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.


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 attending girl’s church camp outside Brannon. Pen’s protests were Pen worthy. She declared she was a pagan, an atheist, and just plain didn’t give a f*** about Jesus. In the end she was hauled off to Camp Calvary by her jean skirt wearing, Pentecostal stepmother like Faustus was dragged to Hell by demons. I’m sure the experience will be traumatic for all involved.

“What about your grandparents?” Grace asks. She tilts her head towards June, knowing the answer will be an interesting one.

“My abuela owns a bar.” June says. We expect more information but the only thing to be heard is a mangled rendition of the Star Spangle Banner.

“My Grandpa Hank owns a bar too, The Water Bucket.” Grace says. Her voice is timid, creeping out like a mouse from its hole. The man, this Hank, hasn’t seen Grace’s mom in twenty years, not since an argument over some family land, and he’s never seen Grace ever, never held her as a baby or sent her one birthday card. Knowing Joe that might’ve been a good thing.

“I know he owns a bar.” June says, “You point it out every time we drive by, like you want too go in and watch some juggs bounce or something.”

“Is your grandmother’s bar a titty bar too?” I ask, wondering if titty bar is the proper nomenclature.

“No, just a bar.” June says. “Some of the waitresses have been fired for giving BJ’s in the bathroom though.” She laughs, “Some girls ain’t worth s***.”

There is a chill in the air and in the distance, above the scoreboard and the roof tops beyond that, we can see several pink thunderheads growing fat. Maybe Channel 5’s promise of a summer shower will be realized. It’ll be a first, those people seem to pull weather forecasts out of a hat.

“Do you see her often?” Grace asks. It’s a dumb question we all know the answer too. If its not on the school bus route, or within driving range of my Caravan, which is about two hundred miles on a full tank, June’s s*** out of luck.

“Nope.” June obliges us with the unnecessary answer.

“When was the last time you saw her?” Grace asks, “I’ve seen Grandpa Hank like five times at Walmart. Once I was behind him at the checkout line for about ten minutes. He didn’t know its me though. He was buying dog food.”

“It was before we moved up here.” June says. She unbuttons her shirt, an old western style she got from who knows where, and points the fan directly at her boobs. Her frayed beige bra, the only one I think she owns, is one large sweat stain. A few band members notice, but they’re more interested in the coming rain than in her heaving Latina cleavage. “She and my mom got into it over some money. Fifty dollars.” The fan’s batteries die and she tosses it aside. “God it’s hot! Let it rain already!”

“Sorry.” Grace says.

“About what?” June asks, but she knows what, and I know it annoys her.

“Everything.” Grace says.

I almost feel bad for her, Grace, how she wears her heart on her sleeve the way some girls color their hair blue or buzz cut a side of their heads. She needs to quit that crap before someone cruel comes along.

“Screw that.” June growls. “Don’t feel sorry about my abuela and I won’t feel sorry for your Hank,” and turning to me, “or your Joe.”

I raise my hands in agreement. Grace says nothing.

A thunderclap roars through the cooling air, but Mr. Bedford carries on, waving his hands over his head, rhythmically, urging his kids to continue. They break into an unenthusiastic rendition of We Will Rock You. It could put a baby to sleep.

“You’re thinking to much about these things.” June says finally, “Most people aren’t that bad or good they just are.” She begins buttoning her shirt as a gust of cold air sweeps over the field. “Whenever you get pissed about someone being an a**hole or guilty because someone seems nicer than the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause and Jesus Christ put together, just remember,” she leans in close, as if she were passing the answer to the most important question of all, “…everyone shits.”

“Really?” Grace says, unimpressed.

“Uh huh.” June leans back against the tree, eyes closed, enjoying the breeze with a self-satisfied expression. You’d thought she made the weather and was cooling us off as a favor. “Todo el mundo caga. Everyone shits. Sometimes more than once a day.”

Grace looks at me and I shrug. Once upon a time I would’ve written down June’s words verbatim, scribbling them on scraps of paper or used napkins like they were hints to the location of lost treasure. Over time, her Spanglish vulgarities filled a small spiral notebook cover to cover: la vida es una perra, life is a b****, quien no es un comedor de mierda, who isn’t a s*** eater, etc. Eventually I realized that they were all variations of the same atheistic, nihilistic thing. Nothing matters, and if it does, it won’t for long. Depressing isn’t it? That notebook disappeared around the time June introduced me to Grace, lost under my bed or forgotten in my locker or backpack somewhere. Who knows?

“I think that’s stupid.” Grace says, chewing off her syllables like beef jerky. “Some people are good and some are bad. If you don’t want to think about it then that’s on you.”

June exhales. She’s tired of suffering us fools. “Mable, your abuelo Joe is a jerk right?” She doesn’t turn to me as she speaks, doesn’t even open her eyes or wait for my response, “But your dead grandmother was a saint? Why?”

I don’t answer. She doesn’t want me too. I know this game.

“Because she died of cancer at thirty-five?” The words hang in the air like the promised rain; heavy. “Sorry, to tell you this but that doesn’t mean s***. What type of woman would marry an a** like Joe anyways?”

Her voice changes with the last question and I know that’s my cue. “Dot, his new wife, is kinda dumb I guess.”

Stupid is the word I should’ve used. During our visit, I found her putting together a jigsaw puzzle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I asked if she’s ever been there before, to Pisa. She looked at me, her eyes as dim as an unlit candle, and asked if Pisa was in Texas. I told her Tennessee and dropped the issue.

“Well, Reason is swinging his big d*** here and is saying your dead grandmother was an idiot too. Cancer or not.” June is careful here, putting on a softer the world sucks for all of us tone. “Life just sucks sometimes. People suck.”

The sky darkens, and I watch as a bird struggles against the wind, it’s thin, frail form held nearly static by a stiff breeze. You’d think it frozen in time.

It occurs to me that June isn’t being figurative but literal with her everyone shits. She really means everyone: Buddha, Jesus, frail, dying Grandma Patricia. I can’t help but imagine that pale, emaciated woman squatting over one of those special hospice toilets, hairless from chemo and pinned through with ivs, her hospital gown hiked up around her waist as she reads a Woman’s World article. She turns to me and smiles.

