Moth-er, Mother, MoTHER: Friday September 4th, 2015

moth-er

NOUN

  1. a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth. synonyms: female parent, materfamilias, matriarch, mom, mommy, ma, mama.
  2. vulgar slang NORTH AMERICA: short for motherf*****

“I love your house Mrs. Nolan, the whole open concept thing,” Grace makes a show of looking around my bare living room, her eyes wide with artificial enthusiasm. So far she’s commented on just about every inch of my home, smiling loud as a trumpet. It’s as if she were a friend waiting to ask to borrow fifty bucks and not just a spy for the 12th Street Women’s Prayer Group. Yes, concern for my mother has spread throughout the church. “It’s all they want on Property Brothers-open concept homes. Have you seen that show?”

Careful with her paint roller, Mom stands, wipes drops of sweat from her brow and pulls down her dust mask. “A few episodes.” She’s careful to breathe through her mouth, the paint fumes (why anyone would paint their living room lime green is beyond me!) have already given her a migraine. “I don’t watch TV that much.”

“Neither do I.” Relieved, Grace’s smile becomes genuine. She’s been on edge with her false praise (being about as comfortable with lying as she is with blisters) and warms to the truth. She’s recently closeted the flat screen in her bedroom to make space for more of her sci-fi and fantasy books. The top of her dresser is now home to a collection of Dr. Who novelizations. “There was a marathon on last week. I watched it with my Mom in our den.”

Mom moves to the plastic sheet covered coffee table in the center of the room. The rest of the furniture-the foldout couch, the two Barcaloungers and TV stand, etc.- is crammed haphazardly in the hall. She picks up a large bottle of aspirin and downs three or four without water.

Grace swallows, her smile fading. “We watch Star Trek together too, that and Dr. Who. That’s kind of our thing every week, Mom and me. We watch Star Trek and Dr. Who together.”

Grace studies the living room again, eyeing me in the corner, sitting listless in a chair I pulled in from the kitchen. She regrets mentioning her Mom and their weekly “thing.” She knows that my Mom and I don’t have and probably never will have a “thing”-weekly, biweekly or otherwise. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever come was when I was twelve, and we’d have monthly talks about menstrual cramps, spotting, and benefits of pads over tampons. How was I to know then that (looking back) those awkward moments will probably to be my most cherished memories of my mother? God, they could’ve passed for Tampax commercials!

“I like this color,” Mom says. She stands in the middle of the room, arms crossed over her chest, and turns a slow, deliberate 360. The walls, nearly finished with their second coats, glow in the afternoon sunlight. Everything (the power outlets, trim, the panel with Morgan, Oliver, and my yearly heights) is outlined with blue masking tape. “I think this is the best of all the rooms.”

Through the curtain-less bay window Mr. Swearengen, our retired Marine neighbor, weeds his lawn. He eyes me for a moment, running a hand through his greying crew cut, before getting back to work, disgusted. He’s finished asking us to cut our grass and paint our shutters and has filed a complaint with the Property Owner’s Association. Two notices sit on our kitchen counter.

“It’s a great color,” I say.

Mom looks at me, smiles then turns to Grace. “It’s a great color!”

***

mother

VERB

  1. to bring up (a child) with care and affection: “the art of mothering
  2. to look kindly and protectively, sometimes excessively so: “she felt mothered by her sister

Mom did Oliver’s room first. After two painful days of trial and error- I doubt Mom has ever painted anything in her life- everything burned tangerine. Next, pushing the project through a long Saturday afternoon, Mom coated Morgan’s walls sky blue and bedaubed her closet doors sunflower yellow. It was the first I’d seen my mother smile in months.

“You’re next.” She said to me as she admired her work. Her smirk, a hardly sane Cheshire twinkle, made me nervous.

Last Tuesday, I came home to a bare bedroom. My dresser, bookcase, full-size bed, two end tables (everything still covered in Toy Story and Hannah Montana stickers) were pulled into the hall.

“It’s called ‘Cotton Candy Pink.'” Mom sounded cheerful, even through her mask. She’d already laid down plastic and was pouring her first pan of Behr Premium Paint-Primer Mix. Her white painter’s suit, by then a Pollockesque masterpiece of warm and cool colors, hung loose from her body. She must’ve lost ten pounds since Dad left. “What do you think?”

“I like it.” I bit my tongue as she rolled her first pass, a thin pink current in an ocean of off-white. God, who want’s a pink bedroom! “Really, I like it!”

I watched as the small pink patch grew, spreading from the low corner by my closet to the ceiling above my door. In the hall my Stephen King hardbacks-most mint first editions ordered on eBay-were piled fifteen high. A few drops of paint fell on the dust jacket for Everything’s Eventual. It’s not my favorite, but still, I fought back tears.
Mom must’ve caught my grimace.

“It’ll look better after the second coat.” She said, pouring another panful. “I promise.”

I slept on the couch that night, drifting off to a Tae Bo infomercial, only waking to hear Mom leave on her hour commute to work. Afterward, I loitered around the kitchen, pacing, turning my morning routine on its head.

“Moment of truth,” Oliver said, grinning over his bowl of Lucky Charms. A good brother, he wanted me to share in his misery. He has to wear sunglasses to bed now.

“It won’t be that bad,” I said, my words having an unconvincing hollowness to them as if they were spoken into an empty barrel or by a stranger with a bag of candy. I kicked Oliver, hard, under the kitchen table for good measure.

“Why!” He yelped, grabbing at his shin.

Indifferent, I spooned another mouthful of Fruit Loops. “You know why.”

Creeping down the hall I braced myself, balling my fingers into fists as I passed my dismembered bed and stacked end tables. I’d stashed my Stephen Kings before Mom could do more damage.

“Moment of truth.” I turned the knob.

Opening the door, I was engulfed. Everything glowed pink as the morning sun poured liquid through the curtain-less window, filling every corner of my bedroom like water a goldfish bowl. It swirled around me, warm, consuming, comforting. I felt suspended.

“Wow…” The heavy plastic sheeting wrinkled beneath my bare feet. More accurate words fluttered in my throat; but, like frightened baby birds in a high nest, they refused to leap. I wasn’t going to force them. “Wow…”

***

MoTHER

NOUN

  1. “New York City’s MoTHER, a hard-rock powerhouse with sharp bluesy undertones. They’ve been on the radar since 2013, releasing two EP’s and honing their chops on the road with the likes of Buckcherry, Slash, Pop Evil, Godsmack, and Red Sun Rising…”

“I want to speak to Helen?” Mr. Swearengen shifts uncomfortably on our porch, attempting to peak through the tiny sliver I eye him from. His hands, red from beating on our door just thirty seconds ago, are enormous. “It’s about the lawn?”

“She’s busy.” I open the front door a little wider, poking my pale moon face through, “Can I take a message?” A gentle brush off if there ever was one.

“A message? I can see her through the window.” He toys with his syllables as if I were a toddler needing a little more guidance, “I need to talk to her about the lawn. It’s the darn Amazon out here.”

I slip a little further out the door. “I’ll let her know. We’re painting right now.”

He eyes me carefully, studying my hands and hair, my baggy jeans and loose Mississippi State t-shirt. I cross my arms over my chest and turn away. I can’t stand confrontations and can feel myself shrink an inch or two.

“You’re not painting anything.” His words are a myriad of tones, each attempting to cut deep. I can see now why he wears Hawaiian shirts all the time (the one he dons tonight is bright green and populated by dozens of tiny pink and red hibiscuses) and sports a heavy gold watch wherever he goes-it’s about clout, weight, presences. “Why aren’t you helping her.”

“She won’t let us. She want’s to do everything herself.” From behind me, Prince’s Purple Rain begins pumping through Mom’s nigger-rigged boombox, a thirty-year-old contraption she’s held onto ever since her thirteenth birthday. The music signals that the end is near. It’s her victory song. “She picks out the paint and then paints. She’s going to do the whole house.”

Mr. Swearengen’s grey eyes narrow and his shaggy, unkempt unibrow (jutting out here and there like a madman’s) lowers. He’s used to getting his way.

“I need to speak to her.”

Resentment turns in me like bad sushi. Who is this guy? Victor Swearengen-Marine? Looking him over, slow and deliberate, studying his sour face, pot belly, and thin, pale legs, he gives the impression of a mailman or a grumpy, under-caffeinated math teacher. Rumor has it that, even with twenty-five years in the Corp, he was never in actual combat. He was some sort of clerk, and while my Papaw (a regular Army draftee) sloshed though South Vietnamese rice patties, eventually losing a thumb to a myopic Vietcong sniper, old Mr. Swearengen was keeping banking hours in San Diego, issuing out boots and rucksacks, maybe cashing paychecks.

“I can take a message,” I say again, growing bolder, sure somehow that what Mom is creating will be beautiful, maybe not in part but when taken as a whole-a Picasso of light and color. Who is this clerk to disturb her? Are they still called “clerks”? Honestly, who cares?

Mr. Swearengen grunts and looks over my head into the foyer, maybe into the living room if his vision is good enough. I stand on my tiptoes, blocking his view.
He steps back, surprised. After a moment, his dour expression softens. “How’s your father? How’s Terry?”

“Good.” My Dad’s name is Randy.

“Do you see him a lot?” Mr. Swearengen forces a thin smile; the type inpatient fathers use to encourage their kids too dust themselves off, ignore scraped knees and hop back on their bikes. “I haven’t seen his truck in a while.”

“We see him every day.” I’m sure my smile is like a sunrise, blinding to his unprepared, slightly drowsy eyes.

The last time I saw my Dad was a night two weeks ago. Mom was out deciding on paint colors when he brought over a movie and pizza-two of the cheap five-dollar Hot-N-Readies from Little Ceasars. He’d forgotten that Little Ceasars’ sauce gives Oliver hives and that I can’t stand Adam Sandler in any roll, but that hardly made a difference. Dad was buoyant, a balloon cut loose. He yammered on and on like a telemarketer desperate to be heard before the inevitable dial tone. All I could make out was that he now shares an apartment on 47th Street with some college kid named Stan and that he (forty-four-year-old Gen-Xer Dad not twenty-year-old Millennial Stan) is thinking of getting a tribal tattoo.

