The Watching People: Tuesday June 9th, 2015

“What about him?” Grace asks. She nods towards an elderly man shambling by the food court’s lone plastic palm tree. With his ungainly slouch, plaid grandpa shirt and wooden cane, it’s impossible to imagine him having any secret life what so ever. 

Pen thinks differently.

“He’s a sleeper agent, works for the North Koreans.” She eyes him suspiciously, sadness entering her voice, “They captured him outside Inchon in ’50, then programmed him. Poor thing, he doesn’t even know that with the trigger words ‘limp noodle’, he’ll enter killbot mode and start swinging that cane at anything American: Grandma, apple pie, the life sized Batman cut-out by the movie theater entrance…” she sighs, “The stars and stripes will never be safe.”

“That so?” Grace smiles. She’s impressed, we both are.  After two hours of people watching, Pen’s imagination hasn’t run dry yet. Actually, its seems to have picked up speed.

“What about her.” I motion towards a young mother standing in line at the Tasty Freeze, her massive toddler squirming in a stroller made for a child half his size, “They on the run or something?”

“Lets ask Grace.” Pen takes a small bite of her cold burger. I offer her a napkin to wipe ketchup off of her chin. “What do you think Honey Boo?”

“They’re on the run.” Grace’s eyes narrow, probing her subject’s past for the s****, that’s what Pen calls the skeletons in all our closets, ones that make everyone guilty of something worthy of the gas chamber or maybe a fifteen minute segment on 60 Minutes. I don’t know where she gets this from, just about everyone I know of is about as boring as a wet mop, but it does make for good people watching. “They’re on the run from the cops, the Irish Mob, the FBI and Masada.”

“Why’s that?” I ask, enjoying seeing her mind churn.

“Aliens.” Grace says as if the answer was so obvious, “Her husband made contact from his basement using an old TV set, a VCR and ten pounds of aluminum foil.” She shakes her head, “And now he’s dead and they’re the ones who must keep his secrets from falling into the wrong hands.”

“Look at you!” Pen shoves Grace, nearly pushing her off the bench, “Now we just got to get that cherry popped and you’re set for life.”

Grace frowns. Sometimes Pen can be more vulgar than June, which is hard too believe.

“You’re up Big Red.” Pen looks at me, her eyes challenging.

I look across the food court to a couple sitting on a bench near a Central Bank ATM. They’re older, maybe in their sixties, with the man’s grey hair slicked down with pomade and the woman’s boobs sagging in a dingy tank top like two half-filled water balloons. I’ve been studying them for a half-hour now.

“Those two have been married forever, since the Ford administration, and everyone- the kids, grandkids, people at church- think they love each other. But they’ve secretly been trying to kill one another for years.” Pen and Grace stare at me, their attentions caught in a snare of well timed syllables. I flutter a noun here, tickle an adjective there, my presentation is spot on. “Milk laced with antifreeze, crushed glass sprinkled on Saturday morning pancakes like powered sugar, cut brake lines, all have failed. But tonight’s the night.”

“Who’s killing whom?” Pen asks. She seems pleased with herself, bringing this red headed turtle out of her middle class shell. “My money is on Grandma.”

Grace shakes her head. “Grandpa. He looks a little crazy too me.”


3D Glasses vintage ad:

The human animal is always more interesting to watch in 3D.


“Neither.” I say, looking more closely at the couple. The women is edgy, always checking her phone and whispering something to her husband who seems indifferent. “It’ll be their grandson, that lowlife working at the Tasty Freeze.” I turn to the ice cream stand and spot the pimple faced punk who shortchanged me earlier. He’s handing the toddler a cherry flavored Icee, enjoying keeping it just out of reach. “Three tons of fertilizer and gasoline crammed into the basement, all set to blow. And there they are, waiting to give him a ride home.”

“Why kill them?” Pen asks, studying her Converse. On the white rubber tips are the words Bang!!! and Pow!!! written in bright red Sharpie. She says it’s something that will help her kick harder if need be. “Just for chuckles?”

I shrug. “Why don’t you ask him?”

Pen turns to the ice cream stand and watches his movements with slow, intrusive eyes. “The life insurance money.” She sounds like Holmes educating his dear Watson, “Because he doesn’t want to just wear the goofy paper hat forever, he wants to run the place. He dreams of a string of Tasty Freeze franchises from here to Jacksonville.” She closes her eyes, envisioning the near future. “And they’ll call him the Ice Cream Man and the world will never knowing that that crater in the ground that use to be his grandparents, financed it all.”

Grace laughs a goofy little laugh I nod. If June had decided to come to the mall with us, instead of just sleeping in, she’d be having a good time too. Insulting strangers is a pleasure in her life. I got to remember to get her a burger before we leave.

“I think you two are ready to meet the boys.” Pen says.

“Boys?” Grace seems offended.

“Yeah boys.” Pen wiggles her index finger in front of her crotch. “You know those people who can pee in all directions.” She twist her hands together, her sign of thinking in the way others may scratch their heads. “And besides we need some testosterone in our little group. I mean if we keep on hanging out together our periods are going to start syncing up. And none of us wants that.”

“Who are they?” I wonder who else would tolerate Pen’s eccentricity besides us, who already live on the rim of high school social life.

“Brian Kirby, Maxwell Bero and,” she looks Grace with a sadistic eye, “Chad Mumford.”

“Uhh…” Grace exhales her disgust, you’d thought she’d swallowed a fly.

“You know he loves you?” Pen moves to kiss her with puckered pink lips, “He loves you. Mmm…” Grace shifts away but Pen shifts closer, wrapping her inked arms around Grace’s shoulders like kudzu vines. “Kiss, Kiss…”

“Get away!” Grace pushes her with ineffectual baby strength. The girl is a Nancy in every sense of the word. “Stop it!

Giggling, Pen pulls back, crossing her legs in front of her and straightening her white cotton shirt. “You know he got drunk last night- I don’t know who else could get drunk off Jack’s Hard Lemonade besides him- and he starts to go on about you.”  She rolls her eyes,”On and on and on about you.”

“I don’t even know him.” Grace squirms in her chair. It seems Chad Mumford has become a hemorrhoid in her life. “We were neighbors when my family lived on Lake Ridge Ave., but that was four years ago.”

“He loves you.” Unperturbed, Pen forms a heart with her hands and holds it up, framing Grace’s stern face,”He loves you! He thinks your pretty and smart and funny and probably still a virgin and you don’t get drunk and you smell like flowers…”

“He doesn’t love me.” Grace speaks slowly, carefully, collecting her words like small stones, “He loves an idea he has about me, or about someone or something else that he’s attached to me.”

Pen grins, lowering her hands and shattering the heart into a multitude of small white fingers. “Gracie, you’re a lot more clever than you let on.”

Grace smiles despite herself and turns back to the food court. “Him.” She points to a forty-something in a white polo and slacks, a cellphone glued to his ear. “What’s his story?”

Pen doesn’t skip a beat as she begins formulating a tale of murder, intrigue, and unrequited love as naturally as drinking a glass of water.



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A Bright and Shining Summer: Saturday May 30th, 2015

“When are you going?” June asks. She’s leaning her head out the van window, her black curls, like the fur of some rich woman’s corded poodle, blowing in the wind. “Not soon I hope.”

I smile to myself. Normally aloft and above us, June’s taken a keen interest in my family’s trip to see Grandpa Joseph down in Corpus Christi, repeating questions she’d asked fifteen minutes ago, wanting more details than I have to offer. The thought of having to hoof it for a week must be unbearable for her.

“The end of July, beginning of August.” I say.

June nods, not realising that I’ve already told her the time frame three, maybe four times. “Not that long to go.”

“Nope.” I turn left, then pull a quick right, avoiding several potholes, a few of the millions that mar Greenville’s roads like landmines. “It’s going to suck.”

Like visits to the gynecologist or the dentist, Mom’s kind enough to warn us kids months in advance about trips to see the old man, so we can prepare ourselves mentally. Honestly, I prefer the stirrups. “It’ll be just before school starts.”

