Pen Pals: Friday July 10th, 2015

“Just sit that box over there.” Pen, her face two inches from her computer screen, absently points to the corner of her room where a stack of other boxes teeter haphazardly. “Pop it on top of the others.”

“I can’t reach that. It looks like it’s about to fall over.”  Grace lays the shoe box labeled Magic Cards on the floor and sits down Indian style. A look comes over her face, and I know what she’s thinking. “There isn’t enough room to breath in here.”

“We haven’t unpacked yet.” Pen says without turning, her eyes still glued to what is in essence binary code, ones and zeros. Since we arrived she’s been instant messaging someone named Roy (a pale, black haired goth and one of her million Facebook friends back in Jacksonville) leaving Grace, June and me to fend for ourselves. I guess being an attentive host mustn’t be a Floridian trait.

“This is the one I want!” June sits up on Pen’s bed, a tiny single wide more fitting Sleepy or Grumpy or any of the other Seven Dwarfs than an actual human being. She holds up an dog-eared issue of Tattoo World, tapping a spread of a beautiful Latina with a well muscled man inked across her bare back. “A fine Aztec warrior.”

Pen finally takes her eyes of the screen and looks. She shrugs. “I can do better than. See how the colors look faded and the lines bleed together. No contrast at all. Looks like Big Mike’s cell mate did that crap.”

“Racist!” June throws one of her dirty socks (she has the tendency to go foot-nude when at a friend’s house), but it flies wide and falls harmlessly to the floor. She sticks out her tongue for good measure.

“How’s that racist?” Pen asks, her eyes again an inch from the screen. I’m beginning to wonder if she needs glasses. “Just because I have taste and you doubt?”

“Racist…” June mumbles, losing interest. She’s already reclining on Pen’s off-white bed sheets, having pulled out a three page centerfold covered with examples of dragon tattoos, the words, Dangerous Ideas as it’s heading.

“How long have you been playing Magic: The Gathering?” Grace asks. She’s opened the shoe box and is riffling through hundreds of cards. She’s in love with the dark imagery and grins like an art student at the Louvre.

“Forever.” Pen says. She laughs at something Roy sent and begins typing her response. “But there’s nobody to play with around her except Brian, Maxwell and Eric, and they all suck.”

Pen’s older brother Eric, who is as amazingly huge as she is amazingly tiny, was sitting in the living room when we arrived, eyes fixated on a Dr. Who marathon. He hardly glanced up when we said hello, which was no surprise. Pen warned us that he’s been medicated out of his mind for the last few months and has developed the passive nature of lawn furniture. Which, she says, is better than the alternative. Apparently he has problems that give physiatrist wet dreams.

“Can you teach me to play?” Grace asks. She shuffles through more cards, eyes wide and curious.

Pen looks at her and then back at the computer screen. “Maybe. Be sure not to bend any of those, they’re my mythic rares.”

Grace looks closely at the card in her hand, one called Ashen Rider, then gently places it back in the box before pulling out another one.

 “Why haven’t you unpacked anything?” I ask.

Looking around I see boxes labeled Summer Cloths, Shoes, and Crap. Even her family photos are still packed away, the words Coyne Pics sprawled across the box’s side in black sharpie. The only comfort I find comes with the familiar sight of her backpack, a tattered Jansport with hexagram buttons along the straps.

“Haven’t had the time.” Pen says.

There’s a knock at the door and Pen’s stepmother, all beehive hairdo and horn rimmed glasses, pokes her head in. “You girls ok?” Her voice is like powdered sugar.

“Fine.” Pen says. Her voice is like a paring knife.

“Grace, are you ok?” Mrs. Coyne asks, “You seem quite.”

June looks up from her magazine, amused, then down again.

Mrs. Coyne has been fixated on Grace all afternoon, greeting her and only her when we arrived. She even commented on Grace’s flowery dress and ‘rather sensible shoes.’ Pen told us to expect strange things, saying her stepmom is one of those odd Pentecostal types, the kind who only wear long blue jean skirts and believe strongly in the power of ‘laying on of hands.’ Just seeing them in Walmart is enough to give you the creeps.

We must remember that they mean well.

“I’m fine.” Grace nervously shuffles the cards.

“Well, if you need anything just ask.” The old woman looks at the cards in Grace’s hand and frowns. She leers at Pen before closing the door.

“Your mom’s a freak!” June laughs.

“Her name is Peggy and she’s not my mom.” Pen growls back.

“Why does she look at me like that?” Grace squirms. She’s lost interest in the Magic cards and is carefully placing them back into the box.

“I told her you’re both from the same denomination.” Pen says, her fingers typing furiously, “It was to get her off my back. If she thought I was just hanging out with the these two fat heathen girls she’d try to put her hands on me again.” She grins at the screen, “I broke her finger the last time she did that.”

“Bulls***!” June laughs. 

I agree, complete BS. It’s hard to imagine Pen being able to snap a pencil in two let alone break someone’s finger, especially if that finger is empowered by the Holy Spirit.

