Monday, July 18, 2011
I could smell my gym shorts before I opened my locker. The sweat had soured, and when I pinched the waistband between my thumb and forefinger I could feel the moldy dampness where wrinkles had set in.
Paul pulled his shirt down from his neck. His small bird chest was so white it glistened like it had been rubbed down with baby oil. His skinny legs dangled from the bench between the rows of lockers like a small kid.
“Spurgeon cut off her lock and replaced it with a new one yesterday. She missed some homework assignments, but other than that I don’t know what Aaron has done, or what Big Mix done to you guys.” He said.
Paul’s consonants clacked together with his Yankee accent. That must be what made him so good at school work, but slow between classes. Aaron told everyone that Amanda Pine had given both of us the hickeys and Paul accepted it without solving for y.
I rubbed the spot on my neck. This morning, in front of the bathroom mirror the dark red glowed brighter that when it was fresh. I caught Paul staring at it and he jerked his head away when our eyes made contact.
“Have you got a copy of her class schedule yet?” I asked
“In our stash locker. I put a copy there this morning in an old Punisher comic. I thought that might give you something to read.”
Paul’s goofy grin covered his face. His new eyeglasses were too big for his narrow head. It made him look like a girl. He turned his head in those huge frames and image gave me a flash of a young Sally Jesse Raphael.
“If I start reading books then what will I need you for?”
I cut my eyes at Paul when I said this. He sat quiet as I pulled my shorts up on my waist. The dampness crept into my underwear and the whole effect felt like reusing yesterday’s towel.
Paul and I walked out on the gym floor. Big Mix sat in the first row of bleachers. Her blank cow eyes seemed to follow me everywhere without moving at all. She wasn’t dressed out for gym, and as she leaned forward to rest her arms on her knees her fat rolls congealed down her chest and stomach. Her tight brown t-shirt wrapped each fat loaf, and the combined effect made her look like a segmented worm.
Mr. Thompson strolled into the gym twirling his whistle around his first two fingers. He walked like my grandfather after hemorrhoid surgery with the heel barely behind in distance from the toes. The point of his destination always faced the side of his feet like he was trying to keep his butt cheeks together when he walked. No one really paid him attention. Tennis shoes squeaked on the floor as people stood around talking.
“Mrs. Shlevic. You're not joining us for class today?”
Kids called him coach even though the school had no sports teams.
“You don’t have your pretty little outfit on.” Mr. Thompson said.
The girls covered their mouths when they giggled. Their ponytails bounced on the monosyllabic laugh. Mr. Thompson hitched his thumbs in the waistband of his tracksuit and winked at whatever cute girl would accept it.
“That’s okay. You can keep score for the boys as they play basketball. All right, let’s exercise.”
Mr. Thompson clapped his hands once. It was barely audible with the whistle string binding his fingers. The girls chatted as they walked to the volleyball net, and their long legs held my attention without me knowing why.
Under the net we separated the teams. Tall kids got picked fast, and when they called my name, an idea hit me. Big Mix scooted across the row she sat on to our side of the goal. I could hear her butt scrape the plastic as she barely lifted up her body from the bench
“Let’s make this more interesting.” I said.
Kevin Stokes tried to spin the ball on the end of his finger.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“A goal, as usual, is worth one point, but if you hit Big Mix you score two. A big fat bonus.”
Kevin snickered. “The bison is worth double.” He yelled “We get the ball first.”
The ball hit the floor and made a sound like a shoe being used as a hammer. Everyone separated trying to get Kevin’s attention, and the ball. At first the other boys acted scared and threw at the net. Finally, when the ball was passed back to Kevin, he made a run for the side of the court. This confused the boy who was covering him, but when the ball smacked big Mix on the leg everyone laughed.
“Two points.” Kevin yelled out.
I never cared for basketball because it felt like dancing. But after Kevin shot the ball at Big Mix a frenzy started that I couldn’t help but enjoy. No one tried for the basket anymore. Big Mix ducked, twisted, and cowered behind her raised arms to block herself from direct shots. Red spots, where she had been hit, colored like a rash. The harder shots were raspberry like my own.