Behind us, Pen and Grace are sharing music on their phones, comparing Five Seconds of Summer to Florence and the Machine, One Direction to The Shins. The two girls have almost nothing in common, Grace being too mainstream while Pen’s all down a dark ally and through the back door. They seem to have more fun berating each other.

“Tell me about him.” June says. Her eyes are closed and I know that in a few minutes she’ll be asleep. I don’t blame her. Maybe if our afternoon drives had actual destinations she might be able to stay awake long enough for us to get there.

“He’s really old, eighty-two. He had my Mom when he was like thirty-seven or thirty-eight.” I go on with the petty details: he worked for the railroad, started a lawn mowing business, dead wife (the Grandma I never meet), retired and recently married his day nurse. June’s head slumps over as expected. “And he has only one thumb. He lost the other one in a bar fight with a rabid Mexican. The wetback bit it clean off”

June lifts one eye lid. “Bulls***.”

“Just had to make sure you were still awake.” I turn down Muhammad Ali Dr. The plush shopping centers we past by the interstate fade into dilapidated storefronts and liquidation warehouses, then into a never ending chain of pawn and title loan shops. I hit the master lock button on my door and hear the others snap secure. I look in the rear-view at Grace and Pen. “You two ok?”

“It’s hotter than balls in here!” Pen yells, an ear bud in her left ear, the other strung across the seat, pulsing something indie into Grace’s right. The poor girl looks like a hundred tiny cats are clawing at her eardrum.

“What’s wrong with your AC?” Pen wipes sweat from her arms, smearing her inkings like cheap masquara. She displays them in the rear-view mirror. “Mable, this is f***** up and not in the good way.”

I tell her what Dad told me, something about a valve or thermostat, that the Nolan’s shouldn’t waste money on a van that most likely won’t last the year. “When she finally dies he said they’ll get me a used Camry.”

“Well, she needs to die then. It’s summer!” Sweat runs down Pen’s temple to her flushed cheeks. It’s good to finally see her with a little color. For the first time she doesn’t look like death warmed over.

June reclines her seat, preparing for nap time. “You know that means this heap will live forever. You’re jinxed. Gafe.”

“I know it.” I say, conceding a thought that’s been rolling around the back of my mind like a black marble. The Caravan’s going to be with me through the rest of high school and into college. Soon enough it’ll have antique tags and the permanent stink of teen angst.

I turn down a back street, curiosity leading me on. We end up in a neighborhood with more overgrown cars and turned up garbage cans than white picket fences. What is it they say about cats? “We need to turn around.”

Grace unplugs her ear bud. “Where are we?”

Red Line I think.” I say, speaking for the first time the nickname the Channel 32 WNKV and the Greenville Police Department have given the part town where you’re mostly likely to be murdered and shoved into a dumpster. Out the window are boarded up homes, trashed yards and blacks sitting fat in lawn chairs or shambling down the sidewalk trying to keep their pants from falling around their ankles. They watch us as we pass. A few laughing children follow us on bikes as if we were an ice cream van. I speed up.

“Lets get out of here.” Grace squawks, her voice a decibel or two below frantic.

I turn down several streets attempting to backtrack to a white middle-class world of late model SUV’s and Starbucks. We creep to a stop in front of an El Cheapo’s Discount Tobacco and wait for the light to turn green.

Buscar nativos.” June points into the parking lot. A black man, older than Methuselah, squats near an busted telephone booth, a bag of empty aluminum cans in one hand and a golf club in the other. “A native. Lets give him a ride.”

“Lets not and say we did.” Grace says. I sense her checking the door locks.

June laughs as the man stands and shambles towards the crosswalk in front of us. “Unlock your door, he’s headed this way!”

“Roll your windows up!” Grace hisses. Apparently she’s trying to win Best Supporting Actress for the roll of privileged white girl.

“No!” June’s hyena cackle can probably be heard a mile away.

His face is like the leather of a busted football, brown and hanging loose from his skull. Long arthritic fingers, knobby like pine sticks, grow from his enormous hands and his white hair sprouts from his scalp like a wild desert bush. He could Fredrick Douglas fallen on hard times.

Dios bendiga a América. God bless America.” June snickers. The man looks at me with one yellow, bloodshot eye while the other rolls loose, staring off in absurd directions. He waves. I wave back. Even from ten feet away and through the safety glass windshield I can smell him. He stinks like Grandpa Joe, reeking of a life devoted to beer and Pall Malls, with little room for anything or anyone else.

Recycle much?

The light turns green and we roll forward, driving through a few more stoplights, eventually passing a Chick-fil-A and the Clover Field Shopping Center. Grace breaths a sigh of relief and takes her turn selecting the next song, Style by Taylor Swift, only occasionally looking up to make sure of her surroundings.

“Grandpa Joe’s an alcoholic.” My words feel like a swarm of flies fleeing my mouth, light and filthy, “He was really mean to Mom. Still is. Tell me about your granddad, either one.”

June looks at me then back out the window. “I’ve never met them.”

“Can we go to Wendy’s and get a shake.” Grace asks, “Pen wants to go too.”

June turns to her. “Depends, you paying for mine?”

Grace gives an annoyed laugh. Will the Sun rise tomorrow? Are we living in a red state? Is Kim Jung-un utterly insane? “Of course.”

June slumps back into her seat as I turn down Frontage Rd. Marquees for just about every fast food joint imaginable rise above us like hot air balloons.

“Screw Grandpa Joe.” June says, studying the Wendy’s menu, deciding which artificial flavor will go best with a hot Saturday drive about town. “This is going to be a good summer.”

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May Day, Mayday?: Friday May 15th, 2015

“God, you have some big teeth!” Penelope says. She leans in over the picnic table, coming kiss close to Grace’s face, examining her as if she were a side show freak, the Bearded Woman or the Snake Man. “You’re a rabbit!” Her laughter is deafening.

“It’s an overbite.” Grace pulls back, her face flushed, unable to suppress a flash of anger. “My mom has it too, its genetic.” She’s been on edge since we arrived back from the concession stand, when June surprised us with Penelope, having figured it was time for an introduction. I hope there’s enough pizza to go around.

“Why don’t you get braces or something?” Penelope moves closer, her eyes wide as she crawls half way over the table. You’d thought Grace’s mouth housed the Hope Diamond and not thirty-two balls of bone and pulp. “Isn’t that what people like you are suppose to do? Braces?”

“Braces won’t help. My dad has already asked the orthodontist.” Grace watches Penelope with a mixture of curiosity and disgust. She’s been unable to stop eyeing the girl’s JFK haircut and ballpoint tattoos. “There’s nothing he can do short of breaking my jaw.”

“I’d let them break my jaw.” Penelope says.

June pulls her new friend back to their side of table. “Calm down there killer. No need to earn everyone’s love all at once. It’s food time.”

Never a bashful eater, June takes a massive bit of her dollar-a-slice pizza. Grace and I’ve limited her to three slices and two sodas but with her appetite I’m sure we’ll be making another run to the concession stand before long. The lines will’ve snaked around the school’s parking lot by that time.

“So, what is this place?” Pen asks, she doesn’t take a slice of pizza but studies the picnic table’s scared top, running her fingers along a pentagram carved deep into it’s surface, “Are we still on school grounds?”

“Technically.” I look around and see that only a handful of other kids, potheads and rednecks mostly, remembered Frog Groove and escaped the hardly controlled chaos of May Day. The place itself is a hideaway on the far side of campus, built in memory of a teacher who died of breast cancer back when we were all still in diapers. The school tries to keep it up, but there’s only so much you can do when the budget is already hair thin and the cost of wooden picnic tables has gone up exponentially since the early 2000’s. Maybe carved images of marijuana leaves and erect wee-wees and will be acceptable for just one more year?

Beauty is in the red, bloodshot eyes of the beholder.

“Say thank you, June.” Grace says, taking a slice off the plate for herself. She really doesn’t expect a thank you, but I doubt it bothers her. Generosity is one of her most endearing qualities.

“Thank you June.” June says, her mouth full if cheese and pepperoni.

Grace slides over a can of purple soda, which June pops open and downs before beginning her second slice. Penelope watches them with mentalist eyes.

“So Penelope, how long have you been going to West Greenville? ” I ask, wanting to break the ice. June was right about Grace wasn’t she? “Do you like it here?”

