“I’m not sure about her.” June says. She stirs her mashed potatoes and peas into a sea foam colored gruel as her hamburger, normally inhaled the moment she places her lunch tray on the table, sits cooling. “How’s her Spanish coming?”
“Good.” I lie, not wanting to reveal Grace’s indifference to America’s Romance language, “She has problems with future and past tense though.”
June sees through me like an airport’s full body scanner. “She’s salt Kool-Aid.” She says, turning to find our new friend in the cafeteria.
Grace, her class let out late for lunch, stands with her arms crossed at the back of the lunch line. Hearing me grip about Morgan’s technical virginity has sent her in the opposite direction, and she’s become more conservative than ever. Her skirts have gone ankle length and somewhere she’s found a sweater vest and yellow rubber WWJD? bracelet to wear. She has the homey glow of a women either pregnant or absolutely content with herself. That may be the problem for June.
I turn to her, knowing what she wants me to ask. Few people can bait a conversation as well as June P. Rodriguez. “What’s salt Kool-Aid?”
“Salt Kool-Aid is…” Her momentary silence is nauseatingly pretentious, “…is when you ask Sunny to make some Cherry Kool-Aid, only to find the idiot mistook the salt for sugar.” She grins, “I used mistook in a sentence. I think you’re whiteness is rubbing off on me pan blanco.”
“I don’t think so. I really like her.”
Grace moves farther up the line, taking a tray and sidestepping her way to the entrées. She points to the spaghetti and a large black woman in a hairnet and stained white apron scoops a huge helping onto her tray, topping it with a roll before motioning her on.
“She’s just in her shell.” I say, “She just needs a little more encouragement. I did.”
June snorts, looks down and to the left, and yawns. She’s already moved on. “We’re going to have to fight Deshawn Cannon.”
“What?” Fear hits me like a large black fist, “What about Sunny?” The homemade Bowflex in the backyard, the three mile jogs, push-ups, sit-ups, seeing him and Oliver at it for the last week was starting to make me proud. “What happened?”
“Miedo.” June snarls contemptuously, and you’d think she swallowed a fly, “The punta chickened out.” She puts her hand to her face and rubs her left cheek, “I’ll deal with him later. You ever been in a fight? Puños Fisty?“
June studies me with the penetrating eye of a homicide detective. She smiles. “Tienes. You have. Probably thinking about it right now.”
And I am thinking about it. I was eight or nine when a neighborhood girl named Holly Byrd chased a crying Oliver into our yard, saying he stole her kickball or something. Somehow a hoe appeared in my hand, and I told her to apologize or else. She gave a high, nasally laugh, her small, upturned nose showing buggers. I struck her across the face with the sharp end and she fell to the ground screaming, her hands covering a gash in her cheek you could see teeth through. I cried myself to sleep for a week after that.
“It wasn’t much of a fight.” I whisper, wondering if Oliver really did steal Holly’s kickball.
“Hey.” Grace smiles and sits beside me, centering her tray squarely on the table and automatically placing her roll and fruit cup in front of June.
June eyes her and turns away.
“Why aren’t you eating?” Grace asks. She’s going through her routine, fork and spoon placed on the tray’s right side, milk (it’s smiling cow symbol facing me) on the left. On the empty seat next to her, as if it were our fourth and had something to add to the conversation, is Star Wars: Lords of the Sith. A tasseled bookmark sticks out near it’s center. “You can’t be full already.”
“I fell like crap.” June says, tenderly rubbing her swollen cheek. “Dolor de muelas.”
Grace looks at me and I translate the vulgarities the best that I can, adding, almost as an afterthought, that June has a toothache.
“Mable shouldn’t have to do that.” June grunts, “You should be fluent by now.”
Grace looks more confused than hurt. I half expect her to offer June a Midol. Maybe three.
“It’s only been a month.” I say, defensive now, “Give us time.”
June eyes me for a moment then turns back to Grace. “And stop reading that crap.” She motions to the paperback, “Can’t you just start smoking or doing drugs instead?”
Grace’s snorting, pig like laugh dies when June gives her the death stare. “And Mable’s picking up your bad habit.”
“I don’t read that much of it.” I say, suddenly, inexplicably self-conscious. For the past three weeks I thought I’d hidden my growing admiration of Michael Crichton and secret love affair with Charles Stross from all but Grace. I suppose not.
“You’re reading to much.” June mumbles, eyes closed. Her tongue works around her mouth, poking here and there as if searching for a lost quarter.
The few afternoons we’ve spent in Grace’s house- a nice two story colonial just outside the upscale subdivision of Pine View- were used pouring over hundreds of paperback, trade paperback and hard cover Science Fiction books. Some were bought retail, while most came in large cardboard boxes marked “Donation”, “Clearance” and “Keep For Bird Cage.” In my room I’ve collected a small pile of my favorites (the afore mentioned Crichton and Stross) hoping Grace will forget she lent them to me.
“I thought you liked some of them.” Grace says, her voice a whisper. “You liked A Clockwork Orange.”
June looks at me. Is that a flash of green in those Mexican eyes? Are you jealous?
The moment passes as June is submerged under a fresh wave of pain. She rubs her cheek, her mouth undulating open and closed like a fish yanked onto a river bank and left gasping. Slowly and with eyes closed, unsure what the outcome will be, she bits down. There is a small, wet, crunch like someone stepping on a robin’s egg. She opens her eyes. Tiny tears have formed in their corners.
“Are you ok?” Grace asks, her voice shuddering. This is one of the few moments in her life that June P. Rodriguez has received genuine concern from anyone.
“Just…” she thinks for a moment, composing her words as if they were a haiku, “Just don’t read them when your with us. They’re a distraction and we may need you.”
June starts at the beginning, and Grace shrinks back when she hears Deshawn Cannon is black.
“It’s just him. He doesn’t have any friends. And he’s just a little guy.” I attempt to reassure her and perhaps myself that the black stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, that nobody’s going to get raped or murdered here. “He’s even smaller than Sunny.” My laugh is unconvincing and Grace turns to June for reassurance.
“I’ll take care of it. You just have to show up.” June forces a smile, one that says I‘m sorry about making fun of your s**** books, A Clockwork Orange was a good piece of social satire.
Grace gives a nervous, forgiving grin. I’ll be there, it seems to say. Her fingers though, are tangled around the WWJD? bracelet, unsure of anything.