“God, you have some big teeth!” Penelope says. She leans in over the picnic table, coming kiss close to Grace’s face, examining her as if she were a side show freak, the Bearded Woman or the Snake Man. “You’re a rabbit!” Her laughter is deafening.
“It’s an overbite.” Grace pulls back, her face flushed, unable to suppress a flash of anger. “My mom has it too, its genetic.” She’s been on edge since we arrived back from the concession stand, when June surprised us with Penelope, having figured it was time for an introduction. I hope there’s enough pizza to go around.
“Why don’t you get braces or something?” Penelope moves closer, her eyes wide as she crawls half way over the table. You’d thought Grace’s mouth housed the Hope Diamond and not thirty-two balls of bone and pulp. “Isn’t that what people like you are suppose to do? Braces?”
“Braces won’t help. My dad has already asked the orthodontist.” Grace watches Penelope with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. She’s been unable to stop eyeing the girl’s JFK haircut and ballpoint tattoos. “There’s nothing he can do short of breaking my jaw.”
“I’d let them break my jaw.” Penelope says.
June pulls her new friend back to their side of table. “Calm down there killer. No need to earn everyone’s love all at once. It’s food time.”
Never a bashful eater, June takes a massive bit of her dollar-a-slice pizza. Grace and I’ve limited her to three slices and two sodas but with her appetite I’m sure we’ll be making another run to the concession stand before long. The lines will’ve snaked around the school’s parking lot by that time.
“So, what is this place?” Pen asks, she doesn’t take a slice of pizza but studies the picnic table’s scared top, running her fingers along a pentagram carved deep into it’s surface, “Are we still on school grounds?”
“Technically.” I look around and see that only a handful of other kids, potheads and rednecks mostly, remembered Frog Groove and escaped the hardly controlled chaos of May Day. The place itself is a hideaway on the far side of campus, built in memory of a teacher who died of breast cancer back when we were all still in diapers. The school tries to keep it up, but there’s only so much you can do when the budget is already hair thin and the cost of wooden picnic tables has gone up exponentially since the early 2000’s. Maybe carved images of marijuana leaves and erect wee-wees and will be acceptable for just one more year?
“Say thank you, June.” Grace says, taking a slice off the plate for herself. She really doesn’t expect a thank you, but I doubt it bothers her. Generosity is one of her most endearing qualities.
“Thank you June.” June says, her mouth full if cheese and pepperoni.
Grace slides over a can of purple soda, which June pops open and downs before beginning her second slice. Penelope watches them with mentalist eyes.
“So Penelope, how long have you been going to West Greenville? ” I ask, wanting to break the ice. June was right about Grace wasn’t she? “Do you like it here?”
Penelope turns to me, her glimmering grey eyes set like gems in her flat, amused face. You’d think I just asked to borrow her feet for a walk in the country. “Mable Nolan, my name is Pen, and I’ve been in your American Lit. class for the past two months.” She gives me a moment, waiting for the light bulb to go off. It doesn’t. “No? We were in that Nathaniel Hawthorn group together? We gave a presentation on Young Goodman Brown?”
“I really don’t pay attention in that class.” I mutter, grabbing a slice for myself and taking a huge bite, hoping to bury my embarrassment in cheese and tomato sauce.
“My girl doesn’t pay attention to anything!” June laughs, nearly doubling over, “Yesterday we were leaving the module classrooms beside the gym (that’s where they teach Health and Family ’cause this place is crowded as f*** right?) and she walked right into an AC unit hanging from a window!” She slaps her head to illustrate, “¿Cómo está mi niñas cabeza sintiendo?”
“I feel fine.” I say, the knot on my head suddenly throbbing. Pen’s thin lips curl into a wide toothy smile as a concerned Grace looks closely at my scalp. I push her away.
“She didn’t notice me either?” Grace says, a touch of hurt in her voice. She opens a soda for herself and sips it like a whiskey sour. “We even go to the same church.”
“Sounds like this girl needs to keep her eyes open.” Pen takes a slice I’d hoped to save for myself and begins peeling off the toppings, “And to answer your question; no, I don’t like it here.”
“Why not?” I want to move the conversation forward.
“Same reason you don’t.” Her tone betrays the absurdity of my question. I might as well have ask if she likes paper cuts or menstrual cramps. She finishes cleaning off the toppings and begins nibbling on the tomato sauce smeared crust, taking impossibly small bits as if her stomach were the size of a ping pong ball. “People hate each other and there’s nothing to do.”
“Tell them about your last school.” June says, “Listen to this. Es muy loco. It’s crazy!”
“It was in Florida. It was pretty big.” Pen looks wistful, like a grandmother thinking of the bygone age of five-cent cokes and fifteen-cent movies, when the worst there was to worry about was the very distant rumble of Soviet jackboots, “And everyone was a part of something, some club. There was always something going on.” She sighs, “It was like being part of one big family more or less”
One big family more or less? I nod politely, not half believing her. I remember the way it was before June came, when I had the right friends, Tammy Williams, Carol Fletcher and a dozen others, went to the right parties, I sat at the right lunch table. And I never felt so alone. High school is a dark void, plain and simple. Maybe adulthood will be better. It better be.
“I mean the only thing you have here are sports and band.” Pen’s frustration leaks through her words like invisible tears. She fidgets, her thin arms twisting in the sunlight, bringing to life a scrimshaw of hand inked flowers and trees set against the ivory white of her skin. “You don’t even have a choir.”
“Mrs. Garza teaches choir.” Grace pipes in, “Well, sometimes. She mostly coaches basketball, but they do have small shows sometimes.”
“Are they any good?” Pen’s voice raises an octave. Hope is a thing with feathers, isn’t it?
Pen huffs. “You know you really do have some big teeth!”
“Stop that!” Grace’s voice is the snap of a mouse trap, “I’m not mentioning your huge ears. They’re like sails. How do you keep your head from blowing off?”
Pen looks at her with mock sadness. “They are big aren’t they?” A smile creeping over her face, snail slow and nearly as indiscernible. Her left ear wiggles, then her right, then both at the same time. “Sometimes I think I can fly away.”
Grace laughs despite herself, her overbite displayed in all it’s imperfect glory. You’d thought she’d known Pen for years instead of just fifteen minutes.
June kicks me under the table. I look at her and she gives me a fat eyed wink. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.
I shrug. Probably.