Mr. Thompson stopped watching the girls jump and jiggle long enough to turn his concentration on us. Air balls landed in the bleachers that missed Big Mix, and we made her retrieve them.
"Hurry up we haven't got all day. Gym will be over in a few more minutes." Kevin yelled at her.
She became a moving target since the ball would be thrown again before she made it back to her spot. Soon the whole gym watched our game of Duck Hunt. Most times the ball would roll down the bleachers after it hit her. No one even cared about playing defense.
The other strange kids stood at the back wall. After a good hard shot socked Big Mix on top of the head one of the girls walked up to Mr. Thompson. She whispered in his ear and the whistle stopped spinning.
“Okay boys, let’s rap it up.”
The girls walked off to the locker room in pairs. Big Mix threw the basketball back onto the court, and it hit Paul’s foot as it reduced to a roll. Paul picked it up and I grabbed his shirt sleeve. We stood until the gym had mostly cleared. The odd kids kept looking over their shoulder like my mom when she steals make-up in Kmart.
“Do it.” I said to Paul.
Big Mix sat back in her spot, beside her mud stained backpack.
“Do what?” He held the basketball against his ribs with his forearm, and when his eyes widened it was magnified by his glasses.
“Throw the ball.” I said through clenched teeth. I tilted my head back towards Big Mix. “Hit her with it.”
“You do it.”
“Go ahead you wuss. We gotta be unified.”
“Unified on what?” Paul asked.
“Just throw the ball.”
He turned and threw it. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought the sentiment was aimed at me the way his skin curled under his lips, and the way one eye strained, like in a snarl. Paul hadn’t even aimed. The ball arched through the air slowly spinning backward like Fall Guy backpedaling when he falls off a building.
I don’t think he meant to hit her. It smacked her in the fat of her upper arm. When the ball landed, wedged between her foot and her book bag, she didn’t even flinch. Her blank stare seemed to travel no further than the end of her nose.
“Come on lets go.” Paul said, making the o’s a little too long.
After Paul walked off I stood there and watched her. My arms were crossed and I shifted from foot to foot. A big wide grin grew on her face and her paw rubbed at her neck, mocking me.
The simultaneous talking of eighty middle school kids can sound like a wind tunnel. One word is spoken louder than the one before it and pretty soon all the words are all in competition with one another like my mother and the volume of the TV during my new stepdad’s football game. I guess that’s what makes an orchestra so loud, one sound lying on top of another.
Paul walked up to the lunch table near the end of the lunch period. He leaned forward in his backpack like he was hiking up a mountain.
“Amanda Pine didn’t give you guys those hickey’s.” Paul said.
He didn't bother looking at anyone else but me. I was amazed at how clear he cut through the chatter. A few tables around us quieted down because Paul’s tone was the type used right before a fight. Aaron jumped up, cupped his hand around Paul’s shoulder, and turned him to the hallway.
As they weaved through the lunch tables to the main door I tried to catch up. When I made it outside the lunch room door clicked shut and the voices stopped instantly. I stood there for a minute trying to figure out where they went. An arm shot out from the side of a portable, and when I got around the building I found Aaron holding Paul’s chin up to examine the deep red centered below the ear on Paul’s neckline.
“When did she get you? I’ve been around you all day.” I said.
Aaron lowered Paul’s face so Paul wasn’t struggling to be an inch taller. Paul sniffled like he was on the verge of crying.
“Why didn’t you guys tell me about this? I could have avoided this whole thing. I joined up with you guys so I wouldn’t be picked on so much, and maybe be left alone by high school.” Paul said.
“Relax. It’s just a hickey. It will go away in a few days.” Aaron said.
I touched my own out of habit. Yesterday marked a week and mine has gotten brighter instead of fade.
“Tell everyone Amanda Pine gave it to you like we did. Won’t nobody question it none. Probably even get you a few points in the challenge classes. I’ll meet up with her tomorrow morning, every things going to be okay.” Aaron said.