The wind picks up and Mr. Bedford gathers the band around him for a pep talk. He tells them to take a knee but most continue to stand, looking impatiently at the clouds.

We need to be on our toes this year, we need to keep up a high standard…He talks about upcoming pep rallies, games, and state competitions. He mentions instrument maintenance, uniform care, and the need for practice, practice, practice. His words carry the knowing tone of a father whose accepted his child as middle rung, neither the best nor brightest. But there’s love in his voice, I can hear it, hidden between the syllables like small gems tucked into a coal vien. I hope they can hear it too, I really do.

“I bought my own Magic cards.” Grace says. She’s taken her phone out again and is pointing it at the large black clouds that have crept danger close. A few fat drops begin impacting the leaves overhead, but they soon stop. “A thousand commons, uncommons, and rares for twenty dollars on eBay.”

June grunts and I say something, I don’t know what.

“I’ll have my own deck soon. I won’t have to borrow Pen’s.” Grace continues. She knowing she’s talking to herself but smiles none the less. “I’ll give Maxwell a run for his money. That burn deck of his is killer.”

Mr. Bedford dismisses the band and they flee to their waiting cars in the school parking lot. It hasn’t started to rain yet, not really, and you’d thought they were made of sugar and would melt into sweet, gooey puddles if caught outside when it does.

“Should we go?” Grace asks, not making an attempt to get up.

June and I don’t answer, and we all nestle in. It won’t be the first time we’ve been caught out in the rain.

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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.


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.”


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 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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Pen Pals: Friday July 10th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Haven’t had the time.” Pen says.

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

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

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

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

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

We must remember that they mean well.

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

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

“Your mom’s a freak!” June laughs.

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

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

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

“Bulls***!” June laughs. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Under the Artificial Stars: Saturday, 4th of July 2015

“I’m sorry again.” Pen moans, wiping the sweat from her flushed forehead. “But you have to admit they weren’t that bad, just a little rough.”

“Rough?” Grace looks at her, “They were jerks!”

June rolls her eyes. This has been going on since we arrived at the County Fairground’s massive parking lot and Grace asked Pen to help her pull the lawn chairs out of the van. It was the first they’ve spoken in a week and Pen has embraced the chance to make amends. I guess they were both tired of the silent treatment.

“They weren’t that bad.” Pen says, following close behind Grace, “They’re like us in a hairier, smellier sort of way.” She wipes more sweat away, “And you were kind of an a**.”

“Kind of an butt?” Grace sneers. Pen’s method of apology could use some work.

The conversation hangs in the air as we press between an old pickup truck and a ragged two door sedan crammed with about eight black kids. One little girl stares up at me as I try to squeeze past her door without breaking off an already Duck taped side view mirror.

“They are my friend’s you know?” Pen pauses behind a jeep and shifts her lawn chair from one shoulder to the other, her tiny frame having trouble with what looks like two pounds of aluminum and vinyl.

“How was I suppose to act thrown into a situation like that?” Grace asks. She carefully navigates past an old couple, a grandfather pushing a grandmother in a rickety wheel chair. A green oxygen bottle hangs from the chair’s side with it’s clear plastic lines running directly to the woman’s nose. The man hums the theme from Bonanza. “They sure as heck didn’t seem to care how they acted towards us.”

“You’re a nice person and I expected you to act that way.” Pen says, “And you have to admit, Chad has problems.” The clever girl is playing at Grace’s better nature, kudos for that.

“Yeah, he has problems. Weird problems.” Grace’s nauseated tone speaks volumes. Maxwell told us to keep Chad’s mommy issus between ourselves and not tell Little Miss. Priss. We agreed, only to let the mangy, mutant cat out of the bag as soon as we were heading home. Somethings you can’t keep secret. But it was for the best. Grace’s anger has dwindled to something more like pity.

We leave the overflow parking lot (now a colorful sea of every make and model automobile imaginable) and hike along a crowded gravel road leading to the main field where the city’s set up the carnival and designated an official fireworks viewing area. Several volunteers wave us pass a row of orange traffic cones and a hand painted sign reading, “‘No Vehicles Permitted.'” One hands Pen a flyer and says something about Mayor McDaniel’s reelection bid. We, and just about everyone else, ignore her.

June taps me on the shoulder. She’s looking over the cheaply printed black and white flyer, dollar signs stamped all over it. “Can I get a turkey leg. They’re just three dollars.” Grace and Pen walk a head of us, discussing something Freudian, probably the Oedipus Complex.

“We agreed to eat after.” I say, struggling to keep my balance on the gravel. My arms are wrapped around a few beach towels June and I have choose to take instead of lawn chairs and the bag of snacks Grace snatched from her pantry. “Everything at the venders will be overpriced anyways.”

“Just one?” Her pleading tone belongs more to a preschooler than a seventeen year old teenager.


She grumbles something about us poor white whores but knows it won’t do any good. Money has gotten low for everyone and there has been talk of trying a summer job. With our collective work experience totaling three weeks of babysitting and some light yard work, the only option available to us is cashiering at one of the dozens of fast food joints dotting Greenville’s cityscape. Dread has bloomed in us like an ugly flower.

As we reach the top of the path, June’s eyes grow wide as Oreos. The County Fairgrounds is bustling, and raising above the herds of people and straddled by multicolored lights and brightly painted signs are dozens of carnival rides and concession stands. Everything is topped with red, white and blue streamers and over a loud speaker someone is playing Stars and Strips Forever. God I’m so proud to be an American! Suck it Canada!

June, on the other hand, is immune to any patriotic bug and has gone zombie. “Turkey leggg…” She stumbles towards the nearest stand.

Sin dinero, sin pierna de pavo!” I pulling her back. She struggles for a moment then whimpers, like a balloon deflating, and falls in line behind me. Grace and Pen are already halfway down the fairway. They look back but I wave them on, wanting to ensure they we get good spots at the viewing field. The whole city and half the county will be here tonight.

“So what did you think of Chad?” I ask, hoping to get June’s mind off food, but knowing it’s a long shot. She’s primal about sustenance.

