Reflections of an Irish Car Bombing- Part II: Friday Sept. 18th 2015

It was the tallest of the three, Joseph Neff, who called it an “Irish Car Bomb.” He, followed by Benny Rootling and Gordon Flanks, burst into First Lunch, giggling. Mrs. Matter, today’s lunch monitor, shushed them as they took their table near the dessert shelf, each in his favorite spot-teenagers are creatures of habit didn’t you know?

Watching them (their thin legs snug inside skinny jeans and as their “vintage” tees draped loosely over their hollow chests) I realized that they never seem to eat anything. Instead, they primp. They comb their hair until every strand sits perfectly and file their nails with pink emery boards, careful with every motion. Last year around Homecoming they began to suck on rainbow Tootsie Pops, dozens of them bought from some gay pride website. Principle Gamble banned the things after Mrs. Theroux (our timid, mouse-like Geometry teacher, known for her terrible pre-test inspirational quotes- the most cringe-worthy I can recall being “Once you choose hope, anything is possible!” by Christopher Reeve) asked what flavor they were.

“Well…” Benny (with a grin that complimented his ladylike features- his thin, dainty nose and narrow, plucked eyebrows) took the sucker out of his mouth and studied it, “it tastes…uncircumcised.”

I grimaced, shooing the memory away as if it were a swarm of flies, somewhat ashamed. I like to think of myself as a progressive. My end of term speech in U.S. Government was in defense of gay marriage, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Wagner, the class instructor, and the faculty’s Christian Fellowship Club’s sponsor. Still, the thought of a boy kissing a boy trips my gag reflex. Anything beyond that and I’m struck with the heavy nausea only found on storm-tossed crab boats, or turbulence rocked transatlantic flights. I’ll be sure to bring a barf bag if I ever visit San Francisco.

I looked ahead; Pen and June were still in line, all of us standing before the cafeteria’s peeling Charlie Brown food pyramid mural, waiting to be served spaghetti and green peas. Joseph’s laughter (a shrill, feminine squeal) drowned in a sea of two-hundred other teenage noisemakers and one familiar, high-pitched squawk. Pen was in a mood.

“This sucks!” She was complaining about Mrs. Mamaril, an act that seems as much a part of her lunch break routine as griping about the lack of strawberry milk or recounting the previous day’s choir practice. “I mean holy crap! Now she thinks she’s a English teacher!”

I attempted to appear sympathetic-working my minuscule face muscles into a frown. The effect wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. Pen winced, looking as if she’d seen a thumb sticking out of my forehead.

“You’ll be fine,” I added. Perhaps I should speak lies instead of showing them.

Yesterday, Pen turned in a particularly bad, error-ridden report on Crohn’s Disease, and today it was returned with a bright red “D-” sprawled near its title. Adding a kick in the stomach to an already bruised ego, Mrs. M carefully marked every grammatical and punctuation error, every run on sentence and dangling participle, with more red ink. The three pages of plain white copy stock looked like a mob hit.

An English teacher.” June corrected, though her mind was elsewhere. She eyed the line snaking ahead of us, hoping to see that Mrs. Fink (a bloated black woman known for pitying free-lunch kids and giving them extra helpings) was our server. Spaghetti Friday is one of June’s favorite days on the West Greenville School Lunch calendar. Others include Macaroni Pie Day, the second Tuesday of the month; and Roast Beef Day, either the first or third Monday but I can’t remember which. I could ask June (she keeps a copy of the schedule taped to the back of her AP Biology binder with each day annotated with either a smile or frown depending) but it hardly matters. She usually ends up eating both my entrée and side dish, but I defend my 2% with my life. Calcium is a girl’s best friend.

“She may let you do some extra credit,” I said, though the thought of Pen giving an extra ounce of effort to school work seemed as likely as finding water on the Moon. The girl only cares enough to complain. “Mrs. M is good like that.”

“I don’t do extra credit.” Pen sneered. She looked past me to June, hoping for a wingman. But all she found was contempt-a leer that could shape rough diamonds. “Well, mi amigo?”

“You’re lazy,” June grunted, spewing aggravation that could only mean one thing. I looked past her and spotted Ms. Valentine mechanically scooping small, even portions of noodle and sauce onto a student’s plate. If I’d been paying attention, I’m sure I could’ve heard June’s heart hit the floor. And by the look on her Latina face, the slit frown and narrow Korean eyes, that lost hope has been replaced by three pounds of anger. “Why don’t you try at anything? It isn’t hard, just takes balls, huevos. And not big ones either.”

Pen eyed her for a moment, a mangy stray in the headlights, unsure which direction to run. It’s only occasionally that you see fear or genuine hurt in the girl’s eyes. Disgust, irritation, self-pity, and occasional glee are her factory settings. For anything else, you have to get inside and play with the wiring.

“What, no snappy comeback?” June cupped a fat hand over her left ear and leaned in. For all her rough and weathered exterior (poverty has worked June P. Rodriguez over like a bare-knuckle boxer), the girl cares about her grades and nurses her perfect 4.0 GPA as if it were a hungry newborn suckling at one of her huge brown tits. She even received a quarter page blurb in last year’s annual, squaring off a portion of the “Big Brain” section (usually dominated by upper-middle-class whites from Leave It to Beaver families) for herself.

“I do try.” Pen’s words, her slumped shoulders, and downcast eyes, couldn’t fool a blind man. She only wants sympathy the same way a fat man only wants a Tums after his fifth slice of pizza. The girl lives in afterthoughts, ocean wide and ankle deep. “It’s hard.”

June eyed her for a moment, her nose wrinkling in a way that made me want to check my shoes for dog poop. She went to speak but didn’t, catching a bitter adjective an instant before it escaped and swallowing it back down again. Recently, she’s made an extra effort at being cordial, biting her tongue in a way that I’m sure has drawn blood on occasion. Its good to see Grace’s character rubbing off on her. I’ll have to commend them both later.

“What?” Pen asked. She crossed her arms over her chest, defiant as a toddler. It’s funny to think that if her own GPA-last May it was a pitiful 1.7-were a child, it’d be emaciated and covered with both mysterious bruises and the occasional cigarette burn. “Well?”

“I’ll help you out,” I said. Regret suddenly gripped me like angina, squeezing my chest, causing my heart to skip a beat or two. The thought of late nights correcting Pen’s papers while my own require at least ten revisions each to be presentable made my stomach turn. Why help someone who won’t help themselves? This may be June rubbing off on me, or perhaps it’s just my own laziness rearing its ugly. freckled face. “Really, I’m good with reports.” I cringed, fighting the urge to shove my fist in my mouth. For me, kind words are like laugh-farts, there’s no holding them in.

Horrified, I watched Pen’s face lighten. A mischievous smirk crossed the lips where moments before a pencil-thin frown had been. But as she went to speak, she froze, her tongue poised with selfish thoughts.

“What?” I asked.

Her face wrinkled, her cheeks flushing the colour of maraschino cherries. Slowly, her lip parted into a wide yawn, exposing several unfilled cavities. I thought she was about to sneeze.

Looking back now, close to six hours later, it was the smell (that deep, acrid stink pulled from the full bladders and active glands of doe in heat) that saved me. If I hadn’t spent the next hour dry heaving, upchucking air instead of what would’ve been belly warmed 2% had the smell hit us three minutes later, I would’ve thanked Joseph Neff and the others for keeping Pen from jumping at my offer. When rendered an inch, she takes the proverbial mile, and I’m no Indian giver.

“God!” Pen doubled over, covering her mouth and nose with both of her small, white hands. Fear of a brain aneurysm blossomed rose red in my mind, and I half expected to see crimson dripping from between her fingers. Once, when I was seven or eight, I saw a documentary about a girl left retarded after a foul ball struck her temple, bursting a blood vessel. “Jezzz!”

“What?” The word slipped out just as the stench entered my nostrils, striking my olfactory receptors with the force of an open palm slap. “Ugh…”

Pen and June stumbled back (their faces twisting with disgust, June’s eyes bugged in a wild, rabid way) while I stood still. Some instinct opened my mouth, pulling in tentative breaths. The taste was sour and raw. Mrs. Matter, a handful of napkins pressed to her nose, ran to the nearest window. She began tugging on the rusty latch. “Help me!”

I looked at her for a moment, the brown hair and eyes, the breasts too perfect for any girl not to envy or boy not to want. And she’s proportional also, thin where it matters and curvy where it shines. At the seeming dinosaur age of thirty-four boys still clamor to enroll in her chemistry classes. But at that moment, her voice (its high womanly pitch muffled by napkins) sounded deep and masculine. Dizzy, I wondered if she’d recently sprouted a beard and Adam’s apple and I just hadn’t noticed for the past month, if gender is as fluid as some say it is.

“Now, Mable!” Mrs. Matter pulled at the rusty latch one-handed, her fingers white with effort.

I turned and began working the window behind me, scraping my knuckles on the impossibly small handle. “Little f*****…” I mumbled, biting my bottom lip. It budged a half-inch.

Several boys, each with the black and red ball cap and wavy Bieberish hair of a West Greenville jock, reached the windows on either side of me. For them (each slim and toned, the happy product of an overfunded athletic program-screw the arts right?) the quarter inch panes complied quickly. Around me, windows slid closed in a way that made me briefly reconsider my sedentary life, those lazy afternoons devouring Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor and J.K. Rowling. Should I lose the weight and tryout for softball next Spring? Is a fifth rereading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban worth atrophied muscles and a heavy body the consistency of Play-Doh? My brain, that three pounds of grey matter that reminds me to brush my teeth and to set the parking brake, hurt for a moment. The answer it conjured was vague-Maybe?

From my peripherals I watched the black caps move to other windows, taking the stink of testosterone (or was it criminal amounts of Polo and Nautica?) with them. This smell mixed with the odor that still poured through my window (yes, it will forever be my window- tragedy creates strange bonds doesn’t it?), forming an impossible stink that stung my eyes.

“Move,” I wiped away tears and worked harder. My blood-a generous amount of A+- first slicked the handle then congealed, becoming a protein-based adhesive that gave me a slim ray of hope. “Now-” With one last, painful tug the window slammed down with near hydraulic force. It almost cost me several fingertips.

I turned to Mrs. Matter, waiting for approval-a kind, encouraging word, a thank you. I’m external like that, ever needy, ever wanting, a quirk that’s both my greatest strength and weakness. I am an honor roll student didn’t you know? Give me a nod, and I’ll blush and give you a smile and a giggle.

“Go!” She grunted, her voice several decibels below that of a foghorn. She had the desperate look of a battered wife. Her eyes were red and puffy, and somehow she’d lost a fingernail. She was still working on her first window, and her bloody fingerprints spotted the glass. “Hurry!”

Left with a feeling close to hunger, more like abandonment, I braced myself for the certainty of more damaged digits. But the next window (which those oh so tough boys skipped because it was stained with a sticky something the color of blueberries) slid home in one smooth, delightful motion. “Good girl,” I whispered, suddenly feeling an absurd amount of affection for thirty pounds of plate-glass and aluminum.

“Let them take care of the rest,” Mrs. Matter said, her voice returned to it’s acute, nails-on-chalkboard timbre. She exhaled, looking ready to faint as she pressed the napkins (there must’ve been eight of them) around her left ring finger. Blood seeped through like red dye. Behind her, the red speckled window was sealed shut. “They can have them.”

I listened as the last of what seemed like a hundred windows (later I counted them at twenty-four) thumped shut. June and Pen returned; their eyes were clear, but their faces appeared pinched like they would in a funhouse mirror, like they’d spent the last five minutes sucking on lemons.

“Well?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.

“Well, what?” June snorted. She studied my window, then eyed my bleeding hands. Was that respect I saw in her eyes? “You look f***** up.”

“That’s got to be a sewer line,” Pen said. She took a seat at the nearest table, one still covered with lunch trays of half-eaten spaghetti. The milk cartons (most still unopened, their smiling cow emblems taunting us with poked out tongues) sweated, just like you’d think they would. “I can taste it.”

