“You have to have done more than just see your grandfather.” Grace says. She’s scrolling through her phone’s camera options, deciding which will be best for a zoom shot. Her prey is the West Greenville High School marching band practicing on the football field in front of us, doe-eyed and indifferent. “You were gone for like a week.”
“Five days.” I correct. I’m holding a small battery operated fan (one of Grace’s little goodies) close to my face. My aim is for relief but it’s effect is more psychological than physical. Even in the shade of an ancient oak tree and with a partly cloudy sky above us, we’re baking. “Two days were spent traveling there and back. One at Joe’s, we’ll call that s*** day, and the other two were spent in San Antonio. We visited the Alamo twice.”
“Who the hell would want to see the Alamo twice?” June asks. She’s laid against the tree trunk, a soaked Frog Togg around her neck and her own small pink fan pressed close to her swollen face. “It’s like a pile of rocks threw up on a pile of rocks.”
“How do you know?” Grace asks.
“I’m from Texas.” June says, not trying to hide her exasperation, “We’ve all seen it. We all know.”
“But you once told me you hadn’t seen it.” Grace is still working her phone, not really that interested in the Alamo, but passive conversing is one of her many talents. “Remember, it was during Economics, the day we discuss tourism.”
“I’ve seen it.” June’s words have an aggressive finality to them, and she might as well have closed a book. “I just didn’t want to talk about it with everyone.”
Grace thinks for a moment then shrugs, giving up on at what’s sure to be a toss up. Maybe June’s seen it, maybe she hasn’t. To June, even a lie is the truth if she believes it hard enough. If she says she’s seen the Alamo, she did.
“The first day a bunch of Air Force guys were crowding the place so we left pretty quick.” I say. “The next day, it was nearly empty. The whole tour took only five minutes. It’s mostly just a gift shop anyways.”
June stretches out an empty hand. “Gift?”
“Oliver has a bunch of pressed pennies.” I tell her. “I can get you one.”
She looks at me, eyebrows asking the obvious question. This lets me know that she hasn’t really seen the Alamo, maybe in photographs but not in person. Because, besides viewing a large mural depicting the battles climatic moments (my favorite scene being Davy Crockett clubbing a Mexican over the head with the butt of his musket), the most interesting aspect of the tour was the collection of penny press machines. They’re a dazzling example of simple Americana that tattoo themselves on the mind. Watching them work you soon forget what the Alamo was really about; General Santa Anna evicting slave owning American squatters from Mexican land.
“You drop a penny into a machine and turn a hand crank.” I explain, my hands demonstrating with perfect pantomime. “The penny comes out squished with either an imprint of the Alamo or the Texas flag. You choose.”
“Neither,” June drops her empty hand, “you at least saw where Ozzy pissed right?”
“Si.” I sigh, knowing where this conversation will eventually lead. Given half the chance June would probably pee on the Alamo, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument without a second thought. She was born not to give a f***. “But it wasn’t really on the Alamo, just some type of memorial across the street.”
“Still, es muy impresionante.” June smiles. In the light, with her hair draped over her shoulders just so, she does have a Ozzyesque look to her.
“I think I got it.” Grace sits up, holds the phone out at arms length, adjusts the zoom, and snaps a few shoots of the rifle team. Scrolling through the results, her frown says everything.
Ok lets take it from the top, and snare drums lets keep it tight this time, OK? Band Director Bedford sounds like a cabanas monkey through his megaphone, high-strung and frantic. Jon, Jon Helmer, that means you.
Mr. Beford is the one who earlier drove us off the bleachers and beyond the school’s chain link security fence, saying students weren’t allowed on school property before the official start of Fall semester. June gave him the bird when he wasn’t looking, though it hardly mattered. The bleachers offered zilch shade anyhow.
“This sucks.” Grace says, sliding her phone into her pocket, mumbling something about crappy iPhone optics and wishing she’d stuck to her Samsung. She finds a place against the tree trunk. “Por lo que su abuelo es un culo? So, your granddad is a jerk?” She asks.
“Si un muy grande culo.” I say. It’s good to see that her Spanish is improving. She could probably hold a conversation with a Mexican third grader is she wanted too, but she seems content with using her second tongue for profane purposes only. She refuses to curse in English.
“Some people you can’t help.” Grace says, patting my leg.
“I suppose.” I hate enjoying this sad conversation, but it’s good to find someone under similar circumstances, “Some people are just out there.”