Penelope turns to me, her glimmering grey eyes set like gems in her flat, amused face. You’d think I just asked to borrow her feet for a walk in the country. “Mable Nolan, my name is Pen, and I’ve been in your American Lit. class for the past two months.” She gives me a moment, waiting for the light bulb to go off. It doesn’t. “No? We were in that Nathaniel Hawthorn group together? We gave a presentation on Young Goodman Brown?

“I really don’t pay attention in that class.” I mutter, grabbing a slice for myself and taking a huge bite, hoping to bury my embarrassment in cheese and tomato sauce.

“My girl doesn’t pay attention to anything!” June laughs, nearly doubling over, “Yesterday we were leaving the module classrooms beside the gym (that’s where they teach Health and Family ’cause this place is crowded as f*** right?) and she walked right into an AC unit hanging from a window!” She slaps her head to illustrate, “¿Cómo está mi niñas cabeza sintiendo?

“I feel fine.” I say, the knot on my head suddenly throbbing. Pen’s thin lips curl into a wide toothy smile as a concerned Grace looks closely at my scalp. I push her away.

“She didn’t notice me either?” Grace says, a touch of hurt in her voice. She opens a soda for herself and sips it like a whiskey sour. “We even go to the same church.”

“Sounds like this girl needs to keep her eyes open.” Pen takes a slice I’d hoped to save for myself and begins peeling off the toppings, “And to answer your question; no, I don’t like it here.”

“Why not?” I want to move the conversation forward.

“Same reason you don’t.” Her tone betrays the absurdity of my question. I might as well have ask if she likes paper cuts or menstrual cramps. She finishes cleaning off the toppings and begins nibbling on the tomato sauce smeared crust, taking impossibly small bits as if her stomach were the size of a ping pong ball. “People hate each other and there’s nothing to do.”

“Tell them about your last school.” June says, “Listen to this. Es muy loco. It’s crazy!”

“It was in Florida. It was pretty big.” Pen looks wistful, like a grandmother thinking of the bygone age of five-cent cokes and fifteen-cent movies, when the worst there was to worry about was the very distant rumble of Soviet jackboots, “And everyone was a part of something, some club. There was always something going on.” She sighs, “It was like being part of one big family more or less”

One big family more or less? I nod politely, not half believing her. I remember the way it was before June came, when I had the right friends, Tammy Williams, Carol Fletcher and a dozen others, went to the right parties, I sat at the right lunch table. And I never felt so alone. High school is a dark void, plain and simple. Maybe adulthood will be better. It better be.

“I mean the only thing you have here are sports and band.” Pen’s frustration leaks through her words like invisible tears. She fidgets, her thin arms twisting in the sunlight, bringing to life a scrimshaw of hand inked flowers and trees set against the ivory white of her skin. “You don’t even have a choir.”

“Mrs. Garza teaches choir.” Grace pipes in, “Well, sometimes. She mostly coaches basketball, but they do have small shows sometimes.”

“Are they any good?” Pen’s voice raises an octave. Hope is a thing with feathers, isn’t it?

“Not really.”

Pen huffs. “You know you really do have some big teeth!”

“Stop that!” Grace’s voice is the snap of a mouse trap, “I’m not mentioning your huge ears. They’re like sails. How do you keep your head from blowing off?”

Pen looks at her with mock sadness. “They are big aren’t they?” A smile creeping over her face, snail slow and nearly as indiscernible. Her left ear wiggles, then her right, then both at the same time. “Sometimes I think I can fly away.”

Grace laughs despite herself, her overbite displayed in all it’s imperfect glory. You’d thought she’d known Pen for years instead of just fifteen minutes.

June kicks me under the table. I look at her and she gives me a fat eyed wink. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. 

I shrug. Probably.

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A New Fish in the Sea: Wednesday May 6th, 2015

“Everyone, please quite down.” Mrs. Perkins- 100lbs of stressed English teacher in black slacks and faded Grammar Police t-shirt- sounds like a cheap answering machine through her electric megaphone, “You, James Hinton, sit down!”

The gym is a sweltering mass of heads, arms, and backpacks, with nearly nine-hundred of America’s finest seated on bleachers designed for about half that, back when only white kids could go to West Greenville High School and James Dean was still the nations heartthrob.

“Move over, I can’t feel my legs?” June pushes me into Grace.

“Well, don’t shove her into me!” Grace pushes me back.

“There isn’t room to move!” I snap, wiping sweat from my forehead, hating being the cream to their Oreo cookie,  “You’ll just have to deal with it.”

Normally, being social leapers and all, we’d have all the space we wanted, but this isn’t the lunch room or the coke machines before first period. Instead, it’s a full assembly with the entire WGHS student body crammed into an unairconditioned gym like dispossessed Jews into a cattle car, our social distinctions evaporating along with our humanity.

“We know the air is not working so we’ll make this quick.” Mrs. Perkins, megaphone still in hand, shuffles through a handful of papers, spilling half of them on the floor. Weak applause wafts up from the pothead section near the emergency exit. She ignores them and begins reading off the final exam scheduled, mentioning by grade the state’s required tests and what will happen when some students inevitably fail. “So study hard, your future and our funding depends on it.”

“There she is.” June jabs me in the ribs and points to the wall behind the basketball goal. There two dozen students sit, fidgeting. Mrs. Woods and Vice Principal Gamble watch over them like nervous prison guards during a shakedown. “The one with the purple shoes.”

I look closer and spot Penelope Coyne slumped against the wall, bored . “What’s so special about her?”

“Just look at her!” June points. You’d thought I’d been sleeping and just missed Mount Rushmore, the Washington Monument, and the Statue of Library passing by the window. “Look close.”

I look again, taking mental notes this time. She’s pale, bone thin and shorter than any of us. Leaned back against the wall with her legs stretched out, shes wearing an off-white skirt that covers everything down to her knees and an off-white top that droops form her shoulders like a damp towel. Her arms and shins and around the nape of her neck seem to be covered with tattoos. Is that legal?

“I’ve talked to her a few times and she’s a bad a**.” June says, not taking her eye off Penelope, or maybe, like me, off her purple Chuck Taylor’s. “And being with you two goody goodies all the time is making me soft. Casi no hablo español más.” This is something she’s been complaining about, saying with revulsion that her edge has dulled to sharpness of a butter knife, that she’s even thought of going to church with us, if just for the free Sunday morning doughnuts.

Don’t worry, product placement works in blogs too.

“I know that girl.” Grace says, leaning in close, “They say she’s a lesbian. Look at her hair.”

“They say we’re lesbians.” June retorts, “And besides, what if she was? It’s not contagious. You won’t wake up tomorrow wanting to munch carpet.”

“Still, it’s really short.” Grace grimaces. You’d thought Penelope just blew her a kiss. “It’s weird.”

I hate giving in to rumors (believing them things of the Devil) but Grace is right. Pen’s brown hair is short, real short, like power haircut, Freddie Prince Jr. short. And her ears are huge, protruding from her pale head like the open doors of white sedan.

“She has some big ears.” I say.

“They are!” June laughs.

“Shhhh!” Mrs. Bates, the office assistant assigned hoodlum duty, hisses from behind us. For being two-hundred pounds of grey haired frustration she can be sneaky.

June makes the zip my lips and throw away the key gesture, pleasing the geriatric beast enough to send her on. She quickly finds some jocks to harass.

“I’m going to introduce you three in a few days,” June says, then eyeing Grace with the closeness of a mother, “and you’re going to play nice.”

Mrs. Perkins has moved on with her announcements and is reiterating parking lot rules: no parking on the grass, no double stacking, don’t block walkways, etc. Her megaphone gives out half way and she has to yell. Half the students simultaneously lean in to hear. The other half could care less. “…Oh and I forgot, for those of you that do well during Test Week we’ll have May Day.” Mrs. Perkins smiles at perhaps the only West Greenville event that can be called a tradition, “Those details will be sent out during Homeroom Monday.”

“There’s Sunny and Oliver.” Grace points to the end of the bleachers where my brother and Sunny are sitting, pressed together like two turkeys shoved into the same oven.