Mrs. Matter was soon on the Red Phone squawking at Principle Gamble. The Red Phone, an old rotary type placed beside the emergency exit and protected by a clear plastic box, was only for “active shooter” situations, but the words Mrs. Matter was using- “gas line” and “possible rupture”- seemed as loud as the cracks of any pistol. “I need to talk to him! Now Jenny!”

Listening to her bellow at old Jenny Huddle, Mr. Gamble’s secretary, the world finally settled into focus. Memories of CSI and NCIS reruns blurred my vision, and questions sparked in my mind like live wires. Why did we close the windows if there’s gas? Explosions are about pressure, aren’t they? Shouldn’t we be outside?

I looked around, studying reactions.

Some students (pets like Marisha Deville and Jane Krause) hovered around Mrs. Matter. They weighed the possibilities of fiery death, discussing the combustibility of natural gas in the presence of overhead fluorescent lights and hot power outlets. Most others only sat listlessly, rubbing their eyes and playing on their phones. They were reminiscent of the forgettable minor characters of some horror novel (Stephen King’s The Mist came to mind-his shorter works are his best), each waiting to either be rescued or consumed by some hungry pterodactyl-like creature. Nobody touched their food.

“Yes, I’m sure it’s gas!” Mrs. Matter’s words spilled into each other. She curled the phone’s cord (which was absurdly long, the kind Grandma Mimi has because she can’t keep track of any of the wireless handsets Aunt Kat buys her) around her thin wrists. “Please-” Fear, as striking as the stench we’d just shut out and just as unwelcome, entered her voice. I watched her shift from foot to foot, twisting her hands together, peeking around as if every student- there must’ve been two-hundred of us- was a sharp-toothed, long mauled creature ready to devour her.

It occurred to me then (like a flashbulb going off, forming a mental image to file away for future reference) that the majority of adults don’t have a clue about most things. Kids are clueless about everything. During Pre-school I actually believed a giant was living in our backyard playhouse. I named him Charlie, and every night I would read him a story-Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss being a favorite- and leave a ham sandwich and a can of Sprite on the back steps. I know now that Butch, the neighborhood stray, was eating the sandwiches. But adults are hardly any better; it’s just that they have a few more years to specialize. Vindication, for them, comes in paper form, both as a diploma to hang on the wall and a paycheck to pay the light bill with.

Resentment bubbled in me. Mrs. Matter and I have a past, even if it’s just me who thinks so. Once, I marveled as she lectured my class about the wonders of the element copernicium. With shining, fan-girl eyes she squeaked out words like “high radioactivity” and “extreme density” as if they were the most enduring qualities any substance, man-made or otherwise, could possess. Apparently, copernicium is the parodic table’s equivalent to Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and fedora, mischief in his eyes and a Lucky Strike dangling between his thin, dangerous lips. Starry-eyed, I briefly considered the exciting life of an industrial chemist.

Sure, you could work for DuPont, Mrs. Matter said to me after class, appearing young and beautiful and confident. This was during Chemistry I when I was a lonely school experiment: the first Freshman in a class reserved for Juniors and Seniors. She placed her hand over my fat shoulder and squeezed, We need more female scientists, and your grades are excellent.

Well, it was just a thought.

That night I sat in front my bedroom mirror, pulled my hair up, and attempted to recreate her beautiful braided bun. My fingers worked slowly, often cramping. After two hours I gave up and moped. The Tonight Show came on with pouty-faced Gwyneth Paltrow as the main guest. My mood only lightened when a grinning Robert Downey Jr. made a surprise visit. I was glad neither could see the catastrophe of red tangles my head had become.

Two days later I was heartbroken to watch Mrs. Matter pace the teacher’s parking lot, helpless as Coach Little changed her flat tire. She twisted her hands together then too, seemingly forgetting that those same hands, slim and very pale, would occasionally hold homemade model atoms, each only a confusing mass of red and green gumballs before she explained the differences between protons and neutrons and delved deep into the strange world of ions and the mysteries of the electron cloud.

Other things-her hidden peculiarities that few others noticed- soon began playing on my nerves. There was the bottle of laxatives (Pedia-Lax tablets, the dieting girl’s best friend) she kept in her top desk drawer, ones she chewed like Sweetarts as she taught. It burned me the way she always caught her reflection in windows and mirrors, invariably adjusting her hair, patting down any loose strands. And she’d flirt too, with Coach Gillis, batting her eyes at him while his wife struggled to corral their three kids into a ratty looking Isuzu Rodeo.

It’s not gas. I thought. My certainty would’ve made Elizabeth Stanton and Gloria Steinem proud. That’s not the right smell. Not even close. Mrs. Matter’s voice pawed at my ears, leaving bloodless lacerations of annoyance. I looked her over one last time, studying the quivering pink lips and pale cheeks. Her nails were painted light blue, and at one time in her life, she’d made the mistake of getting a small nautical star tattoo in the nape of her left thumb and forefinger. Why don’t you get it together?

I took a seat beside Pen and waited.

Seconds built to minutes, and minutes to a quarter hour. The rest of First Lunch (mostly 9th Graders gaggled together, their conversations somewhere between meaningless junior high palaver and angst-ridden high school melodrama) shifted impatiently, waiting for Principle Gamble’s promised “all clear.” Some eyed the cobweb-covered intercom intently, biting fingernails and checking their phones for the time. A few slept. Others drifted in strange daydreams. Everyone breathed through their mouths.

June snoozed, her fat head resting flat on the lunch table, a small pool of drool forming at her mouth. Pen leaned against her side, scrolling through her Facebook. Now and then she’d laugh or whisper to herself, shaking her head in a way that was almost sweet.
The two made up from earlier with apologies were dished out in their ordinary way. June asked about the time, Pen gave it and mentioned the weather and, of course, the smell. Theirs is a strange love affair. Injures between them are like paper cuts-momentarily overwhelming yet quickly forgotten.

I looked outside. Through the slanted, watery pane the late morning sun was a dinner plate rising high behind a thin curtain of grey clouds. Everything was the dreamlike hue of very old photographs, the snapshots in my parent’s yearbooks and childhood photo albums. Here’s Mom graduating the Second grade-note her smile, a sweet, hopeful smirk that’s gone the way of the dodo and the Yangtze river dolphin. And there’s Dad at his fifth birthday party, his face red with tears. A clown-a dead ringer for John Wayne Gacy with his crimson lips and ragged nightcap tipped with a black pom-pom- mocks him with a grotesque pantomime.

“Mr. Jones’ out there,” I whispered or perhaps thought- I don’t remember which. Our janitor, who must be considered expendable, strolled between the buildings, checking the gas connections. “He seems bored.”

Someone somewhere laughed. It was Joseph Neff. With the rest of the cafeteria quite his girlish cackle gained resonance. It echoed off the Charlie Brown mural and bounced between the cafeteria walls, becoming a heavy bark that seemed almost masculine. You’d thought he was laughing into an empty barrel.

I looked past Mr. Jones (he was as indifferent to his odd task as he was when trimming the school’s hedges or plunging a tampon out of a girl’s restroom toilet) and into the Senior-Junior parking lot. My van still sat in it’s assigned space, just across from a scratch-built plywood billboard that reminded students to “Buckle-Up!” Underneath it was the photo of student (a Junior from three years ago, his name was Marty Banks) who hadn’t. Two vehicles down was Bitch, Maxwell’s orange Saratoga. She looked forlorn with her missing hubcaps and varied paint job. The hood and passenger side front door were the same primer grey they’d been since Grunge was still big.

I rubbed the water from my eyes and squinted. Bitch’s cab was fogged over, like a bottle of cold coke opened in a warm room, and the black garbage bag Maxwell used to cover the passenger rear window was torn open. An oily vapor poured out from the tear like smoke from a lit cigarette. Several blackbirds were already settling on the hood, appearing hungry but patient.

***

During study hall, after Mr. Janda stepped out to refill his Greatest Grandpa coffee mug, the phrase “Irish Car Bomb” began floating around. Joseph and Wally Vinson-sitting underneath a massive, wall-mounted tube TV that once broadcast the 9-11 attacks and Columbine Massacre-used the words like two infomercial host desperate to sell food dehydrators, turning it sing-song, lyrical.

“But that’s a drink.” Someone-Martina Headgepath maybe with her frosted tips and contrary nature-said. “I’ve had one.”

Within moments, a half-dozen iPhones appeared, and soon daydreams of the bomb shot tickled the minds of thirty curious teenagers. The recipe is simple: a pint of Guinness stout with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jamison dropped in. Everyone’s salivary glands, including my own, buzzed to fruitless life. Several people pulled out energy drinks, and someone passed around a bag of Jolly Ranchers.

“It can be two things,” Joseph said, almost out-of-hand. He sucked on a cherry flavored Rancher, pleased with himself in a way that was both magnetic and repulsive. “It can be anything I want it to be.”

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Reflections of an Irish Car Bombing- Part I: Friday, Sept. 18th 2015

Barker Auto isn’t one of the better car dealerships in Greenville. In fact, like the Waffle House on Front Street responsible for last year’s E.coli outbreak, it has a reputation. After several complaints to the Better Business Bureau and a featured story on Channel 11’s News Hour (reporter Tabatha Lemoore was particularly vicious with her assessment, using several adjectives that went beyond impolite and crossed gleefully into the realm of the unprofessional) the place is now on the verge of bankruptcy. I honestly have no idea what Grace’s parents are thinking. This is America; used cars are like Twinkies, they can be bought almost anywhere. Why here?

“This is it!” Smiling, Grace tugs my sleeve, pulling me to a fire red Toyota Camry parked at the far end of the lot, positioned between a blue Chevy Cobalt with a shattered windshield and a rusty barbwire fence. “Isn’t it cool, Mable?”

“Yeah,” I say, scanning, keeping an eye out for vagrants, stray dogs, and that ever-present Greenville staple, the hooded black male. Normally, Grace is the neurotic, ever careful, but with her currently in toddler mode (honestly, I’ve seen less excitement on Christmas morning in the Nolan household), I’ll have to be our eyes, and I won’t allow us to become statistics. “Just like you said.”

Grace releases my arm and takes a small, tentative step forward. Her smile is toothy and wild. You’d think she’s just witnessed the Resurrection, Christ in white robes. But what she really sees is her first real step into adulthood: four wheels, a 2.4-liter engine, and a twenty-gallon gas tank, all signifying freedom and possibility. The momentum of this moment is perpetual and will carry her out of adolescence, through college and into motherhood. She’ll tell her grandkids about this car.

Grace a century ago…and wearing a strange hat.

I give her a minute and get a better look at the dealership, wanting to make plans for a quick getaway in case some crackhead decides to show his chapped lips and waxy, pot-marked face. The sight is cheerless. It is a used car lot, in every way filling the stereotype. It could be the set for an AMC melodrama, and I half expect to see a director barking orders at his assistants or dozens of extras milling around, hoping to be noticed for their particular forlorn and diminished portrayals of the living dead.

I turn, curiosity moving my feet in a slow, deliberate 360. I take in more of the same, absorbing images that would cause a more honorable young girl to commit seppuku. I am a Greenvilleite, and this (the black side of town or not) is my home. Shouldn’t I be ashamed of how ramshackle it is, of the litter in the street and the half-dozen overfilled garbage cans, several with bags town open and spilling onto the pavement?

“You probably want to hurry up.” My attempt at whispering fails as my words carry over the lot, like leaves pushed by a strong wind.

“I will.” Grace lies, her eyes fixed on her future ride. She rests a hand just above the hood, too timid to actually touch the thing. I can only imagine what her wedding night will be like.

The lot itself sits caddy corner to a defunct movie theater (the busted marquee still has showtimes for Rush Hour 2, circa the early 2000’s) and a suspect looking Mexican restaurant, La Piñata. All told, it’s a lonely acre of fifteen or sixteen mid-model cars, a dilapidated single-wide trailer, and hundreds of partially filled, rather desperate looking balloons.

“Greenville…” I whisper, the word tasting sour, unpalatable. I can feel my middle-class whiteness welling up in me like heartburn. Is it something in the air? This is the seedy side of the city, the part the blacks burned during a self-destructive, self-mutilating riot back in ’67. Perhaps the ghosts of that time remain, wanting revenge. God, what can people gain from torching their own grocery stores and barber shops?

