“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.
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.