“Sunny’s eyebrows have grown back.” I say, studying the slim brown lines above his eyes. I know he must be relived.

“Si, lo tienen.” June says, eyes still on Penelope, “Look.”

Vice Principle Gamble is looking down at June’s new prospect,  yammering on, his manicured index finger waving. He tapes Pen’s right Chuck Taylor with his loafer. She obliges and pulls her legs up, curling them Indian style, out of the walkway. She smiles up at him, Sorry, she says. When he leaves she stretches back out, straightening the wrinkles in her skirt with one hand and waving him the bird with the other.

Mierda!” June laughs, clapping loudly. You’d thought she’d just seen Apollo landing or witnessed the Second Coming. The World’s eyes turn towards us. “I bet she has some hairy balls!”

“You there!” Mrs. Bates scuttles back our way. “Big girl with the black hair,” She doesn’t even know her name! “Come with me.”

June doesn’t fight it, caring about as much as a blind man at a beauty contest, and makes her way down the bleachers, bowling over half the student body. She wears the same lucid smile I’ve seen worn by new mothers and brides to be.

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The Good Life: Wednesday April 15th, 2015.

“Do you have anything else by Cormac McCarthy?” June asks, “Blood Meridian was good.”

She’s leaning close to Grace’s bookshelves, panning over rows of Michael Crichton and Isaac Asimov. I’m not sure what the trouble is, everything’s categorized Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Other, with each section of perfectly preserved spines set in alphabetical order. She’s just hoping against hope for something that doesn’t involve time traveler’s, wizards, or the Millennium Falcon. Good luck with that.

“No.” Grace says. She’s scrolling through her computer screen, viewing dozens of what look like the same picture of her family at a barbecue last year. “I just found the one you read on a park bench. I waited an hour for someone to claim it. Then it was finder’s keeper’s. It was about to rain anyways.”

“Well, you need more of him.” June grunts. She looking closely at the books marked Other. They barely take up half a shelf. “What about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao?” She takes it and begins reading the dust cover.

“I haven’t read it.” Grace enlarges one the photos. “Mable, this is it.” She motions me over.

“It looks like all the others.” I say, peering over Grace’s shoulder. The photo is of her, her parents, and her brother Jason siting around a picnic table. The image is so perfectly framed it could be used as to sell health insurance. “The food looks good though.”

She smiles. “Look at my mom. She isn’t happy.” She points to her mother, a plain women with shoulder length brown hair and fierce eye brows. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt that says, Teamwork is Easy Work, and on her left hand is a cheap Timex wristwatch.

“Ok, I’ll read this.” June says reluctantly. “I just hope it’s good.” She plops down on Graces bed, reclining on the zigzag pattern comforter and One Direction sleeping pillow.

“Shoe’s off.” Grace orders, not for the first time.

Si Madre.” June says, flipping through the first few pages of her book before kicking her Spalding’s off to reveal soiled brown socks. Her right toe peeks up from a hole like a rabbit from its borrow. Thank God we’re use to the smell.

“What I’m saying is,” Grace points again to her mother, her finger moving from the women’s grey eyes to her pursed lips, “sometimes she gets in a slump and her and Dad fight.”

I lean in closer, inhaling Grace’s mango-strawberry scented shampoo. Her mother’s eyes aren’t just grey but murky and with the heaviness of insomnia.

“They’d been fighting for a few days.” Her voice now a whisper as if she were passing the combination for a safe, “I think she is unhappy sometimes and doesn’t know how to express it.”

“And what, Dr. Phil, is she unhappy about?” June doesn’t even look up from her book as she intrudes on our conversation, “Small boobs?”

“No.” Grace subconsciously crosses her arms in front of her chest. She may be sixteen but she has the mammary glands of an eight year old boy, a curse she’s inherited from her mother’s side. “It was a fight over the type of gas they put in the Maxima.”

Tu gente!” June laughs, shaking her head at our little problems, “You have to cry about something!”

I want to slap the stink off of her.

“It wasn’t about the gas.” Grace’s words are soft, run through with a red ribbon of concern. She closes the picture and then it’s folder. Her HP must have a thousand more like it, each annotated with a date and contents, as meticulously organized as her bookshelf.

“At least they seem ok now.” I say, “My Mom and Dad aren’t even talking.” I find it hard to believe that Grace’s family has any real problems. With the exception of the thing between Morgan and Jason (which makes me want to puke) they seem pulled from a 1950’s sitcom. They even eat dinner at a big oak table and talk about their day. Freaks.

“I’m just worried.” Grace looks off, studying her Harry Potter collection, fourteen books (half original hardbacks, the rest softcover reprints) that have been given a special shelf to themselves. There’s even a collectable wand, Harry’s, sitting beside a house coat of arms. I’m disappointed to learn that Grace is a Gryffindork. I’d hoped that (being thinking girls) we could be Ravenclaws together. “I think she gets lonely.”

“Oh boo-hoo,” June tosses her book down and rubs her eyes with two closed fists, “My white girl vagina itches! Oh boo-hoo!” She kicks her feet like a child and her toe pokes out further. It might as well be her middle finger. “Pass me the twat cream!”

“Shut up!” Grace snaps, “Just because our moms aren’t on crack, it doesn’t mean we don’t have problems!”

June relents, looking at Grace with satisfaction. “Well, the white girl’s toughened up.” She picks up the book and finds her page, “My little chica might not have boobs, but she’s grown a pair of balls.”

Grace says nothing as she returns to her computer screen, a thin grin across her lips. She can never resist a compliment, not even a vulgar one.

There’s a knock on the door and Mrs. Laurent pokes her head in. “Is everything ok in here? I heard some yelling.”

“We’re fine,” Grace smiles, “just talking about Mrs. Foreman’s biology class. She gets us worked up.”

“Oh.” Mrs. Laurent says. She runs her hands through her mouse brown hair, tucking it behind her ears. The resemblance between her and Grace is mirror close, with both having the same nose and mouth, the same warm eyes the sad color of dish water. “The spaghetti is done if you girls want to stay.”

“No thanks.” June says, nose in her book. “Mom’s cooking a roast tonight and I’ve got to save room.”

Mrs. Laurent nods, not believing word. She takes June in with a slow look, her smile faltering slightly at the sight of her socks. I can’t blame her. It must like seeing a hobo at Disney world. “How about you Mable” She turns to me with the same near-pretty face of her daughter, “Spaghetti?”

“No thank you. I’m June’s ride back. We’ll be leaving soon.”

She nods, saying something about welcome any time and closes the door.

“She seems happy.” June says “You’re going to be just like her one day. Same hair cut and everything.”

“I hope not.” Grace says, now perusing her Facebook account. Most of her few friends are blood relatives. “I really don’t want to be.”

June shakes her head. “Qué te pasa! What’s the matter with you!” Her laugh has the deep rasp of a forty year old smoker. “Your parents love you, you have spaghetti every night and all this!” She waves her hands like a stage magician, motioning to the four baby pink walls covered with family photos, a Taylor Swift Red poster, tons of Gryiffndork junk, and a white dresser sure to contain neatly folded socks and underwear, all are more than June could ever hope for.

“That doesn’t mean I want to be like them.” Grace whispers, “I mean they are so boring. They eat the same things every week, spaghetti on Wednesdays, meatloaf on Fridays, they watch the same shows. And on weekends they just stay home. They even have sex,” she pauses, thinking better of it, “they even make love on the same night.”

“Yeah?” June asks. She seems unmoved. A lackluster home life must seem like heaven to girl with less than nothing. I don’t think she’s seen her mother for two days.

“Thursday nights after ten, when they think I’ve gone to bed.” Grace’s voice is filled with exhaustion as if she could lay her head down a sleep for a year, “I just put my headphones on and listen to music. It doesn’t last too long anyways.”

“I think this’ll be a good book.” June says, turning again to the cover. It looks like it’s smeared with blood.

Grace looks her, then at her bookshelf with it’s rows and rows of small paper portals to other worlds. “You can keep it. I doubt one of the Other books can take me far enough away from here.”

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Angels and Robots: Friday April 3rd, 2015

“Just a few screws and we’ll be done on this end.” Oliver says. He fits a metal bracket to the side of the house, being careful not to fall off his stool, and motions for Sunny to hand him a screwdriver out of his toolbox. 