The bell rang for the end of lunch. All of the noise from inside the cafeteria spilled out as it emptied.
“What’s going on?” Neil asked. He had snuck around the building.
“Nothing.” Aaron said. He let go of Paul, and picked his book bag off the ground.
The next morning the locker room in gym class was almost empty. Light leaked into the dirty windows high above me like it was strained through cotton. A locker clanged shut somewhere in the back, and I looked at the clock to make sure I wasn’t late because the second bell hadn’t rang.
I pulled my freshly washed gym clothes out of my book bag and changed without having to look at a dozen half naked boys. The gym was empty as well when I got there, and I sat on the first row of bleachers by myself. Girls trickled in wearing their regular clothes, and when the bell did ring a few groups of the boys rushed in as well. There must have been fifteen of us before I realized I was the only one who was dressed out.
Mr. Thompson walked out of his office a little faster than normal. His nose dammed up the roll of meat in his weird under bite frown. When he faced the bleachers I could see it. The raspberry blotch spilled like a red wine on wheat carpet.
“Due to a rash that’s spreading through the school on one is required to dress out for the next few days.” Mr. Thompson said. His hand cocked into a gun and pointed at me. “Sorry
Kevin’s crew came in and sat high in the bleachers on the other side of the gym. Everyone had isolated me. If I had paint I could have made a quarantine line. I didn't have anything to keep me entertained for an hour and Paul never showed up. Big Mix sat on the other side of the gym smiling and chewing on the collar of her shirt. I waited a few more minutes and weathered the cold shoulder of my classmates. The ones who knew didn’t want to talk about it, and the ones who weren’t branded didn’t want to know. I got the point and went back to my locker.
The rest of the day was more of the same. The kids with hickeys didn’t want to talk to me and everyone else didn’t want a rash. The clock slowed until lunch, and when everyone showed up at the table they didn’t say much. Spurgeon’s new hickey stuck out more on his black skin. Neil was the only one unmarked. We all sat silent without food in front of us, and leaned back in our chairs.
“Paul’s mother called the school and complained about a rash.” Aaron said.
“We all know that ain’t true.” Spurgeon said. “Some of us knew it before others and could have warned everyone.”
“I know you’re mad, but how were we to know she would go after the school. We thought we were getting vengeance for a stunt she pulled on us.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Neil asked.
Spurgeon’s eyes wrinkled like an adult when he narrowed his gaze on Neil. The expression was comical in his purple basketball jersey and green jeans. His shoulder blades rested against the top of the plastic chair as he slouched.
“So what do we do?” I asked.
“We cut our losses and leave the mongoloid alone.” Aaron said. “It’s still the beginning of the year. These things will fade and be forgotten by the time report cards come out. If we pester it then we may have more undesirable consequences next year when we go to high school, and none of us want that.”
“I don’t like that option.” I spat out.
“I don’t ether.” Spurgeon said.
“I say we leave it alone. This will go away, and we’ll forget about it. Let’s not make it into a big deal.”
“You do realize I am the only black kid whose neck lights up like ET’s finger.” Spurgeon said.
“And I have had this thing for over a week and a half and it keeps getting brighter.” I said.
“IT WILL GO AWAY.”
Spurgeon jumped up and grabbed a handful of Aaron's shirt. I tried to break it up and get between them, but as I did I elbowed Neil in the nose. He must have stood up at the same time I did and when I lifted my arm I knocked him a good one in the face. He hit the floor whimpering and Aaron stared me down.
If we would have had guns their might have been a standoff. No one doubted Aaron was the leader since he was the better fighter, but I doubted he could have taken me and Spurgeon both. My guts felt like something was climbing through them. The smell of plastic rectangular pizza’s nauseated me.
"Go on. If you want to handle it on your own then go on." Aaron said.
Paul quit wearing the bandage over his hickey once it got cold enough to put on a jacket. His new winter clothes consisted of high collars and turtlenecks. He said the doctor told him he had a port wine stain that must have been underdeveloped until he got a little too much sun.
