“When are you going?” June asks. She’s leaning her head out the van window, her black curls, like the fur of some rich woman’s corded poodle, blowing in the wind. “Not soon I hope.”
I smile to myself. Normally aloft and above us, June’s taken a keen interest in my family’s trip to see Grandpa Joseph down in Corpus Christi, repeating questions she’d asked fifteen minutes ago, wanting more details than I have to offer. The thought of having to hoof it for a week must be unbearable for her.
“The end of July, beginning of August.” I say.
June nods, not realising that I’ve already told her the time frame three, maybe four times. “Not that long to go.”
“Nope.” I turn left, then pull a quick right, avoiding several potholes, a few of the millions that mar Greenville’s roads like landmines. “It’s going to suck.”
Like visits to the gynecologist or the dentist, Mom’s kind enough to warn us kids months in advance about trips to see the old man, so we can prepare ourselves mentally. Honestly, I prefer the stirrups. “It’ll be just before school starts.”
Behind us, Pen and Grace are sharing music on their phones, comparing Five Seconds of Summer to Florence and the Machine, One Direction to The Shins. The two girls have almost nothing in common, Grace being too mainstream while Pen’s all down a dark ally and through the back door. They seem to have more fun berating each other.
“Tell me about him.” June says. Her eyes are closed and I know that in a few minutes she’ll be asleep. I don’t blame her. Maybe if our afternoon drives had actual destinations she might be able to stay awake long enough for us to get there.
“He’s really old, eighty-two. He had my Mom when he was like thirty-seven or thirty-eight.” I go on with the petty details: he worked for the railroad, started a lawn mowing business, dead wife (the Grandma I never meet), retired and recently married his day nurse. June’s head slumps over as expected. “And he has only one thumb. He lost the other one in a bar fight with a rabid Mexican. The wetback bit it clean off”
June lifts one eye lid. “Bulls***.”
“Just had to make sure you were still awake.” I turn down Muhammad Ali Dr. The plush shopping centers we past by the interstate fade into dilapidated storefronts and liquidation warehouses, then into a never ending chain of pawn and title loan shops. I hit the master lock button on my door and hear the others snap secure. I look in the rear-view at Grace and Pen. “You two ok?”
“It’s hotter than balls in here!” Pen yells, an ear bud in her left ear, the other strung across the seat, pulsing something indie into Grace’s right. The poor girl looks like a hundred tiny cats are clawing at her eardrum.
“What’s wrong with your AC?” Pen wipes sweat from her arms, smearing her inkings like cheap masquara. She displays them in the rear-view mirror. “Mable, this is f***** up and not in the good way.”
I tell her what Dad told me, something about a valve or thermostat, that the Nolan’s shouldn’t waste money on a van that most likely won’t last the year. “When she finally dies he said they’ll get me a used Camry.”
“Well, she needs to die then. It’s summer!” Sweat runs down Pen’s temple to her flushed cheeks. It’s good to finally see her with a little color. For the first time she doesn’t look like death warmed over.
June reclines her seat, preparing for nap time. “You know that means this heap will live forever. You’re jinxed. Gafe.”
“I know it.” I say, conceding a thought that’s been rolling around the back of my mind like a black marble. The Caravan’s going to be with me through the rest of high school and into college. Soon enough it’ll have antique tags and the permanent stink of teen angst.
I turn down a back street, curiosity leading me on. We end up in a neighborhood with more overgrown cars and turned up garbage cans than white picket fences. What is it they say about cats? “We need to turn around.”
Grace unplugs her ear bud. “Where are we?”
“Red Line I think.” I say, speaking for the first time the nickname the Channel 32 WNKV and the Greenville Police Department have given the part town where you’re mostly likely to be murdered and shoved into a dumpster. Out the window are boarded up homes, trashed yards and blacks sitting fat in lawn chairs or shambling down the sidewalk trying to keep their pants from falling around their ankles. They watch us as we pass. A few laughing children follow us on bikes as if we were an ice cream van. I speed up.
“Lets get out of here.” Grace squawks, her voice a decibel or two below frantic.
I turn down several streets attempting to backtrack to a white middle-class world of late model SUV’s and Starbucks. We creep to a stop in front of an El Cheapo’s Discount Tobacco and wait for the light to turn green.
“Buscar nativos.” June points into the parking lot. A black man, older than Methuselah, squats near an busted telephone booth, a bag of empty aluminum cans in one hand and a golf club in the other. “A native. Lets give him a ride.”
“Lets not and say we did.” Grace says. I sense her checking the door locks.
June laughs as the man stands and shambles towards the crosswalk in front of us. “Unlock your door, he’s headed this way!”
“Roll your windows up!” Grace hisses. Apparently she’s trying to win Best Supporting Actress for the roll of privileged white girl.
“No!” June’s hyena cackle can probably be heard a mile away.
His face is like the leather of a busted football, brown and hanging loose from his skull. Long arthritic fingers, knobby like pine sticks, grow from his enormous hands and his white hair sprouts from his scalp like a wild desert bush. He could Fredrick Douglas fallen on hard times.
“Dios bendiga a América. God bless America.” June snickers. The man looks at me with one yellow, bloodshot eye while the other rolls loose, staring off in absurd directions. He waves. I wave back. Even from ten feet away and through the safety glass windshield I can smell him. He stinks like Grandpa Joe, reeking of a life devoted to beer and Pall Malls, with little room for anything or anyone else.
The light turns green and we roll forward, driving through a few more stoplights, eventually passing a Chick-fil-A and the Clover Field Shopping Center. Grace breaths a sigh of relief and takes her turn selecting the next song, Style by Taylor Swift, only occasionally looking up to make sure of her surroundings.
“Grandpa Joe’s an alcoholic.” My words feel like a swarm of flies fleeing my mouth, light and filthy, “He was really mean to Mom. Still is. Tell me about your granddad, either one.”
June looks at me then back out the window. “I’ve never met them.”
“Can we go to Wendy’s and get a shake.” Grace asks, “Pen wants to go too.”
June turns to her. “Depends, you paying for mine?”
Grace gives an annoyed laugh. Will the Sun rise tomorrow? Are we living in a red state? Is Kim Jung-un utterly insane? “Of course.”
June slumps back into her seat as I turn down Frontage Rd. Marquees for just about every fast food joint imaginable rise above us like hot air balloons.
“Screw Grandpa Joe.” June says, studying the Wendy’s menu, deciding which artificial flavor will go best with a hot Saturday drive about town. “This is going to be a good summer.”