“No, the Philips head.” Oliver corrects, sending his gofer back to swap a red handled screwdriver for a green handled one.

“How much rope will we need?” Sunny asks. He looks at me and smiles, wiping sweat off his bare brow with his sleeve. Being Oliver’s stooge always puts him in a good mood and for a brief moment he seems to forget he doesn’t have eye brows.

“That much.” Oliver points to a pine tree at the far end of our backyard, which means they’ll need about one hundred feet of rope or zip line as he calls it, “We have more than enough. The spool has twice that.”

“Who’s going to ride it first?” I ask, “Dumb or Dumber?”

They look at each other, questioning, the insult flying over their heads like a Frisbee.

“Well.” I grin, hiding no small morsel of amusement. Funny how they’ve talked about this thing for two days, drawing up plans and watching YouTube videos made by people with too much time on their hand, when it’s doubtful that either of them will have the guts to ride it after it’s done.

“We’ll flip a coin.” Oliver says finally, turning back to the bracket and putting in another screw.

From inside the house we hear a door slam and the muffled sounds of distant parental thunder.

Sunny knells and studies something in the tool box, his thin fingers moving between the sockets, eyeing them closely. He’s becoming a pro at appearing nonchalant.

“Mom and Dad fight like this sometimes.” I say, attempting to reassure myself more than Sunny, “It’s just been awhile.” A long while, and its only now that Mom’s arranged her schedule to coincide with Dad’s and ours (maybe for a little more family time she’d said) that things have soured. Maybe familiarity really does breed contempt. Perhaps we should have kept our family interactions to a few hours a week like every other dysfunctional American family. “It’s normal.”

“Yeah.” Sunny nods. He wipes more sweat from his forehead and continues rearranging the toolbox.

Apparently, he’s told people he shaved his eyebrows himself, an effort to win a bet or something like that. He’s gained notoriety for it, even starting a trend. Today, I’ve seen two maybe three other eyebrowless boys walking around campus. And June was laid up with her tooth, suffering the days away, not knowing her punishment backfired. Now she’s indifferent. From now on Sonny will have to face the Deshawn Cannons of the world solo.

“I’m going to set up the other side.” Oliver says, sliding the screwdriver into his pocket and handing Sunny a protractor, “Remember to call out when the line is at thirty degrees down angle.” His mind a thousand miles away from any living person, Oliver takes one end of the rope, a handful of screws and walks to the pine across the yard. He climbs a fiberglass ladder into it’s lower branches.

“Why didn’t you fight Deshawn?” I know I’m going out on a thin and rotting limb but June hasn’t said a word -other than Sunny being a punta– and curiosity is getting the better of me.

Sunny doesn’t look at me but stares off after Oliver. He slaps a misquote away.

“Chicken?” The word’s a two syllable barb, something I’ve been saving, the price for a black eye and busted lip. But there’s no satisfaction in it. My anger has faded along with my bruises. “It’s o.k. if you were.”

“I didn’t want to fight him. And I didn’t want you two to fight him either.” Sunny closes his eyes, searching he’s something stored for safe keeping. “But I say resist not evil: but whosoever smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” He opens his eyes and looks at me, hoping for understanding.

I only stare at him, this strange unearthly creature. I’m not sure whether he’s about to sprout wings and fly to Heaven or be sucked up by the mother-ship.

“Hold up the protractor dodo!” Oliver yells. Sunny stands and places the protractor up to the rope. Even on the stool he’s barely tall enough and struggles on his tip-toes, his thin arms reaching up like two withered vines.

“Do you know how many degrees are in a protractor?” I ask, “No. Don’t look.”

Sunny, his hands still up as if to surrender, looks down, studying his ragged sneakers. I’ve seen pairs like them (white with an inverted t symbol) for sale at the Bargain Barn for $6 dollars. They didn’t even come in boxes but droop from special coat hangers like wet t-shirts. I’m sure he catches hell for them at West Greenville where Nikes and Timberlands seem standard issue.


“One-hundred and eighty.” I answer my own question.

“Is it at thirty degrees?” Oliver calls. He’s disappeared underneath the pine’s lower branches, leaving only his khaki pant legs showing.

“Yes.” Sunny yells without looking, struggling to keep balance. The rope is at a line marked twenty.

The back door opens and Morgan steps out. She’s still wearing her gold and burgundy MCCC band uniform, tassels and all. She’s on the verge of tears.

“How was your drive back.” I ask. Discussing her weekly commute is perhaps the only conversation we have any more.

“The drive?” She looks at me with tearful hate. “Don’t you hear that! Mom’s crying right now!”

I look at her, then look across the backyard. Sunny legs, one dangling freely as he puts in the last screws, could be the lifeless appendages of a lynch victim.

“Well?” Morgan gives me a second, a moment to redeem myself, but guilt glues my mouth shut. Apparently the fighting has been going on for weeks, but I’ve been to concerned with June to have notice that my parent’s marriage has cracked like an ice cube dropped in hot water.

“Sunny and Ollie are building a zip-line.” My words don’t seem my own but are distant and hollow, the sounds echoed from in a deep cave, “We’re all going to ride it when they’re done.”

Morgan shakes her head in disgust, dismissing me from her thoughts and maybe her life for the foreseeable future. “What are you, a robot? You really need to get your head out of your a**.” She turns into house, slamming the door shut behind her. I wonder how long it will take to reopen that door, or even if I should start trying.

Be still my robot heart…

The sun sinks lower in the sky turning the clouds tangerine. The mosquitos are getting worse.

“I’ll ride it first if you don’t want too.” I tell Sunny.

He only nods, wiping more sweat from his smooth brow.

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The Tooth Fairy Cometh: Saturday March 28th, 2015.

“That movie was terrible!” June laughs, draining the last few drops of Mello Yellow from her 48oz piss ’til morning cup. “The whole series doesn’t make sense. Someone’s just jumping on the dystopian gravy train. Salsa débil” It’s her second refill in the last hour and with her XL popcorn bucket already devoured, you’d think she wouldn’t be able to move let alone complain.

“It was crap.” I agree, giving Grace a playful push as we leave the theater, “And the boy wasn’t even that cute.” Happy chemicals swish through my brain like water in a basin. But who can blame me? I’ve made an A+ on Mr. Singer’s Holocaust report (and no, I won’t be able to look at chimney smoke, lampshades or special needs children the same way again), an A- on Mrs. Powell’s Mody Dick paper (screw the APA format), and most importantly, my best friend, Ms. Resurrected from the Dead June P. Rodriguez, walks once more among the living.

“I liked it.” Grace smiles, hoping to press our buttons, “I thought it was realistic.” Seething with endorphins, she’s in the same good mood as June and myself. She’s even brought her Cannon Rebel along, hanging it around her neck like an Olympic gold medal and taking snapshots nonstop. June’s stopped trying to dodge her and, like a lonesome hippo caged at the St. Louis Zoo, she’s taken on an air of indifference. “And the boy was so cute.”

We walk past the Pretzel Hut, sidestepping a large crowd of mall dwelling teenyboppers. They’re a strange species, all identical with their mismatched socks and nauseating giggles, each birthed from the same privileged womb of suburban America. I’m sure Jr. High will cull the herd. We brush past them quickly.

“How was it realistic?” June asks. Even her objections, usually thinly veiled insults, are cheerful. “People segregated from each other because of personality differences? People need to be separated by race. Blacks to the back of the room, whites to the middle, and Mexicans to the front.”

“‘Mexican'” isn’t a race.” I correct.

“What about Asians?” Grace asks. She’s learned to play June’s game, working her way around the rules, knowing when to take it and when to give it back. “My grandmother is Filipino. Where would I be sitting?”

“Half-breeds will be the worlds janitors, mopping up puke and cleaning toilets.” June tosses her empty cup into a trash can and stretches, the perennial fat cat enjoying the good life.

“You forget, you’re half-breed.” Grace prods, her overbite protruding as she smiles. I think I see it now, with her olive skin, a hit of something other than suburban white girl. “You have blue eyes. That’s a recessive trait. You have more gringo in you than you think. I mean, your mom is more pale than Mable. She’s iridescent.”