“Just give me a minute,” Grace says to no one, her mind a week down the road, both figuratively and literally. She’s promised everyone a trip to Brannon. We’ll see how that plays out.

I look at the overcast sky; it’s like a wool blanket, both grey and heavy. Behind it the late afternoon sun is a perfect orb, emitting the feeble glow of a 20-watt bulb, appearing stationary apart from the drifting clouds. It’s hard to believe the Earth is orbiting that ball of burning gas at a thousand miles a second. I can almost reach out and grab the thing, sure it would be lukewarm to the touch. As cool as today’s been, I’ll have to remember to find my jacket for tomorrow. Summer is over.

“It’s a 2008.” Grace fidgets, stepping from foot to foot, excitement filling her heart like pee fills a bladder. I’m sure that when the times comes and Mr. Laurent finally hands his daughter her first set of car keys, she’ll disintegrate in a Vesuvian eruption of giggles and tears. “Only thirty-five thousand miles. Daddy says it must’ve belonged to an old person.”

“How morbid,” I say, wondering what the inside must smell like. Grandma Mimi’s Grand Marquis always reeks of pee, both human and cat.

“Yeah, like they just used it to go to church and the doctor, and that’s it.” With the shyness of a church mouse, Grace begins inspecting the car up-close. She keeps her hands in her pockets as she peeks into the cab. It’s as if those two tons of steel, fiberglass, and rubber were no more than a bubble, a delicate and impermanent thing that would, if touched, burst and disappear forever. Maybe. After all, the financing still hasn’t gone through yet. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It is.” I smile, attempting to make Grace’s enthusiasm my own, adopting it as if it were a lost kitten, though wondering if it’ll be worth the trouble. Strays tend to have fleas, don’t they? I smile harder, my cheeks straining, teeth clenched. “It’s nice.”

Usually, I wouldn’t attempt to share anyone’s enthusiasm for their new/used car. I’m cynical like that. My own Grand Caravan-a tribute to the mid-nineties with its DARE bumper sticker and busted cassette player-was a hand-me-down. It was both expected and slightly dreaded, inherited with the same reluctance as I would’ve given a genetic predisposition for high blood pressure or female pattern baldness. By comparison, being handed a vehicle hardly a decade old and without so much as a scratch on its aesthetically pleasing body, seems like an indulgence. But Grace is kind and loving and would give me the tiny shoes off her tiny feet if I asked. And so I love her and her happiness. I only hope the thing isn’t a lemon, or worse, a death trap.

June walks up beside me, eyeing the Camry as if it were something magical, Cinderella’s carriage or Aladdin’s flying carpet. She grins, knowing she’ll soon be riding in comfort. “Does the AC work?”

“Yes, it works! It all works! Everything works!” Grace sings, her smile giving her voice a sweet rhythm, the sound of warm caramel dripping over wax paper. She moves to the passenger side, batting away several balloons tethered to the side view mirror. More are tied to the driver’s side view and a few to the antenna. You’d think a child made a half-hearted attempt to get the car airborne, but either ran out of balloons or motivation before the proper helium-to-weight ratio was achieved. “It’s perfect.” She goes on to the back of the car, examining something, the trunk maybe. “Dad’s had three mechanics check it out.”

“It’s got AC.” June’s voice is calm, but her eyes are exclamation points. “I think she’s got you beat.”

This is bored June in her element, the teenage gadfly, a pseudo-intellectual concerned with pushing buttons. But unlike Socrates, her’s isn’t a search for truth or social stability or bringing out the best in her friends, only amusement. Can she turn me green-eyed with envy? I’m sure she knows the answer.

“Well, we can ride with her from now on.” I watch as a few blackbirds sweep across the dim sun before settling on a tangle of power-lines. I smile. Giving way to hope I begin pondering the joys of working AC. “The van is beginning to stink anyhow, like corn chips.” I turn to Grace whose squatting behind the car’s trunk. “We can ride with you from now on, right?”

Her head pops up, all brown hair and grey eyes. She smiles my answer before disappearing again. Maybe it’s bumper stickers she’s looking at? Romney 2012: Believe in America! I have one of those on the van, that and a less recent Bush/Cheney 04′, which I (a Republican) can’t bring myself to scrap off. After all, it’s a piece of history, isn’t it?

“Maxwell and Brian won’t fit in there,” June says. She cracks her neck, first in one direction then the other, before moving to the driver’s window. There she studies a faded Car Fax print out. It promises a history clean of accidents, fires, and floods. “They’re going to need rides.”

I exhale, breathing out the sweet promise of mechanically cooled air and inhaling the sad certainty of chauffeuring around the Laurel and Hardy of West Greenville High School. Perhaps indefinitely. I doubt Maxwell will ever get the smell out of his car, and even if he could, the birds (there were hundreds of them by the time we left the school parking lot) would’ve carried it off by now, piece by American-made piece, leaving only a skeletal frame behind like sun-bleached bones on the Serengeti.

“‘Irish car bomb’…” I measured the words-by now the punchline to an incredibly vulgar joke-as I would the first line of a haiku. It comes up one syllable short. Maybe Joseph Neff isn’t as clever as he thinks he is.

“You know you don’t have to give them rides,” June says. She’s read my expression like a ransom note and found the obvious solution. “They can take the bus.”

“I know.” I kick a battery, crushed flat by who knows how many cars and spotted with flecks of rust like acme. Around it are bent screws, torn paper cups, and broken glass-an ocean of broken glass. The occasional Coors or Budweiser label looks up at me, appearing pathetic, a far cry from their cheerful commercials. “But I have too.”

My words surprise me with their finality, with their weight and density. It’s like someone slipped a new textbook into my backpack, a thick tome to add to all the others (American Lit. III, Calculus I, AP Biology, AP Psychology), to be read and digested, it’s contents stored for it’s promised future usefulness. I’m beginning to wonder if that use is merely to inspire awe. Funny how the concept of infinitesimals still thrills me, and hearing about them is like being tickled by billions of impossibly small feathers. Mr. Laramie only touched on the subject for a few minutes, perhaps not wanting to overwhelm his students with ideas that question both God and reality.

“They’re my friends,” I say, more to myself or perhaps to the sun-it also suffers from strange attractions and near-permanent orbits doesn’t it?- than to June. “And after all, friends do for friends.”

“Loser,” June shakes her head, and you’d think I’d just informed her of my plans to become a chain-smoker or streetwalker, “now those gay guys are going to bomb your van next.”

“Maybe.” I begin wondering a million things, each of them a piece of one of Grandma Mimi’s mystery jigsaw puzzles, ones she keeps in plastic Ziploc bags, their covers gone forever. Strange how every tile is there, but we’re left guessing at the overall picture. Is it a 95′ Grand Caravan? The swollen, pink face of a new friend? Three teenage boys wearing skinny jeans and matching rainbow bracelets?

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Stars- Part II: Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015

“Do you think you’ll stick with it for the year?” I ask tentatively, looking at Pen’s scuffed boots. It’s a tossup, a fifty-cent piece with handsome J. Kennedy pressed on one side, and the bald eagle stamped flat on the other, looking very American with both arrows and olive branch clutched between its talons. “That’s a long time.”

Pen tilts her head, considering the next two semesters with the keen eye of Wall Street stockbroker, weighing current and future variables with past trends. Will she buy more or sell everything? At times she embraces the role of “First Alto,” taking the twins under her wing with the determined, slightly snappish tone of an impatient father teaching his clumsy daughters to ride bikes. But then, on hot afternoons, it’s as if the choir were a pair of shoes she can’t quit squeeze her hoofs into. She answers honestly. “Maybe. Maybe not.”

It seems strange to say that Pen’s first performance, an old folk tune I’d never heard before, was done under contractual obligation. The agreement with Mrs. Mamaril (our AP Biology teacher), signed by herself and each of her students and then notarized by Mrs. Garth, the school’s ancient and gargoylesque office assistant, is that any missed homework assignment will result in either a five-page MLA style report or (fear bubbles in me just thinking of it) singing before the class, a cappella.

It’s a way, Mrs. Mamaril says, of ensuring that she passes on something useful to future generations, as if an intimate understanding of cellular division or knowing the differences between DNA and RNA were the same as a 250K life insurance policy or a set of Craftsmen wrenches. But, I suppose she’s right-fear motivates. Few people miss homework assignments, and I’m sure that the four stages of mitoses and the taxonomic ranks of life (which begins with domains and ends with species in case you didn’t know) will be with me ’til I’m old and grey, confusing my day nurse with the mailman.

“It’ll be five pages, Ms. Coyne, on the ecology of fungi.” Mrs. Mamaril said, not looking up from her grade book, penciling in a question mark beside Pen’s name. She’d been calling out roll, checking the previous night’s homework assignment (twelve chapter review questions on how varying temperatures and pH affect enzyme activity) as she went. “Ten sources, and no Wikipedia.”

Our lab table was at the back of the room, near the supply closet and emergency eyewash station. June was hard at it erasing graffiti some goon left on the table top beside the gas facet. She was fixated. Having already eradicated the crude penis, the eraser on her No. 2 Ticonderoga worn down to a pathetic nub, she began working on the saggy, hairy scrotum. She wasn’t paying attention to anyone, and Pen and I might as well have been power outlets or slightly larger soap dispensers.

“I want to sing.” Pen said almost offhandedly. She was doodling in her notebook, a new Five Star multi-subject already half-filled with English notes, Biology definitions and enough artwork to headline a new exhibit at the MET, one entitled “American Angst: The Misunderstood Millennial.” There are inkings of teachers and colourful caricatures of friends, gruesome ones of enemies. Somewhere are several pages of “incidental art,” splashes of watercolor (mostly black) that bend and flow, pleasing the eyes in curious, sultry ways. Her current project, opposite a page of slumped and either sleeping or dead art mannequins, is a rabbit. It’s a work of beauty and love, nearly perfect with it’s every earth brown hair and tough wire whisker in place. And its eyes, half-moons peering out wearily from underneath half-closed lids, are haunting. She’d been working on it for several days, alternating between the thin lines of her fine-point Sharpie and the broad strokes of her “good” colour pencils, Prismacolor Premiers, each whittled down to thumb length from use.

Pen slid the Sharpie into the ringed spine of her notebook and turned to June, watching her erase for a moment, the lead of the No. 2 dancing about like a desperate insect, then to me. “You want to hear me sing?” She whispered. “I’m pretty good.”

“Ok,” I said though the thought of it made me woozy. It’s the same exhausted feeling I get when trying to read one of Grace’s Harry Potter fan-fictions, an act that requires determination, clenched teeth, and a soft tongue. Because-however perfect a girl’s grammar and punctuation may be, and beautiful her calligraphic script is (Grace writes in leather bound journals with an entirely too expensive and complicated fountain pen)- some hobbies should be kept in the closet. “I’d love that.”

Pen winked and slid off her stool and stretched, making an effort at popping every single one her vertebrae. “Mrs. M, I want to sing Neil Young. You know Young right?”

Eyes still down, Mrs. Mamaril motioned to the front of the room with her free, arthritic hand. Her white knuckles were like the knots on a pine branch. In her thirty-five years at WGHS she’d probably heard it all, a constant stream of Top Tens- mostly pop, some country, a little rap, Milli-Vanilli and MC Hammer, Garth Brooks and Creed- and has become numb to the experience, viewing all willing students as if they were nothing more than small, empty plates. Not only uninteresting but slightly depressing.

Pen walked to the front of the class, slowly, her heavy black boots squeaking against the chipped tile. Everyone quieted down, never wanting to miss the chance to see someone humiliate themselves. I’m sure they rubberneck at car crashes and house fires too. Human beings have a fetish for the morbid, of death and pain, self-inflicted or otherwise. We’re drawn to it like flies to a high voltage bug zapper, ever wondering what’s beyond the proverbial white light. It’s what separates us from chimps and gibbons-insufferable curiosity.