“Well, the next time he comes around tell him I want to talk to him.” Mr. Swearengen slides his enormous hands into his pockets where they wait, useless. He looks resigned, contemplative. In the twilight, his Hawaiian shirt and heavy gold watch (which now droops from his wrist like a bored pet) seem to have lost their purpose.

“I will.” I say. How many daughters do you have? How many granddaughters?

Mr. Swearengen steps off the porch (being careful with the loose bottom step) and makes his way back to his yard, our grass whipping at his knobby knees as he goes.

I find Mom pulling the tape from around the power outlets as Grace slides her Calculus notes (her excuse for coming over tonight was to study together) into her backpack. The boombox (twenty-percent super-glue, thirty-percent duck-tape, fifty-percent Sony TapeMaster) sings Prince’s Take Me With U, as a fan placed in the window pulls paint fumes out into the humid night. The living room looks like one of Mr. Swearengen’s shirts, minus the flowers and a deep-rooted need to impress.

“Ready to go?” I pull out my keys, lightly flicking the archaic Blockbuster Video keychain a few times. One day, it’ll break; and I’ll be heartbroken.

“Yeah, it’s getting late.” Grace nods, a faint smile on her face. She’s confident that my mother has indeed gone insane but only slightly, nothing dangerous, not like Jeffery Dahmer or anything. It’s more of a Willy Wonka sort of psychosis, resulting in odd decorating impulses and a peculiar attraction to bright colors. It’ll wear off in time like our elementary school love affairs with the Jonas Brothers and Silly Bandz, leaving only embarrassment and-if Mom ever develops a sense of humor-a ping of amusement.
We head out as Mom changes cassette taps, replacing Purple Rain with The Bangles’ Different Light, which she’ll listen too before finishing the night with Stryper’s In God We Trust. She doesn’t hear us say goodbye.

***

“You need to cut your lawn,” Grace says to me as she buckles up. She places her backpack between her knees. “It looks like a jungle.”

“I’ll get Sunny to do it this weekend, pay him ten bucks or something.” I crank the van, waiting a few moments as the fuel pump struggles. “Look at the sky.”

Though the windshield the early night is vast and open, the ripe pumpkin hue of the horizon becoming laurel green then, high above us, a deep denim blue. The evening star winks at us.

Grace smiles. “Beautiful.”

I put the van in reverse and back down the driveway, stopping near our mailbox. I turn and watch the house. It’s fuzzy in the twilight, peeling white paint covering every wall. Only the bay window glows, the single immense eye of a Cape Cod style cyclops.

“There she goes.” I point.

Lights flicker on-Morgan’s room, Oliver’s, the upstairs bathroom. Mom’s silhouette moves quickly from window to window. Leaving on every possible source of illumination, even reading lamps, has become another of her eccentricities. Dad’s complained about the light bill, but he might as well have been speaking Russian.

“Crazy,” Grace says, amused. She might be watching a particularly good episode of Dr. Phil.

Lastly, the light in my room blinks on. Warm pink luminescence pours through the black night. In the window, Mom appears for a moment, small and childlike, before disappearing again.

The words, almost forgotten, come to me. They’re four syllables, seven letters that twist the tongue and wrinkle the nose. Beautiful words, words that float. I grasp the steering wheel tight and roll them around my tongue like a cherry gumball. They come out a whisper. “In utero.”

Grace looks at me with the warm, wide eyes of a golden retriever-loyal and loving but uncomprehending. She turns back towards my house (music drifts over the lawn, a hair metal hit from yesteryear) then looks up at the blackening sky. The evening star is still there, still winking, immovable.

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Mornings with Freud: Thursday August 27th, 2015.

“Do you see that?” Mrs. Jane asks. She’s eyeing a couple of ninth graders near the snack machines, an above it all pair indifferent to the swarm of kids around them. “Watch the way she tilts her head to the right, leans in a little too close, laughs a little too easily at his jokes?”

“Yes,” I say, shifting my backpack from one shoulder to the other, “but teenage girls aren’t know to for hiding their emotions very well.” I give up on the backpack and slide the thirty-five pounds of AP Biology, American Lit. III, Calculus I, and American Government to the asphalt. The effect is instantaneous; I feel light enough to float away. “She’s putting on a show, she wants him to know she’s into him.”

“Does he know?” Mrs. Jane takes a sip of her a peppermint scented brew of  Harney & Son’s herbal tea. She’s wanting to see if her week’s worth of lessons are coming through, if I’ll make a good practitioner of the art of people watching, or kinesics as she calls it. They are and I am.

I cock my head to the side and smile, imitating our infatuated example with ease. “Yes, but he doesn’t care. He’s into her friend by the water fountain.” I nod towards the large breasted, pencil thin blonde, her skirt so short it could almost be classified as a tank top, “He hasn’t taken his eyes off of her since they stepped off the bus.”

Mrs. Jane smiles her approval. I continue to smile back knowing that (even if I were a terrible interpreter of crooked gins and subtle glances) she’s appreciated my company regardless. Being assigned the thankless job of Morning Bus Monitor, even if just for a week, can lead any teacher/student counselor to question her chosen career and pursue a life in something more exciting like accounting or medical coding.

Another bus arrives, a late model cheese wagon with slated windows and yellow paint faded nearly white. Mrs. Jane checks her list and waves it to the number seventeen slot where it disgorges it’s pimple faced, pubescent cargo. They, mostly ninth and tenth graders too young for licenses, scatter like ants as soon as they hit the pavement. Others, a few juniors and a handful of seniors (all too poor to have cars and too social inept to hitch rides), mosey around.

“How’s Grace doing?” Mrs. Jane asks. She glances down at her watch, it’s 7:35, “I’m sure she’s never been in detention before.”

“Never, but she’ll survive. I mean, it’s morning detention not life in Sing Sing.” Squeeze out a few drops of irritation, hiding my amusment, “Besides, I’m the one  being inconvenienced here. I have to pick all three of them up; Grace, June, and Pen and be here before 6:30 or they’ll be locked out and it’s detection all next week.”

Mrs. Jane looks at me (or should I say through me), smiles and takes another sip of her tea.

Ok, I love picking them up and driving through the late summer dawns, red eyed and groggy, is a joy. I give each one a smile and a Little Debbie Fudge Round as a pick-me-up. June’s put in a request for Monster energy drinks or, at the very least, a 5-Hour energy shot, but budget constraints (my once awesome fifteen-dollar a week allowance hasn’t exactly kept up with inflation) dictate otherwise.

“Do you wish you were part of it?” Mrs. Jane asks.

I shrug and look down at my shoes, a tattered pair of Adidas with frayed laces and one torn tongue. I choke down a laugh. At one time, I would make sure they (along with my Timberlands and several pair of Nikes) were always spotless. Then, on a rainy day, I met June and was born into a bright new world where footwear was about as important as Thanksgiving leftovers.

“Yes, I wish I was with them.” I sigh, “But I took Art in ninth-grade, with Mrs. Davis. She was boring. All she taught me was that Van Gogh shot himself and that my favorite color is called ‘electric red’.”

“‘Electric red’ huh?” Mrs. Jane smiles, “I pegged you more for a ‘forest green’.”

I blush. That means she thinks I’m smart. Go me! If she’d said blue, it would mean I was an introvert and sensitive; orange, fun loving; white, highly organized; yellow, bipolar and probably schizo. I’m sure she keeps an eye out for yellows.

“Yep, electric red.” I say, “And that’s all.”

Guilt, nearly weightless but there, pings me. Actually, Mrs. Davis taught me more than just a few things. She’d helped me through my acrylics project, a stormy seascape I entered in the school’s Art Fair. It came in third place behind a terrible conceptual art piece featuring used mouth guards and a near perfect reproduction of Monet’s Girl in a Boat. It was a surprise to everyone when she quit at the end of the year, still a balmy twenty-seven or eight year old. She said she left for her kids, both still in daycare, but was overheard saying that she just couldn’t stand the ruffians anymore, the ruffians being any and every student at West Greenville. That hurt, it really did. She now owns a failing crafts store in Brannon. “Mrs. House is way cooler. She plays the radio while everyone ‘creates.'”

“Still, she should’ve been more diligent.” Mrs. Jane says, shaking her head, displaying the disgust one professional feels for another who makes an obvious, stupid mistake: a college professor plagiarizing a student’s article on shellfish and submitting it to the Journal of Marine Research, a cop speeding though a church zone and striking a toddler. Those things will get you kicked out to the club. “She should be the one in detention. There’s no excuse.”

This is the consensus of most of the faculty. Mrs. House should have known better than to place Pen, June, and Grace in charge of the Bobcat, a four-foot high paper mache sculpture, West Greenville’s mascot traditionally remade every year by students hand picked by the Art teacher. The resulting creation is painted our school colors, red and black, and presented to the student body during a Friday morning assembly. Past efforts have always been unimpressive. Strange mutant felines with stump tails and disproportioned heads (one slit eye or short, pointed ear is inevitable larger than the other) have become the school standard, and Principle Gamble has become increasingly clever with his efforts to hide these pathetic beasts behind plastic ficus trees and abnormally large flower pots.

“At least it was a lifelike Bobcat.” I say, not having to look hard to find the silver lining. Pen (and it was Pen’s project start to finish, June and Grace were merely bystanders, both having about as much artistic talent as a paper cup) did a magnificent job. It’s a shame that the melancholy  creature she molded, nearly perfect and belonging in a natural history museum, was hacked to pieces and thrown unceremoniously into dumpster less than two hours after it’s debut. Beforehand, Mrs. House was tasked with taking pictures as evidence.