Grace’s own grandfather, not her father’s dad whose a Methodist preacher down in Brannon, but her mother’s father, Hank, is a muy grande culo, a very big a**. He owns The Water Bucket, a small cinder block bar a mile or so down Hwy 19, just past the Southside Walmart. It’s a titty bar, and out front, beside it’s large black mailbox, flash two neon signs, one advertising Coor’s beer and the other, topless girls.
“So the guy’s a jerk.” June says, “It could be worse.”
“Anything could be worse.” I say, “But it could also be better. It could’ve been better for my Mom. She had to grow up with him.”
The band runs through a few more songs, and Mr. Bedford grows more impatient with every off note. We watch as he walks among his pimple faced pupils, wearing a sour expression and tapping their sheet music with his boney middle finger. Apparently, few teenagers find it important to keep up their trumpet or clarinet skills over Summer break.
“I wish Pen was here.” Grace says, “We’d have more to talk about.”
Sadly, I agree. We can usually find stuff to talk about on our own, Grace, June and I, but Pen always adds a little more to the conversations, and, like having a cricket tied to a string, she pulls it in directions we’d never thought of on our own. With her, a complaint about a terrble school lunch becomes a debate on the ethics of genetically engineering super corn or the pros and cons of getting one’s nipples pierced. Grace and I, if you want to know, are firmly against nipple rings.
“I wonder how she’s doing?” June asks.
“Terribly.” I say.
Mrs. Coyne deemed it necessary that Pen spend the last weekend before school attending girl’s church camp outside Brannon. Pen’s protests were Pen worthy. She declared she was a pagan, an atheist, and just plain didn’t give a f*** about Jesus. In the end she was hauled off to Camp Calvary by her jean skirt wearing, Pentecostal stepmother like Faustus was dragged to Hell by demons. I’m sure the experience will be traumatic for all involved.
“What about your grandparents?” Grace asks. She tilts her head towards June, knowing the answer will be an interesting one.
“My abuela owns a bar.” June says. We expect more information but the only thing to be heard is a mangled rendition of the Star Spangle Banner.
“My Grandpa Hank owns a bar too, The Water Bucket.” Grace says. Her voice is timid, creeping out like a mouse from its hole. The man, this Hank, hasn’t seen Grace’s mom in twenty years, not since an argument over some family land, and he’s never seen Grace ever, never held her as a baby or sent her one birthday card. Knowing Joe that might’ve been a good thing.
“I know he owns a bar.” June says, “You point it out every time we drive by, like you want too go in and watch some juggs bounce or something.”
“Is your grandmother’s bar a titty bar too?” I ask, wondering if titty bar is the proper nomenclature.
“No, just a bar.” June says. “Some of the waitresses have been fired for giving BJ’s in the bathroom though.” She laughs, “Some girls ain’t worth s***.”
There is a chill in the air and in the distance, above the scoreboard and the roof tops beyond that, we can see several pink thunderheads growing fat. Maybe Channel 5’s promise of a summer shower will be realized. It’ll be a first, those people seem to pull weather forecasts out of a hat.
“Do you see her often?” Grace asks. It’s a dumb question we all know the answer too. If its not on the school bus route, or within driving range of my Caravan, which is about two hundred miles on a full tank, June’s s*** out of luck.
“Nope.” June obliges us with the unnecessary answer.
“When was the last time you saw her?” Grace asks, “I’ve seen Grandpa Hank like five times at Walmart. Once I was behind him at the checkout line for about ten minutes. He didn’t know its me though. He was buying dog food.”
“It was before we moved up here.” June says. She unbuttons her shirt, an old western style she got from who knows where, and points the fan directly at her boobs. Her frayed beige bra, the only one I think she owns, is one large sweat stain. A few band members notice, but they’re more interested in the coming rain than in her heaving Latina cleavage. “She and my mom got into it over some money. Fifty dollars.” The fan’s batteries die and she tosses it aside. “God it’s hot! Let it rain already!”
“Sorry.” Grace says.
“About what?” June asks, but she knows what, and I know it annoys her.
“Everything.” Grace says.
I almost feel bad for her, Grace, how she wears her heart on her sleeve the way some girls color their hair blue or buzz cut a side of their heads. She needs to quit that crap before someone cruel comes along.
“Screw that.” June growls. “Don’t feel sorry about my abuela and I won’t feel sorry for your Hank,” and turning to me, “or your Joe.”
I raise my hands in agreement. Grace says nothing.
A thunderclap roars through the cooling air, but Mr. Bedford carries on, waving his hands over his head, rhythmically, urging his kids to continue. They break into an unenthusiastic rendition of We Will Rock You. It could put a baby to sleep.