Outside the clouds cleared and through the windows an ocean of yellow sun poured in, causing the energy saver lights to kick off. This, I thought, was a mercy. Under their unforgiving fluorescence, everyone looks cadaverous. Pen would at least have kind sunlight to die by.

“When you’re ready.” Mrs. Mamaril said, still without glancing up. Her scalp, which I’ve seen more often than her eyes, was a crown of grey hair.

Pen studied the class, eyeing everyone, waiting for the last few murmurs to hush. She cleared her throat.

I want to live, I want to give
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold
It’s these expressions I never give
That keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old…

We stared at her, my mouth agape, June’s lips pursed and her eyebrows inclined, questioning. The pencil’s eraser hovered motionless above the one remaining testicle.
The words weren’t sharp but blunt, almost dull, Patsy Cline crooning a honky-tonk of adolescent barflies. And her face was that of the Puccini singer, transfigured, as is she’d known what she was producing wasn’t just some tune, vibrations carried through the air to hum in our eardrums, but art, holy and deathless, incorruptible, an auditory Pollock or Stieglitz.

I’ve been to Hollywood, I’ve been to Redwood
I crossed the ocean for a heart of gold
I’ve been in my mind, it’s such a fine line
That keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keeps me searchin’ for a heart of gold
And I’m getting old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
You keep me searchin’
And I’m growing old
Keep me searchin’ for a heart of gold
I’ve been a miner for a heart of gold.

Someone, Abigail Goosier sitting at the table in front of us, began to clap. Most of the class joined her.

“Penelope…” Mrs. Mamaril stammered. She searched for the one right word to fit the moment. She’s scientific like that, precise as an atom smasher. Her first assignment this year, after a three-page report on a current ecological crisis, was a list of fifty scientific terms. They were to be memorized and digested. I now know what “aqueous” means. “…you were…sublime.”

Walking back to her stool, Pen hardly glanced around. She seemed not to hear the warm adulation coming from her fellow students. Instead, she sat and looked at June and me. She smiled, her thin lips curling with a deep inner pleasure. Her song could’ve been a clever card trick- Is it the Queen of Hearts? Oh, it is? Why, aren’t I so clever!

After a minute, and seeing that the moment had passed (Pen was already adding whiskers to the rabbit’s finished nose), Mrs. Mamaril again began calling out more names; Matthew Dawson, Brandon Emmer, Hailey Foster…

The world settled back into its mundane routine, though the song, Neil Young, still thrummed in the air like static, giving everything something of an electric charge. Students, girls mostly with their estrogen and progesterone working strange needs, shifted uncomfortably on their stools. Hair began twisting around anxious fingers, and scribbled hearts started to appear in notebooks.

Abigail Goosier turned too us, her smile blemished by crooked teeth. “You’re really good!”

Pen looked at her, studying the stiff blonde ponytail and then eyeing a small gold cross that hung from around the girl’s neck. Pen’s expression soured, her lips puckering and nostrils flaring wide. She leaned in close, nearly touching Abigail’s nose. “Your breath stinks. You know that? It smells like piss.”

Abigail’s smile faded, draining away like water through a sieve. She turned to June, who shrugged, then to me. Her grey eyes were the sad colour of rain clouds. Between us, like a stuck match seen miles away, was a brief spark of recognition.

***

How do I know you? She wondered.

Second grade? I thought. We’d swap cookies during lunch, your chocolate chip for my oatmeal raisin, and we’d do each others hair during recess.

Yes! I’d pull your horrible red curls into tight French braids; every day a French braid. My fingers became experts, working on their own as we talked about Bratz, about my brother, about nothing. Whatever it was you tried to build with my own hair- ponytails, pigtails, Princess Leia buns- would always fall into tangles, a yellow bird’s nest. Mrs. Shaw would have to straighten it out.

She didn’t mind, though. I thought. We loved her for that.

Yes, we did. And when Adrian Sanchez brought his pet king snake in for Show and Tell, we both shrank to the size of pebbles. But our hands found each other quickly, like magnets. We weren’t afraid then, we became curious.

And then we cried when he fed it a baby mouse. Remember that?

Just now. She thought. How did we forget?

I don’t know.

***

Without a word and with her eyes softened by distant memories Abigail turned back to her table.

Still wearing a sneer, Pen looked down at her notebook. She ran her fingers along the rabbit’s dark silhouette. After a moment and with eyes like small grey stones, she leaned over and poked Abigail’s shoulder. Her fingernail probably felt like a needle.

Abigail turned and answered with a single, sharp syllable. “What?”

Pen tapped the page. “This is my god. It’s rabbit Christ. Not Jesus Christ,” she shook her head, “it’s rabbit Christ. He’s my god.”

Albrecht Durer anyone?

 

 

The next song, sung two days later in exchange for a missed assignment on glycolysis and fermentation, was something in Latin, Schubert’s Ave Maria. The meaningless words (Pen later confessed that even she didn’t know what they meant) flowed out of her like a soft wind, whispering in our ears and ruffling our hair, causing the blinds to flutter. Abigail, eyes closed, swayed to the tune.

…Ave, ave dominus
Dominus tecum
Benedicta tu in mulieribus
Et benedictus
Benedictus fructus, fructus ventris
Ventris tui, Jesus
Ave Maria
Ave Maria
Mater Dei…

Pen’s final melody, chirped out the day after Ave Maria, was Mumford and Sons The Cave. It’s a song I’ve fallen in love with from a band I’m now creaming over in a hard-nipple, let me introduce you to my parents, our first daughter’s name will be Emily, sort of way. In only a week, seven short days, I’ve become an obsessed fan, complete with an I Will Wait t-shirt in my closet and a Babel poster hanging above my headboard, beside my Harry Potter wall calendar. Mom thinks I’ve gone crazy. Maybe I have. Folk rock, who knew?

Pen’s take on The Cave was unique. Partly sung, mostly spoken, the words came out as poetry, with her foot quietly tapping the time.

It’s empty in the valley of your heart
The sun, it rises slowly as you walk
Away from all the fears
And all the faults you’ve left behind
The harvest left no food for you to eat
You cannibal, you meat-eater, you see
But I have seen the same
I know the shame in your defeat…

Principle Gamble, out of breath and with his tie twisted at an odd angle, crept in half-way through the performance, quietly taking a seat beside “Indian-dot-not-feathers-Bob,” West Greenville’s authentic human skeleton (hung by wire in a glass display case) and the Scholars Bowl Team’s unofficial mascot. Mrs. Mamaril called Mr. Gamble before Pen began, buzzing the office by pressing the small red “oh s***” button near the door and whispering into the intercom. Word of our little bird’s talent must’ve spread throughout the faculty.

…And I will hold on hope
And I won’t let you choke
On the noose around your neck
And I’ll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I’ll know my name as it’s called again.

Afterward, Pen took her seat, ignoring June who booed as only a friend can. As for everyone else, just a few brave souls still applauded her, most having learned that their appreciation only brought contempt. Abigail Goosier (having more of an indignant spark than I remember from Second grade) slapped her hands together with hateful vigor. Pen merely poked out her tongue, though that slim protrusion of taste buds could’ve been a rusty switchblade for all the love it gave.

Mr. Gamble remained quiet, studying the exchange, careful not to miss a beat. The air soon rang with more names: Timothy Goddard, Raymond Hayes, Riley Hearn… Pen opened her notebook and took up with the rabbit’s finishing details: benign black claws and a few dozen stray hairs.

After a moment, Mr. Gamble stood, whispered something in Mrs. Mamaril’s ear, and left, the door creaking closed behind him. The rest of class dripped by with definitions, a short five-question quiz, and an errant lab experiment that resulted in a puff of green smoke and the lingering stink of rotten eggs.

After a terrible First lunch (the sulfur smell still clung to our nose hairs, killing most of our appetites) Mrs. Mamaril called Pen to her desk, handed over a hall pass and told her to make for the principle’s office.

The next morning, after detention, Pen sang Simple Gifts before an awestruck Couch Garza. It was a banner moment. Her voice filled the tiny gym office like a savory aroma before drifting out over the court. The girl’s basketball team (who’d been running drills, perhaps in hopes of for once having a winning season) slowed and stopped. The last sharp squeaks of their Nikes echoed off the gym’s bare walls as basketballs slipped from clumsy fingers to rolled away unnoticed. They stared at the office’s open door, wondering how such a beautiful, resonant sound could come from such a small room. Hadn’t it once been a utility closet?

Pen’s first choir practice was the next afternoon.

I look again at Emma Pond. She’s finished her song and is smiling sheepishly at the applause, warm adoration for a voice that only nature could give and years of practice (and if the rumors of a voice coach in Brannon are correct, maybe a little money) could polish.

“Just look at her.” Pen’s laugh is small and full of teeth. She runs her hands through her boyish hair. It’s just long enough for her to tousle. She’s bound to trim it down soon. God forbid anything truly feminine ever be associated with Penelope Coyne. “That stupid smile, she doesn’t even know to be embarrassed.”

My cheeks burn, and if I had a mirror, I’m sure they’d be tomato red. I’m beginning to wonder if (as I’ve heard in some war movie) we are all really part of one big soul, if we all have the same face and that pain is universal. If Emma doesn’t know to be embarrassed, I’ll be embarrassed for her.

Coach Garza whistles for the choir to reform. They move down the bleachers and inside through the gym’s double doors, slowly, downing the last of their cokes and Dr. Peppers. Pen stands and stretches, popping each and every one of her small bones. I’m beginning to wonder if they’re hollow, like a bird’s, if she’ll one day sprout feathers and fly away.

“Can you listen out for stuff about my car?” Maxwell asks, his voice betraying an inner fragility I never suspected. He rubs his hands together, nervous as a jackrabbit. The stump of a cigarette dangles from between his wet lips. “Maybe put in a good word for me?”

Pen slips her thumbs into her empty belt loops and sucks air between her teeth. I’ve seen more pity in the slit eyes of king snakes. “No.”

She heads down the bleachers and doesn’t see Maxwell’s one-fingered salute.

“God, that b****…” He mumbles, looking hurt, the last boy picked for a basketball game. Or maybe, even more painfully, one who wasn’t picked at all but left on the sideline. I know the feeling.

“I’ll listen out for you,” I say, knowing my words carry about as much weight as a helium-filled balloon. At West Greenville, I currently have the social standing of a shadow, a few steps below non-verbal autistic Henry Utley (known school-wide for his awkward pep rally dance moves), and a few higher than a volunteer hall monitor.

Maxwell mutters something, thanks maybe, but continues staring after Pen. His eyes could burn a hole into the back of her head. The poor guy, with one slip of the f-word he made enemies of West Greenville’s tiny yet completely Comanche LGBT movement and by pure bad luck, the band’s entire woodwind section.

Soon the choir has reformed and is half-listening to Couch Garza gives instructions. Standing between the twins, Pen shifts from foot to foot. She can’t stop sneaking glimpses of Emma.

“I’ll be sure to think her after practice,” I say, a warm feeling spreading through me, an intoxicating dose of affection in spite of Pen’s attitude. “You know, for the songs. They were beautiful.”

Maxwell remains quite, making a show of studying the unlit scoreboard, the high electric lights, the band kids shifting through pages of sheet music. He’s sullen, and if my experience with June (the only other person I know of comparable size and temperament) has taught me anything, it’s to let him stew. And he is a boy, isn’t he? They see the world at a different wavelength, somewhere between ultraviolet and infrared, with some colours being unbearably bright while others are nonexistent altogether.

“I’ll think her when I drop her off,” I say, hearing The Cave swimming up from the memory center of my brain, the tune by now perfectly ingrained. Though the voice I hear isn’t Marcus Mumford’s at the Red Rocks amphitheater but Penelope Coyne’s as she stands before our AP Biology class, her voice low and defiant and brave.