I laughed because that’s what you do at a joke. My spot was till there and the color was as deep as liver. Occasionally someone else would show up with a fresh mark, but the teachers and principle claimed the rash was contained.
“What's you plan?” I asked Paul
We were outside walking to our last class. Each line of buildings was identical and sectioned off like barracks. Paul was the only one of the group that still hung around me. The group split up after the lunchroom argument. Paul and I were left to fend for ourselves since Aaron put together his new gang.
"Everyone looks at us like we have some fatal disease." Paul said. "None of my classmates will talk to me, except for the few that have the mark on their neck."
"Well, what can we do about it? I have tried everything I know to get this thing off of me and nothing works. Neosporin, bleach, teeth whitening gel. It's all useless." I said.
"I know. My mother has bought every type of skin bleaching product she can find. All the products don't do anything. In fact the spot keeps getting brighter, and if we don't do something now things are only going to get worse next year in high school. Then nobody will talk to us."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I was thinking that maybe we are going about it the wrong way."
"What do you mean?" I asked.
The last bell rang. We were late standing in the hallway when all of the classroom doors closed.
"Well we can't make people stop ostracizing us, but maybe we can level the playing field."
"Which means?" I asked.
"If everyone has something then no one is a reject. We all would be equal again if everyone had a red mark, and then no one would call us names."
What Paul said made sense
"How do we get Big Mix to go after everybody?"
"It doesn't take much to push her buttons. Maybe we could work on one student at a time. We don't have to get everybody. If we got over half I think my theory would work."
cover image by Robert Ingle
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Big Mix’s tears blended with the raindrops falling out of her saturated hair. Her new pink jams were ruined from the mud puddle I had pushed her in, and her books swelled from the weight of all the water they absorbed. The whole social studies class stared at her from their chairs.
The pond under her seat looked like a flash flood with her butt as the big rain cloud. From the back row I beamed at my accomplishment. The bell rang and Mrs. Harris stood at the door, arms crossed with hands under elbows. Her lips pouted like she was holding back something she wanted to say.
I didn’t plan to push Big Mix in the mud puddle, but the opportunity presented itself. The shortcut between the gym and the next pod of classrooms required that students leave from behind the bleachers through the back door. Most people avoided the shortcut on days like today when it was raining. But I saw Big Mix cut away from the herd trying to fit into the hallway. The dim bulbs in the old gym hung so high the light got lost before it hit the ground. When the door to the outside opened the rainy haze was enough to slice through the gym’s shadows.
I veered from the line and took the exit myself. Big Mix was no farther than I could throw a paper airplane. A steady waterfall fell from the overhang of the doorway and I pulled my backpack straps to tighten my books against me for a good run. I felt myself slipping in the spots where the grass had died out. The cracked dirt from the first week of school quickly turned to soup after this week’s rain.
My momentum was going by the time I caught up with her. I don’t think I could have stopped if I had wanted to. When I yanked down on her book bag a look of pure terror and surprise flashed across her face as she fell down in the mud. When she landed the mud splashed up thick. Its color looked like tomato soup made with milk. I kept running. I didn’t see her wallow on her side trying to get up. But, in the classroom, I saw the red mud layered on her so wide it could have been put on with a paint roller. Mrs. Harris shut the door and went to her desk without uttering a word.
. Go to the principal’s office.” Mrs. Harris said as she ripped a piece of paper off of her notepad. Brandon
"But I haven't done anything?" I protested
She looked at Big Mix and then at me. She shook the paper in her hand like a tambourine. I stood up to leave.
“Take your books. You won’t be coming back today.”
The clacking sound of the lunch trays couldn’t be distinguished from the girl table’s laughter. I left the principle’s office after the bell rang and arrived at my lunch table to find someone in my seat. Aaron, my best friend, stared at me as I held my full tray above the intruder’s head. The watery spaghetti and snot covered apples would have made a mess, and I was hungry, so I kicked the chair leg instead.
“You’re in my seat.” I said.
The kid turned around like a spring and hugged the top of the chair. His eyebrows almost bumped and his eyes narrowed as a response to the threat.