“Loser.” June says. She studies every booth we pass. With everything priced at a premium her hopes for an early dinner sink like a stone, and I think I can hear her heart breaking. It sounds like someone stepping on tortilla chips.

“What about Brian and Maxwell?” I looked them up on Facebook and they seemed no different than what we saw at Burger King. Brian has few friends, his account belonging more to an elderly aunt (his legal guardian or something) than himself. Most of his post are of pumpkin spice cake recipes and the proper way to preserve strawberries. Maxwell, on the other hand, was a non-presents altogether with his last post, a blurb about Minecraft, being over two years old.

“Same.” June says, “They’re all losers.” She’s moved from admiring the corndogs and nachos to studying the carnies hashing them out. Most are either middle aged and overweight or teenagers with pimples and thin, underdeveloped mustaches. Bad teeth seems to be a universal prerequisite for life on the road. “About as big a losers as these guys.”

I nod, allowing for the ambiguity. To June the entire world consist of two groups of people: us and the losers. You can be the coolest, nicest overachiever on the planet (the type who get the gold medals in snowboarding and then the Mr. or Miss Congeniality award too boot) but if you haven’t spent a Tuesday night helping Grace alphabetize her sci-fi paperbacks or a Friday afternoon cursing about Greenville in my unconditioned Grand Caravan praying to God everyone’s deodorant holds out, then you are a muy grande perdedor, a very big loser.

We move on. Above us the blue afternoon sky gives way to a warm sunset. Several large thunderclaps, ones Channel 5 warned might nix the fireworks show, rise above us like enormous pink pillars. Grace, already at the end of the fairway, has her camera out and is kneeling in the dirt, snapping away. Pen is hovering over her. She’s learned to be patient while the artist is at work. It’s something of a professional courtesy, the Canon Digital Rebel being to Grace what a fine point Sharpie is to Pen. Mutual respect has developed.

The World through Grace's eyes.

The World through Grace’s eyes. Copyright Grace Laurent, 2015.

“I looked Chad up on Facebook.” I say, “He seems to like wrestling a lot.”

June grunts as she sidesteps a dirt covered funnel cake.

“His wallpaper is a picture of him shaking hands with John Cena. He’s a wrestler he saw him in Little Rock a few years ago.” I don’t mention his mother, a middle aged women with a tan darker than any Caucasian woman should have. Her profile says she’s a dental hygienist but bartender seems more appropriate. There isn’t one photo of her without a bottle of something in hand (or hands): a fifth of Jack, a pint of Grey Goose, two PBR’s, etc.

“Sounds like a f**.” June says absently. Her eyes have moved from the carnies and bright lights to the teenagers crowding an outcropping of picnic tables. Most are black kids from Carver High School, some are whites I recognize from West Greenville. Martina Amos, a party girl blonde with a round face and emerald green eyes, known mostly for dropping her pants and peeing in front of crowd of boys to win a bet, waves.

Despite a sinking heart (God there are some people that just make you lose your faith in humanity!) I wave back, mostly out of reflex, partially out of politeness. It’s hard to believe we were once friends, that at one time we braded each other’s hair and were on the same t-ball team.

We find Grace and Pen near the back of the viewing field. With their chairs set in the reclining position, they stare up at the hot pink clouds gliding across the sky like loose feathers. They take turns spotting elephants, rabbits and Elvis Presley. I guess this means they made up.

“You two couldn’t get any closer?” June kicks Grace’s chair and motions across the field were thousands of human heads bob like tulips in a Dutch farmer’s field.

“We were late.” Grace says, “And the fireworks will be above us anyways.” She points up at a vast thunderclap. It glows a divine pink and you’d think God were trying to lead us to the shores of the Red Sea. “We have a great view.”

June grunts and begins laying out her Despicable Me beach towel. I follow, laying mine beside Pen’s chair.

Beyond the thousands of heads is a small wooden stage where Mayor McDaniel will be sure to give a rambling speech. Further on, working in a small clearing, is the Great Southern Fire and Wonder Company LLC., ready to fulfill their contractual obligations to thrill and awe.

“I hope this s**** good.” Pen says, doubt in her voice, “They do the Fourth over the water in Jacksonville, it’s like the World’s on fire.”

“This’ll be better.” I reassure her, knowing full well that it won’t. Jacksonville probably spends more  on it’s Forth of July fireworks, a one night affair, than Greenville dishes out annually for it’s children’s educations. Funny how fixing the broken tampon dispensers in the girl’s restrooms or having Windows 7 capable computers never seems to be on any candidate’s campaign agenda, while a big Fourth of July is promised by every hopeful, even Democrats.

After a few minutes Mayor McDaniel, wearing a black suit and sporting a short power hair cut, hops on stage with a young Republican’s enthusiastic flare. He is followed by the towns oldest living veterans, two men in wheelchairs and one hobbling slowly on a sliver cane. Through black speakers propped on poles around the field, he begins a gory summary of Greenville’s contributions to our nation’s history, usually in the form of young men blown to bits and buried thousands of miles from home. We listen, or at least pretend too, as the sun sets and the improvised stadium lights, shop lamps placed a few feet above stage, flicker on.

“This guy needs to shut up.” Pen swats a mosquito on her elbow, leaving a red blot on her pale skin, “Those old guys are about to fall asleep.”

She’s right. One of the wheelchair vet’s is already slumped over snoozing while the other two struggle. Maybe Oliver and Sunny had the right idea to stay home and watch the fireworks from through the attic window.

After another ten minutes the Mayor moves off the stage and Stars and Strips Forever begins pumping through the makeshift surround sound system. My heart begins to race.  After a few moments three mortars fly up, shining like shooting stars before bursting into a million bits of red, white, and blue. More follow in a well timed eruption of light and beauty. I look and see Grace beaming, her face glowing with patriotic colors, while June snores, a thin stream of drool wetting her cheek.

Pen, unimpressed, turns to me. “Is this it?”

I only smile and look up, allowing myself to be carried away by the music and the steady thump, thump, thump of the mortars. “Who would need anything else?”

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Mixed Drinks: Saturday June 27th, 2015

Order 77; double Whopper and fries, and one hamburger children’s meal. Order 77.