…So make your siren’s call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say
‘Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it’s meant to be…

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Mississippi Gulf Coast: Grace does the Beach, Summer 2017:)

“Easy reading is damned hard writing.”– Nathanial Hawthorn

Photography is perhaps the easiest of the arts to take in. With a glace we get the “warm fuzzies” from an image of a gentle embrace, a wallpaper of sunflowers in spring, a snapshot of a rainbow. We connect, smile, then quickly forget. It’s become a cheap art, with even professionals being seen as hobbyist, and it’s unfair (even a little sad) that most never realizing that good images are earned. True photographers aren’t common, and they suffer for their work. They bleed. Grace, visiting relatives in Biloxi Mississippi, went on her hands and knees for these few shots, squinting one eyed though her view finder, hoping to capture beauty. I think she did.

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Perhaps Grace’s favorite of the group, this image of a hermit crab cost her muddy knees and a palm cut by a metal bottle cap. “It was worth it,” she smiled, “and I really didn’t bleed all that much anyways.”

 

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Taken in-between two of the many rainstorms that taunt the coast daily, this image was greatly enhanced by Grace who spent thirty-minutes collecting every scrap of trash for a quarter of a mile down the beach. She filled two trash bags. This “natural” shot was her reward.

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Low tide, the smell of dead fish, and “yes” that is an industrial dredger in the background: this is the Gulf Coast in a nutshell.

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This was an easy one. By this time, Grace had given up on trying to stay dry:)

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Beach transplant…pun intended;)

 

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This one was just an afterthought.

 

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Stars- Part I: Wednesday, Sept. 16th 2015

“God, they’re terrible!” Maxwell grunts, wiping sweat from his forehead. He looks disgusted, tired, as if he’d been adrift in the South Pacific for a month and is contemplating eating his toes. “They make me want to f****** kill myself. I mean really!”

“They’re not that bad,” I say, hoping to calm him. But with the hapless West Greenville Choir bleating out the chorus to Wouldn’t It Be Lovely, every syllable like the individual serrations on a very long steak knife, I might as well be swimming against a rip tide. “Pen’s part is coming up; it’ll be good.”

With a sour face, Maxwell crosses his massive arms over his distended belly, resting them there as if it were a desktop. “How much longer ’til it’s over.”

I tell him.

“Too long.” He spits a white and green loogie on the seats below us, “It’s like they’re killing a cat. I mean, really strangling the little f***** with both hands!”

I cringe at the thought, closing my eyes and shaking my head. Usually, Maxwell’s a gentle sort of impatient, like fine grain sandpaper, but today his insults have been brutal, enough so to cause me several dizzy spells.

I recommend that we move, telling him that the gym’s top bleachers aren’t the best place to watch anything-a basketball game, a pep rally, choir practice-that hot air rises and we could get a better view from down below where it’s cooler. He ignores me, not wanting to mix with the band kids, having recently got into it with one of the clarinet players, a sophomore named Wally Vinson.

“There she goes.” I point as Pen and two other altos, the twins Jamie and Harriet Dell, move to three microphones placed a few feet in front of the rest of the choir. A fourth, standing center court, is taken by a soprano, Emma Pond. Coach Garza (West Greeneville’s choir director) continues waving her hands in no discernable pattern. “Listen, it’ll be good.”

Despite the train wreck behind them (the Greenville Trumpet once described our choir as an ‘enemy of sound and art’) the altos’ voices rise, clear and distinct, harmonized, like bright red kites pulled up evenly by the same gentle wind. Emma’s soon joins them, but with a higher, more radiant tone. It taunts, tickles, invigorates, caresses. I can feel it in my fingertips. If the alto’s voices are kites, Emma’s is a rainbow.

…Lots of chocolate for me to eat
Lots of coal makin’ lots of heat
Warm face, warm hands, warm feet
Oh, wouldn’t it be loverly?
Oh, so lovely sittin’
Abso-bloomin’-lutely still
I would never budge till spring
Crept over me window sill…

Maxwell’s eyes soften, his frown inverting, almost forming a grin. What is it they say about music and the savage beast?

“Well?” I ask.

“They’re alright.” Maxwell mutters, wiping more sweat away with his sleeve, “It’s good to see Pen doing something useful.”

I’m sure Principle Gamble would agree. After the whole bobcat/penis incident, and the subsequent weeks of morning detention, he’d given Pen a choice-join the choir or spend the semester as a ‘West Greenville Litter Bug.’ That is, picking up trash after football games and track meets. It was an easy decision.

The song ends with an impossibly high, incredibly long note by Emma. It’s sharp, piercing, and remarkably clean, like a marquise cut diamond. I’m surprised the gym’s upper windows don’t shatter and rain down.

After a brief, awed silence, everyone erupts into applause; the hopeless choir with their dull unintelligent smiles; the band playing backup, their instruments shining; Coach Garza with her big sister smile and the twins sporting an identical pair of star-struck smirks.

Pen, though, only sneers. She crosses her arms over the front of her Sex Pistols t-shirt, one hand holding the wrist of the other, and shakes her head. There’s no anger in the motion or envy. Amusement maybe, as if she’d seen something silly and knows only she’s recognized it.

“God, she’s good,” Maxwell says. He’s standing, slapping his enormous hands together, producing a thick, wet, meaty sound, like two prize fighters murdering each other in the ring.

“Pretty good.” I agree. My own applause is soft, like leaves rustling, “Pen’s not happy though.”

Coach Garza releases the choir for a break. Half head outside to the snack machines, others mingle with the band. A few-Ryan Sanders, Michael Adcock, and Flannery Bramhall-pull out Calculus II notes and begin studying. It’s something I’m sure to be doing past midnight. Tomorrow’s test on something something value theorems will be brutal.

“Why the crap are you all the way up here?” Pen groans. She sits beside us, out of breath from the long climb to the top bleachers. Sweat has already gathered on her forehead, and she begins fanning her shirt, hoping for some relief. “It’s hot, and you can’t see me.”

Maxwell points to the bottom bleachers. Wally Vinson is reclining with the other woodwinds, resting his head on Mattie Pak’s shoulder with an intimacy that’s almost familial. The two belong in a Southern Gothic novel-Mattie the enormous Korean girl, her eyes even more slanted now as she smiles, and beautiful, blonde Wally, so thin he could be taken as either an emaciated teenage girl or prepubescent alter boy. His bright pink polo and black skinny jeans, coupled with his perfectly trimmed, perfectly gelled hair and glinting gold earrings, seem chosen by a Broadway costume designer. He couldn’t advertise more with a rainbow neckerchief.

“Oh,” Pen says. She settles in, checking the time on her screen-cracked iPhone 3. “You have to be careful. Wally’s friends are planning to trash your car.”

The story is both simple and complicated-Sudoku for beginners. From what I can tell, began as an argument over a spot in the senior’s parking lot.

Maxwell exhales, once, then twice, deeply like a North Atlantic gale. You’d think he’d been taking Lamaze classes and is about to give birth to a 9lb. 6oz bouncing baby boy or, at the very least, pass a kidney stone. Instead, he pulls out a Pall Mall and lights it; it’s tip glowing orange with his first drag. I can’t help but stare. It’s a beautiful, malignant thing, the sizzling fuse on a stick of TNT.

“What?” He asks me, annoyed. “Smoke rises, remember? You won’t get in trouble.” He offers a cigarette to Pen who shakes her head.

“I’m quitting.” She takes a small bottle from her pocket and sprays something citrus into her mouth. After clearing her throat (and for some reason moving her tongue around as if searching for a loose tooth), she begins to hum. After another moment, and with her mouth opened in a slight, almost fishlike way, she carries a note. Then another, one slightly higher. She goes on, testing her vocal cords like a piano tuner tests the keys on a baby grand. My ears tingle.

“That last one was F5,” Pen says assuming the term should mean something musical to me-notes on sheet music or a professional alto singing Carnegie Hall. Instead, it only conjures images of a computer keyboard. She clears her throat and takes another spray of citrus. “That’s a hard one, in case you didn’t know.”

“Ok.” I nod.

She goes into details, using terms- forte, flat, cut time, etc.- that might as well be lines binary code, a series of ones and zeros that mean nothing to most people, to the majority of people.

“You understand tempo right?” Pen asks but rolls on before I can answer, using more foreign lingo -tremolo, melisma, consonance- as if we were old coworkers talking shop.

“What does ‘consonance’ mean again?” I ask, hoping to slow her down. “It means to sing in unison?”

Irritated, she attempts to explain with her hands, making motions that seem more likely to signal a runner to steal second than coax forty-six odd fits into singing in harmony. And that may be an impossibility anyhow. Our choir has a reputation for being a strange, otherworldly lot; the sightless, translucent fish found at the bottom of black caves. Last year, one boy, a bass drummer named Tony Flavin, was caught with the makings of pipe bombs in his closet and a hit list on his computer. My name-one of seventy or eighty-was on it, both underlined and italicized. I never found out why.

“Are you getting all this?” Pen asks.

I nod, confused but for the first time appreciating the intricate mechanics of the ‘choral arts.’ Before this, all I knew was that singing was an ability reserved only for special people, the same way the ability to carve horses from blocks of marble or fix cars is reserved for certain, special people. This is why I don’t sing, not even on solitary drives with Taylor Swift pumping through my speakers. I merely tap the steering wheel to Mean and (when I’m feeling particularly adventurous) mouth the words, making Taylor’s voice my own. I’m sure that this abnormality can be traced back to an early childhood trauma, an abrasion to the psyche, one that left a painless, invisible scar.

It was during the Second grade. I remember that much. The school was having auditions for it’s Christmas musical, A Bethlehem Goodnight. My choice song was “Silent Night,” which I sang on stage before hundreds of wide fishlike eyes. I thought that my pitch was perfect and my timing spot on. I was confident, sure the role of Mary was mine. Would I have my own dressing room? Will there be a star on the door? My mind was a happy land of happy thoughts.

At the end of the afternoon, the thirty other prospects and I were separated into two groups. My group (the larger group) was sent to the library to be fitted for our costumes. A woman asked if my parents could buy me brown pants and a brown shirt and if I could stand absolutely still and be completely quiet for about an hour. With a heart like a bag of broken Christmas ornaments, I said ‘yes.’ Assured, she smiled, placed a small, faux leaf covered sombrero on my head, adjusted it carefully, and smiled again. For my stage debut, the lone act in my short-lived acting career, I was to be a palm tree.

“What are they going to do to Bitch?” Maxwell asks. He seems resigned to the fact that his car, his beloved 92′ Saratoga, is in for a rough week. “Nothing too bad?”

Pen eyes him, annoyed at having her tutorial on music theory interrupted. While she has few occasions to boost (currently she’s a solid C student and is retaking Algebra II for the third time,) there is talent where it shines brightest-she’s an artist, and she’ll never let us forget it. “I don’t know,” she says, “pee on it? It’s your fault anyway. You shouldn’t have said what you said. You called him a f…a…g.”

“The f** parked in my spot!” Maxwell says, one huge hand outstretched towards Wally. “Would you rather I’d broken him in half!”

Pen looks at him for a moment, perhaps considering the consequences of a brutal, campus homicide; Maxwell’s arrest after a high-speed chase down I-20 (though I doubt Bitch can break 60 mph downhill); the televised trial on CourtTV; the inevitable life sentence, if not the death penalty. He is eighteen after all. As a friend, will she be required to testify as a character witness? What about monthly visitations? Christmas cards? Celebrities have done wonders familiarizing young American minds with crime and punishment- OJ Simpson, Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen- but the finer details are often overlooked.

“Well?” Maxwell demands.

“Yes,” Pen says finally, perhaps deciding that felonies void all the social obligations of friendship, “you should’ve killed him. It wouldn’t have been personal then.”

Maxwell’s teeth clench, and his jaw tightens. Pen-for being as untethered as an alley cat-is a political correctness Nazi when it comes to the LGBT thing. Apparently, they can do no wrong.

From below we hear a voice rise, weave a few times like a sprinter navigating hurdles, then rise again. It’s Emma Pond. She’s standing with Mrs. Garza, her mouth opened like a baby bird’s, her hands at her side’s. The song is Johnny’s So Long At The Fair.