“Yes, it was.” Jane admits. She waves another bus through, this one taking the number thirteen slot. “How are your parents?”

“Um, good.”

We watch as the bus empties. Two freshman girls, an impossibly fat blonde and a stick thin brunette with a beak nose and near avian waddle, are the last off. They pass us slowly, snickering. I redden despite myself, despite all June’s taught me. Do all teenage girls fear they’re are butt of every joke? I think so, I know so.

“The divorce?” Mrs. Jane asks. She fills her mug from a green Stanley thermoses she keeps in her huge carpetbagger purse. Other contents include a mid-size box of tissues, two large Ziploc bags of trail mix, and a dog eared copy of the Tao Te Ching, the James Legge translation, among other things. The essentials of a childless divorcee transplanted from the West coast to the humid and utterly alien South. “It can be hard for almost anyone.”

“I’m OK.” I say. The words must’ve come out a little too easily, a little too I don’t give a crap, because she gives me her prescribed look of concern: held tilted forward, eyebrows inclining, her bottom lip curling down and to the right. “It wasn’t a surprise.” I continue, attempting to sound mature, but failing, my anger seeping through like red dye.

“You’re angry about it.” Mrs. Jane sips her tea, perhaps thinking that anger is preferable to indifference. “That’s natural. Anger towards one’s parents is common during divorce. Do you feel let down by them?”

As cool as she is, Mrs. Jane has a habit of slipping into Freudbot mode whenever she counsels. It can be interesting to watch but aggravating to endure.

Whether it’s a cigar or herbal tea, every shrink needs his prop.

“I’m not angry at them.” I say, wanting to clarify things, fighting down a wave of resentment. The thought of this woman, my friend, assuming that I’m as easy to read as any other teenage girl, as a silly ninth-grader with a little crush, makes me nauseous. “It’s the situation. The situation sucks.”

“How?”

I collect my thoughts, wanting to chose the right metaphor. I must’ve come up with a half-dozen these last few days, some better than others. I take a breath.

“We aren’t a close family. We never were. Sometimes I liked to think so but we weren’t. We all knew it.” I pause for a moment. “Sometimes Dad would try to get us together. He’d plan canoe trips and once we went to Six Flags. But it never took. It was like he wanted to bake a birthday cake and went to the store and bought the candles and icing and even a few balloons, but he forgot the cake mix. Our family never had what was most important.” Then, my thoughts slipping out before I can catch them, “Once, Dad spent an entire year in Montana for the paper mill, he was helping them do something, and we hardly noticed he was gone. I didn’t even miss him. That surprised me.”

I catch my breath, red faced, embarrassed, knowing my words haven’t done anyone justice. Maybe when I’m an adult it’ll be easier to explain these things. But who’ll care then? Is that how life works? Do you only remember the lyrics when there’s no one to hear you sing?

“That’s why you’re upset?” Mrs. Jane asks, her interested peaked, “Your family lacks a foundation.”

“I’m upset because he’s the adult and the parent and I’m just in high school. But it feels like we’re all in high school. Everyone of us. And we never tried hard enough.” I look Jane in the eye, giving her what she calls the full frontal, no sublet glances at the ground or playing with my hair, just naked honesty. “Sometimes we’d give a half-hearted effort but then we’d just give up.”

Mrs. Jane looks at me then takes a sip of tea. “Who do you feel close too in your family?”

“Paw Paw before he died, and Oliver. We hang out sometimes. We were sitting together at the assembly.” I suddenly feel self-conscious, exposed, ashamed. The anger drains out of me and I turn away. Looking at Mrs. Jane now would be like looking into the Sun.

“How about your Mom?” She asks, “Did she ever make efforts?”

My eyes are drawn again to my shoes. They’re still there, still God-awful with the one split tongue mocking me like a spoiled child.  Last Spring Mom happened to spot them, freaked, and dragged me to Shoe Carnival. She shoved fifty-dollars into my hand and told me to get some respectable kicks. She actually used the word kicks! I ended up spending twenty on a pair of clearance Reebok’s for Sunny and (being a sneaky b**** as June would later say) pocketed the rest for gas money. The sad part is, the next day Mom didn’t even notice I was wearing the same crap shoes. Actually, she never mention shoes again. Half of me wanted her too, the other half was just glad for the gas money.

“Occasionally.” I say, eyes still down, the torn tongue mesmerizing, “I think that because her own childhood was so terrible she thought everything was just fine with us.” I revisit the last six months, the brief screaming matches followed by days of deafening silence. Giving the cold shoulder seems to be the Nolan family’s preferred method of passive-aggression. “They’ve been fighting, but Dad asking for a divorce was a complete surprise. He could have said he was a Martian and she wouldn’t have been more surprised.” I chuckle, “I was kind of a shocked when I realized the words ‘dysfunctional family’ applied to us.”

I look up and find Mrs. Jane staring at me, her eyes like distant stars. She may not know the lyrics to my song but the tune is common enough. I’m sure she’s sick of hearing it.

I turn away and watch more students, a trio of tenth graders wearing Cardinal caps and football jerseys, swagger by. The only one I know, Trenton Turner with his short blonde hair and pink, cherub cheeks, leads them on. God, I hate his smug expression! I could bury my fist into it!

“It could be worst though.” I say, turning back to Mrs. Jane, suddenly fearful of being seen as just another privleged white girl griping on her ordinary life, “There once was an article on AIDS in Thailand, I read it online. A bunch of Buddhist monks displayed the bodies of AIDS victims in their hospice to raise awareness. There were dozens of them, all naked. People filed past them in long lines.” I shudder at the thought. The dead, kept under glass museum cases, didn’t look human at all but wooded, as if they were carved from a single block of pine, stained with Minwax, and left out to dry. There was even a baby girl, her black hair askew and button nose tipped up. I could’ve fit my thumbs where her eyes had been. “It could be so much worst.” I say again, nodding quickly, “We really don’t have it that bad.”

“You don’t have to do that.” Mrs. Jane’s face is flat, impassive. I try, but who can read a closed book? “You don’t.”

“Nod? Sorry, it’s a nervous habit” My nodding slows as my lips curl into a sheepish smile; smiling being another of my nervous/mourning habits. I need to indulge one or the other for moments like these. I smiled all the way through Paw Paw’s funeral. Everyone thought I was either crazy or was some type of Jesus freak having happy visons of my grandfather in Heaven, walking the streets of gold and all that. They didn’t see the tears that flowed that night or the nights since. I could’ve supplied a small water park.

“You don’t have to apologize.” Mrs. Jane says, a smile spreading across her face. She takes my hand in her’s and squeezes. “You never have to apologize for feeling lonely.”

Warmth rushes over me, burning my cheeks, stinging my eyes. I fight down the urge to hug her and bat away tears. Hell, I beat them back like angry wasps! “Thanks.”

“It’s ok.” She says, suddenly looking beautiful, younger than her forty-odd years, and taller somehow. I look down, and no, she isn’t wearing heels. “Sometimes you just need to talk someone, it’s that simple.”

Rumor has it that Mrs. Jane will be getting her doctorate sometime next year and is planning to move up the educational ladder, away from West Greenville High School to Central Office. I’m too afraid to ask her but with some of the books she carries around (Holt’s Learning Analytics in Higher Education 5th Edition, Ornstein’s Foundations of Education 12th Edition, etc.) I’m sure it’s true. Maybe this is the end of most teachers, those who’s thrill for teaching has waned and who’d rather be left alone during lunch breaks, to eat their low-fat brownies and sip Smart Water in peace.

“Yep.” I slowly release her hand but keep my stupid smile, not caring if we’ve become our own Lifetime movie. I have to keep my promise to talk to her more often.

Another bus, one of the last, pulls up and empties. Soon the Homeroom bell will ring.

“It was good to see Grace stuck with Pen and June.” I say, attempting to steer back to the less personal. “She could have said she didn’t have anything to do with it and gone scot free. Principle Gamble would’ve believed her.”

“How could she have not known what it was?” Mrs. Jane asks, skeptical. Apparently she doesn’t know Grace Laurent very well, and if she did, she’d probably put her in a zoo for observation, thinking that Grace’s kind went extinct sixty years ago, along with penny loafers and bobbed socks.

“I doubt it.” It’s funny to hear members of the faculty dance around the word, as if young people, teenagers, can’t handle the noun penis with any form of maturity. “She saw Pen working on it, but it was uncircumcised. She said she thought it was a burrito or something. June knew but didn’t give two farts. Neither saw the finished product before the assembly. Pen got really secretive near the end.”

“Burrito?” Jane hides a smile behind her mandala painted coffee cup.

The bobcat, brought out on a gurney and hidden under a black sheet until the last moment, was unveiled in a sweltering gym to a mass of eight-hundred bored teenagers. It took a few moments for the sparse applause, begun by Principle Gamble himself, to die away, leaving only near silence. Mrs. House dropped her megaphone and somewhere a girl laughed.

Before us the somber feline sat flat on it’s butt, shoulders slumped and head drooped, it’s green eyes staring at the flaccid, uncircumcised penis between it’s legs. It could have been a burrito for sure.

“Look…” Oliver jabbed me in the ribs and pointed. It was a needless act. Pen, Grace, and June could’ve been center stage at the UN, introducing ET to the world.

Ten seconds passed. From the jock section (and that’s football jock not the more sensible baseball or soccer jock) someone began with the cat calls, something about the limp member needing a little love and affection. Names were suggested. Within moments the gym was an echo chamber of jeers. Grace just stood petrified, mouth open, eyes like tea saucers. June only grinned.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” The words didn’t seem mine but later, when recalling our reactions for Pen’s amusement, Oliver mimicked me right down to the nervous lisp I’d thought I’d conquered in second-grade. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…”

More cat calls, more names, dark secrets spilled like blood on a wedding dress. Red-faced cheerleader Matty Zeller and tearful Christian Fellowship Club President Zoe Foist shrunk to the size of lima beans.