I watch as an old man, his hands gnarled with arthritis and his feet wrapped in orthopedic shoes, holds up his receipt and shuffles to the counter. He nods towards the indifferent cashier and takes his full tray, slowly as if his whole world were resting upon it, to a booth where a small girl is waiting. She smiles.

Reluctantly, I turn my eyes back to my own crowded table.

The situation hasn’t changed. Pen’s boys are still here, a collection of three vaguely familiar faces from school, eleventh grade burnouts known mostly for smoking Camels behind the gym and making cat calls to anything wearing panties. My early hopes for Chad Mumford (that his childish crush on Grace might actually lead somewhere, that he’d be a boy worthy of a girl like her) have faded like overexposed photographs.

“That’s cool. I like the Syfy channel too- Sharknado and all that.” Chad makes a chomping sound with his teeth, smacking his incisors together like a hungry woodchuck. “I think they have another one coming out.”

I’m embarrassed for him, everyone is. But he seems oblivious, having hardly taken his eyes off Grace since we arrived.

“I like science fiction books.” She corrects, looking at him as though he were carrying Hep C and just offered her a used Band-Aid. “I don’t watch the Syfy channel. I really don’t watch TV at all.”

Sitting in front of me, Brian Kirby and Maxwell Bero choke down laughs along with bits of their Whoopers.

“That so?” Brian asks, his thin ferret face a bright red. More bread and beef come out than words. “That really so?”

“Yes.” Grace snaps. After only twenty minutes in their company we’ve learned to treat these two like toddlers, keeping with one or two syllable answers and sharp tones.

“I love TV.” Maxwell laughs. His belly (bigger than both mine and June’s put together) shakes like the proverbial bowl full of jelly. Everything else about him, the broad shoulders and long, unkempt brown hair, his two or three chins covered with short moss-like stubble, conspire to give the impression of a Neanderthal just thawed from a glacier. “Mine’s like a big, fat, vacuum tube filled mother.”

Chad belts out a goat-like laugh, sending cherry Coke spewing from his nose. Its a sad thing to watch. He seems intelligent enough, but only just, and these other two are only pulling him down by the ankles.

After a few moments things quite down, the only sound being the other customers talking and Maxwell’s not so sublet chewing. June’s already finished her bacon cheeseburger and most of Graces chicken sandwich and now sits observing our male counterparts. There is a somber familiarity in her eyes, as if remembering some sad aspects of a past life. She stopped laughing at their jokes fifteen minutes ago.

I turn to Pen, the divisor of this fiasco. Watching her playing with her cold fries I have to fight down the urge to strangle the life out of her. Did she actually thought this would work out, that we’d blend together like a peas and carrots and not like Shunis and Shias? And we took her talk of these guys as a joke. I mean, she’d mention them sometimes, her other life as she calls it, but with no evidence but her disappearance several nights a week, we just thought she was full of it.

“Y’all should come drink with us.” Maxwell says, making an effort to push the remainder of his fries into his mouth with one go. “We got some beer left from last night.”

“They don’t drink Maxwell.” Chad says, giving him a serrated look. He’s cleaned up the cherry coke and has recomposed himself.

“I don’t drink.” Grace reaffirms, unblinking, her words seemingly moored to the foundation of the Earth. God, I love her, this unmovable girl!

“We can teach you to like it.” Maxwell’s smile shows crooked teeth that braces should’ve fixed years ago. But I guess when your mother, an obese brunette with a perpetually sour attitude, works at the 5th Ave. Pump and Go and your father has left for parts unknown, straight teeth may not be as much a priority as paying the light bill. “The beer is in the trunk.”

“It’s twelve o’clock in the afternoon.” I say, as if the time of day would make any difference. I get the shakes just thinking about going anywhere near his pumpkin orange junker, a Chrysler Saratoga that puffs more white smoke than Tommy Chong.

“Chad’s mom is at the river for the weekend.” Brian gives me a wink, his charity for the fat redhead I suspect, “We have all day.”

“No thanks.” I make Grace’s sharp, uncompromising tone my own.

The last time I had a drink was February of last year. Mom thought I was at a sleepover with some church kids, instead I was at one of Tammy William’s parties, drinking rum and cokes in her garage with a boy named Gabe Fulton, the tall, yellow haired cousin of someone I hardly knew. Thinking of it now is like recalling a bad dream.

Just one more? He’d ask. We were sitting alone on a mangy green couch, surrounded by the garage’s four windowless walls stacked high with cardboard boxes. The place smelled like a litter box. …one more?


After three or four drinks (Gabe seemed to mix each one stronger than the last) the room began to tilt and my words started to slip out of my mouth as though my tongue didn’t have any teeth or lips to hide behind. I said something about Obamacare, the new IPhone 6, and Pap Paw dying.

He moved closer, placing his arm around my shoulder. He smelled like a woman, all hairspray and perfume. I brushed his arm off and stood, looking up at the ceiling fan, watching it swirl around in a slow, sad way. Behind it was a large brown water stain shaped like Maine. I could make out where Bangor would be. That’s where Stephen King lives.

Stephen King? Gabe stood and wrapped his arms around my waist. I was much thinner then and was wearing a dark blue dress with small white flowers dotting it like dim stars. Mom said that I always looked beautiful in that dress.

Just relax. His hands slid down my sides and he tried to pull my skirt up. I pushed him away and stumbled out outside, toppling boxes as I went. That night I walked home crying underneath a black moonless sky. I meet June the next week and never looked back.

Confucius say, always mix your own poison.

“Pen, you said these girls would be fun.” Maxwell looks at her, accusations in his eyes, “Sober girls aren’t any fun.”

“Who’s not being fun right now?” Pen asks. No, she hasn’t thought things through, and she knows it.

“Sober anybody ain’t any fun.” Brian mumbles. He checks the time on his cheap pay-as-you-go flip phone. On it’s screen is a photo of a topless girl. He’s pulled a charge out of nowhere and has found a wall outlet to connect it too.

“We really don’t drink that much.” Chad whispers to Grace, “They’re just talking. Honestly, I really don’t like it all that much.”