June exhales, signaling she’s done with the conversation. “Where are we eating tonight?”

“Where do you want to go?” Grace ask’s. Carrying a role of twenties in her pocket, she’s embraced the role of financier like a new mother embraces her infant. She’s smiled her way through the receipts and never mentioned the cost of our breakfast at Waffle House, or the three movie tickets and the high price concessions. “Outback is pretty good.”

“Kinda expensive.” I say, wondering how deep her pockets really are.

Don’t worry about it mate, I got it.” Her Australian accent is horrible. “At least for today.”

“Stop being such a money prude Mable!” June laughs. “It’s time for her to spend some of last year’s birthday money.”

Grace gives me a wink and I drop the subject. It’s clear our sugar mama has been frugal. A virtue we conservative Republicans admire.

The smells change as we leave the food court. The aroma of pretzels and hotdogs becomes the heavy scent of perfume and cheap cologne. We pass a dozen shops displaying expensive cloths made in Malaysian sweat shops and pedaled by pimple faced teenagers on iPhones. The global community at work.

“Stand next to the fountain.” Grace says, taking my arm and standing me beside June, “Look at the camera.” June turns with begrudging obedience. “Smile.”

“Why didn’t you take a picture of Deshawn?” June asks, a sly grin across her face. Grace snaps a few quick shots and begins fumbling through the cameras settings. “That would have been a real zinger. Isn’t that what you call them? You might of needed a telephoto lens though.”

“I don’t want to take pictures of that type of thing.” Grace continues with her camera, twisting knobs and pushing buttons, taking too long to do what ever it is she’s trying to do, “Depressing things.”

“People don’t win Pulitzers by taking pictures of birthday parties and kittens playing with butterflies.” June says. She snatches the camera and studies it.

Grace, her hands empty, looks at me. I’ve never seen anyone so naked.

“I know a little about cameras.” June takes off the lens with the push of a button. “My uncle had one in Texas. It was a Nikon 35mm SLR with a 50mm fixed focal length lens.  Viejo como el infierno.” She snaps the lens back into place and dangles the camera over the fountain pool.

“Don’t!” Grace lunges, but June stares her down, keeping her in place with a pair of fierce blue eyes. She could be an Australian sheep dog. After a moment a smile creeps across her face, slow as Christmas and just a welcomed.

“Here” She hands Grace the camera, tenderly, as if it were a newborn child, something that would destroy our little world if it were dropped.

“Thanks for getting my assignments.” June says, turning back to the fountain. She’s spying for quarters but only finds pennies and nickels.

“Did you get through with them all?” Grace double checks her camera, taking the lens off then snapping it back on again. “You missed a lot of school.”

June nods. She dips her hand into the pool and pulls up a nickel. “1974…” She tosses it back in and wipes her hand on her t-shirt.

I’m surprised she isn’t boasting. Her homework pile was about the size of Mt. McKinley the last time I saw it. But true to form her No. 2 Ticonderoga burned through it all like a struck match. She’s well on her way to a “Who’s who” blurb in the yearbook whether she wants one or not.

“So you want Outback?” June turns to us and slaps her belly, “Then Outback it is. I have to regain my figure.” She laughs, “I lost fifteen pounds last week.”

We’d laugh too but for the fact that it’s true. June’s current undead state is proof that miracles don’t  just happen in the Bible or during David Blain TV specials, but can occur in unknown trailer parks across the world. That’s if said miracle is the body’s ability to expel rotten bits of itself before blood poisoning sets in. June now has a hole in her jaw she can fit a marble in.

“Smile!” Grace raises her camera.

June huffs and pulls close to me. We stare into the camera’s one dark eye. The wonder chemicals are still doing their magic but I force them down and give Grace an expressionless expression.

“American Gothic, huh?” She laughs, undaunted, the camera still poised, “That’ll have to do.”

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The Violent Bear It and Grin: Part II- Wensday March 18th, 2015

“Open the windows.” June grunts. She waves her hands in no particular direction, “It’s a furnace in here.”

“They’re already open.” I say, trying to turn the camper’s window hand cranks further. “They all stop half way.”

“S***…” June slumps back into the Airstream’s pullout bed. The afternoon sun pours in through the open blinds, falling in long lines over her face. Her cheek is a pink, swollen mass and there is a large purple blot where the black molar is attempting to burn it’s way through. “Open the door then.”

Grace looks at me, sweat dripping from her nose. After an hour in the camper, the scent of her perfume, everyone’s perspiration, and what can only be described as universal desperation has melded, becoming an penetrating stench. Breathing through my mouth hasn’t helped.

“The door is open,” Grace says, wiping the sweat from her nose, “the screen door too.”

June closes her eyes and says nothing.

“Do you need more Tylenol?” Grace opens a half-empty bottle and offers it. Two other full bottles sit in a Walmart bag in the kitchenette along with a tube of Orajel and some reusable ice packs made useless by the camper’s busted mini-fridge. “They seem to help.”

June looks at her then looks away. “I’ve had half a bottle today. My kidneys want to run away and die.” Her voice has changed, losing the gruff undertone of a chain smoking old man and becoming childlike, “They give me a serious case of the s**** anyways.”

“My mom says that you should be able to get on Medicaid or something.” Grace continues. Her mother, a medical coder at Southwestern Regional,  should know the nooks and crannies of the American health care system. “Poor kids like you can get on it pretty easy. She says that even Republicans can’t stand the thought of sick kids.”

Grace smiles at this last part, showing her own pearl white teeth. She’s as red as I am, we’re Republicans through and through, the children of Reaganomics and a “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality. Still, seeing anyone sick, even illegals, is like putting needles under out fingernails.

“I went with Mrs. Rodriguez yesterday and filled out the paperwork for her.” June says. She’s divorced the term “mom” from her vocabulary, preferring instead to refer to her mother like a substitute math teacher, some stranger who’ll never have any real part in raising or caring for her. “It’ll take time for it to go through.”

“We’re is Mrs. Rodriguez?” I ask. The air tastes like Sour Patch candy on my tongue, both sweet and terrible at the same time.


“When will she get off?” Grace asks, “You might have to go to the emergency room to get some antibiotics.”

“Emergency room?” June turns to her with a leer like 40 grit sandpaper, “Punta, you think this hasn’t happened before?”

Grace looks at me and then at her shoes, a new pair of $150 Timberlands. She sounds like an asthmatic squirrel as she cries.

Dios hace calor!” June shoots upright, pulling her shirt over her head and throwing it across the camper. It lands on the broken AC unit protruding from the back window. “I can’t breath in here…” She slumps back, her two large breasts lay flat like Jell-O molds under her sweat stained bra. Her ribs and heaving brown belly are covered with dark bruises. Before we got the better of him, with June pummeling his stained face with her ham hock fist as I held his legs, Deshawn Cannon laid into her midsection as if it were a punching bag.

“How are your ribs?” I ask, running my tongue over my damaged lip and tasting a few fresh drops of blood. My black eye has fared better, fading from the original deep purple to a subtle green. “Nothing broken?”

June utters something unintelligible, primal, and lays her forearm over her eyes. Her armpits are forests of black hair.

I run my tongue over my lip again, having learned to enjoy the medium rare savor of Type O negative.

Mom believed my I ran my bike into a tree story, hardly blinking the evening I came home battered. I suppose that’s what happens when you’re a hospice worker, you grow thick, rino skin. She once told me, tearful after a particularly rough day, that if anything I’m crying about is non-terminal put a Band-Aid on it and thank my lucky stars. Earlier that afternoon she had an eleven-year-old autistic boy die in her arms. He had brain tumor the size of a plum and filled his Paw Patrol diaper to dripping when he coded.

“Want me to turn in your homework tomorrow?” Grace dries her eyes, “Mrs. Tanner’s asking questions.”

“I haven’t done any.” A pile of text books and makeup assignments sit near the Walmart bag, forgotten as last year’s birthday cards.

The sun sinks lower and the bars of light creep up the camper’s walls, changing in hue from lemon yellow, to gold leaf, to rip orange within minutes.