O dear, what can the matter be?
Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
O dear, what can the matter be?
Johnny’s so long at the fair…

“She’s awesome,” Maxwell says with a sweetness so artificial it could be used to sugar a diabetic’s coffee. He relaxes, leaning back onto the bleacher behind us, his pale belly showing from underneath his shapeless shirt. “Emma’s the best singer at West Greenville.”

Pen makes a sound that’s not quite a laugh, not quite a huff. “She isn’t that great.”

“I think she’s magnificent.” Maxwell smiles. While he may not be able to protect his car from a band of queers, wear pants without elastic bands, or pull an “A” out of any class (including his 5th-period Domestic Guidance class where you’re taught things baking peanut butter brownies), he does know how to ruffle feathers. He enjoys it. “Mable thinks she’s great too.” He looks at me, eyes urging me on.

“Her voice is like a rainbow,” I say, pleased with myself.

Pen cuts me a disgusted look. You’d thought I’d just puked on her shoes.

“She’s more than just a rainbow.” Maxwell says, still wearing that Teddy Roosevelt grin, “She’s the Sun, the Moon, and all the stars, she’s the best singer in the choir.”

I realize now that Maxwell isn’t just ruffling feathers, he’s plucking them. His every commending word is a short, quick tug, one that leaves a small bleeding hole. The smug look on his round moon face-the way he holds his tongue between large, flat, bovine teeth, his thick wet lips like sausages-is revolting.

“She’s OK,” Pen concedes, almost gagging on the words, “but she’s not great, she’s hardly any good. You people don’t know good.” The last word is spun with sympathy as if this Jacksonville girl feels nothing but pain for us Greenville plebeians. Art, culture, music are all beyond us. She pulls up a video on her iPhone, one of the hundreds saved to her YouTube Favorites list, and hits play. “Listen.”

After a short ad for a new antidepressant (a small pink pill that guarantees a slew of physical ailments in exchange for mental and emotional ones) the video opens on a soundstage. A woman, wearing a plain black dress and with her blonde hair pulled up in a tight, root ripping bun, leans into a microphone dangling above her. Her solitary voice ascends with a single sharp, mournful note. My eardrums quiver.

Un bel dì, vedremo
levarsi un fil di fumo
sull’estremo confin del mare.
E poi la nave appare.
Poi la nave bianca
entra nel porto,
romba il suo saluto…
Maxwell grunts something, but Pen shushes him. “Just listen.”
Vedi? È venuto!
Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no.
Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto,
e aspetto gran tempo
e non mi pesa,
la lunga attesa…

The woman goes on, and the camera pans out to show an empty piano, a set of timpani drums, and dozens of unused music stands. Pen says something about what concert hall it is, the Helix in Dublin. There’s a close-up. The woman’s throat trembles and her blue eyes bulge, tears forming in their corners. The sound made is a gleaming razor, drawing blood. For a moment the nameless performer (the video is entitled merely ‘Soprano Sings Puccini’) appears transfigured, her face awash, eyes open but unseeing. She seems surprised with herself as if her throat had not produced sound at all but a flurry of small, colourful birds.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Pen asks, her eyes nearly closed, swaying almost imperceptibly, like a skiff on a calm lake. “Nothing here can compare to this.”

Yes, I chose this pic because it has the name “Puccini” in it:)

 

Sighing, Pen slides the phone into her pocket. Emma’s still bellowing, her mouth now the size of a softball as all eyes stare on, gleaming with admiration.

“Well…” Pen says, deflating a little more with each note. I want to console her, to tell her that she’s doing great things with the twins, that when the time comes for the Spring Concert, they’ll be incredible. “Well…”

It wasn’t until a week ago that Pen thought of the choir at all. Before then they-the school’s unremarkable fulfillment of the state’s performing arts requirement, known more for their Fall doughnut fundraisers than for their tri-annual performances-were a non-issue, existing only on her and everyone else’s peripheries. Even their quarter-page photo in last year’s annual, taken on the football field as the band practiced behind them, was cheerless. Only Emma and the twins, their arms draped over each other’s shoulders (Emma, of course, in the middle), were smiling. And their enthusiasm was unusually fierce. You’d thought they were drunk, posing there with their teeth bare and tongues just visible.

And then, a few days ago, standing before Mrs. Mamaril’s stunned class, their jackrabbit eyes opened wide, Pen sang.

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Fath-er: Sunday, Sept. 6th 2015.

fath-er

NOUN

  1. A man in relation to his natural child or children. Synonyms: dad, daddy, pop, pa, dada…

Still coated with clear antibiotic cream, Dad’s tattoo wraps around his left bicep-a westernized, bastardized version of Maori tribal. Its lines are crooked, their thicknesses and shadings uneven, some bleeding together, others fading nearly grey. In the center of it all is the pouty, childlike face of some pagan god. It’s laughable; Pen could’ve done it better.

“This is supposed to be an excellent movie,” Dad says. He lays our movie tickets on the food court table and runs a long, angled finger from the start time, 12:30, to the theater number, 13, then to his watch, a new Fossil with glow in the dark hands and a hunter orange wristband. He can’t stand to miss the previews, and we’re sure to be seated ten minutes before anyone else arrives. “It has Jason Statham in it. He’s good. Lots of action.”

“I’ve been wanting to see Transporter 4,” I say, taking a bit of my hamburger, wondering what exactly I’m going to spend the next two hours watching. A thriller? Comedy? Dramady? By the looks of the movie poster hanging near the theater entrance-a collage of explosions, muscle cars, and beautiful women-it’ll be grade-A crap. “It’ll be great.”

Dad smiles and pokes around his salad, sinking his fork into half a hard-boiled egg.

I smile back, not at Dad but at the blatant lie. Transporter 4? For crying out loud! The girls would’ve cackled, and without batting an eye, called “BS.” Even Mom would’ve wondered what bad influence I’d fallen under. Perhaps a boy? That would’ve given her some peace of mind. I’m sure she suspects I’m a lesbian.

“Oliver better hurry up,” I say, nibbling on a fry. We’ve beaten most of the church crowd-potbellied Baptist and Methodist who are probably still in line at Golden Corral-and will most likely have the theater to ourselves, but still, Oliver’s “quick” run to F.Y.E. has dragged on for a quarter-hour. “He said he wouldn’t be very long.”

“If he’s not here in five minutes we’ll go in without him,” Dad begins fishing croutons out of his bowl and leaving them on the bare tabletop. He smiles. Each small cube of dried bread is a point in his war against carbs, something that started badly-I’d catch him in the middle of the night sneaking ice-cream cones or cookie dough from the fridge- but the tide has recently tuned, and it shows. He looks great. The only bad part is that he knows it. His shirt, an Under Armor V-neck, is too tight, leaving his nipples poking through, and his gelled hair (neatly trimmed at Sports Cuts) screams of douchebaggery. “He’ll have to find us in the dark.”

I remind him that he has Oliver’s ticket.

Dad exhales and checks his watch; it’s 12:05. His looks like he swallowed a wasp.

“How’s Ray?” I ask, using the same tone I’d apply if inquiring about the Steelers, the truck, or the paper mill. It’s not a question but a statement. I’m interested in your life. Let me in. These are urges as much born from genuine curiosity as guilt. I’ve never seen a midlife crisis up close and figured it’d be cosmic, like either watching a star die or one being born. “What’s his major?”

“Occupational Therapy, I think.”

“What’s he like?” It’s a funny question. Ray’s a tad younger than Morgan and a little older than me, so we may have met in passing somewhere.

“We don’t talk.” Dad cranes his neck, eyeing the theater entrance. An enormous Ant-Man cutout guards the lobby as a fat teenager plays on his phone behind the ticket booth. Earlier, he was so rude-he hardly looked up from his Candy Crunch game as he sold us our tickets-I could’ve punched him through the safety glass. “When he’s not at school he works at Applebee’s. I never really see him.”

I finish my fries and ball up my burger wrapper. Through the food court’s glass doors a large crowd of Choctaws enters and heads for the ticket booth. Fat Boy, wearing irritation like a black eye, begins selling fistfuls of tickets. The Choctaws smile, one bleating a high, unforgettable laugh. As limited as Greenville’s one theater is, it beats anything offered on the reservation, which is perhaps just two or three Red Boxes strategically placed outside liquor stores and payday loan establishments. A new release may be worth the forty-five-minute drive in an under-air-conditioned fifteen-seat van.

***

fa-ther

NOUN (Religious)

  1. (often as a title or form of address) a priest: “pray for me, Father” synonyms: priest, pastor, parson, clergyman…

“Your Mom’s painting the house, huh?” Dad asks, taking a bit of iceberg lettuce, “Bright colors?”

I smile, wishing somehow that I could convey the scene, the picture that lingers in my mind like the afterimage of a camera flash. But there are some things you can’t explain in words; the beauty of Greenville seen from the top of Lookout Trail, the lightheadedness that comes after eating a small box of Crayons, the peculiar smell of a dead mouse in the wall. Those things, like Mom’s current psychopathy, can only be experienced. “It’s beautiful. You should see it.”

“Really.” Dad grunts, nodding as he pretends to check his watch, 12:08. “Helen always talked about painting the house.”

I scowl. Her name is Mom! I want to correct but don’t. What’s the use? Instead, meaningless words come out. “Yeah, she’s getting into it.” I should’ve tried-bright baby colours, curtains with patterns seemingly pulled from Picasso’s and Pollock’s. Truth could’ve shown through.

Mom and I’ve been talking a little more, mostly about paint schemes, primer, and the complete acceptability of beaming, eye-dazzling colors. HGTV has even (in her own opinion) turned her into a home decorating guru, and she’s begun perusing garage sales for old furniture and knick-knacks. Last night she came home with two busted typewriters (their keys smashed as if with a hammer) and a mold covered end table. When cleaned, the tabletop showed a beautiful, hand-painted nativity scene, the initials JAB penned in the corner.

Another crowd comes in-white church kids with polo shirts and lace fringed dresses. They swarm the ticket booth. A middle-aged manager appears and begins corralling them into neat lines as the ticket seller swipe debit cards and breaks twenties. His face glistens with sweat.

“I’m sorry things have to be this way.” Dad starts, not making eye contact but staring at his salad, his fork searching for more croutons, “It’s, just…”

I wait for a minute, then two. From the theater, a girl laughs at what must be the funniest joke in human history. I wonder what the punchline was-an Indian walks into a bar…

“Just what?” I ask, giving Dad more time, my heart skipping two or three beats.
I hoped that today we’d have some revelation, some special moment, which for us have been few. The last time, I think, was just before Paw Paw died.

That was two years ago, the beginning of 9th grade, months before I met June-a blurry, feverish time. I was suffering from intense germaphobia (one evening I wash my hands a record ninety-seven times) and moderate anorexia. I can’t explain it, maybe I had a nervous breakdown or something, but I was consumed by an unbearable urge to be thin. From the beginning of August to the start of October I lost over forty pounds.
It was a dark miracle looking into the mirror. For the first time, my body curved instead of bulged, and my chubby cheeks receded, revealing a delicate jawline and a pretty, nearly symmetrical face.

Boys started noticing me. Senior Jeremy Brodie sat beside me in Art I, attempting awkward small talk, something about his love for classic horror movies and a part-time job as a busboy at The Queen City Truck Stop. I humored him, smiling my way through his gory scene by scene summaries of The Blob and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Once, when he thought I wasn’t looking, he took out his iPhone and snapped a picture of my breasts. They’d, by some miracle, maintained their back-breaking fullness. He ignored my raw, inflamed hands.

You want to go see The Fly? he asked one afternoon, his smile pathetic, It’s showing at the Temple Theater Friday night. I’ll pay for everything if you don’t have any money.

I shook my head as politely as a Canadian and stared at a painting in my art book-a Goya entitled Saturn Devouring His Son. If I ever have a first date, I thought, it wouldn’t be with a pervert who smells like dishwater.

 

Saturn Devouring His Son. At the time, with my shrunken stomach rumbling, it looked like an ad for Olive Garden.

 

I began wearing hoodies, jogging pants and whatever else would hide my vanishing body, which by then, was just about everything I owned. And all this got me was the ridicule of my lunch table-Tammy Williams, Joanne Delven, Alexa Jenkins, Other Alexa, and Lisa Dean.