“Oh, really?” Laughing, Maxwell balls up his burger wrapper and throws it point blank into Chad’s ear. He turns to Brian, “What did he say last night?”

“He said “‘raw…rawww…blaa!'” Cackling, Brian nearly falls off his seat. As thin as he is he may snap in two if he hits the ground. “He threw up a whole French fry!”

Chad’s face turns beet red. I don’t know if is should feel sorry for him or wave my finger in his face, saying some crap like you reap what you sow or your sins shall find you out.

“Why don’t you two shut up.” Pen eyes them with the intensity of Welsh sheepdog corralling a few strays. They shrink back, almost imperceptibly, all smiles and no words.

“Do you like wrestling?” Chad moves quickly to change the subject. The dirty details of one’s life aren’t what you use to break the ice. “You know, Raw and Smackdown?”

Grace squirms in her chair.

“I love it.” He says, insisting on beating a dead horse, “Pen and I watch it all the time.” He looks at Pen for back up. She pipes in, mentioning Monday night’s matches and a half-dozen names I’ve never heard of before.

“John Cena is my favorite.” Chad smiles as if remembering an old friend, someone who saved him from a bully years ago, “He’s the baby, that means the good guy, but I like good guys. It’s a lot harder to be the good guy.”

Grace’s begun folding her napkins into perfect squares and placing them in neat rows beside her cup. Her unused pepper packets, six of them, have already been lined up like small soldiers at the edge of the table. She’s disconnected completely, retreating into a world where a little OCD can help you cope with just about anything.

“Does anyone need a refill?” Chad grabs his and Grace’s cups and moves towards the soda dispensers.

“What about mine?” Brian waves his own empty cup in the air, but Chad ignores him and disappears behind a partition.

“I think it’s time to go.” Grace says. She begins cleaning up her arrangement, sweeping her napkins and pepper packets into a perfect little pile.

Maxwell makes a thick, sucking sound with his teeth, like water swirling down a drain. “You know, Grace, you really need to get those ice cubes out of you a**.”

We look at him, surprised.

“Huh?” He cups his hand around his ear as if he missed her response. “You don’t like that Little Miss. Priss?”

Grace leers at him.

“He’s a good guy and you’re treating him like s***.” He leans forward, propping his enormous head on his pink swollen hands, creating an almost elegant composition, “You know he cares about you so much he doesn’t even beat off to you?” He places a hand over his heart as if touched by the thought, “He doesn’t even milk the sausage in your honor? Shows how highly he thinks of you.”

“I’m through with this!” Grace holds up her hands as if fighting off some hideous creature, and stands, her chair sliding back, streaking before falling to the floor. “I’ll be outside!”

I watch her go, pushing past Chad returning with two full cups. He looks at us then turns and follows her out.

“Jesus Christ!” Pen laughs, her hands over her mouth, her shoulders convulsing. God I want to kill her!

I try to follow Grace but June pushes me back into my seat.

“Your little friend there is a freak.” June says, venom in her voice.

“On Valentine’s Day he showed up at the True Love Waits Dance at our church. Like some kind of stalker.” I say, regretting I ever felt sorry for him, “He’s lucky she even showed up today.”

Maxwell nods, slowly leaning back. He makes a show of popping each one of his knuckles. A contemplative look comes over him, and his face changes from Neanderthal to early Cro-Magnon, less a brute and slightly more human. “Yeah, he’s a loser. But he’s our loser.”

Brian sucks his drink dry and rattles the ice in the bottom of the cup.

“You didn’t know this would happen?” I ask everyone, even myself. We all seems guilty of something terrible (or in the very least incredibly dumb) here.

“I figured she’d just talk s*** to him.” Maxwell scratches his head, ruffling his thick unibrow before straightening it again, “Then he’d wakeup. He’s not really into her anyways. He just wants something.”

“Yeah, what’s he want then.” June’s already made up her mind about these three, just as I have, but we’re curious. Isn’t all knowledge, good knowledge?

Maxwell picks his teeth with a plastic fork. “Ms. Priss is the antithesis of his mom.” He spits a strand of lettuce to the floor.

We look at him, waiting for some exposition. Yes, I know 8th grade words too.

“That means she’s the opposite.” Brian adds. At the right angle his face is positively weasel-like. I’m beginning to wonder if he had grubs added to his burger along with bacon and pepper jack cheese. “You know, like black and white.”

“I know what it means.” June glares at him, “What’s wrong with his own mother?”

Maxwell laughs and shakes his head, his many chins jiggling. Apparently we weren’t paying attention. “Who do you think buys us beer?”

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 Mystery Man: Friday June 19th, 2015

“Ok, we know what type of guy June likes,” Pen gulps mouthful of her grape Snowball and points her empty spoon at June, “macho luchadors with enormous wangs?”

“Enormous wangs!” June affirms. She stirs her rainbow slushy- a once beautiful arrangement of cherry, grape, lemon and blue berry syrup now melted into grey goop- and takes a large bite. We marvel at how her big head seems impervious to brain freeze. “Eight inchers at least!”

I take several quick bites of my own lemon slushy and endure the death of a few brain cells. Even in the air-conditioned 7-Eleven our overpriced treats are melting faster than the Wicked Witch of the West during a Filipino typhoon. Soon mine will be nothing more than a cup of pee colored Kool-Aid. What’s the fun in that?

“You’re up.” Pen nods towards Grace who’s nibbling on her own cherry flavored slushy, “Let me guess, enormous wangs too?”

“No.” Grace mumbles, her bright red lips drooping into slight frown. For the past ten minutes she’s been as silent on the enormous wang issue as I have. Honestly, I think we share the belief that wangs  (along with v-jay-jays and perhaps the Australian blobfish) are the ugliest things in God’s creation and don’t deserve mention while one’s eating.

“What type of guy then?” June’s voice echos inside her foam cup as she attempts to get every last drop of Grace’s buck ninety-five treat, “You look like a luchador type of girl to me.”

Ok, every girl a little something for luchadors.

Ok, every girl has a little something for luchadors.