Word around school is that June and I had it out, that’s why she’s been absent and I look like a Raggedy Ann doll thrown to a pit bull. Mrs. Jane even pulled me into her office and asked what happened. Her sleeves were rolled up like she was about to change a flat tire and her hair, grown out to shoulder length, was a tangled near-blonde bird’s nest. On her desk a pumpkin pie scented candle burned quietly, it’s long flame flickering in the slight breeze of the AC.

Well? She asked.

I stammered, stumbling my way through the rehashed story, the oak tree becoming a telephone pole with clumsy me riding my rickety 10 speed Schwinn (something I haven’t touched in maybe five years) into the side of it.

She didn’t buy it and only looked at me, her eyes like Mom’s on a bad day, deep as cavers and with a glint of pity and perhaps a half-pound of anger hidden behind them. I got out of there fast.

“I don’t think Deshawn Cannon will be bothering Sunny anymore!” I smile, “We got him good!” My words don’t fly with the enthusiasm I’d hoped for, but seem held down by chains of guilt and confusion. We’d won for sure, leaving Deshawn in the dirt, crying and bloody, his arms outstretched like the withered roots of some trunkless tree, but I’m having trouble sleeping at night. Is that still a win? Can anyone win in this world, or are all the moments just a different shade of blue?

“Nope. Never again.” June says absently. I might as well have mentioned the weather.

I run my tongue over my lip again, feeling the split that should’ve received stitches.

“You should go to the emergency room.” Grace’s voice is louder now, carrying weight. She turns to me. “Mable will drive us.”

“And then what?” June asks. Her voice is calm and low, willing to indulge the child. Even a rabid stray will grow to love the hand that feeds it, or as in this case, cares enough to bring it pharmaceuticals.

“They’ll take care of you.” Grace says.

“They’ll want to know where Mrs. Rodriguez is. Then Sunny and I will end up in foster care.”

Grace says nothing.

“And who’d want us?” June asks. The question hangs in the air like a tossed hand grenade no one wants to catch. “Maybe we’ll be the next Tuesday’s Child segment, huh?” Sarcasm seeps through like blood out of an old Band-Aid. It’s impossible to think of Local Channel 38 taking up June’s cause, offering her up to any willing family able to pass a quick background check and offer dental insurance.

“Hand me the trash can.” June says. She works something around her mouth and puckers her lips.

Grace hands her a small trash can, not for the first time today, and June leans over it. I half expect her to spit out a rusty nail. It’s a blackened piece of tooth and gum.

June leans back onto the bed, ginning. “Maybe I should collect all of those bits for the tooth fairy.” Her smile shows pink teeth, a lip stick stain of hemoglobin and platelets. “Podría ponerme un dólar.

“Yeah, a dollar.” I don’t tell her the last tooth I lost netted me five and the new Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince I think.

“Imagine what I could do with a dollar…” June closes her eyes and becomes lost in a time fifty years past, where one-hundred pennies could almost buy you the world.

The sunset fades into a blue twilight. June begins to snore with the heavy rasp of a grandfather, not a sixteen year old girl.

Outside the camper, cars creep along the trailer park’s crumbling street, pulling into driveways or drifting slowly on, searching for who knows what.

I take Grace’s hand to keep it from shaking.  I don’t tell her that my imagination is playing games with me, that the pullout bed June’s laying in appears to be the size and shape of a coffin.

“She said this happened before.” I whisper, hating June for giving me that molecule of hope, “Everything will be ok.”

Grace jerks her hand away and turns to the window.

“That’s ok.” I whisper, “I’m not sure I believe it either.”

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The Viloent Bear It and Grin: Part I- Saturday March 14, 2015.

“Gosh it’s hot.” Grace moans. She’s fanning  herself with an old newspaper, lifting her ponytail to airing her neck, “It’s like a sauna in here.”

“Yes, it is.” June says, indifferent. She’s slouched in the front passenger seat, hardly moving as sweat beads on her forehead, becoming large droplets that stream down to drip at intervals from her fat chin. Her jaw is a pink, swollen mess. She’s hardly taken her eyes off Deshawn Cannon. “It’s hot as b***s.”

I apologize, maybe for the tenth time this morning, but it’s not my fault the Caravan’s AC kicked the bucket earlier in the week, leaving us to sweat bullets as we watch our unsuspecting victim play basketball with imaginary friends.

“How much longer ’til your parents fix the AC.” Grace asks. She moves up between the driver and passenger seats and begins pushing buttons on the AC control panel.

“A few weeks.” I slap her hand away, “Te dije su roto! I told you it’s broken!”

She pulls back, her look venomous. I can’t blame her. The van’s front two windows roll down, allowing something of a breeze in, but the two rear windows only crack out slightly, leaving any passengers to bake. In the rearview, Grace looks like a cooked ham. She’s too afraid to open the sliding door.

“He sees us.” June says. She dries her face with her shirt, leaving a sweat stain that could be the image of Jesus Christ, or the Enlightened Buddha, or Fidel Castro depending on the interpreter’s religious or political persuasion. “It’s almost time.”

I look out the cracked windshield. Deshawn Cannon has stopped dribbling and is eyeing us. Funny he hasn’t spotted the van sooner. It’s been parked in the empty lot just across  two-lane Hwy 82 (a stones through from his own trashed single-wide trailer) for almost an hour.

“Will he come over here?” Grace asks. I can sense her double checking the door locks.

“No.” June says, as if reading his mind, “We’ll have to go to him.” Perhaps, being a poor minority herself, they share some sort of telepathic connection, something developed and honed by centuries of oppression. Who knows? I really don’t care.

Deshawn Cannon begins dribbling again. His patchwork basketball, it’s loose leather held down with what looks like electrical tape, disappears in a cloud of dust. Every few moments he looks back at us.

I close my eyes and breath deep, trying to slow my heart rate. I feel like throwing up.

“He’s ugly!” June snarls, “Nappy headed, big fat lips, that birthmark like a s*** stain on the carpet.” She looks at me then back at Grace, attempting to share an grotesque grin, “Bet his own mother hate’s him. Who’d let their kid live like that, trash all over the place?”

Grace and I say nothing. We’ve secretly decided between ourselves that June’s own mother (that pale, bat-like creature) must herself be on meth or something. How else can you explain her indifference to her children’s welfare? June’s black molar and Sunny’s grades? That and the fact that she’s rail thin, and her own teeth (ground down to bleeding brown nubs) are worst than June’s.

“Bet she does.” June mutters, continuing the conversation with herself. With her bad tooth twisting like a rusty screw in its socket, she’s lost weight, her midsection thinning to what may be called husky or big boned as opposed to just plain fat. Her cheek on the other hand, is so swollen that her lips are always a little parted. She keeps a napkin in hand to sop up the drool.

“I’m going to shave Sunny’s eyebrows Monday morning before school.” She goes on, eyes turned to her quarry, “The boy’s got to know that there’re some things worst than getting your a** kicked by a jungle bunny.” Her laugh is high and uneasy, the likes heard in Bedlam. I’m beginning to wonder if the pain is getting to her, if that black tooth and maybe the unbearable heat are sending a thin red ribbons straight to her brain, poisoning it with rage.

“Grace,” June calls without looking back, “how do you stop four black guys from raping a white women?”

“You toss them a basketball.” Grace beams. You’d thought she answered the million dollar question and a super model is waiting backstage with her huge cardboard check, “I saw that movie. It was about Vietnam.”

“Yes is was.” June smiles. Her attitude towards Grace has improved this last week, with our new third offering bottles of extra strength Tylenol, tubes of Orajel and an invitation from Mrs. Laurent to see a dentist. June has accepted everything but the dentist.

Deshawn Cannon has stopped dribbling and is now pacing, eyeing us like a caged orangutan, the ball tucked like a newborn in the crook of his arm. You expect to see it hanging from one of his nipples, sucking him dry.

  • Something tells me that this won’t be a fair fight.

“Lets go.” June slaps my arm and gets out the passenger side.

Grace opens the back sliding door but June pulls it closed.

“You stay here.” June says through the window, pointing with a stiff finger.

Grace nods and sits like a well trained labrador. She doesn’t even attempt to hide her relief.