. This is my cousin, Neil, and he didn’t know whose seat it was.” Aaron said. Brandon
Aaron nodded to his cousin, who got up and moved to the other end of the table. I sat down my tray and sighed as I placed myself in the seat.
“So what did you get?” Paul asked as I scooted up my chair.
“Principal Skelton seemed to not know what happened when he called me in his office. I don’t think Big Mix said anything because he never accused me of nothin. I think he figured, with my past, whatever I had done was worth two days of in-school suspension.”
“Did you do it?” Spurgeon asked.
His light caramel eyes steadied themselves on me. I had all of the boy’s rapt attention. Metal forks hung above everyone's next bite of food as they waited to hear the next juicy piece of gossip. I tore my ration of toast in half and bit into the buttery middle. Paul pushed his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. I swallowed and sucked down the toast with the anxious need to tell every detail until it landed like a pat on the back.
“Yeah. I did it. How can you pass up an opportunity like that?”
Everyone nodded their head, understanding the temptation, except for the new kid Neil.
“What is a Big Mix?” Neil asked. Dark freckles sprinkled his face like termite holes in birch wood.
“Big Mix is that fat girl Lanece in the seventh grade. She has that big pig head with hair like a peacock, and the round body of a hippopotamus. Not quite human, and not all beast. She is a mixed breed like that new cereal animal on that commercial they show all the time on Saturday morning cartoons.” Aaron said.
“She also snorts like that thing when she laughs.” Spurgeon added. “Somebody to mess with when there is nothing else to do. Well except for Paul.” Spurgeon laughed.
“Shut up. Shut up or I won’t finish you math homework.” Paul muttered under his breath.
Since it was so close to the beginning of the school year I was the only prisoner in in-school suspension. The sounds of laughter and chatter passed by during class changes like crows resting in a field. There wasn’t much homework to do, and after lunch my head gravitated toward the desk as I pretended to read my social studies book.
The last time I remembered being fully conscious Mr. Wofford said he was running an errand to the office. I wearily nodded, then laid my head on the desk when the door was shut.
When I drifted back to the surface of consciousness spittle stuck to the corner of my mouth like a glob of mayonnaise. Something warm and moist slithered across my neck. When I tried to raise my head a giant hand palmed my head and held me to the desk. I flung my arms trying to tag whatever was holding me. Purple streaks flashed across the gray walls as I strained to get up.
“Help me!” I yelled as the wet wiggling thing on my neck heated up. I could only imagine it as someone’s tongue, the tip swirled counter clockwise and the suction of lips molded my flesh into a painful pinch.
“Oh God.” My voice cracked from the pain.
My skin felt like it was melting. The tongue stopped swirling and it pressed, relaxed and flat, against the burned flesh. When it pulled away from my neck there was a loud pop. I turned, rubbed my wound, and watched as Big Mix backed away from me.
“What are you doing you stupid cow? I’m not a salt lick.”
Big Mix licked her lips and slurped in the juices. The bad lighting rested on the girth of her hump. I rubbed the side of my neck and waited for a response. The stare she held on me was a different one from the look of fear or humiliation she usually carried. I was a little scared. As she dragged the back of her paw across her lips she reminded me of Sylvester the cat after he ate a bird. Eyes all wide and glowing with a smile.
“I’ll get you back for this. When I get done with you they’ll hang your bones beside the elephant man. When I get done with you they’ll stuff your hide and use you to scare away other beasts.”
Big Mix turned around and walked to the door. Her calves were so big it looked like someone shoved hams into her shoes. The sound of the handle to the door clicked like the loading of a gun, and the stream of fresh air was sealed shut when the door closed behind her. The spot on my neck felt raised. Heat radiated from the assaulted patch of skin. Not being able to see what it looked like drove me crazy. I felt like I had been jabbed with a branding iron.
“Everything okay?” Mr. Wofford asked when he walked back into the classroom.
“Yeah. Everything is great.”
