzles and watching a television that was on top of the refrigerator. Every afternoon in the summer Ella's grandmother would send her up the street to the Gas-and-Go to fetch a bag of potato chips and a can of diet Cola. Her grandma would give Ella a five-dollar bill and instruct her to get something to eat for herself as well. Ella would ride her bicycle to the library downtown and spend the remaining three dollars and twenty-five cents making photocopies of beautiful women and beautiful clothing from fashion books and magazines. Shoved in the drawer of her nightstand and tucked in her school books Ella had hundreds of photocopies of exotic clothing --and shoes; Ella loved shoes-- the likes of which she had never seen in Prentice. She also liked to make copies of photographs of sports cars. Ella wanted to be a secret agent like James Bond, only a girl. In her dreams she was often driving a stolen Jaguar through the streets of Prentice.
Ella's grandmother was her father's mother, and she would seldom give Ella information that was helpful in forming an impression of a man she could no longer remember. "He liked to put rocks in his pockets when he was a boy," her grandmother would tell Ella. "I used to have a basket full of them down in the laundry room. Eddie's rocks." When pressed for more information, Ella's grandmother would say things like, "He used to listen to a radio that was the shape of a motor oil can," or, "He loved tomatoes." One time she told Ella that her father had been a crackerjack jumper, the best in his class. "He got a ribbon for it," she said. All of these details didn't add up to much in Ella's mind, and her conversations with her grandmother regarding her father always boiled down in the end to the fact that Ella's father hadn't amounted "to a hill of beans." Men, she was told, were good for three things: running off, killing each other, and making babies they wanted no part of. Ella's father, it turned out, was good for all three.
These were the things Ella knew about the world, but she was determined –and certain—that one day soon she would know more. Whenever she was reading a book she had checked out from the library there would come a point where she could no longer contain her excitement, and so she would mark her place, put the book aside, and say to herself, “It’s getting really good.” Her life was not yet like the books she loved, but it was going to be like those books. It was going to get really good. When she told her grandmother this, the old woman would throw her head back and let loose with her crazy blackbird laugh.