Pen, sensing her moment, stepped forward and bowed, first to the crowd which roared, then to Principle Gamble and Mrs. House  who were struggling with the sheet, ripping it as they tried to cover the sculpture. Someone from the band section threw an empty vodka bottle. It skipped across the hardwood floor like a stone over a calm pond.

“Enough!” Gamble’s voice, a two syllable arrow, shot though the gym. He might as well have turned off the light in a chaotic kindergarten classroom. The Pavlovian response was instantaneous. Hundreds of white middle class teens hushed. He shoved the remnants of the black sheet into the bobcats crotch and grabbed Pen’s arm, pulling her off the basketball court and out the nearest fire exit, setting off the alarm. Her smile was a warm sunrise.

Later, as she sang her own praises, her tongue looming in her mouth like a mad woman’s, Pen recapped the speech Gamble gave her in his office. It was something about a talented girl he once taught dropping out and getting hooked on “the dope.” She’s currently a part-time cashier at the 5th St. Winn-Dixie, doubling as tweaker-in-residence at the Mott’s Motel on McDonald Ave. Oblivious, Pen spent that hour studying the painting on the wall behind his desk. It was of a clear desert night, in the center a man slept, his mandolin a quite lover. A lion sniffs at his shoulder. Is it hungry? Curious? After leaving, her feet and butt numb, Pen decided it was both, but at the moment more curious. Hunger would come later, as the sun rose.

 

Mandolin?

 

“Move! Move!” Mrs. House attempted to push the bobcat out of sight but couldn’t remember to release the gurney’s wheel locks, and with one last exhausted shove sent the beast crashing to the gym floor. It thuded, spliting like a hollow gourd, and I have expected candy to spill out. It’s now disembodied phallus bounced to a stop in front of Grace who stepped back, appalled. A Vesuian eruption of boos followed. The remaining teachers, some hiding youthful smiles others displaying weary middle-aged scowels, tamed the scene with a cold shower of detention slips. Whatever excitement remained deflated into grumbling.

The episode passed before lunch, with talk devolving from paper mache penises, to Jordan McKenna’s shameful streaking attempt last Homecoming (his member being about the size of a baby carrot), to what type of vodka makes the best Screwdrivers, the consensus being Smirnoff.

“I think the symbolism was lost on everyone.” I say, looking up at the bright morning sky. Clouds, pink in the sun, drift slowly east. I make out Paw Paw’s old Ford truck, a battered ship tossed about on a stormy sea, a lone bobcat looking for her mate. “Don’t you think?”

Mrs. Jane doesn’t answer, she’s looking though her purse.

“Yes, it was.” I say.

Pen originally planned for her sculpture to have a small, stiff willy, but the obvious draw backs (it would’ve only been seen by the first few rows of students) and the more symbolic, and highly visible nature of a huge, limp member made the difference. And, for those who are observant, it was fitting. Not only because of West Greenville’s sub-stellar athletics record last year ( 2-13 football, 3-21 baseball) but because, despite being one of the best public schools around, we seem to lack something.  I can’t say what. More art classes maybe?

“Principle Gamble sure loves this place.” I say.

Everyone loves the place.” Mrs. Jane says, her voice muffled, face still buried in her purse. “Try buying a house around her. Shacks go for a premium. I live forty minutes away.”

“They say we’re one of the best public schools in the state.” My words are carried off by the wind, heard by no one as Mrs. Jane drops her massive purse to the ground and squats, searching for who knows what. I half expect her to climb in. “But that’s not saying much. We’re in the South. Our best is everyone else’s mediocre.”

The first Homeroom bell rings and I pick up my backpack, legs quivering under the strain.

“Maybe I’m just being a ruffian.” I smile, waiting as Mrs. Jane hoists her purse over her shoulder. “It could be worse. I could be going to George Washington with the blacks.”

She looks at me for a moment, unamused, unsure.

“Just joking.” I lie. I’ll have to save those thoughts for the girls. “Maybe we just need more art classes?”

“Defiantly.” Mrs. Jane says. She looks once more at the pair of ninth graders. They haven’t moved. The girl still swooning over they boy, to dim to realize his indifference. Both are flirting with tardy slips. Come to think of it, so am I.

“You going to tell them to get a move on?” I ask.

“No. They’ll figure it out. Most do.”

“We need to talk like this more.” I adjust my backpack straps, hoping to bring the comfort level up from bone cracking too bearable. “No more of this on-again, off-again stuff.”

“You need to talk to your mom.” Mrs. Jane’s look has a kind firmness to it. She’s nervous, not use to telling people what to do. She’s more like the Holy Spirit, a soft wind gently pushing you in the way you should go.

“I will.” I force a hard, uneven smile, contorting my face into a caricature of teen bless. She sees through it as if it were a bad paint job, a thin coat of lunatic yellow splashed over a deep, melancholy blue. I smile harder. “I will.”

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 A Place for Us All: Saturday August 15th, 2015

“The pipe is fine.” Oliver says, exasperated, handing Sunny the stack of instructions, “It’s schedule 40. That’s what the directions call for. Nobody is going to die, especially if we just use hairspray and we are.” He doesn’t look up as he talks, hardly taking his eyes off the two thin red wires in front of him, one indistinguishable from the other. “You need to calm down.”

Sunny looks at him for a moment, doubtful, then takes the instructions, three or four wrinkled pages of plain white copy stock. He flips from one sheet to the next, then back again. By the look on his face it might as well be written in Chinese and not English. Ni hao. More steamed dumplings? More fired rice? Pepsi products only, so sorry.

“This isn’t dangerous, is it?” Grace asks me, eyeing Sunny with growing unease. “And where did they learn to build a potato gun?”

“No, it’s not dangerous!” I attempt my best Bea Arthur imitation, all reason and sensibility, but fail. Instead, my voice comes out the high, frantic squawk of Don Knots. “They got it off the Smithsonian website. They have instructions on how to build a catapult too.”

Grace nods, not believing a word but wanting too.

“It’ll be fun.” I give her a reassuring smile knowing that- no matter how much she’d love to watch potatoes get shredded into hash-browns- she’d freak if she knew the truth, that Oliver and Sunny’s introduction into the world of less-than-lethal warfare came by way of a defunct anarchist website and several dozen YouTube videos, half of which containing the word fail in the title.

“What are they going to shot at?” Grace asks. Her overbite shows white as her excitement returns. “Do they have paper targets?”

I look around and see nothing but knee high wheat grass and, standing lonely in the distance like a ruffled ostrich, a solitary oak tree. Behind us, my van and Maxwell’s Saratoga sit on the thin dirt road we drove in on. June, Pen, and Brian sit beside them, waiting in plastic lawn chairs as Maxwell paces; his round, heavy face is purple in the heat.

“I don’t know.” I turn to Oliver, “What are you going to shoot?”

“Potatoes.” He says, his hands working skillfully with a pair of needle-nose pliers. Behind him is a bag of impossibly round Russets. He spent thirty minutes picking them out at Winn-Dixie, making sure of each one’s aerodynamic nature buy holding it up to the skylight, biting his tongue, and studying it one-eyed.

“I know potato’s, but what are you going to shoot at?”

We watch as Oliver clips off both wires and ties back the excess in case he needs to make adjustments. The boy always plans ahead. “We brought a kite.” he says finally, “We’re going to shoot it down.”

“A kite?” Grace glows at the thought, her smile exposing a dozen teeth. She’ll ask to fire off more than a few spuds before the afternoon is over.

“What’s taking so long?” Maxwell howls. He’s buried his face in the sleeve of his Seniors 2016 t-shirt, it’s one of the few XXXL’s made for the Senior class, and contains enough black and bright red fabric to cover a small SUV. With minimal effort he’s soaked every square inch of it with sweat.

“Just a few more minutes.” Oliver calls over his shoulder. He tries but fails to hide a grin. This will perhaps be the only time in his life he’ll have an audience, and he’s relishing it.

“Big boom! Me want big boom!” June bangs her meaty fists on her arm rests. Encouraged, Brian follows suit, turning his chair into a snare drum, while Pen (still the queen of the underworld with her black jeans, black Iron Maiden t-shirt and heavy black eyeliner) stomps her black leather boots, kicking up a small dust storm.

“Give us five minutes.” Oliver says. Through with the wires, he pushes a small red trigger placed on the rear of what looks like a white plastic bazooka. It clicks, he smiles. He tells Sunny to get the kite out of the van.

Oliver if he were bolder and had less depth perception.

“It’s about time.” Maxwell wipes more sweat from his face, “Make it quick, its b**** hot here!”

Grace looks at me and we share the same thought. Maxwell’s forgotten that this is his field, or at least the field was his idea. He guided us here after hearing Oliver’s plans to test the gun in one of Greenville’s old used car lot. Maxwell said the blacks in that neighborhood (the abandoned lot is in Red Line, on 27th St. between a liquor store and a boarded up barber shop) would probably call the cops. That or take a shot or two at us. He spoke with the tone of someone whose actually been to that part of town, so we listened. All Oliver knew was that he’d seen empty lots there.

Out of a duffle bag Sunny pulls a cheap cellophane kite, one made in the shape of Buzz Lightyear, and begins assembling it. “We have twenty potatoes.” He says, his hands working slowly, having to go back several times where he’s mistaken shorter support rods for longer ones. “We’re going to shoot first. You all can decide who goes after that.”

“I’m after you.” Maxwell says. We watch as he wrings sweat from his shirt, creating a muddy pool at his feet.

June grunts something but doesn’t argues. It was, after all, Maxwell’s orange Saratoga that lead us here, putting down Hwy 486, bobbing on it’s stressed suspension like a rotten and sunken pumpkin on old mattress springs. He wouldn’t break 45mph no matter how closely I tailgated him.

Oliver pulls several economy size cans of hair spray out of his red metal toolbox. He sprays each one, testing the stream and nodding approval. He seems indifferent whether it’ll be a Spring Breeze, Summer Glen, or a Tropical Love scented blast of fire and smoke that will send the spuds to their demise.