Aaron was at the bus stop with his thumbs hitched into the straps of his book bag. He stood off by himself while other kids buzzed like bees back and forth to their friends. A group of boys crowded around the brick wall, pressing on each others throats, playing the blackout game. Buses herded into the parking lot from the elementary school, and Aaron just stood there, talking to no one.
When I walked closer I saw a bead of sweat roll out of his sideburns and down his cheek. He had to be burning up in his black Ghostbusters t-shirt and dark jeans in this late summer heat. The shagged mop of hair came off his head at all directions, and his clothes hung loose around his body because they were accustomed to his older brother.
“You alright?” I asked.
The way he crunched his face together I couldn’t tell if he was hurt, angry, or had too much sun in his face.
“Yeah.” He spat out.
“You’re not going to believe what happened to me today.” I said.
I threw my book bag to the ground and got my hands got in on the story. I showed Aaron how Big Mix held me down, and how I fought. He could see the spot on my neck. It waved like a flag when I moved my jaw or tilted my head. Classmates I had passed since the incident didn’t stare at me as hard as Aaron did. With his arms still crossed he leaned in on me like he was studying graffiti on the bathroom wall. His nostril flared when he leaned back.
“When did this happen?”
“Today during in-school. Right after fourth period.”
When he turned his head I finally saw the spot on his neck, and it was bigger than mine. The redness wasn’t the color of hickeys my mom had come home with, but more like the deep crimson of an old burn. The border was a pink sear and the body of the wound looked like it would have stained my fingers just by touching it.
I didn’t know what to say to him. The way he bared his neck at me reminded me of my dog when he was too scared to play with me anymore. Aaron was so guarded, and tough, proven by the amount of scars on his knuckles, and I couldn’t believe she got him too.
“I was in the boiler room after lunch waiting on Amanda Pine to show up so we could make out. I don’t know how long I waited, but when I was about to leave Big Mix bum-rushed me as I stepped through the door to head to class.
“She pinned me to the wall, and no matter how hard I kicked or punched she took it. She took it, and leeched on to my neck. It was like being burned with a car cigarette lighter.”
Aaron touched his neck and covered the spot with his palm.
“I know I had to hit her with two solid shots to the gut and she took it without so much as a whimper.” He said.
He shook his head then plumed his eyes to the ground. The parking lot emptied as the buses filled up, and when Aaron’s bus rolled in the brakes sneezed. Aaron hopped to shift the weight of his book bag.
“Who have you told?” I asked
“You. Nobody else dared to ask. Why? What are you thinking?”
Cover Art by Robert Ingle
Sunday, July 10, 2011
The appearance of sex
Smoke just beyond one of many afternoons
What We Remember
Saturday, July 2, 2011
The funeral home was closed. After all the gawkers had gone home for the night I came out of my hiding spot behind the metal chairs in the closet. When I slipped back into the viewing room everything was quiet. It was awkward being around other people but yet being all alone. The closed caskets in the viewing rooms were no more inconspicuous than a coffee table in the dull light. The smell of carnations, lilies, and roses barely overpowered the tinge of cleaners. I crept up to the side of my Papa’s casket and grief washed over me shaky and angry like nicotine withdrawal.
The lid was heavier than I thought. As I opened it I worried about it slamming down and someone hearing me. My hands were sweating and slick on the polished pine. My arms shook as I heaved the lid open, and then my body wanted to collapse when I saw his face. His poor frail body wasn’t even a fragment of the giant I remembered. I had to grab my mouth before a sob escaped
When I first walked through the receiving line, earlier in the night, I thought someone was playing a cruel joke. His pencil thin mustache that was usually dark and well cared for was bushy and blonde like sun faded straw. I looked around for a smirking culprit before the memory hit me. I kept it in the back of my mind for all these years because there was someone to help me forget it, but now the secret I shared was mine alone.
It amazed me how many details I could remember of something I wanted to forget. The old withered tables at the jockey lot had the color and texture of paper sacks. Papa was shaking his finger at the seller behind the table like he was about to stab him.
“Who sells a broken toy to a kid? You should feel ashamed of yourself. As a matter of fact I should just shove this thing up your ass. That would be worth the fifty cent you swindled out of him.” He said.