“Not really.” Grace looks up, then down and to the right, her signs of thought and consideration, “There is one guy…”

I  felt she had someone in mind, a person she’s been thinking of since June brought up the subject this morning when we spotted a shirtless and glistening West Greenville varsity football team running laps. Her cat calls were lawsuit worthy and I crouched behind the steering wheel until we turned the corner.

“Who then?” Pen picks up a Little Debbie and brings it to the register. A balding, middle aged Jordanian named Sager smiles as he rings her up. Our unspoken agreement has lasted about two hours, we buy something every ten minutes or so and we get to stay in his rather spacious and air-conditioned convenience store. Much better than the alternative: baking in the Caravan.

“Colin Firth.” Grace’s words creep out, a timid kitten of love and devotion.

“Who?” Pen tosses the Little Deddie into our half full shopping bag, “Does he go to our school?”

“No, he’s that guy from that movie we watched, The Kingsman.”

“The one with the baseball cap?” June asks. She rummages though our little bag of goodies and pulls out a Twinkie, what Pen calls ‘zombie food,’ seeing that Hostess has been recently raised from the dead and all. “Bet he has big one too.” She wags the Twinkie in front of her crotch, “Muy grande!

“No ,Colin was the one with the glasses.”

“The old guy!” Pen’s laugh echo’s down the beer isle, catching the attention of a black woman holding a Colt 45, “He’s ancient!”

Grace shrinks back, almost telescoping into herself.

“He’s real old.” I say, unable to hold back my horror, “He’s like sixty.” I thought she’d go with the program and love what society has prescribed for girls our age, a Justin Bieber type or any one of the One Direction boys. Instead she’s revealed that she’s more screwed up than any of us. There are obvious daddy issues here.

“He’s not that old.” Grace says, regretting saying anything at all. I hope we aren’t traumatizing her. “And I just love the idea of him.” She back tracks, hoping to clarify things, thinking perhaps we won’t ostracize her just yet if we understood. “He’s the type of guy who’d fly you to Monaco for your anniversary then still be up with you at six the next morning to help get the kids ready for school. That’s the type of guy I want.”

June crams the remainder of the Twinkie into her mouth. “So Grace,” crumbs come out with every syllable, falling over the front of her shirt; she doesn’t bother to brush them away, “you want someone out of this world and down to Earth at the same time?”

Grace nods quickly, a Bobblehead on a car dashboard. Maybe she’s found someone who understands?

Impostable.” June dismisses the Bobblehead’s hopes as easily as she inhaled the snack cake, “You’re nuts to want, or should I say ‘expect,’ both.”

Grace wilts like a tulip on a hot day.

“The fat Mexican’s right.” Pen says, placing her arm around Grace’s shoulder, wanting to comfort and maybe educate, “Honey Boo, it’s Han Solo or Luke Sky Walker, you can’t have both. ”

Laughing, Grace pushes her into a display of two liter Dr. Peppers. Pen pushes back, but she has toddler strength and resorts to slinging a glob of grape slush.

The bald Jordanian eyes us suspiciously, and we quite down. The fact that June’s in our group already puts us at a disadvantage. She once spent an hour in front Sager’s magazine section, reading everything English and Spanish, before he realized she was flat-butt broke and chased her our with a wet mop.

“You’re up Big Red.” Pen says. She sits Indian style on the floor and leans back against portable cooler full of Good Humor bars and pints of Breyer’s vanilla ice cream. “You’re not into wrinkly old balls too are you?”

“Johnny Depp.” I say as confidently as ordering a favorite meal.

“Good one.” Pen says. June and Grace also nod their approval.

I go into the details: his super hot tats, charisma, the millions of dollars that could buy me a new mini-van with working AC. Grace mentions his private jet and June adds something about his obviously huge member. Pen just smiles, there may be hope for Big Red yet, she thinks.

Honestly, I’m not all that into Johnny Depp or Chris Hemsworth or even Chris Pratt for that matter. It was just a name to throw to the wolves. When I think of my perfect man only fragments of people come to mind, not the whole package. Clark Kent’s square jaw, Paw Paw’s large hands and his aroma of cigarettes and Old English cologne, the warm sun shining down as a life guard pulls me to shore at Camp Lake Onotobie, having confused my awkward backstroke with the death struggles of a drowning girl. A collection of memories that seem to point far West, where cowboys still roams. It’ll take time to work out the details.

“See Grace,” Pen slaps at Grace’s shin, “If you’d said Johnny Depp I’d have a little respect for you. Now I just want to get you to a shrink.”

“Well, who’s you’re dream guy then?” It’s one of Grace’s tipped questions, the result of Pen’s boyish walk and crew-cut coupled with the cotton skirts and enormous faux diamond earrings. The girl is a contradiction and we’ve all been left wondering which team she plays for.

“I’m not sure what type of person I’m into.” Pen tosses the question out the window, enjoying keeping us in the dark. She stands and takes a strawberry Good Humor bar out of the cooler and pays for it at the counter. She turns and tosses it to June who begins devouring it like a starved pit bull.

Grace looks at me and shrugs. We’ll find out eventually.

Maybe. I nod. I’m sure none us would mind if she was a lesbian, maybe it would linger in the back of Grace’s mind, kind of like knowing there’s a squirrel nesting in your attic or something, but she wouldn’t be all Westboro Baptist about it. As Pen would say, Grace is a cool cat.

“I think it’s time to go.” Pen says, “I got to pee and I need a place that doesn’t have snot on the stall walls.”

All of our bladders and senses of hygiene seem to agree and we head for the door. June grabs our goody bag and leers at Sager. “I’ll be back.”

“Sure, sure.” He says, “Just remember to bring your rich friends.”

June takes a moment to look in the bag and smiles. “Oh, I will. Una chica tiene que comer. A girl has to eat.”

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Enduring Love: Spring 2004

“It just happens to fish,” Mom says, one hand on my shoulder and the other on the tv remote. She flips from the nightly As The World Turns rerun to an episode of CSI. “We’re lucky he lasted as long as he did.”