“I like the last one.” Grace tells me, “It smells like a fruit salad.”

“Mom and Dad are getting divorced.” I tell her, my voice sounding strange, distant. For a moment I think its Grace speaking, that it’s her parents going through the Big D (as some country song goes) and helping keep lawyers and therapist in BMWs and summer homes. “They told us a few nights ago.”

“Oh.” Grace says. Her grey, uncertain eyes study me, deciding if or how to proceed. She turns to Oliver, then the potato gun, pausing for a moment on the end of the barrel where he’s glued a rudimentary sight (one taken from an old Nerf crossbow) and stenciled the words WARNING: PATATO END in red spray paint. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I guess I forgot.” I say, the voice again sounding unfamiliar, a infomercial host attempting to sell me something I supposedly need, supposedly can’t live without, “I forgot.”

Or did I block it out? Is that preferable?

“I’m sorry.” Grace says.

What she doesn’t say is how could this happen? or if the Nolan’s couldn’t make it, who can? The implosion of my parents’ marriage was months or- according to Dad- years in the making. The sit down they had with us two nights ago, calling Oliver and I into the living room where Morgan and Mom were waiting, Morgan holding Mom’s hair as she cried into a couch pillow, was only a formality.

***

“We have something to tell you. Sit down.” From the couch Dad motions to a pair of folding chairs placed where our coffee table had been.

Oliver, a screwdriver in hand, looks a me, and I look at Mom, or should I say, look at her hair which shimmers as she cries into the pillow. I’ve never noticed her greys before, how they lace through her mouse brown like strands of silver wire.

Oliver and I sit.

“We have something to tell you.” Dad repeats. He rubs his hands together then studies them in the light. “We, your mother and I, are getting divorced.”

There’s a wimpier from the pillow, and Morgan presses close, laying her chin on Mom’s scalp. I can almost feel the warmth radiating from it.

“I know this isn’t a surprise,” Dad’s words are practiced, the syllables measured out as if with a teaspoon, “The last few months have been rough.”

“Yeah.” I say. Oliver shuffles in his chair.

Mom lifts her head. Her face is like a fresh salmon steak, pink and raw, and her eyes streaming black fluid. On her wrinkled white blouse is her golden Sunset Meadows name badge, Helen Nolan: Because I Care. “You won’t even tell me why!” Her words spill out, sloshing from the overfilled pail she’s become.

“We are not compatible.” Dad says. His voice is balanced as he studies her with cool, determined eyes. They’re the eyes of a marathon runner, someone who’s (as if were fat around his middle or under his arms) already burned off whatever excess emotion would’ve gotten in the way of finishing this particular race. “We never should’ve been married. I knew this from the beginning. You knew it too, on some level.”

“Knew?” Mom’s voice is high and thin, the cry of a baby bird, “What are you talking about?”

Dad turns back to Oliver, then me, looking at each of us for the same short length of time, three seconds apiece. His every movement seems timed and you’d think his brains had been replaced by gears and cogs and that a stopwatch now runs were his heart should be. I can almost hear the tick of it.

“There is someone out there for your mother,” he says, “someone who deserves her. Like there’s someone for me. People who can make us both very happy. I think that we all feel very alone right now.”

He’s said this before, perhaps hundreds of times. Maybe not out loud, but mouthed it in front of steamy bathroom mirrors, or as he drove to the paper mill mornings, riding alone as 97.9 played Alan Jackson or Garth Brooks from his factory speakers. Did he imagine us seated with him, a mute audience to his revelations? How did he think we’d react?

“Is there someone else?” Mom’s question hovers in the air like a wrecking ball. Yes, this home will be destroyed, but how small will the pieces be afterwards? I hold my breath. We all hold our breaths.

“No.” Dad says. There’s a tremor in his voice, one that moves to his lips then out to his hands were it waits, causing his fingers to twitch. “There’s no one.”

I grasp the side of my chair, fighting down the urge to hug him, beating it back with a club of cold discipline. I’ve felt this before, the urge to embrace him, but I forget when. Paw Paw’s funeral maybe? I fought it down then too. We aren’t a hugging family.

“Then why?” Mom takes his arm, pressing her fingernails into his bare skin. I notice now that he has lost weight. The flab under his neck is gone and his stomach is can almost be described as flat. He’s a handsome man. “Why?”

Dad’s muscles tighten, and his face grows taunt like a string about to break. He’s rounding the final bend before the finish and is pushing forward. He pulls his arm away. “I’ll be getting a place and all of you will be staying here. This will be good for us.” His fingers curl into a fists as he forces a smile, “We’ll grow closer because of it.”

The pillow hits Dad first, bouncing off his shoulder and flying harmlessly into the living room window, then Mom lashes out with open hands, slapping at his face and arms and chest. He brushes her off easily and stands, leaving her a crumpled, weeping mass on the floor.

“I’ll give all of you some time. I have my phone.” He moves towards the hall, “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

We look at each other, not sure who you means. Is it plural or singular? Have we been melded together in his mind, forming a strange four-headed, eight-armed chimaera. The creature Nolan, many minds, one grotesque shape.

We listen as to the front door opens and closes, then as his truck cranks, it’s heavy V8 misfiring as he pulls down the driveway, exiting our lives with the grace of a drunken bear.

Oliver looks at me with moist eyes. He shrugs. I shrug back, wiping away my own small tears. We can shrug together. That means something, however small.

***

“Now that is unpleasant.” Grace taps my shoulder and points.

I turn to find Maxwell shirtless. “Gross-” The word catches in my throat as my stomach lurches.

“What?” He asks. In front of him his heaving gut bulges over the front of his shorts like an overstuffed garbage bag, stretched to bursting, leaving his belly button a black, toothless yawn. I would envy his perfectly round, impossibly full man boobs if only they weren’t covered by a thick carpet of curly black hair.

“God!” Pen presses her face into Brian’s arm, “Hold me!”

He wraps his arms around her, exaggerating a whimper. You’d think him a beaten puppy.

“Really?” Maxwell’s voice is powdered with genuine shock. After a moment he grins and slaps his belly, sending ripples throughout his body as if it were a hairy, bipedal waterbed. “I’m beautiful.”

“Oh, so beautiful!” June blows him a kiss, Chico guapo!

Maxwell rubs his nipples and licks his lips, gyrating his hips like a hula dancer. He’s remarkably limber for a fat boy.

“Jesus!” Grace whispers, shaking her head. “Lord Jesus…”

Grasping the potato gun with both hands, Oliver stands and turns towards us, catching a view of Maxwell like a pie in the face. He stares for a moment, then shakes his head.

“OK, we’re going to have a test shot first,” he motions towards Sunny who already has the kite gently gliding fifty feet in the air, “Then it’s your turns. I’ll load every shot so all you have to do is pull the trigger…”

There’s more to his speech (safety instructions and an explanation of the how and why of each of the gun’s parts) and to everyone’s credit, we listen quietly. Afterwards, Oliver gives special thanks to an absent Mr. King (West Greenville’s womanizing Tech Discovery teacher, once caught naked in the sport’s equipment shed with a substitute teacher) for the inspiration to build a potato gun in the first place. I’m sure the old man will deny everything if one of us happens to lose an eye or burst an ear drum.

“…we have everything planned out.” Oliver motions again to Sunny, then the kite, and finally the bag of perfect russets, “Just follow the rules  and we’ll have a lot of fun today.” He begins handing out safety glasses from a Walmart bag.

Watching him I begin wondering what Dad would think of this? He only showed a passing interest in Oliver’s tinkering, his face containing only the most distant hint of pride when his son walked past grasping a hammer or pair of vice-grips. It was as if the short, red haired inventor wasn’t his own flesh and blood but a neighbor putting in a new pool or gazebo, graciously raising the local property value by default. Did he feel alone then too? Who knows?

We watch as Oliver picks out a potato, places it on the end of the barrel and slaps it home with the flat of his hand. He unscrews the back of the ‘combustion chamber’ and sprays in a short burst of Tropical Love before recapping it. “Be sure your glasses are on.” His own pair are pressed awkwardly against his prescription lenses, “Here goes-”

There’s a click, and with a loud whoosh the small golden sphere of starchy carbs is sent flying out of the plastic tube like a massive spitwad.

Despite flying wide, the potato missing Buzz by about twenty feet, everyone howls. June hoots something in Spanish, Santa mierda! as Pen and Brian stomp their feet, bellowing incomprehensibly. Maxwell, slapping his bare, shag carpeted chest with his fists, yelps like the caveman he is. Grace simply grins, her eyes wide as they follow the rocketing spud into the blue sky where it quickly goes from dot, to pin prick, to nothing.

“Holy crap!” Maxwell laughs, “Load that sucker up again and give Sunny his turn!”

Oliver turns to Sunny, telling him to give the kite to Maxwell or June.

Sunny, his eyes still up, studies Buzz, “I’ll fly the kite. You can skip me.”

Maxwell grunts his excitement and moves forward. He’s already picked out his potato and holds the gun carefully as Oliver loads it. “How long did it take to build this thing?” He asks, his broad, yellow teeth shining. “A day?”

“Yeah, just a day.” Oliver says, “It took longer to get everything together. The igniter comes from an old grill Sunny found in a ditch.”

“Just a day.” Maxwell mumbles, “This is some real pro work.” He nods as if agreeing with himself, “You can sell these things, you just need to paint it. I know some people who’d buy one.”

“Maybe.” Oliver uncaps the combustion chamber, this time spraying in a carefully timed dose of Summer Glen. “It would be nice to get some money for this stuff.” He smiles, but I know he doesn’t intending to sell anything to anyone. I doubt he’ll even shoot the thing after today. He can be strange like. Ideas take hold of him like a fever, seemingly embedding themselves beneath his skin. There’s nothing left for him to do but sweat them out. Only his ham radio is a lasting love. As for everything else, the joy is in the work.

