“You’re suppose to have the van back this afternoon?” June asks for the seventh time this morning and about the hundredth time this week.
“For the thousandth time, yes.” I say, exasperated. She’s acted like changing my answer could bring Morgan’s Cornet to the front of the mechanics queue and miracle us back into the Caravan with a full gas tank and a new pine scented air freshener dangling from the rear view mirror. Well, it won’t and I won’t. “Just a few more hours.
“Good.” June says. “I could dance at that, I mean really shake my a**. I’m tired of this cold s***.”
“Keep your voice down, there’re little kids around.” I look around an see a young blonde girl, eleven maybe, giving me the stink eye. I turn away. “We’re being bad examples.”
She shrugs a I don’t give a crap shrug.
Honestly, who can blame her? Bundled up in a thread bare Dallas Cowboys windbreaker and wearing one of Grandma Mimi’s ridicules knit caps, the ugly one with the sunflowers, the thought of riding to school in a toasty van and not waiting for the cheese wagon in subarctic weather every would make anyone poop gold bars. But still, she’s relentless with her complaints.
“Where the hell is this guy?” June asks, hardly giving me time to breath. “Doesn’t he know he has Mexicans waiting?”
“We’re Mr. Gordon’s last stop.” I say and reminder her that being last picked up in the morning means first dropped off in the afternoon, that patience is a virtue. It doesn’t do any good.
“We need to be first.” She nods towards Sunny and Oliver. They’re standing by the school bus sign, surrounded by a dozen kids a head shorter than either of them. “Mexicans hate the cold. It causes us too, you know, die.”
I watch the two for a moment. Oliver, wrapped in a heavy suede jacket and thick corduroy pants, turns pages in a notebook as Sunny, nearly naked, rocks back and forth with his arms tucked into an Austin 3:16 t-shirt. Holes in his jeans show knobby, ash white knees.
“Doesn’t your brother have an old coat for him?” June asks. I can see her breath bellowing out like smoke from a furnace. Han Solo sliced up a Tauntaun to save Luke didn’t he? For a brief moment I calculate the size of June’s belly in cubic inches, wondering how toasty warm it would be to be stuffed in there. “I mean you got me this crappy hat.”
“It’s a knit cap, and Mom already bought him a fleece. He didn’t want it.” I leave off the part of Mom spotting Sunny walking home one night, same lame shirt, same holey pants. She made sure a fleece was waiting for him the next time he came over to work on his and Oliver’s science project. But the boy wouldn’t take it. He just turned beat red, said ‘no, but thanks anyways’ and bailed, fleeing the place like we were INS.
“A fleece huh?” June’s fat pink lips curl with amusement. “And the Grinch’s heart grew three times bigger.”
“Mom’s not that bad.” I say, wondering why I’m saying anything to June at all. She hasn’t even said thank you for Mimi’s cap. “We’ve been talking a little bit.”
“Oh!” June exaggerates, sounding more like a sailor spotting land than an interested, caring friend. “So white bread and soccer mom are working things out?”
I say nothing, knowing what’s coming.
“You know what my mother did last week?” her words seem pressed through a meat grader. “She spent just about every night with some fat f*** named Steve.”
“Some worthless POS from the Sugar Shack.” The name conjures images of a dilapidated bar near the 36th St. Save-A-Lot, multicolored Christmas tree lights wired around it’s boarded up windows and a sign on the door saying things like ‘No One Under 25.’ and ‘I don’t call 911.’ This last one is presented with a crude outline of a .38 special.
“Is she still working at the Waffle House?” I ask.
“Qué importa? She spent last months rent on this guy.” She pulls off the sunflower cap and runs a hand through her hair, catching on to a thousand tangles. She looks exhausted, Little Miss. Sixteen Going On Forty.
I look at my phone and mumble the time, ‘7:35.’ My words drift out as soundless white mist. When I was younger I’d pretend to smoke cigars on these nippy winter mornings. I thought it was cool. That’s what happens when you watch to many Colombo reruns.
“That preacher of Sunny’s gave him a coat last week.” June slides the sunflower cap back on her head, carefully covering both of her ears. “The dumba** gave it to some drunk at the 7-Eleven the same day, left one of those Bible cards in the pocket.”
She shakes her head in disapproval. I don’t tell her that he’s been leaving those same tracts around my house too. Perhaps my Lake Onotobie conversion story was less than convincing.
A horn blows and our bright yellow paddy wagon rumbles down the street. We begin to line up behind the bus stop sign.
“Ask your mom for that fleece.” June says. “I’ll make Sunny wear it. Dile a tu madre gracias. And tell your mom thanks.”
“Si.” I say.
We make up the tail end of the line, like two oversized high school ringers in a middle school game of tug-of-war.
The bus doors slide open and the line begins to file in. Mr. Gordon, a balding fifty-something missing several front teeth, is waiting for us.
“My lovely ladies still riding the cheese wagon to fun town?” Mr. Gordon smiles, its a rehashed line and we don’t laugh. “Well, it ain’t so bad. Could be a lot worse. A lot worse.”