Denise understands what it means to be fair. If she goes one day without sunscreen her skin turns pink as sliced ham and peels for a week. She keeps her nose white with zinc oxide and collects bottles and tubes and jars of UV blockers, salves, emollients, lotions, always seeking the magic ointment.
First thing every morning she goes to the garage and does sit-ups on her dad's weight bench. Her stomach is hard, but she wears one-piece bathing suits, so the boys can't see. When her family went to Cancun, she brought back six sombreros, one for every day of the week except Monday. On Monday the pool is closed. Randy Lintner teases her. "Hey, bonita senorita, nice hat-o!" he says. She scratches her chin with her middle finger but smiles. Later, she lets him try on the sombrero. He clowns, does the hat dance. He wears loose trunks that hang to his knees. His stomach is also flat, and brown as caramel, and the muscles stand out like an anatomy lesson. Later, he sits on the edge of her chaise lounge and asks why she paints her toenails green. She shakes her head piteously, slowly, feeling the sombrero's weight as it moves atop her head.
Denise wants to help people. On the way home from the pool, she and her mom see homeless people at the corner of Kirby and the Southwest Freeway. A highway sign says "No Camping." Denise's mom says the sign is there so the cops can arrest the bums for sleeping under the overpass. "And a good thing, too," she says.
Sometimes Denise sees a homeless woman pulling a child's wagon full of clothes; sometimes there's a guy with a fat dachshund tied to a milk crate. They're always holding up their hard-luck signs: It could happen to you a sign says. My cancer came back, please help says another, in big scrawly letters.
Denise's mother looks through her tinted window and wags her head. Her sunglasses cover the top half of her face. On the sidewalk, a woman sits on an upturned paint bucket. Her sign says Need money for dipers. Denise's mother sucks blue Icee through a straw. "Bullshit," she says. She looks at Denise in the rear view. "It's just marketing. Don't believe a word they say."
But Denise worries about the homeless people. All day they beg, standing in the sun. What about their skin? Even if they are lying, so what, who could blame them? She spreads her fingers against the glass as the light turns green and her mother feeds the car a little gas.
Her parents get a new television for their bedroom and Denise saves the box. She takes it to the pool, and on the cardboard she writes in thick black letters: "Donate Your Leftover Sunscreen. Help the Homeless." She puts the box in the grass by the exit. She drops in half a dozen tubes and bottles she brought from home. Some are empty, but they're just bait, her own marketing ploy. Nobody wants to be the first, to give to a lost cause. She unfolds a green and white lawn chair by the box and sits, wearing her Saturday sombrero.
"Please give," she says to people as they leave. "Every drop counts." A little boy wearing water wings stares at her nose as his mother drags him past. "Come on," the mother hisses. "Come on, come on, come on." Two girls from school, seniors, pause on the way out, read the box, and laugh. When Randy Lintner leaves, he stops and reads the box, too. He cocks his head and smirks, sarcasm gathering on his lips. Then he shrugs and drops in a silver tube of something, almost full. "Que bueno," he says, and touches her shoulder as he walks by. Denise feels the sun shining through her chest, through her chair, warming the shady grass below.
Steven Gullion's other fiction has appeared in Night Train, Smokelong Quarterly, The Adirondack Review, The Barcelona Review, and elsewhere. He is currently writing a novel about an armadillo.