“What about him?” Grace asks. She nods towards an elderly man shambling by the food court’s lone plastic palm tree. With his ungainly slouch, plaid grandpa shirt and wooden cane, it’s impossible to imagine him having any secret life what so ever.
Pen thinks differently.
“He’s a sleeper agent, works for the North Koreans.” She eyes him suspiciously, sadness entering her voice, “They captured him outside Inchon in ’50, then programmed him. Poor thing, he doesn’t even know that with the trigger words ‘limp noodle’, he’ll enter killbot mode and start swinging that cane at anything American: Grandma, apple pie, the life sized Batman cut-out by the movie theater entrance…” she sighs, “The stars and stripes will never be safe.”
“That so?” Grace smiles. She’s impressed, we both are. After two hours of people watching, Pen’s imagination hasn’t run dry yet. Actually, its seems to have picked up speed.
“What about her.” I motion towards a young mother standing in line at the Tasty Freeze, her massive toddler squirming in a stroller made for a child half his size, “They on the run or something?”
“Lets ask Grace.” Pen takes a small bite of her cold burger. I offer her a napkin to wipe ketchup off of her chin. “What do you think Honey Boo?”
“They’re on the run.” Grace’s eyes narrow, probing her subject’s past for the s****, that’s what Pen calls the skeletons in all our closets, ones that make everyone guilty of something worthy of the gas chamber or maybe a fifteen minute segment on 60 Minutes. I don’t know where she gets this from, just about everyone I know of is about as boring as a wet mop, but it does make for good people watching. “They’re on the run from the cops, the Irish Mob, the FBI and Masada.”
“Why’s that?” I ask, enjoying seeing her mind churn.
“Aliens.” Grace says as if the answer was so obvious, “Her husband made contact from his basement using an old TV set, a VCR and ten pounds of aluminum foil.” She shakes her head, “And now he’s dead and they’re the ones who must keep his secrets from falling into the wrong hands.”
“Look at you!” Pen shoves Grace, nearly pushing her off the bench, “Now we just got to get that cherry popped and you’re set for life.”
Grace frowns. Sometimes Pen can be more vulgar than June, which is hard too believe.
“You’re up Big Red.” Pen looks at me, her eyes challenging.
I look across the food court to a couple sitting on a bench near a Central Bank ATM. They’re older, maybe in their sixties, with the man’s grey hair slicked down with pomade and the woman’s boobs sagging in a dingy tank top like two half-filled water balloons. I’ve been studying them for a half-hour now.
“Those two have been married forever, since the Ford administration, and everyone- the kids, grandkids, people at church- think they love each other. But they’ve secretly been trying to kill one another for years.” Pen and Grace stare at me, their attentions caught in a snare of well timed syllables. I flutter a noun here, tickle an adjective there, my presentation is spot on. “Milk laced with antifreeze, crushed glass sprinkled on Saturday morning pancakes like powered sugar, cut brake lines, all have failed. But tonight’s the night.”
“Who’s killing whom?” Pen asks. She seems pleased with herself, bringing this red headed turtle out of her middle class shell. “My money is on Grandma.”
Grace shakes her head. “Grandpa. He looks a little crazy too me.”
“Neither.” I say, looking more closely at the couple. The women is edgy, always checking her phone and whispering something to her husband who seems indifferent. “It’ll be their grandson, that lowlife working at the Tasty Freeze.” I turn to the ice cream stand and spot the pimple faced punk who shortchanged me earlier. He’s handing the toddler a cherry flavored Icee, enjoying keeping it just out of reach. “Three tons of fertilizer and gasoline crammed into the basement, all set to blow. And there they are, waiting to give him a ride home.”
“Why kill them?” Pen asks, studying her Converse. On the white rubber tips are the words Bang!!! and Pow!!! written in bright red Sharpie. She says it’s something that will help her kick harder if need be. “Just for chuckles?”
I shrug. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Pen turns to the ice cream stand and watches his movements with slow, intrusive eyes. “The life insurance money.” She sounds like Holmes educating his dear Watson, “Because he doesn’t want to just wear the goofy paper hat forever, he wants to run the place. He dreams of a string of Tasty Freeze franchises from here to Jacksonville.” She closes her eyes, envisioning the near future. “And they’ll call him the Ice Cream Man and the world will never knowing that that crater in the ground that use to be his grandparents, financed it all.”
Grace laughs a goofy little laugh I nod. If June had decided to come to the mall with us, instead of just sleeping in, she’d be having a good time too. Insulting strangers is a pleasure in her life. I got to remember to get her a burger before we leave.
“I think you two are ready to meet the boys.” Pen says.
“Boys?” Grace seems offended.
“Yeah boys.” Pen wiggles her index finger in front of her crotch. “You know those people who can pee in all directions.” She twist her hands together, her sign of thinking in the way others may scratch their heads. “And besides we need some testosterone in our little group. I mean if we keep on hanging out together our periods are going to start syncing up. And none of us wants that.”
“Who are they?” I wonder who else would tolerate Pen’s eccentricity besides us, who already live on the rim of high school social life.
“Brian Kirby, Maxwell Bero and,” she looks Grace with a sadistic eye, “Chad Mumford.”
“Uhh…” Grace exhales her disgust, you’d thought she’d swallowed a fly.
“You know he loves you?” Pen moves to kiss her with puckered pink lips, “He loves you. Mmm…” Grace shifts away but Pen shifts closer, wrapping her inked arms around Grace’s shoulders like kudzu vines. “Kiss, Kiss…”
“Get away!” Grace pushes her with ineffectual baby strength. The girl is a Nancy in every sense of the word. “Stop it!
Giggling, Pen pulls back, crossing her legs in front of her and straightening her white cotton shirt. “You know he got drunk last night- I don’t know who else could get drunk off Jack’s Hard Lemonade besides him- and he starts to go on about you.” She rolls her eyes,”On and on and on about you.”
“I don’t even know him.” Grace squirms in her chair. It seems Chad Mumford has become a hemorrhoid in her life. “We were neighbors when my family lived on Lake Ridge Ave., but that was four years ago.”
“He loves you.” Unperturbed, Pen forms a heart with her hands and holds it up, framing Grace’s stern face,”He loves you! He thinks your pretty and smart and funny and probably still a virgin and you don’t get drunk and you smell like flowers…”
“He doesn’t love me.” Grace speaks slowly, carefully, collecting her words like small stones, “He loves an idea he has about me, or about someone or something else that he’s attached to me.”
Pen grins, lowering her hands and shattering the heart into a multitude of small white fingers. “Gracie, you’re a lot more clever than you let on.”
Grace smiles despite herself and turns back to the food court. “Him.” She points to a forty-something in a white polo and slacks, a cellphone glued to his ear. “What’s his story?”
Pen doesn’t skip a beat as she begins formulating a tale of murder, intrigue, and unrequited love as naturally as drinking a glass of water.