You’re dressed like a crack whore. Tams didn’t look up as she spoke, she hardly took her eyes off her fingernails which she worked over with a small wet brush. That week’s color (she changed her nail polish as regularly as she did her shoes) was Sunflower Yellow. It was a beautiful, slightly depraved color. Why don’t you wear some normal clothes?

I studied the table top in front of me, not realizing who Tams was talking too.

Mable, I’m talking too you. She fanned her fingers out, inspecting each yellow nail as if it were a rare gem. After smirking, as always her small white teeth were perfect, she waved them for a vigorous air dry. They might as well have been a swarm of hornets. You’re one of us now; you can’t go around looking like a hobo.

Oh… I said. I looked at her, then at everyone else. Joanne was slowly chewing a bit of rice cake. Alexa Jenkins and Lisa Dean sipped diet Mountain Dews. Other Alexa merely sat there, stone-faced. They seemed tense, ready for some signal to eat me; all their eyes were different (blue, brown, grey with gunk in the corner) yet the same. You’d thought they were related. Oh…

I’d been tolerated at the ‘almost popular’ table since the second semester of 7th grade, but I’d long figured my presence there was a practical one. It was as if my weight was needed to keep the table from floating away. I wasn’t spoken too, and I never spoke. Despite being 200 pounds, I was invisible. You’d thought my obesity was a disease that could be spread verbally, like hate, and they wanted to limit their risk.

It was only after I dropped to a Size 3 that they began to acknowledge my presence. They looked over for consensus whenever a cute boy was pointed out, soccer player Thomas Walk or handsome but totally gay Henry Günter, or when someone bitched about Mrs. Ziller’s English I class. I learned to smile, nod, and occasionally giggle, all the while wondering how anyone could find Thomas’ broad forehead and bushy eyebrows appealing or be failing an English class comprised mostly of five-paragraph essays on The Canterbury Tales and group posters about Mark Twain and Ernest Hemmingway.

I’m sorry. I said, averting my eyes, looking down at the empty faux wood table top where, in years past, a full lunch tray would’ve been. I’ll do better.

My apology was sincere. This was a time when irrational guilt bit into me daily. Everything hurt. Given a chance, I would’ve apologized to the Jews for the Holocaust, the blacks for slavery, and the entire third world for not having the things I take for granted-meaning, everything from easy access to high-calorie foods to satellite TV.

You better. Tams said. Her eyes were the color of lead.

That afternoon I went home and washed my hands for five straight hours. By the end of the night, my red skinless mitts burned so badly I cried myself to sleep.

***

If you want to know, the trick to losing weight is simple, almost monastic; view eating as a sin, like smoking, and take exercise (which for me was merely walking the 1.19-mile track around Bower Park two or three hours a day) as divine, like prayer. I developed a massive calorie deficit. My plump, porcine body, which in the past hoarded spare calories like a squirrel saves acorns for winter, melted away. At night, after peeing, I’d weigh myself on a Sunbeam digital scale. My piety was almost always rewarded.

***

Nearing Thanksgiving, the beautiful stranger I saw in the mirror was a lean one-hundred and thirteen pounds. I looked like a marathon runner. My boobs had shrunk to the size and shape of mangos, and my belly was flat as the proverbial ironing board. I realized for the first time that my thighs no longer rubbed together. They probably hadn’t for a while.

By then even Mom and Dad had noticed. It seemed strange how quickly (almost eagerly) they were to buy my story of a sensible diet and loads of cardio. Mom just nodded and, in spite of my atrocious grades-the straight A’s I’d pumped out as steadily as a heartbeat since first grade had flatlined into C’s-smiled her approval. Dad made encouraging comments.

It’s so good to see you working at something. He said. It was Sunday and the late afternoon sunlight poured in through the kitchen sliding doors, turning everything (even the dirty dishes I was washing) golden. I know it can be hard for girls to lose weight…

He went on like an anatomy teacher, something about muscle mass and female metabolism. I watched as he poured an ocean of creamer into his coffee cup, turning his Folgers decaf into a sand-colored soup. Nothing ever smelled so delicious.

So, I want you to know that you’ve made me proud. You look beautiful. At this, he kissed my forehead and went back to the football game showing on the living room TV. His beloved Steelers were down 7 to 21.

I watched him as he went, all broad shoulders and pride. I don’t think he saw me beaming. God, I never felt more loved! I floated, dizzy, above the sink. What would’ve he thought then if he’d known that the only things I’d eaten for three days were half an orange, a piece of toast, and (with shame so painful it should’ve left scar tissue) six M&M’s: three brown, two green, and one red.

Dad continues poking around his salad, his fork now seeking out bits of bacon and egg like a Bluetick Hound. “It’s just that you and Oliver…” he thinks for a moment, judging his words, gauging them as if they were keys on an overfilled keychain. “You’re both very odd.”

“Odd?” I say, not sure how the word tastes in my mouth, the single syllable both sweet and sour on my tongue. Is it palatable, nourishing, life-giving? Or should I be puking?

“Yes,” Dad nods to himself, satisfied with his choice of adjective, “‘odd.'”

An old couple-a blue-haired woman, hunched and with a hot pink fanny pack around her fat middle, and a tall, balding man donning a western style shirt-get in line behind the teenagers. The woman is one wide smile, her dimples nubile. The man looks exhausted. You’d thought he’d been chasing his wife around for the past forty years and is finally spent, ready to fall like an empty bullet casing to the theater floor.

“I mean, I can understand Morgan not coming today.” Dad starts, eyes closed, fork poised, perhaps envisioning my sister simmering quietly in a church pew, holding Mom’s hand. After a moment, he opens them again. “Anger is normal with divorce. But you and your brother aren’t mad, you aren’t sad, you aren’t anything.”

Why should I be sad about your divorce? Who are you? I didn’t even know your middle name ’til I was twelve! But the words that come out are as much a whisper as they are untrue. “We’re sad about it.”

Dad sees through me, his eyes piercing. Can he see the cancer of loneliness, the tumors of self-doubt too? After a brief, painful moment he looks away.

I bit my tongue, not wanting to cry, realizing now that the similarities I thought we shared (quiet, reserved natures, lives driven by a strange, nameless and painful need) aren’t really there. There are only the base things-we’re Americans, we’re white, we’re conservative. Beyond that, it’s all just physical: our red hair and pale, nearly luminescent skin. And even these things aren’t real gifts past from father to child, but a mutual inheritance from some long dead progenitor. On the drive over, crammed in the truck’s cab, Oliver, Dad, and I could’ve been confused for matches in a matchbox.

fath-er

VERB

  1. to be the father of: “He fathered three children.”

“Where is that boy?” Dad asks. The crowds are making him nervous.

“He’ll be here.” I force a smile, “He’s been talking about today for a while. He’s excited.”

It’s another lie, of course, but that hardly makes a difference. Dad ignores me, and my words fall like small birds to the table top, their final death spasms on a bed of used napkins and unopened salt packets.

I turn and find the old couple bickering over which movie to see. They could be a vaudeville comedy duo, while Dad and I, the leads in a tragic silent film.

Resentment cooks my insides, threatening to burn a hole in my chest. I turn to the door, to the crowds, to a black janitor clearing a table left cluttered with trash; anywhere but Dad.

And to think I’d planned to tell him things, painful, personal things! I was going to mention my blog even, how it’s both ugly and beautiful, like a newborn snake. I was going to half-joke that my great fears in life have become run-on sentences, misplaced commas, and (above all else) the near certainty of being misunderstood. Now, I’d rather eat my shoes than tell him anything at all.

“Here he is. Thank God!” Dad gathers the tickets from the table and crams them into his pocket. “What took you so long?”

Oliver sits next to me, an FYE bag in one hand and a bag or quarter-sized snickerdoodles from The Cookie Shop in the other. “It took me forever, but I found it.” He opens the FYE bag, and I peer in. Under a sticker marked ‘Used $3.99’, is the title Short Circuit 2. “I saw the first one last night. This one is supposed to be better.”

“Looks good,” I say, sinking into what’s sure to be a decade’s long depression. The word, the one syllable ‘odd,’ is indeed sour. More than that, it’s bitter, stomach churning, gag-inducing.

“I saw that when I was a kid.” Dad grunts, “It’s terrible.”

Looking Oliver over, the nearly imperceptible frown and embarrassed flicker of his eyes, I’m punched me low by something maternal. I want to hug him. “We can watch it together,” I say, kicking him lightly under the table. His smile is like a wilted flower.

Maybe Dad’s right, we are odd, strange, different. I guess I’d always suspected as much. Perhaps I’d forget for a while, but the truth would be revealed during life’s lulls, like wrecked dinghies and lost and forgotten nets only visible during low tides. Quite, friendless summers, Vacation Bible School, 7th grade, even brief afternoons or long evenings, could bring this realization home.

Once, a few years ago, we dressed up as street urchins for Halloween. We wore old t-shirts, pants with enormous holes in the knees, and worn shoes whose loose soles flopped around like the tongues of thirsty dogs. We must’ve fit the part to a tee. We got handfuls of candy, with one woman (a middle-aged nurse still in her light green scrubs) asking where we lived. We told her, and her eyes began to water. She didn’t believe that we were her neighbors, that we were living just ten houses down from her, had our entire lives. We were too embarrassed to stop her from putting cans of tomato soup and creamed corn into our plastic pumpkins.

Yes, we’re ‘odd,’ but I could punch Dad for being a d*** about it.

Dad stands, but Oliver asks for time to finish his cookies.

“Make it quick.” Dad sits back down and begins rapping the table top with his fingertips, making a show of his impatience as if it were something to be proud of.

“We’ll still make the previews,” I say, my optimism as lifeless as a cadaver. Honestly, I’m not even sure if sound came out or if I merely mouthed the words.

“Do you like it?” Dad asks. He’s caught Oliver staring at his tattoo and rolls up his sleeve to give him a better look. “Got it at TNT Ink. It hurt like hell.”

Oliver adjusted his glasses and leans in closer. “It looks infected.”

“It’s not infected.” Dad glowers, lowering his sleeve, attempting to hide a wince of pain. He stands, pulls two wrinkled tickets out of his pocket and tosses them to the table. “I’ll see you inside.” He heads for the ticket counter. He doesn’t look back.

Oliver crams another cookie into his mouth, nearly choking himself.

“Slow down,” I tell him, relaxing into my seat, eyeing the wrinkled tickets on the table top. I take a cookie for myself. “He can wait for us. Besides, I don’t think we’ll be missing anything good.”

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Moth-er, Mother, MoTHER: Friday September 4th, 2015

moth-er

NOUN

  1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth. synonyms: female parent, materfamilias, matriarch, mom, mommy, ma, mama.
  2. vulgar slang NORTH AMERICA: short for motherf*****

“I love your house Mrs. Nolan, the whole open concept thing,” Grace makes a show of looking around my bare living room, her eyes wide with artificial enthusiasm. So far she’s commented on just about every inch of my home, smiling loud as a trumpet. It’s as if she were a friend waiting to ask to borrow fifty bucks and not just a spy for the 12th Street Women’s Prayer Group. Yes, concern for my mother has spread throughout the church. “It’s all they want on Property Brothers-open concept homes. Have you seen that show?”

Careful with her paint roller, Mom stands, wipes drops of sweat from her brow and pulls down her dust mask. “A few episodes.” She’s careful to breathe through her mouth, the paint fumes (why anyone would paint their living room lime green is beyond me!) have already given her a migraine. “I don’t watch TV that much.”

“Neither do I.” Relieved, Grace’s smile becomes genuine. She’s been on edge with her false praise (being about as comfortable with lying as she is with blisters) and warms to the truth. She’s recently closeted the flat screen in her bedroom to make space for more of her sci-fi and fantasy books. The top of her dresser is now home to a collection of Dr. Who novelizations. “There was a marathon on last week. I watched it with my Mom in our den.”

Mom moves to the plastic sheet covered coffee table in the center of the room. The rest of the furniture-the foldout couch, the two Barcaloungers and TV stand, etc.- is crammed haphazardly in the hall. She picks up a large bottle of aspirin and downs three or four without water.