“You’re thinking to much about these things.” June says finally, “Most people aren’t that bad or good they just are.” She begins buttoning her shirt as a gust of cold air sweeps over the field. “Whenever you get pissed about someone being an a**hole or guilty because someone seems nicer than the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause and Jesus Christ put together, just remember,” she leans in close, as if she were passing the answer to the most important question of all, “…everyone shits.”
“Really?” Grace says, unimpressed.
“Uh huh.” June leans back against the tree, eyes closed, enjoying the breeze with a self-satisfied expression. You’d thought she made the weather and was cooling us off as a favor. “Todo el mundo caga. Everyone shits. Sometimes more than once a day.”
Grace looks at me and I shrug. Once upon a time I would’ve written down June’s words verbatim, scribbling them on scraps of paper or used napkins like they were hints to the location of lost treasure. Over time, her Spanglish vulgarities filled a small spiral notebook cover to cover: la vida es una perra, life is a b****, quien no es un comedor de mierda, who isn’t a s*** eater, etc. Eventually I realized that they were all variations of the same atheistic, nihilistic thing. Nothing matters, and if it does, it won’t for long. Depressing isn’t it? That notebook disappeared around the time June introduced me to Grace, lost under my bed or forgotten in my locker or backpack somewhere. Who knows?
“I think that’s stupid.” Grace says, chewing off her syllables like beef jerky. “Some people are good and some are bad. If you don’t want to think about it then that’s on you.”
June exhales. She’s tired of suffering us fools. “Mable, your abuelo Joe is a jerk right?” She doesn’t turn to me as she speaks, doesn’t even open her eyes or wait for my response, “But your dead grandmother was a saint? Why?”
I don’t answer. She doesn’t want me too. I know this game.
“Because she died of cancer at thirty-five?” The words hang in the air like the promised rain; heavy. “Sorry, to tell you this but that doesn’t mean s***. What type of woman would marry an a** like Joe anyways?”
Her voice changes with the last question and I know that’s my cue. “Dot, his new wife, is kinda dumb I guess.”
Stupid is the word I should’ve used. During our visit, I found her putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I asked if she’s ever been there before, to Pisa. She looked at me, her eyes as dim as an unlit candle, and asked if Pisa was in Texas. I told her Tennessee and dropped the issue.
“Well, Reason is swinging his big d*** here and is saying your dead grandmother was an idiot too. Cancer or not.” June is careful here, putting on a softer the world sucks for all of us tone. “Life just sucks sometimes. People suck.”
The sky darkens, and I watch as a bird struggles against the wind, it’s thin, frail form held nearly static by a stiff breeze. You’d think it frozen in time.
It occurs to me that June isn’t being figurative but literal with her everyone shits. She really means everyone: Buddha, Jesus, frail, dying Grandma Patricia. I can’t help but imagine that pale, emaciated woman squatting over one of those special hospice toilets, hairless from chemo and pinned through with ivs, her hospital gown hiked up around her waist as she reads a Woman’s World article. She turns to me and smiles.
The wind picks up and Mr. Bedford gathers the band around him for a pep talk. He tells them to take a knee but most continue to stand, looking impatiently at the clouds.
We need to be on our toes this year, we need to keep up a high standard…He talks about upcoming pep rallies, games, and state competitions. He mentions instrument maintenance, uniform care, and the need for practice, practice, practice. His words carry the knowing tone of a father whose accepted his child as middle rung, neither the best nor brightest. But there’s love in his voice, I can hear it, hidden between the syllables like small gems tucked into a coal vien. I hope they can hear it too, I really do.
“I bought my own Magic cards.” Grace says. She’s taken her phone out again and is pointing it at the large black clouds that have crept danger close. A few fat drops begin impacting the leaves overhead, but they soon stop. “A thousand commons, uncommons, and rares for twenty dollars on eBay.”
June grunts and I say something, I don’t know what.
“I’ll have my own deck soon. I won’t have to borrow Pen’s.” Grace continues. She knowing she’s talking to herself but smiles none the less. “I’ll give Maxwell a run for his money. That burn deck of his is killer.”
Mr. Bedford dismisses the band and they flee to their waiting cars in the school parking lot. It hasn’t started to rain yet, not really, and you’d thought they were made of sugar and would melt into sweet, gooey puddles if caught outside when it does.
“Should we go?” Grace asks, not making an attempt to get up.
June and I don’t answer, and we all nestle in. It won’t be the first time we’ve been caught out in the rain.