Oliver hoist the gun onto Maxwell’s shoulder and gives a few last moment instructions on how to aim, telling him to ignore the sights. “They’re just for show,” he says, “just look down the side of the barrel.”

Maxwell takes a moment, his broad smile fading into a careful, determined scowl. There’s the click and the whoosh. The potato, staple of the American diet, giver of French fries, clips Buzz’s wing, sending him wobbling.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes…” Maxwell chants, and you’d think he’d just done something incredible, made the game winning pass at the Orange Bowl or found the cure for cancer or something, instead of simply not shooting down a kite.

There is a melody of boos from Brian, and Pen. June throws a handful of grass which flutter down around her feet like confetti.

Frowning, Sunny pulls on Buzz’s line, tugging sharply left then gently right, leveling him. He leers at Maxwell and lets out another thirty or forty feet of string. At almost a hundred feet up, Buzz becomes a tiny diamond in the sky.

“Your turn.” Oliver points to Pen who’s already on her feet.

Maxwell, jittery like a boiling teapot, moves close to Grace and I. “Did you see that?” His eyes move between the gun, the kite, and then some point in the cloudless sky, “I almost killed it!”

“Almost.” Grace, ever close with praise, smiles up at him. She keeps her eyes on his face, avoiding any accidental glances at his body, “You’re a natural.”

“I’ll get it next time.” Maxwell says, “Just a little to the left.”

“How did you find this place?” I asks, “Does your family own it?”

“This place? It doesn’t belong to anybody. No ones been here in forever.” He waves his arms around to emphasize the obvious: wheat grass high enough to hide velociraptors, the dirt road eroded to near ditch status. Besides the Army pilots (we’ve seen two helicopters fly overhead since we arrived, Oliver identified them as twin-rotor CH-47 “Chinooks”), we’re perhaps the first people to have laid eyes on this field in ten years.

“How did you know we could use it then?” Grace asks, the word trespasser etched over her worried face. I suppose the No Trespassing sign, nailed to a scrub pine by the road and pockmarked with a half-dozen bullet holes, should have been warning enough for us.

“The gate was open.” Maxwell says. He moves to the bag of potatoes, escaping our questions as he picks out another projectile.

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Ping: Friday, August 7th 2015.

“Look at her, like a f***ing butterfly.” Pen’s verbs, nouns, and adjectives are like the serrations of a steak knife. I follow her gaze and find Sarah Glosterfield standing across the lunchroom, smiling, her arms drapped over the shoulders of a toned baseball player, gorgeous Mark Loretta, Mr. Boy Wonder, all dark hair and blue eyes. “I could choke that b**** ’til her eyes popped out.”

Jun explodes with laughter, sending chocolate milk spraying over her half eaten country fried steak.

“Jesus!” Pen pulls back, wiping brown droplets from her cheek with her forearm. “B****!”

June doesn’t apologize, doesn’t say sorry or excuse me, but grins and takes another long drink, emptying the carton then crushing it one handed. It isn’t as entertaining the twentieth time you’ve seen it.

“Here.” I hand Pen a napkin.

She takes it and turns back towards Sarah with a fierce, carnivorous gaze, the likes seen on National Geographic’s Destination Wild or Animal Fight Night.  It seems appropriate. A high school lunchroom isn’t that far removed from the Serengeti or the Amazon, and is as much a study in predatory dominance and the art of camouflage as anything you’d find on late night cable. You just can’t eat people here (the awkward and insecure, the poor kids who haven’t developed a tough outer shell like June but are still self-conscious about their free lunches and greasy unkempt hair), they’re just left to rot.

“I like her shoes.” I say, attempting  to clip whichever wire will defuse this situation, “She even has a purple one, like yours.”

Pen turns to me. Her look could peel the Charlie Brown food pyramid mural from the wall. “Nothing she has is like mine.”

My face burning, I turn and scan the hundreds of heads that make up First Lunch, searching for a distraction. Most of those around us are 9th graders, freshman just a few months out of the battlefield that is West Side Jr. High. Just watching the way they sit, where they sit and with whom, you’d think invisible walls separated them. It’d take a geologist to classify their social stratifications. Our class, Mrs. Mamaril’s third period AP Biology, are the only Juniors present. We mostly keep to ourselves but some (i.e. the Sarah Glosterfields of the world) move about with a self-assurance that’s nauseating to behold.

Her eyes set to kill not stun, Pen turns back to Sarah. This is what we’ve had to live with since she came back from church camp, a Grade-A psycho girl. You’d think hearing about Jesus would have a calming effect on the teenage mind, easing teen angst like aloe a sunburn. But Pen’s stepmother might as well have thrown gas onto a fire.

“Shoes are shoes.” June says, dismissively. She nudges me under the table with her own dollar store kicks, plain white grandma sneakers normally reserved for old people in nursing homes. “If you don’t think that, then you’re thinking too much.”

Pen seems to consider this, and after a few moments her shoulders droop. “It’s not about the shoes.” She says, suddenly looking exhausted, little Ms. Sixteen going on sixty. “Maybe it is. I don’t know.”

I kick Pen lightly under the table. “Well, talk.”

After Pen returned from Camp Calvary Monday morning, she spent the last few days of Summer break in a wordless, soundless daze. When we picked her up the first day of school (who’s idea it was to start the semester on a Wednesday I have no idea) she was dressed in black. Or should I say black on black; a black skirt over black jeans, with a sleeveless black top. And she tatted herself up more than usual, her pale arms having become a dazzling M. C. Escher tessellation of crows and hounds. She must have gone through a box of fine point Sharpies to get that ink work down.

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I’m just into black now. She said as she buckled up.

We convinced her to leave her heavy gauge chain ‘belt’ and spiked dog collar in the glove compartment. They could be taken as weapons and we didn’t want her expelled. But she wouldn’t give up her boots, steel toed jungle stompers, black leather and tightly laced up her shins, their ends tied with lazy bows. She got them from the Army surplus store on 27 St. for about ten dollars. They aren’t exactly her size, and she wears three pairs of socks (black of course) to help fill them.

“It’s just …look!” Pen waves her hands at no one in particular, “Everyone is wearing them, and they’re all new! Not a mark on them!”

She’s talking about Converse, Chuck Taylors or whatever it is you want to call them. Half of the 9th graders around us, perhaps a hundred kids, are sporting them in some form or another, mostly black. Last May it would’ve been just Pen and a mentally challenged kid named Marcus Handle, infamous for jacking off in the boy’s bathroom. That alone would have insured their pariah status. You might as well have been wearing a Obama 08′ t-shirt.

Then something changed over the summer. A store opened up in the East Side Mall, someone saw a commercial or a movie, something, and they began popping up like dandylions, transforming much of Greenville into the set of Hoosiers.

“I mean…the rest of the World wears them.” Pen struggles to explain herself. Words, which normally flow from her as easily and elegantly as water from an Italian fountain, have become Monarch butterflies, and she’s grasping. “Most people I know… people in Jacksonville have two or three pairs, but to them they’re just shoes.”

“They are just shoes.” June says. I see now that she is attempting to defuse the bomb as well, how be it in a more round about way. “They’re nothing. Lets get back to discussing our dead baby, neustro cerdo muetro.”

“They aren’t just shoes.” Pen says. She turns her evil eye back towards Sarah, and I half expect the poor girl to drop dead. “People here wear them because they’ve become the thing to do not because they like them. They’re fake! The people here are fake…” Pens words trail off, the last sputter from a deflating balloon.

I look again at Sarah and her brand new Chuck Taylors, one red, one purple. She started this, mixing her shoe colors, on the second day of school. She says her mother did the same back in the nineties, perhaps while listening to Nirvana or the Spin Doctors. It’s even become something of a trend with any kids whose parents are willing to indulge them with one-hundred and twenty dollars of overrated footwear. You can see them in the halls or walking through the parking after school, all smug expressions and bluster, their feet a clash of colors screaming affluence. My own feet, wrapped in tattered Nike’s, itch to be wedged up one of their butts.

“It’s a trend.” June says, “A trend. You know that?” With her country fried steak eaten and her tray empty,  the only thing on June’s Mexican brain is getting back to Mrs. Mamaril’s room where our fetal pig awaits, flayed open and pined to our dissection tray like an ISIS torture victim. The girl’s perhaps the only student at West Greenville who views the lunchroom with purely utilitarian eyes- seeing it comparable to the janitors closet or the girl’s room only without the wet mops and empty tampon dispensers.

“Have you talked to Grace about this?” I hate the part of me that wants to pawn this off on her, but I’m sure that her listening ear would ease things. I’ve heard (in a movie or documentary somewhere) that you can freeze a bomb with liquid CO2, neutralizing it’s chemicals or at least slowing their reactions enough for you to get clear before the bang. Grace is like that, her presence can disarm a person almost unknowingly. “She can help.”

June nods agreement, and I wish Grace was with us now. But she managed to make it to Third Lunch with the rest of the juniors and seniors and spends that half-hour talking Magic with Maxwell and Brian. She’d prefer to play instead of talk but her carefully built Blue ‘control deck’ (whatever that is) was confiscated our first day by an overzealous lunch lady, to be returned at the end of the semester. Grace’s still brooding over that.

“Grace should be wearing a poodle skirt and penny loafers.” Pen grunts, her eyes still on Sarah, fixed in place like a pair of abandoned pay-use binoculars at a state park, “Girls like her end up loosing their virginities to door knobs.”

“Shut up.” I say, my words low, blunt, heavy. If she’d insulted June or had even been self-deprecating my response would be the same. You don’t mock the people I love.

Pen exhales. Her shoulders, slight as coat hangers under her black Metallica t-shirt, droop further. She doesn’t apologize, she doesn’t have too. Her words, still hanging in the air, become paper light and blow away like last weeks want-ads, never to be thought of again. Do they still print those, want-ads?