“Well, I jammed it.” Pen smiles, “It swelled up like a little hotdog.”

“Where’s your real mother, tu madre.” June asks. She turns a page in her magazine but I’m sure her full attention in on the conversation. She always tries hard to appear nonchalant, even around people who love her. Perhaps more so.

“My mom’s in Washington.” Pen says, “She stays with my grandmother. They have an organic lemon farm.”

“Why didn’t she get custody of you and Eric.” Grace asks. She’s looking around the room for some signs, clues to Pens past, but only finds bear walls and more boxes. “Mother’s always get custody.”

Pen says nothing and continues typing. She’s through with the conversation.

The topic of Pen’s mother, like reading an article on Mormon polygamists or watching a biopic of female jihadist, has always been a twisted one. She once told me that her mom was a feminist, artsy type, a mix between Gloria Steinem and Sylvia Plath, and never took to the chains of motherhood and ended the torture by sliding her head into an Kenmore oven one Sunday morning. Another time the original Mrs. Coyne was a crab fisherman off Cape Nome, Alaska. I’ve learned to avoid the subject. June and Grace seem fine with searching for the truth.

“You really need to unpack.” Grace says. She props herself beside the window and opens a box marked Winter Cloths. She pulls out several long sleeve shirts and begins smoothing the wrinkles.

“Put those back!” Pen snaps, her words sounding the way a tripped mouse trap must feel.

Grace’s expression could cut to the bone. She crams a sweater back into the box and kicks it aside.

The room goes quite, with only the sound being Pen’s typing, a steady tap, tap, tap of consonants, vowels, and punctuation.

Strange to think that I was recently offered a job at the Frontage Rd. McDonald’s but turned it down. That’s costing me right at this very moment. Our Economics teacher, Mr. Guiding, taught us that everything has a cost, that you pay for or are paid for everything. I could be at flipping burgers right now earning minimum wage, but instead I’m here, paying that theoretical $7.25 an hour to sit around, bored and aggravated.

The door opens and Pen’s stepmom pokes her head in. “If anyone wants cookies I have some Oreos.”

“I’ll take some.” June says. Of course, it would be June.

“I’ll bring a plate.” Mrs. Coyne smiles as she closes the door.

“B****…” Pen mumbles. “She’s all nice and s*** ’til later, then she’ll try to beat you to death with a Bible.”

“How’d she and your dad meet?” Grace asks.

“Don’t know.” Pen says, she’s stopped typing, stopped everything and is brooding, her arms crossed in her lap like two thin, albino snakes. “One day we hardly knew her and the next week they were married.”

“Kinda quick.” Grace says. “Did they get married in a church?” While we’re all sure Grace’s idea of marriage involves a lengthy courtship, a chastity belt and perhaps a dowry down payment, it’s easy to agree that a few days is a bit quick.

“Nope, the Justice of the Peace did it.” Pen snorts, “The a** didn’t even have them say vows or anything. They just signed a piece of paper and that was it.” She smiles, rubs her chin and looks at us with a sadistic glint in her grey eyes, “Daddy regrets it now though. He has to hide his beer in the garage, in his tool box.”

June laughs while Grace and I mull it over. The thought of a grown man having to sneak into the garage for a swallow of warm beer seems so pathetic it borders on an endangered panda/ global warming/ World Aids Day kind of sad. Not quit, but close.

“Have they had any counseling.” Grace ventures though we all know the answer to that question.

“No, but it doesn’t matter. They won’t last past Thanksgiving.” Pen turns back to the screen and begins answering another of Roy’s messages, “Then it’s back home to Jacksonville. Coming to this pissy town was Peggy’s idea anyways.”

Looking around, the dozens of boxes, Pen’s life before Greenville put on hold and stacked everywhere like the unused bricks of an incomplete home, now makes a sad kind of sense.

Peggy knocks and enters with a promised plate of Oreos, handing them to June to devour. She knells and whispers something in Grace’s ear before leaving.

“What did she tell you?” June asks, her lips black with Oreo bits.

“She invited me to her prayer circle.” Grace says. Her words carry the enthusiasm of a flat tire.

June laughs hard, her belly jiggling, though somehow shoving another cookie into her mouth at the same time.

“So you’re going to just forget about us when you go back to Jacksonville?” I ask.

“No.” She huffs and points to her computer screen. “It’s called Facebook, you people should try it out sometime.”

“I really don’t do Facebook.” I say, feeling ten years behind the rest of the First World. Besides Pen the only person I know that does the ‘social media thing,’ as Dad calls it, is Morgan. She has more friends than Taylor Swift has fans.

“Well, if you all started I could introduce you to some interesting people.” Pen says, “I could drag your dull butts out of this town and into the real world. You should at least give Bryan and Maxwell a chance.”

The room goes quiet again. I watch June read her magazine, her mouth undulation as it turns two or three Oreos into a chocolate flavored bolus. Grace, having reopening the shoebox, shuffles through another handful of cards. There’s an expression on her face that can only be described as overawed.

“Maybe we should.” I tell her, wondering how much I’ll regret it.

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