It was the Southern 500 race weekend and the checkout line at the Darlington IGA wasn’t moving fast enough to suit Tami. She and Billie Jean had spent the afternoon lying out at Tami’s trailer and the dog day sun had cooked them medium rare, perfect for a cold beer.

“They’ll be hot by the time we get’em paid for,” Tami announced, hoisting the 12-pack and giving Billie Jean a nod to say her comment was intended for the two young women ahead of them. The high schooler with the name Monique on the back of her purple T-shirt said to the cashier, “That boy ain’t nothin’. Ever thing he’s got, he’s drivin’ or wearin’? He ain’t like he seem. He got issues.”

Tami rolled her eyes heavenward. “I ain’t what I seem, Lord,” Tami murmured. “I got issues.”

“But he pretty,” the girl in front of her, O’blique, said. They wore the same purple T-shirt. The chunky pale blonde cashier with the dark brown roots and shiny braces who should have been ringing up Tami’s purchase bobbleheaded in agreement. “But he’s so material-lipstick,” she said. “Ever thing he got, he’s showin.” The three bobbled in unison.

When the magic eye parted the IGA’s doors for Tami and Billie Jean, a rush of hot air blew back their hair.

“It ain’t the heat, it’s the stupidity,” Tami, the cropped blonde, said, staring straight ahead as she marched toward her truck. The two women wore identical faded Dale Earnhardt T-shirts over their bathing suits.

“You got room to talk about somebody messin’ up the language,” Billie Jean said, smiling. Billie Jean was taller and darker than Tami. She held her smile while Tami slid the key into the ignition, tore off the end of the beer box, tucked a cold one between her legs. “What?” Tami said to that smile. “Whaaat?” She passed a cold one over to Billie Jean, who wouldn’t wipe away that smile.

“You got room to talk,” Billie Jean said again.

“That don’t count,” Tami said. “Two letters don’t count.”

“The hell it don’t,” Billie Jean said, watching as a tight-lipped grin softened Tami’s face. Tami and Billie Jean toasted their beers.

The night before on their way home from the Little Nashville Club, Tami suddenly pulled over at the Baptist Temple. It was two-thirty in the morning, the first night they’d been out drinking together. Tami shut off the engine. “A woman’s gotsta do what a woman’s gotsta do,” she said. When she stepped from her truck, the church sign read President Bush We Pray For Your Election. But in the rearview mirror as they drove off, the sign read President Bush We Play For Your Erection.

Tami lit a cigarette, shifted into first gear and eased across the parking lot.

“But nobody likes it when you make fun of the way they talk,” Billie Jean said, scanning the horizon for cops before she raised her beer. “It ain’t right. Everybody’s got a right to be who they are. Everybody’s entitled. You won’t like it tonight when some dude from New York tries to bait you into saying y’all for him, like some trick monkey.”

“Depend on how pretty he is.”

“You won’t like it.”

“You don’t know much,” Tami said with a smile. She looked at the front of Billie Jean’s Earnhardt T-shirt. “And ever thing you got, you showing.” Tami patted her thigh. “But you so sweet. You pretty, too.”

By the time they pulled in at Tami’s trailer off McIver Road, they’d finished their first beer. I’m the Only One, a Melissa Etheridge song, began on 103-ROX. Tami lowered the cool air and boosted the volume. Tapping the steering wheel in time and nodding to the lyrics, she handed Billie Jean another beer.

“That song always makes me think of stiletto heels and a bruised boyfriend,” Billie Jean said as the two gathered the tanning essentials strewn near Tami’s steps.

“Maybe that will be your next paper,” Tami said. She and Billie Jean had met in May at Florence-Darlington Technical College. Holding a thin, tattered quilt suspended in one hand and a sweating beer can in the other, Billie Jean paused to consider Tami’s suggestion. “That’s a paper I could write,” she said.

Their first English assignment had been a composition about an unforgettable experience. Tami described the time her water broke at the IGA. She titled her essay Clean Up in Aisle Nine!

“I never would have thought about that song that way,” Tami said. “First rule of writing, tell it like it ain’t.” She held open the trailer door for Billie Jean and pointed down the narrow hall. “There’s a clean towel and shampoo above the toilet,” she said.

Once when Billie Jean called to ask about their homework, Tami said she was examining her toddler’s scalp. “What for?” Billie Jean asked.

“Three Sixes,” Tami said.

But inside Tami’s trailer now, Billie Jean didn’t see a picture of the boy, not a toy, not a trace. Tami had made it all up.