“But he’s only a year old.” I look down at Mr. Andy. He fits perfectly in Oliver’s tiny shoe box, comfortable on a bed of Easter grass. I cradle the box in the crook of my arm, rocking him gently as if he were a newborn who will eventually walk and talk, eat spaghetti, maybe even be in Mrs. Kelly’s class. “One’s young; he’s just a kid.”

“One’s old for a goldfish” Mom removes her hand from my shoulder and takes a sip of diet coke. She keeps a Shaolin death grip on the remote, “he was elderly.”

I want to tell her that Mr. Andy was a beta fish, not a goldfish and that he prefers tropical climates and thrives in low oxygen water. Dad and I picked him out for just those special reasons. That and because of the white spot on his back, which made him unique, made him stand out from the hundreds of other beta fish in the Wal-Mart aquarium. I want to tell her that we were going to name him Elvis, but Mr. Andy seemed so right, so perfect for him.

“Can we bury him tomorrow?” I ask.

Mom sighs, and I know what she’s thinking. Only warm-blooded, hairy things deserve burials; Morgan’s hamster, Mr. Skittles, who Dad stepped on; Grandpa Joe’s Labrador, Sammy; old people and kids with cancer. She wants to flush him, I just know it. “Please.” I give her my puppy dog eyes.

“We’ll bury him tonight when Dad gets home.” She stands and goes to the kitchen. I hear her pop open another diet coke. They’re what she calls her ‘secret weapons’ and they must be working because she’s lost ten pounds so far. You can tell along her cheeks and around her middle. She’s even put the scale back into the bathroom. Before, she kept it hidden in the hall closet, behind old newspapers and a box of Christmas ornaments. Who knows, after a few more weeks Dad might even start to notice and not just me.

I swat a fly away from Mr. Andy’s eye. “Please? Tomorrow?”

“Tonight.” There’s finality in her voice, the sound of a door closing.

Who gets buried at night? That’s horrible! They buried old Pop Munn on a Monday afternoon and Mike Highmore on a Tuesday morning. Mike was only two years old, and his coffin was not much bigger than Mr. Andy’s shoe box, but they still buried him under a clear blue sky. His mom cried like a toddler, like Oliver on bath night. Her face turned red and puffy, and she dripped more snot than I’d ever seen.

Mom returns and flips the channel to something educational, a documentary about chocolate. I can hear her lips smacking, it’s almost the sound of kissing.
I bit my lip, hate blurring my vision. She’s stupid for not eating! Every night she fills her belly with diet coke and goes to sleep. After that, she’ll wake up and go pee about ten times and have ugly bags under her eyes in the morning. Stupid!

“I think I’ll flush him,” I tell her.

She nods, not even trying to hide her relief. Instead, she sips more diet coke, nursing it in a way that lets me know she’s running low again. I look into the kitchen and see that the can bag full, bloated like a big dog about to have a hundred puppies. Mrs. Kelly will love me come recycling day.

I take Mr. Andy and leave Mom in a place where chocolate is pooped out of enormous machines like huge turds and is then molded into bite-sized morsels that look like rabbit pellets. I won’t talk to her after this, not for months, not ’til she says “sorry.”

In the bathroom, I realize Morgan’s right about the new fluorescent bulbs. They’re ‘freaking terrible!’ Mr. Andy looks very dead. His scales are beginning to loosen, and his ribs are showing. The eyes, which watched me every day since last Spring, are like two small, white marbles, sunken and clouded.

I put the lid back on the shoe box and slide it underneath the sink, behind the tub cleaner and toilet brush. I flush the empty toilet twice.

“I’ll bury you tomorrow,” I whisper, just loud enough for him to hear, “I’ll put you under the big pine tree in the backyard beside Skittles. What do you think of that Mr. Andy? Sound good?”

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A Happy Cloud: Saturday June 13th, 2015

All right everyone we are in a heat stress advisory so keep indoors or, if you really have to be out and about, drink your weight in water. Now here’s Soundgarden with their early 90’s hit, “Black Hole Sun.”

The tune creeps over the radio, opening with a sad guitar rift and steady drum beat. Before us, old Hwy 486 shimmers like a black river between baking fields of dry grass and wilting trees. The sun has gone supernova.

“Hey Mable, you know your sister was probably conceived to this.” Pen turns the radio up to jackhammer level then leans back in the passenger seat. Her right hand is out the window, gliding along the wind like a small pale bird.

“I don’t think my parents listened to Soundgarden.” I say, not really knowing anyone who listens to them, or even what genre they are. Heavy metal? Grunge? Post-Grunge? The Golden Oldies? Is that last one a genre or just a radio pitch?

“What do they listen too?” Pen asks. She studies the abandoned countryside as if it were a Van Gogh. Every farmer in the state seems to have taken the day off, with even their cattle crowding under the few trees they can find, too lazy to chew cud.

“Country maybe.” I look into the rearview at Grace and June. Even going sixty and with the windows open, they’re baking, the hot summer air working them over like a Ronco food dehydrator. “You two ok?”

They ignore me and shift uncomfortably in their seats. They’ve even stopped complaining. Isn’t that a sign of sever dehydration in teenagers?

“Just let me know if you two need anything.” I say.

June scowls at me in the mirror. She looks ridicules in her paper birthday hat, the words I’m 17!!! sprawled across it’s front in pink glitter as a tortured rubber band, pulled under her fat chin, holds it on top of her black curls. It’s a homemade happy from Grace. I refused to wear mine.

We round a small bend of trees and enter Jaxon County and are met with the stench of their number one export.

“Chickens!” Pen laughs as she spots the long rows of corrugated tin chicken houses lined from one end of an immense plain to the other. She pokes her head out the window, smiling as if the smell assulting our nostrils were Chanel #5 and not copious amounts of broiling bird guano. “I love chickens!”

“Well I don’t!” June yell’s. In the mirror I can see her pull her hat over her nose and mouth. She looks like one of those plague doctors, the ones who stuffed their masks with herbs to fight off the miasmas. I heard they died just as fast as everyone else. “Roll your windows up!”

Everyone ignores her. The smell is already swimming around us like a piranha in a goldfish bowl and raising the windows in my unairconditioned van would only provoke it.

“I wish you’d wear your hat.” Grace mumbles, “I made it for you.”