“My Mom doesn’t answer my calls. I think her phone’s been disconnected.” Pen says, “And that b**** thinks its funny. Always telling me to forget about her. She smiles when she says it. Her teeth are like baked beans.”

She doesn’t have to explain who the ‘bitch’ is, and I wonder if all stepmothers are like those in the old Disney cartoons, prim and proper devourers of children. Maybe. I hope not.

The conversation ends here with Pen silently playing with her food, a dejected and abandoned puppy.

June exhales, the gap in between her front teeth whistling . “Sarah is a little freak isn’t she.”  She turns towards Sarah Glosterfield, her eyes narrowed. “The way she smiles all the time.” There’s a forced emotion in her words, an artificial layer of disgust worn like bad makeup. “Makes me think she’s lying whenever she talks to me about something.”

Pen grins, her thin pink lips curling up, showing small white teeth. She leans in close. “Heard she a gave a couple of guys the clap last year. Their peckers swelled up like little puss filled sausages. Some parents called the principle and almost got her expelled.”

“Slut.” June snarls, her disgust becoming genuine, her nose wrinkling as if she’d caught wiff of a dog turd, “Punta.”

I could tell them that it wasn’t Sarah Glosterfield but Sarah Tovell who infected Tod Hill and Willie Sadler with gonorrhea last Fall , that this Sarah is a star softball player and an honor roll student, that she once had her photo printed in the Greenville Trumpet, a reward for hard work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation. I could, but why? Sarah G. will live a charmed life no matter what we say about her, and Pen needs relief now.

“It’s worst than that,” I say, ignoring a faint ping of guilt, “Durning seventh grade she was caught behind the gym with a black boy named Tray. For the rest of the year everyone would ask her when the tonsil baby was due.”

June and Pen erupt in laughter, and the world stops and stares. Sarah Glosterfield looks at me from across the lunchroom, her smile still perfect, a Mona Lisa smirk painted on by years of love and adoration.

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The Show Goes On: Friday July 24, 2015

“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.

A diligent band member is worth her weight in brass.

“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 starts attending some type of girl’s church camp outside Brannon, hoping the experience would instill a more conservative world view. Pen’s protests were Pen worthy as Grace says. Pen 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.

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Indians, Cancer, and Some Things In-between: Sunday July 18th, 2015

“This is one of my favorite episodes,” Grandpa Joe grunts, his voice the gutteril sound you’d expect from a lifelong heavy smoker or a preteen Ragen MacNeil, “Marshall Dillon leads a cattle drive through Apache county and all hell breaks loose.” He works the controls of his electric wheelchair, pivoting to ensure he’ll have good view of the ensuing gunfight. “A herd of them red n*****s gonna get killed.”

“Please don’t use that word.” Mom says, though we both know it won’t do any good.

“Fine, Native American n*****s then.” A grin curls up his stumbled cheek.

“Marshall Dillon is the one in front?” I ask.

Joe doesn’t answer, his eyes fixed on the TV.

“Yes, that’s Dillion.” Mom says absently. She’s panning the mess around us, an explosion of magazines, empty beer cans and full ashtrays. Joe’s living room is as inviting as a minefield.

The TV, a vacume tube filled monster with knobs and buttons covering it’s front and a large pair of rabbit ears protruding from it’s top, flickers as white cowboys on brown horses chase cattle across the screen. A small black box marked ‘digital converter’ rests on a bookcase a few feet away. It’s green power light winks at me from it’s center.

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It’s served Joe well since the Carter administration, what else can I say?

Minutes pass. I hold my breath, timing myself with my phone. Two minutes thirty-two seconds, not bad.

Joe grunts something as the tube pours out a half dozen lines of cheap cardboard dialogue. The only other sound is the lonely tick of the grandmother clock resting on the mantel and the low hum of the central air. Somewhere in the house Oliver and Morgan are playing on their phones, hoping for a quick gettaway. On the long drive down we drew straws to decide which of us would sit with Mom through the ordeal. It’s the Nolan family tradition I hate most, especially when I come up short.

“Do you ladies need anything?” Mrs. Dot, Joe’s former day-nurse and current wife, pokes her head in from the hall. She’s a terrifying sight, all blue hair and too much makeup. “More sweet tea or a jigsaw puzzel?”

Both Mom and I shake our heads, sending her Cheshire grin away.

We’ve learned how to get rid of her quickly, keeping our contact to an absolute minimum, but I doubt it does much good for Mom. Resentment floats around her like the stink of an old fart. Dot, married to Grandpa Joe for over a year, has replaced just about every photo of my long dead grandmother with portaits of herself; here’s Dot visiting Niagra Falls with her first husband (was his name James or Jim?); there’s Dot graduating nursing school, Class of 67′; look it’s Dot posing with her multitude of kids and grandkids, all biological, each yellow haired and stumpy. The two sets of twins in the last photo belong more in a Stephen King novel than on the wall of a dated ranch style in Corpus Christi, Texas.

I turn back to the TV. After a day dodging rattle snakes and fording streams the cattle drive settles in for the night. Soon commercials for Centrum Silver and Depends roll.

Joe clears his throat. “So the boy didn’t want to come?” He fumbles with the chair’s controls, raising the seat then lowering it again, making himself comfortable. Near his feet a catheter bag peeks out at me, it’s full of what I’m sure isn’t vanilla cream soda. “Your husband,” he tilts his head towards mom, “where is he?”

“He wasn’t feeling well.” Mom says, a well practiced lie if there ever was one. Mom and Dad are on the brink, with Dad sleeping on the couch most nights and spending every spare moment driving aimlessly around town. He’s already changed the oil in the truck twice this summer. “His stomach, we didn’t want to have to stop at every gas station between Greenville and here.” She laughs, attempting to give life to the fabrication. “He really wanted to come though.”

“I’m sure.” Joe grunts, fingering the TV remote duct tapped to his chair’s armrest, “You know how that boy loves me.” He coughs a smoker’s raspy cough and spits flem into a used tissue.

“He does.” Mom doesn’t waver, her smile is so sweet it could give you a toothache, “He really does.”

“And where are those other two? The girl and the boy?” Joe asks, looking around to emphaise Morgan and Oliver’s absence. The only other things surrouding us (besides Dot’s family photos and the massive TV) are mounted deer and elk antlers. They arn’t perserved with the heads like you’d expect but protrude from portions of skull and reach out from the walls like the mandbibles of some giant insect. I shrink back.

“They’re probably on the porch. They’re allergic to ciggerette smoke.” Mom says, her voice strong, confident. “Both are poping Allegra like Tic-Tacs. You should see them after they do yard work.”

“Really.” Doubtful, Joe scratches his head. I’m sure he’s heard more lies than truths in his life time.

“It’s costing me a fortune.” Mom’s smiles headed, her cheeks red, and I have to give her props. June once told me that lying is all in the details, like the plastic ficus trees in the teacher’s lounge. With their realistic leaves and fluffy faux moss you don’t notice anythings amiss until you go to piss on one of the damn things. I didn’t ask how she came up with this anology.

“Well, I’d like to see them before you go.” Joe says. He runs his nicotine stained fingers over the TV remote, it’s small black buttons have been worn smooth, their symbols erased forever. “This damn prostate cancer may get me before long.”

“You’ll be fine.” Mom says. The concern that filled her ten years ago, when he first phoned and told her of his imminent demise, has long since evaporated, not even leaving a residue. “What does your doctor say?”

Joe pulls a pack of Marlboros from his shirt pocket. “He says to stop smoking!” He laughs as smoke fills the room and our nostiels.

“You should.” Mom says. She looks at her phone (it’s only 11:13 in the morning!) then back at Joe. His eyes are once again glued to the TV set, having already forgotten us and the cancer nibbling at him from underneath. “They’ll kill you.”

I know what Mom’s thinking. Some people, even horrible people, have all the luck, while Grandma Patricia had none at all. It took less than six months for her cancer (starting as a pea sized lump in her left breast, found Halloween morning) to spread to her spine and throat. Within two more months it’d biten into her brain.

The last photo taken of her (a Poloriod Mom keeps hidden in the folds of an old high school year book) shows my grandmother a frail, hairless creature, thin to the point of weightlessness and connected to a resparator. You’d think her punctured balloon pressed to the lips of a dim but patient child and not a thirty-six year old women.

We watch as Apaches creep forward, moving among the indifferent bolvine with the ease of a fish in water. Someone calls out, arrows fly, there’re gunshots, the fray begins.

“How was school?” Joe turns to me, the carnage he’s waited forty-five minutes for fading into the background. “How were your grades this year?”

“Uh, good.” I had five A’s and one B last semester. Go me!

“Good?” He looks me over. The whites of his eyes are a dirty yellow. “You play sports? Girls play sports now.”

“No.”

He grunts something, disapproval maybe. I know he played varsity football, somewhere there’s a photo of him wearing his pads and jersey, sporting the same stiff crew-cut he keeps now. But why bring it up? Just looking for a subject more interesting than Pre-calculus?

Dot pokes her head in from the hall. “Morgan and Oliver are working on a jiggsaw puzzle if you want to join us. It’s of Mt. Rushmore.”

Mom and I shake our heads, again sending her away disappointed.

“How are your teachers.” Joe asks. He hasn’t taken his eyes off of me. “Alot of them Obama people are getting into schools, teaching everything backwards.”

“My teachers are fine.” I want to leave, flee to the porch and help piece together Lincoin’s face until it’s time to go back to the hotel. Having this man ask about my school life is like having a stranger ask my underwear size. None of your damn business, that’s my size!

“Any gays? Kids want to be gay now.” His eyes narrow into suspicus slits.

“No.” I lie, wondering what he’d think of Shannon Van Warren, the junior with a shaved head and rainbow ‘Legalize Love’ bumper sticker on her pink Prius. The old bastard would proabley try to strangle her with his own liver spotted hands.

“No gays?” Joe ask again. His eyes could belong to a water moccasin.

