The Slow-Cooked Sentence

My skin or my soul

Rachael Conlin Levy
Photo courtesy of amazonactivist.

Shelly followed me around the playground, not close enough for anyone to imagine we were friends, but behind me like some mangy, maggot-eating dog with its tail between its legs, and behind her came a cloud of stink, the smell of old, stale dirt melted with sweat to form a crust over the skin. The other kids were beginning to notice.

“Why’s she following you?”


“Shelly. Are you friends?”

And the word was spit out like dirt. For even here, where everyone lived in trailers and most backyards included a junk car, there was a pecking order among us children, a ranking built on insults and exclusions, and at the bottom of the hierarchy was Shelly. She was the fifth-grade version of the thick, polluted froth found along the seashore. She was the brown foam of fat that collected at the edges of a boiling soup pot. She was scum.

And I was her secret … something — not friend, though. I felt sorry for her, sorry that she lived in a dirty family with dirty brothers who ate their boogers. I felt sorry for her when I saw her mother, whose skin was gray-brown as the cigarette smoke that hovered around her, and who smelled like B.O, sorry that she had a mother who bought cigarettes instead of soap for her children, lots of smooth, white, clean bars of soap to wash dirt out of matted hair and grime out of clothes. I felt sorry for Shelly, but I didn’t like her.

She was surly and sour, stomping on the bus every morning and throwing herself into an empty seat where she’d stare out the window. She had dirt on her neck and knees, her arms, her face, everywhere. I wanted to take a fingernail and scrape the skin, erasing the dirt and leaving a white streak on her arm and crud under my own nail. Her stink settled around her and kids held their noses and moved. Some gagged and choked. Shelly scowled, eyes narrowed to slits and teeth bared, yellow and fuzzy for lack of a toothbrush.

“You have to be kind to her,” Mom said, “like Jesus loved the poor and outcast.”

I wrinkled my nose and breathed into my jacket for the rest of the bus ride, but I didn’t change seats.

I’d been secretly writing notes to Shelly for a little while now, letters penciled, then folded and slipped to my teacher, who slipped them to Shelly. The teacher had approached my mom and me with the idea after her own efforts to share soap and clothing went unused. Maybe, she said, another child would have more success with this angry, filthy girl.

Shelly’s only friend was a tape deck and a stack of Beatles tapes. She’d cradle the tape deck against her ear and listen to it on the bus. She listened to it on the playground as she walked the perimeter. But the music that warbled from the small microphone was an insult to the headbangers, ready to pound and pump head and fist for AC/DC. And so when she walked near some boys, one — David, skinny and round shouldered, face coming to a nosy point like a rat’s — stuck out a leg and tripped her.

She sprawled into the gravel, tape deck bouncing out of her hand, popping open, tape flying. She jumped up, snarling, smarting, palms scraped and bleeding, blinking away tears. David tossed his sheet of hair out of his eyes and laughed.

“Leave her alone,” I said.

“Shut up, scum-bag. She’s scum, and her music’s scum, and you’re scum, too.”

He kicked at the cassette-recorder, sending small rocks and dirt flying, and spit. Shoulders hunched, he walked away. But David remembered. Shelly remembered. And as kids began to avoid me, Shelly slunk closer, shadowing me during recess, shuffling behind me, not looking, not talking, but there all the same. My fall within the school hierarchy was clean and quick as a knife cut.

I had never been popular, but I had a true friend, a best friend I thought would shield me against the pecking order, but instead she stood back and let me bleed. First, she avoided me at lunch, then at recess, too. I phoned her after school one day to ask why, and she said kids were calling me scum.

“Do you want one friend that loves you, or a lot of friends who just like you?” I asked her.

“I want to have a lot of friends.”

I hung up the phone and cried.

Most of the kids in the school were poor, and many of us ate meals bought with Food Stamps. I wasn’t scum, I was clean, took a bath, used soap. But now, like Shelly, I was alone — she with the Beatles and I with my books. I burrowed into books in order to forget I had no one to talk to. I carried them on the bus, took them on the playground, hid them in my desk. This was my routine until a new girl arrived and chose me as her friend. Once again, I had someone to share lunch with and talk with during recess, and, once again, I was being shadowed.

“Why’s she following you?”


“Her. Are you friends?”

I turned and looked at Shelly, stared at her dirty clothes and tangled hair and her cloud of stink, and then spoke to her for the first and last time.

“Go away!” I said. “Stop following me. I’m not your friend.”

Blog Action Day is an annual nonprofit event that aims to unite the world’s bloggers, podcasters and videocasters, to post about the same issue on the same day. It aims to raise awareness and trigger a global discussion. Global issues like poverty are extremely complex. There is no simple, clear answer. By asking thousands of different people to give their viewpoints and opinions, Blog Action Day creates an extraordinary lens through which to view these issues. Each blogger brings their own perspective and ideas. Each blogger posts relating to their own blog topic. And each blogger engages their audience differently. For others, click here.

6 responses to “My skin or my soul”

  1. Linda says:

    The picture reminds me of Shelley. This story gets my in my heart.

  2. Marty E. says:

    That’s a tough one…kids can be so kind and forgiving, but also very cruel.

  3. Melody says:

    What an incredible story, starting off with a picture which depicts Shelly’s image in your story. It’s so sad how poverty affects even the youngest of hearts.

  4. Just stumbled on this through Linked-In. Very powerful and real. What ever happened to Shelley?

  5. Rachael Levy says:

    Caroline, I don't know what happened to Shelley, but it's a part of my childhood I keep returning to and so I know I must not be finished writing.


  6. Your story as well as DIRTY LITTLE SECRETS (a novel I finished yesterday) have really gotten me thinking about the complexities of writing about difficult people and circumstances (and what these things ultimately say about us). Thanks for this.

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