“I’ll wear it at Olive Garden.” I lie, not feeling as bad as I should. But it’s my birthday, almost, and I shouldn’t have too. And what teenage girl makes crap like that anyways? There, I thought it!

“Bye chickens.” Pen waves as the last of the tin cook houses  gives way to a small partition of trees and then more cow fields. “Don’t go anywhere, we’ll be back.”

We cross the bridge over the Sangamon River (now a pathetic trickle bordered by heaps of sand) and will soon be in Brannon.

Olive Garden is June’s birthday gift from Grace and Pen. Mine was simply gas money, a full tank worth about thirty dollars. I hated to ask for it but I had to get out of the house. Mom and Dad have gone Cold War and stopped talking. Now, even from seventy miles away and over the roar of the radio and the wind, the silence in my home is deafening.

“So you two were born in June?” Pen asks. She’s been making a big deal of it, not realizing that its a three-hundred and sixty-five to one chance of simply being born on the same day. That’s excluding leap years, which I’m too lazy to do the math for.

“June 13th and 15th.” I say. The radio has switched to something warm and romantic, Maroon 5’s Sugar, and I’m swept up with thoughts of some boy loving me forever.

“It’s like you both were pooped out of the same twat.” Pen laughs. God, she never lets up does she?

“I’m the younger one.” June says with some pride, as if it were twenty years and not just two days separating us. “I’m sure you can tell.” She’s put the hat back on top of her head and makes a show of fluffing her hair and adjusting her bra.

We drive on, the lone travelers on a bypassed highway. Anyone with any sense takes I-20 to Brannon, and we’re left in the company of a solitary cloud that seems to have lost its way and has taken to us out of lonely necessity.

Its looks to me like a marshmallow, a ball of cotton, a dab of whip cream, or maybe its just a cloud.

“Look.” Pen points to a small dirt road winding up the middle of a hill. It ends at five marble crosses and a large concrete angle.

“That’s the cheerleader memorial.” I say. The dashboard clock says 12:33. We should be in Brannon by one o’clock for the lunch specials, and, if the money holds out, maybe a matinee. Inside Out is suppose to be good.

“Lets stop.” Pens already unbuckled her seatbelt and is slipping on her socks and Chuck Taylors.

“But we’re almost there.” Irritation creeps through me as I slow. Pen knows I can’t bare to have anyone unbuckled in the van, and she’ll begin crawling all over the place till I pull over. Why fight it? We don’t need a memorial too.

“I’m hungry.” June moans. She begins to pat her stomach as we pull off the road and roll through an open gate. Dust bellows up around us and the van rocks with every pot hole.

“It’ll just take a minute.” Pen already has her head out the window, and it’s a miracle her rabbit ears haven’t blown off, taking her head with them. She bolts before I place the van into park.

“Wait!” Grace yells. Curiosity has gotten the better of her and she pulls open the back sliding door and follows.

I step out of the van and over some faded silk flowers. The ground is littered with them, twisted into the dirt like empty popcorn bags at an old fairground.

“Put this on.” June walks past me, shoving my paper birthday cap into my hands. “Put it on.” She isn’t asking, she’s telling.

I look down. The words I’m 17 Too !!! shine up at me in yellow glitter. I slip it on. The rubber band is tight as h***.

At the top of the hill Pen is frantic, skipping among the crosses like she were in the middle of a game of hopscotch. Grace is more reserved and reverent treating this mound of dirt in the middle of a cow field like the sacred place it is. “Margret Holmes,” She reads off of the crosses, “1977-1994-Beloved Sister and Daughter,” then turning to another, “Katie Pace, 1978-1994-Budded on Earth to Blossom in Heaven.” The others say pretty much the same things, each ending in 1994.

“So this is where that little road goes.” Pen laughs as if she just figured out the king’s riddle.

“Hwy 486 goes to Brannon or back to Greenville.” I correct. The sun beats down and I can feel my shirt beginning to soak through. Grace sees me wearing her birthday hat and smiles. Guilt is a hot coal.

“That road goes to Olive Garden.” June says, stepping indifferently on dozens of faded flowers before resting her fat butt on Margret’s cross.

“No it doesn’t.” Pen grabs a dozen roses from in front of Jenny Munn’s cross and tosses them into the air. They fall around us like deflated balloons. “It goes here, to these girls and then everywhere else.”

“These aren’t graves, its a memorial.” Grace says. She looks closely at the small oval portraits set in the centers of each cross. The girls look identical, pretty and with slightly teased hair, each wearing a blue and white cheerleader uniform, all smiling at the bright futures they have before them. Now they’ve been dead longer than they were alive.

“They’re here!” Pen yells. She begins to crawl onto the solemn angle’s pedestal. The extremes in weather have already begun to work it over, and small cracks have formed at the base of its wings. “They’re in the stones and the flowers…”

“They’re in a box in a graveyard somewhere.” Junes says. Her stomach rumbles and I know we should be on the move. She goes straight wolf-man when hunger hits her. “Están muertos a quién le importa?

“They’re in Heaven with Jesus.” Grace whispers, speaking with a deep assurance I doubt a bulldozer could move. If asked she could probably go into the details, the streets of gold, the many mansions, all the dead relatives and pets she’ll meet again. Perhaps the drunk driver that killed these girls will be there. God is forgiving like that isn’t he?

“Err! Your both wrong!” Pen jumps down. The heats begun its work and her pale complexion has become a balmy pink. “They’re all around us, in the dirt and in the air, in our blood, in those stupid hats you’re wearing.” Her smile is warmer than the sun. “They’re in us and we’re in them.”

We only look at her, this strange child. Grace blames Pen’s ways on the Florida school system. They aren’t Bible Belt like us, she told me, it’s a state filled with liberals and hippies and Cubans. How can anyone think straight after years of that?

“We’re all apart of each other.” Pen reaffirms, desperate for some affirmation, pressing home a point that’s beyond any of us. She might as well be speaking Chinese.

“You’re about to be in my stomach if we don’t leave soon.” June says as she begins walking towards the van. She’s already told Pen what she thinks of her New Age beliefs. That was a rough afternoon. I think she was hungry then too.

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