Grace swallows, her smile fading. “We watch Star Trek together too, that and Dr. Who. That’s kind of our thing every week, Mom and me. We watch Star Trek and Dr. Who together.”

Grace studies the living room again, eyeing me in the corner, sitting listless in a chair I pulled in from the kitchen. She regrets mentioning her Mom and their weekly “thing.” She knows that my Mom and I don’t have and probably never will have a “thing”-weekly, biweekly or otherwise. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever come was when I was twelve, and we’d have monthly talks about menstrual cramps, spotting, and benefits of pads over tampons. How was I to know then that (looking back) those awkward moments will probably to be my most cherished memories of my mother? God, they could’ve passed for Tampax commercials!

“I like this color,” Mom says. She stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed over her chest, and turns a slow, deliberate 360. The walls, nearly finished with their second coats, glow in the afternoon sunlight. Everything (the power outlets, trim, the panel with Morgan, Oliver, and my yearly heights) is outlined with blue masking tape. “I think this is the best of all the rooms.”

Through the curtain-less bay window Mr. Swearengen, our retired Marine neighbor, weeds his lawn. He eyes me for a moment, running a hand through his greying crew cut, before getting back to work, disgusted. He’s finished asking us to cut our grass and paint our shutters and has filed a complaint with the Property Owner’s Association. Two notices sit on our kitchen counter.

“It’s a great color,” I say.

Mom looks at me, smiles then turns to Grace. “It’s a great color!”

***

mother

VERB

  1. to bring up (a child) with care and affection: “the art of mothering
  2. to look kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so: “she felt mothered by her sister

Mom did Oliver’s room first. After two painful days of trial and error- I doubt Mom has ever painted anything in her life- everything burned tangerine. Next, pushing the project through a long Saturday afternoon, Mom coated Morgan’s walls sky blue and bedaubed her closet doors sunflower yellow. It was the first I’d seen my mother smile in months.

“You’re next.” She said to me as she admired her work. Her smirk, a hardly sane Cheshire twinkle, made me nervous.

Last Tuesday, I came home to a bare bedroom. My dresser, bookcase, full-size bed, two end tables (everything still covered in Toy Story and Hannah Montana stickers) were pulled into the hall.

“It’s called ‘Cotton Candy Pink.'” Mom sounded cheerful, even through her mask. She’d already laid down plastic and was pouring her first pan of Behr Premium Paint-Primer Mix. Her white painter’s suit, by then a Pollockesque masterpiece of warm and cool colors, hung loose from her body. She must’ve lost ten pounds since Dad left. “What do you think?”

“I like it.” I bit my tongue as she rolled her first pass, a thin pink current in an ocean of off-white. God, who want’s a pink bedroom! “Really, I like it!”

I watched as the small pink patch grew, spreading from the low corner by my closet to the ceiling above my door. In the hall my Stephen King hardbacks-most mint first editions ordered on eBay-were piled fifteen high. A few drops of paint fell on the dust jacket for Everything’s Eventual. It’s not my favorite, but still, I fought back tears.
Mom must’ve caught my grimace.

“It’ll look better after the second coat.” She said, pouring another panful. “I promise.”

I slept on the couch that night, drifting off to a Tae Bo infomercial, only waking to hear Mom leave on her hour commute to work. Afterward, I loitered around the kitchen, pacing, turning my morning routine on its head.

“Moment of truth,” Oliver said, grinning over his bowl of Lucky Charms. A good brother, he wanted me to share in his misery. He has to wear sunglasses to bed now.

“It won’t be that bad,” I said, my words having an unconvincing hollowness to them as if they were spoken into an empty barrel or by a stranger with a bag of candy. I kicked Oliver, hard, under the kitchen table for good measure.

“Why!” He yelped, grabbing at his shin.

Indifferent, I spooned another mouthful of Fruit Loops. “You know why.”

Creeping down the hall I braced myself, balling my fingers into fists as I passed my dismembered bed and stacked end tables. I’d stashed my Stephen Kings before Mom could do more damage.

“Moment of truth.” I turned the knob.

Opening the door, I was engulfed. Everything glowed pink as the morning sun poured liquid through the curtain-less window, filling every corner of my bedroom like water a goldfish bowl. It swirled around me, warm, consuming, comforting. I felt suspended.

“Wow…” The heavy plastic sheeting wrinkled beneath my bare feet. More words fluttered in my throat; but, like frightened baby birds in a high nest, they refused to leap. I wasn’t going to force them. “Wow…”

***

MoTHER

NOUN

  1. “New York City’s MoTHER, a hard-rock powerhouse with sharp bluesy undertones. They’ve been on the radar since 2013, releasing two EP’s and honing their chops on the road with the likes of Buckcherry, Slash, Pop Evil, Godsmack, and Red Sun Rising…”

“I want to speak to Helen?” Mr. Swearengen shifts uncomfortably on our porch, attempting to peak through the tiny sliver I eye him from. His hands, red from beating on our door just thirty seconds ago, are enormous. “It’s about the lawn?”

“She’s busy.” I open the front door a little wider, poking my pale moon face through, “Can I take a message?” A gentle brush off if there ever was one.

“A message? I can see her through the window.” He toys with his syllables as if I were a toddler needing a little more guidance, “I need to talk to her about the lawn. It’s the darn Amazon out here.”

I slip a little further out the door. “I’ll let her know. We’re painting right now.”

He eyes me carefully, studying my hands and hair, my baggy jeans and loose Mississippi State t-shirt. I cross my arms over my chest and turn away. I can’t stand confrontations and can feel myself shrink an inch or two.

“You’re not painting anything.” His words are a myriad of tones, each attempting to cut deep. I can see now why he wears Hawaiian shirts all the time (the one he dons tonight is bright green and populated by dozens of tiny pink and red hibiscuses) and sports a heavy gold watch wherever he goes-it’s about clout, weight, presences. “Why aren’t you helping her.”

“She won’t let us. She want’s to do everything herself.” From behind me, Prince’s Purple Rain begins pumping through Mom’s nigger-rigged boombox, a thirty-year-old contraption she’s held onto ever since her thirteenth birthday. The music signals that the end is near. It’s her victory song. “She picks out the paint and then paints. She’s going to do the whole house.”

Mr. Swearengen’s grey eyes narrow and his shaggy, unkempt unibrow (jutting out here and there like a madman’s) lowers. He’s used to getting his way.

“I need to speak to her.”

Resentment turns in me like bad sushi. Who is this guy? Victor Swearengen-Marine? Looking him over, slow and deliberate, studying his sour face, pot belly, and thin, pale legs, he gives the impression of a mailman or a grumpy, under-caffeinated math teacher. Rumor has it that, even with twenty-five years in the Corp, he was never in actual combat. He was some sort of clerk, and while my Papaw (a regular Army draftee) sloshed though South Vietnamese rice patties, eventually losing a thumb to a myopic Vietcong sniper, old Mr. Swearengen was keeping banking hours in San Diego, issuing out boots and rucksacks, maybe cashing paychecks.

“I can take a message,” I say again, growing bolder, sure somehow that what Mom is creating will be beautiful, maybe not in part but when taken as a whole-a Picasso of light and color. Who is this clerk to disturb her? Are they still called “clerks”? Honestly, who cares?

Mr. Swearengen grunts and looks over my head into the foyer, maybe into the living room if his vision is good enough. I stand on my tiptoes, blocking his view.
He steps back, surprised. After a moment, his dour expression softens. “How’s your father? How’s Terry?”

“Good.” My Dad’s name is Randy.

“Do you see him a lot?” Mr. Swearengen forces a thin smile; the type inpatient fathers use to encourage their kids too dust themselves off, ignore scraped knees and hop back on their bikes. “I haven’t seen his truck in a while.”

“We see him every day.” I’m sure my smile is like a sunrise, blinding to his unprepared, slightly drowsy eyes.

The last time I saw my Dad was a night two weeks ago. Mom was out deciding on paint colors when he brought over a movie and pizza-two of the cheap five-dollar Hot-N-Readies from Little Ceasars. He’d forgotten that Little Ceasars’ sauce gives Oliver hives and that I can’t stand Adam Sandler in any roll, but that hardly made a difference. Dad was buoyant, a balloon cut loose. He yammered on and on like a telemarketer desperate to be heard before the inevitable dial tone. All I could make out was that he now shares an apartment on 47th Street with some college kid named Stan and that he (forty-four-year-old Gen-Xer Dad not twenty-year-old Millennial Stan) is thinking of getting a tribal tattoo.

“Well, the next time he comes around tell him I want to talk to him.” Mr. Swearengen slides his enormous hands into his pockets where they wait, useless. He looks resigned, contemplative. In the twilight, his Hawaiian shirt and heavy gold watch (which now droops from his wrist like a bored pet) seem to have lost their purpose.

“I will.” I say. How many daughters do you have? How many granddaughters?

Mr. Swearengen steps off the porch (being careful with the loose bottom step) and makes his way back to his yard, our grass whipping at his knobby knees as he goes.

I find Mom pulling the tape from around the power outlets as Grace slides her Calculus notes (her excuse for coming over tonight was to study together) into her backpack. The boombox (twenty-percent super-glue, thirty-percent duck-tape, fifty-percent Sony TapeMaster) sings Prince’s Take Me With U, as a fan placed in the window pulls paint fumes out into the humid night. The living room looks like one of Mr. Swearengen’s shirts, minus the flowers and deep-rooted need to impress.

“Ready to go?” I pull out my keys, lightly flicking the archaic Blockbuster Video keychain a few times. One day, it’ll break; and I’ll be heartbroken.

“Yeah, it’s getting late.” Grace nods, a faint smile on her face. She’s confident that my mother has indeed gone insane but only slightly, nothing dangerous, not like Jeffery Dahmer or anything. It’s more of a Willy Wonka sort of psychosis, resulting in odd decorating impulses and a peculiar attraction to bright colors. It’ll wear off in time like our elementary school love affairs with the Jonas Brothers and Silly Bandz, leaving only embarrassment and-if Mom ever develops a sense of humor-a ping of amusement.
We head out as Mom changes cassette taps, replacing Purple Rain with The Bangles’ Different Light, which she’ll listen too before finishing the night with Stryper’s In God We Trust. She doesn’t hear us say goodbye.

“You need to cut your lawn,” Grace says to me as she buckles up. She places her backpack between her knees. “It looks like a jungle.”

“I’ll get Sunny to do it this weekend, pay him ten bucks or something.” I crank the van, waiting a few moments as the fuel pump struggles. “Look at the sky.”

Though the windshield the early night sky is vast and open, the ripe pumpkin hue of the horizon is becoming laurel green then, high above us, a deep denim blue. The evening star winks at us.

Grace smiles. “Beautiful.”

I put the van in reverse and back down the driveway, stopping near our mailbox. I turn and watch the house. It’s fuzzy in the twilight, peeling white paint covering every wall. Only the bay window glows, the one eye of a Cape Cod style cyclops.

“There she goes.” I point.

Lights flicker on-Morgan’s room, Oliver’s, the upstairs bathroom. Mom’s silhouette moves quickly from window to window. Leaving on every possible source of illumination, even reading lamps, has become another of her eccentricities. Dad’s complained about the light bill, but he might as well have been speaking Russian.

“Crazy,” Grace says, amused. She might be watching a particularly good episode of Dr. Phil.

Lastly, the light in my room blinks on. Warm pink luminescence pours through the black night. In the window, Mom appears for a moment, small, childlike, before disappearing again.

The words, almost forgotten, come to me. They’re four syllables, seven letters that twist the tongue and wrinkle the nose. Beautiful words, words that float. I grasp the steering wheel tight and roll them around my tongue like a cherry gumball. They come out a whisper. “In utero.”

Grace looks at me with the warm, wide eyes of a golden retriever-loyal and loving but uncomprehending. She turns back towards my house (music drifts over the lawn, a hair metal hit from yesteryear) then looks up at the now black sky. The evening star is still there, still winking, immovable.

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