I’d figured June would let her off easy. The fact that she was waiting for us this morning wearing what June called her fight cloths (old blue jeans with yellow paint stains on the knees, a torn flannel jacket and work boots that seem too small to be real) appears to have satisfy the Mexican of her courage. I half expected to be left off the hook as well, some stay of execution for an obviously innocent convict, but no. June’s pulling me along with invisable chains of loyalty cutting into my wrist, almost drawing blood.

“Grace will wish she was with us.” June says already half way across the highway. She has a rubber band and is working her thick black curls into a tight pony tail. The back of her shirt is soaked transparent with sweat, reveling beige bra straps. My heart races as I try to keep up with her confident stride.

I look back at the van. It appears ancient, a relic of the 90’s, older than any of us with it’s broken tape player and faded D.A.R.E. bumper sticker. Grace, with her almost pretty face and slightly wide-set eyes, watches us through the windshield. She’s rolled up the front two windows and sweat shines off her forehead like Vaseline.

Contempt fills in me like water fills a fresh dug well. Is Mom right about June? About her being a bad influence? Will I be barefoot and pregnant by the end of the semester? Strung out on PCP and flunking Family and Health? What is PCP anyways?

“Slow down.” I call out, making my way closer to June, matching her step for step. I batter down my questions like drunk man his wife, not wanting little things get in the way of the big picture; surviving the next five minutes.

“Pan blanco, esto es muy importante para nosotros. This is very important for us.” June says, like the mentor of an afterschool special, an in the locker room before the big game type of thing. “Just don’t chicken out on me.” She turns to me, her look reassuring, demanding, maybe even a little threatening. “Don’t p**** out on me.”

“I won’t.” I say, my fingers having already curled into soft, fat girl fists, “I won’t.”

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Salt Kool-Aid from Mars: Friday March 6th, 2015

“I’m not sure about her.” June says. She stirs her mashed potatoes and peas into a sea foam colored gruel as her hamburger, normally inhaled the moment she places her lunch tray on the table, sits cooling. “How’s her Spanish coming?”

“Good.” I lie, not wanting to reveal Grace’s indifference to America’s Romance language, “She has problems with future and past tense though.”

June sees through me like an airport’s full body scanner. “She’s salt Kool-Aid.” She says, turning to find our new friend in the cafeteria.

Grace, her class let out late for lunch, stands with her arms crossed at the back of the lunch line. Hearing me grip about Morgan’s technical virginity has sent her in the opposite direction, and she’s become more conservative than ever. Her skirts have gone ankle length and somewhere she’s found a sweater vest and yellow rubber WWJD? bracelet to wear. She has the homey glow of a women either pregnant or absolutely content with herself. That may be the problem for June.

I turn to her, knowing what she wants me to ask. Few people can bait a conversation as well as June P. Rodriguez. “What’s salt Kool-Aid?”

“Salt Kool-Aid is…” Her momentary silence is nauseatingly pretentious, “…is when you ask Sunny to make some Cherry Kool-Aid, only to find the idiot mistook the salt for sugar.” She grins, “I used mistook in a sentence. I think you’re whiteness is rubbing off on me pan blanco.

“I don’t think so. I really like her.”

Grace moves farther up the line, taking a tray and sidestepping her way to the entrées. She points to the spaghetti and a large black woman in a hairnet and stained white apron scoops a huge helping onto her tray, topping it with a roll before motioning her on.

“She’s just in her shell.” I say, “She just needs a little more encouragement. I did.”

June snorts, looks down and to the left, and yawns. She’s already moved on. “We’re going to have to fight Deshawn Cannon.”

“What?” Fear hits me like a large black fist, “What about Sunny?” The homemade Bowflex in the backyard, the three mile jogs, push-ups, sit-ups, seeing him and Oliver at it for the last week was starting to make me proud. “What happened?”

Miedo.” June snarls contemptuously, and you’d  think she swallowed a fly, “The punta chickened out.” She puts her hand to her face and rubs her left cheek, “I’ll deal with him later. You ever been in a fight? Puños Fisty?


June studies me with the penetrating eye of a homicide detective. She smiles. “Tienes. You have. Probably thinking about it right now.”

And I am thinking about it. I was eight or nine when a neighborhood girl named Holly Byrd chased a crying Oliver into our yard, saying he stole her kickball or something. Somehow a hoe appeared in my hand, and I told her to apologize or else. She gave a high, nasally laugh, her small, upturned nose showing buggers. I struck her across the face with the sharp end and she fell to the ground screaming, her hands covering a gash in her cheek you could see teeth through. I cried myself to sleep for a week after that.

“It wasn’t much of a fight.” I whisper, wondering if Oliver really did steal Holly’s kickball.

“Hey.” Grace smiles and sits beside me, centering her tray squarely on the table and automatically placing her roll and fruit cup in front of June.

June eyes her and turns away.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Grace asks. She’s going through her routine, fork and spoon placed on the tray’s right side, milk (it’s smiling cow symbol facing me) on the left. On the empty seat next to her, as if it were our fourth and had something to add to the conversation, is Star Wars: Lords of the Sith. A tasseled bookmark sticks out near it’s center. “You can’t be full already.”

“I fell like crap.” June says, tenderly rubbing her swollen cheek. “Dolor de muelas.”

Grace looks at me and I translate the vulgarities the best that I can, adding, almost as an afterthought, that June has a toothache.

“Mable shouldn’t have to do that.” June grunts, “You should be fluent by now.”

Grace looks more confused than hurt. I half expect her to offer June a Midol. Maybe three.

“It’s only been a month.” I say, defensive now, “Give us time.”

June eyes me for a moment then turns back to Grace. “And stop reading that crap.” She motions to the paperback, “Can’t you just start smoking or doing drugs instead?”

Grace’s snorting, pig like laugh dies when June gives her the death stare. “And Mable’s picking up your bad habit.”

“I don’t read that much of it.” I say, suddenly, inexplicably self-conscious. For the past three weeks I thought I’d hidden my growing admiration of Michael Crichton and secret love affair with Charles Stross from all but Grace. I suppose not.

“You’re reading to much.” June mumbles, eyes closed. Her tongue works around her mouth, poking here and there as if searching for a lost quarter.

The few afternoons we’ve spent in Grace’s house- a nice two story colonial just outside the upscale subdivision of Pine View- were used pouring over hundreds of paperback, trade paperback and hard cover Science Fiction books. Some were bought retail, while most came in large cardboard boxes marked “Donation”, “Clearance” and “Keep For Bird Cage.” In my room I’ve collected a small pile of my favorites (the afore mentioned Crichton and Stross) hoping Grace will forget she lent them to me.

Not all Science Fiction is bad, just most of it.

“I thought you liked some of them.” Grace says, her voice a whisper. “You liked A Clockwork Orange.”

June looks at me. Is that a flash of green in those Mexican eyes? Are you jealous?

The moment passes as June is submerged under a fresh wave of pain. She rubs her cheek, her mouth undulating open and closed like a fish yanked onto a river bank and left gasping. Slowly and with eyes closed, unsure what the outcome will be, she bits down. There is a small, wet, crunch like someone stepping on a robin’s egg. She opens her eyes. Tiny tears have formed in their corners.

“Are you ok?” Grace asks, her voice shuddering. This is one of the few moments in her life that June P. Rodriguez has received genuine concern from anyone.

“Just…” she thinks for a moment, composing her words as if they were a haiku, “Just don’t read them when your with us. They’re a distraction and we may need you.”

“For what?”

June starts at the beginning, and Grace shrinks back when she hears Deshawn Cannon is black.

“It’s just him. He doesn’t have any friends. And he’s just a little guy.” I attempt to reassure her and perhaps myself that the black stereotypes are just that, stereotypes, that nobody’s going to get raped or murdered here. “He’s even smaller than Sunny.” My laugh is unconvincing and Grace turns to June for reassurance.

“I’ll take care of it. You just have to show up.” June forces a smile, one that says I‘m sorry about making fun of your s**** books, A Clockwork Orange was a good piece of social satire.

Grace gives a nervous, forgiving grin. I’ll be there, it seems to say. Her fingers though, are tangled around the WWJD? bracelet, unsure of anything.

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