“No. There arn’t any gays at West Greenville High School. Not one.”

He looks at me for a moment longer, leering his satisfaction, before turning back to the TV set. “Good.” He says to no one inparticular, or maybe to the cowboys, their Winchesters bleating out fire and death.

The grandmother clock ticks on, measuring out time by the drop when I’d perfer it by the gallon. My eyelids are beginning to sag. I want to fight it but don’t. I know I should, but it doesn’t seem rude to drift off. It even feels right somehow.

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Relatively Painless: Wensday July 15, 2015

“How much money do you have?” Maxwell asks. He’s stooped in the driver’s seat of his Chrysler Saratoga, ham hock hands resting on the steering wheel like fat, hairless rats. If he were anymore overweight he’d be wearing the car like a Transformers Halloween costume and I’d be walking to the 7th Street Pump and Go.

“Five dollars.” I really have ten but why should I tell him that? We (June, Pen, Grace and I) are his guests, and he’s been a terrible host, leaving us to wash our own cups and me to run to the store now that the Sprite has given out.

“We can get a couple of two liters with that.” Maxwell nods. 

He turns the stirring wheel left and the tangerine junker rolls onto 11th St. Over the hood and along the windshield drops of a late summer rain, made orange by the passing sodium-vapor streetlamps, drift up and away. The early Greenville evening passes my window, a soundless tribute to a bygone American age. Morton Furniture Manufacturing (defunct), Greene Hosiery (defunct), The Chicken Basket (alive and packed full of low income, obese patrons.)

I don’t care what the mayor says,  Greenville can be beautiful at night.

I want to ask if we can listen to some music but from the looks of the gaping radio shaped hole in his dashboard, that’s out of the question. I turn back to Magic. “Grace is pretty good with the blue color huh?”

Maxwell grunts something and lights a cigarette with the dash’s push button lighter. He cracks his window just enough to keep me from suffocating. “Brian sucks at whatever he plays. Little Miss Priss really isn’t that good.”

I grin. “She’s won four out of six games.”

“So?”

“So nothing.” I know it irks him that Grace is actually good, real good, and probably would’ve won all six games but it took her a little while to get use to what Pen calls the synergy of her deck, the way the cards play together, drawing on each other’s strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. Like a hockey team, Pen said, though I doubt she’s ever worn a pair of ice skates in her life. After three hours in Maxwell’s dilapidate duplex (we could hear his neighbors arguing through it’s paper thin walls, something about a full litter box) Grace has proven herself a kick a** player.

“What color do you play?” I push the conversation in another direction, preferring it to the near silence of Maxwell’s heavy smoking. Pen tried to explain the differences in the colors but it was lost on me. She might as well have been describing the inner workings of the CIA.

“It’s called ‘mana’, and I play red.” Maxwell says. He turns to avoid a pothole, careful to keep Bitch (that’s what he’s named this four wheeled heap) from any unnecessary wear and tear. He says that if I actually knew what kept her together I’d have a conniption fit, whatever that is.

“Why red?”

“Because it’s quick and there’re aren’t many tricks.” He drops the cigarette butt out the window and lights another, a Pall Mall, what Dad calls the poor man’s brand. “You hit fast and hard and if you haven’t won by your fifth or sixth turn, you run out of gas and loose. Simple.”

We pull up to the Pump and Go, and I hand him one five dollar bill, careful to hide the other from view. He struggles out and lurches towards the store. I can see his mother, exhausted from working a double shift, talking to him over the counter. He points to me and she looks. I wave. She waves back, the fat under her arm wobbling

Earlier on the drive to Maxwell’s, Pen tried to prepare us. She said it’d be like going to the dentist. Besides the initial needle prick of Novocain you really don’t feel anything you just think you do. The only real worry is the possibility of a bad aftertaste. She can be poetic like that, working metaphors like Grandma Mimi knits ugly sweaters. June, of course, says she’s full of it. She’s spent the afternoon watching YouTube on Grace’s phone, eating up gigs of data like Oreos.

Maxwell opens the driver door and hands me a two-liter of Sprite before easing himself back into his seat. Bitch groans under his weight and sinks to one side. He cranks the engine and turns down 7th St. “We’ll take the long way back. I need a few more cigarettes.” After a few minutes 7th St. become Folsom Ave., then 22nd St.

Normally, I wouldn’t ride around with someone I hardly know, let alone handing said stranger money, but again Pen was right. Maxwell and Brian are about as harmless as Caesar salads and the term stranger danger doesn’t really apply to them. Chad may have been a problem, but his new job at the B St. Dollar General keeps him out most weeknights. Grace wouldn’t have come otherwise. That and the promise of no alcohol. Caffeinated sugar water seems to be her poison of choice.

“How’s Chad’s new job?” I breath through my mouth, never being able to stand the smell of cigarette smoke, not even Paw Paw’s, and he smoked like a chimney, “Does he like it?”

“He stocks tampons all night, how do you think he likes it?”

“I suppose he doesn’t.” I say, wondering what it would be like to stock condoms all night, “He probably hates it.”

“Bingo. And the fat redhead gets the prize.” He offers me a cigarette.

“No thanks, I like living.” Mom would be proud.

“You know,” Maxwell, now with two death sticks hanging from his dry lips instead of just one, pushes in the dashboard lighter, “he was pissed about us planning Magic without him. He wants Little Miss Priss pretty bad.”

“He really likes her.”

He shakes his head. “I told you he just needs an anti-Mrs. Mumford. But Grace will do. The fact that she’s cute is just a plus.” He grins, “That boy would give a silver dollar just to sniff her twat.”

“Ugh…” Oh God that’s disgusting! And what’s this crap with a silver dollar?  Sounds like something Paw Paw would’ve said, if Paw Paw was a pervert or something, and he wasn’t.

“What about you?” I’m attempting to pull the conversation out of the cesspool and onto dry land, “Do you like anyone?”

Maxwell looks at me, a who the h*** are you? expression on his fat bovine face, then turns back at the road.

“Well, what do you like in a girl?”

He sighs and says without turning, “Big tits.”

No surprise there, every boy likes big boobs. It would’ve been nice to hear something about a shining sense of humor or a strong maternal instinct. “Is that all?”

Real big tits.”

We turn down one avenue then another, and Maxwell’s few cigarettes turn into a half-dozen. He clears his throat. “A girl has got to have big tits. That’s a must. Like icing on a cake. Otherwise it’d  just be bread.” He snorts, “If it weren’t for her hair Little Miss Priss would look like a boy scout! No boobs at all!

“Shut up.”

“I mean just about every girl has boobs: you, June. Man if June’s boobs were any bigger she’d be a Boobasaurus Rex!” He snorts hard and loud. If we were in a school lunchroom chocolate milk would be shooting out of his nose, but instead cigarette ash flutters down his chin and  onto his lap. “Even Pen has boobs. Cute perky ones. Nice pink nipples too.” He catches my look. “What?”

“Nothing.” But there is something.

“We were drinking one night, watching TV, and she started making out with Brian.” Maxwell lights another Pall Mall as effortlessly as turning the page of a book. “Well, he gets up and to take a piss. While he’s gone she turns and starts making out with me. She tasted like Maker’s Mark if you want to know.” He pauses, letting the images sink in. My stomach turns. “A few minutes later Brian came back and caught me with her left titty in my hand. The boy was pissed. He f***ed up my drum set, kicked the s*** out of it. Told us to f*** off!” He sings out this last part like a Huron war cry. “Scared the poop out of Pen.”

“Does he like her?” It’s the only question I can think of.

“He did, but not after that. He’s ok with it now though. ‘S*** under the bridge’ he says. ‘Things happen when you’re drunk.'” Maxwell shrugs, “I mean she’s cool and all, but what did he expect? The girl draws tattoos all over herself. She’s needy as hell.”

“I didn’t know she was like that.” I say, meaning both slutty and needy. Are they one in the same? I’ve heard they are but I’ve seen otherwise. Morgan for instance.

“She has issues.”

“So she’s not gay?” The question may finally be answered. It’s a shame, I kind of liked the mystery.

“Crap, I don’t know. Maybe. She’s needy.”

We pull into his duplex’s driveway, parking next to his neighbor’s vintage Mercedes. With it’s missing hubcaps and busted rear window it screams both affluence and poverty with one breath. You’d think it belonged to the President of Uganda at one time.

“Don’t tell your little girlfriends about the whole making out with Pen thing.” Maxwell says, cradling a bottle of Sprite like an infant, “And don’t tell Pen that I said she’s needy. I like my face the way it is, and I don’t need it rearranged.” He lifts his sleeve to reveal a half moon of tiny scabs just above his elbow. The look dark red against his farmers tan.

“Did she bite you?”

“Fingernails.” He rolls down his sleeve, “I don’t remember what the fight was about but I think she won it. She’s a damn spider monkey.”

***

We find June sprawled across Maxwell’s tattered couch, snoring, a dead iPhone laying on her massive belly. Pen, Brian and Grace are just as we left them, sitting Indian style around a scarred oak coffee table, Magic cards and empty cups spread before them.

“What took you so long?” Pen asks.

“Me and Mable made out in the parking lot before coming up.” He hands her a two litter, “She wants my body.”

“I’m sure.” Pen pours herself then Grace a warm cup of Sprite. Ice is not something I’m willing to flip the bill for.

“You’re move.” Brian growls. By the looks of things, he isn’t doing well.

“Manta Rider.” Grace, who hasn’t looked up since we entered, lays out a fearsome looking card. She moves her hand back slowly, eyes narrowed, her thin pink tongue pinched between small white teeth. “With flying and haste.” She doesn’t look at Brian. She doesn’t have too.

“F***!” Brian slams his cards down, sending them flying around the room. “F*** this!” He turns to Pen, something akin to hate in his eyes, “You said tonight would be easy!”

“It was easy.” Pen says, her laughter, I’m sure, carrying through the walls, “Easy for her!”

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