I stared at the broken robot. I knew it was broken before I bought it, but that wasn’t good enough for Papa. It was a little smaller than a bread box, and would probably be hard to shove in the man, but as mad as Papa was I think he might have tried. With a bowed head the man returned my fifty cent then Papa smacked a lamp off of his table.
The other hawkers stared at us as we made our way out of the huge awning that was considered a building. Papa’s unbuttoned jean jacket flapped behind him as a stonewashed cape, and the lining looked like it was made out of the hides of old stuffed animals. I felt a little ashamed and embarrassed as we stormed off, and I had to walk twice as fast to keep up Papa's long stride.
“Let me see that thing.”
I handed him the robot and he flipped it over. He opened the battery compartment, shook it some, and then closed it up again.
“I can fix this. The battery terminal is corroded. We’ll get us a pencil eraser and clean it out. It'll be good as new.”
I noticed the sky was silver with rain and tarnished in spots after we walked into the parking lot. Papa tucked his long legs into his Pinto like a spider hit with water. I threw my haul into the floorboard and Papa lit up a Viceroy.
“What do you say kid? You hungry?”
He reached into the backseat for a Pabst out of his cooler, clicked the tab, and drained half before he even started the car. Foam rested on the mustache of his Nordic blonde beard.
“We'll head over to Hardees. Man over there owes me money.”
We were always headed to a sell, or to see a man that owed Papa money. Even the car we were riding in was a payment Papa collected last week. It didn’t work then, of course, but after a few hours in Papa’s hands anything could work. He pulled his .25, with its holster, out from the back of his jeans and shoved it between the console and the bucket seats. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger played from the eight-track when he started the engine, and the back end of the Pinto bounced up and down when he drove off the curb.
Hardees’ parking lot was almost empty since it was the end of the breakfast shift. Someone’s cup sat abandoned in the parking space, and after Papa hit it there was a wet spot on the concrete where my door opened.
“I’m gettin a butter biscuit, what you want?” Papa asked.
“Sausage biscuit, with a pack of grape jelly. I’m going to head to the bathroom.” I answered.
He nodded his head and tossed his empty beer can into a truck parked beside us. An old man held the door open for me as he blew the steam away from his coffee. I really had to go. I thanked him and shifted from foot to foot. My brain automatically started a countdown from ten to one, and I new I better hurry.
The bathroom door was right beside the front door. By the time I had counted to five I had a good steady stream flowing in the urinal. I saw the set of feet under the stall door when I came in, but I didn’t pay them any attention. After my pressing need was met I noticed an eye peeking through the gap in the stall door and the wall. The feet moved closer to the door and the man sighed loudly.
“Hey mister, you okay in there?” I asked.
There was no reply for a second. One single blue eye peered at me through the crack between the door and the wall. I zipped up and marked the man off as a retard when he finally responded.
“I seem to be stuck on something and I can’t get out of this stall. Can you help me out for a minute son?”
I didn’t want to help the man. He was in a bathroom stall, and he might not have flushed his stink away. I approached the door with some trepidation as the eye watched me tip toe closer. I was a few feet from the door when it sprung open. He grabbed the collar of my coat with one hand as he furiously flung his dick around with the other.
The one memory that still haunts me is how soft the underside of his wrist was against my cheek as he pulled my head closer to him. I punched over and over as hard as my little nine year old arm would let me. He let go of my collar to cup himself and then he fell to his knees in the floor. I got a good look at him as he lay on the ground. His black hair was sprinkled with silver, and the air he wheezed in smelled much better than the sour milk stench he let out..
He was trying to get up and grab me, but I was already out the door. Papa was in the line, waiting on our biscuits. I tugged on his sleeve as he flirted with a woman that was supposed to be filling orders.
“Papa, Papa.” I said.
His lips pursed together when he gave me his stern look. I don’t know if it was the rip in my jacket, or if it was the redness in my face, but after he saw me he immediately forgot what he was doing.
“What happened to you?”
“A man in the bathroom ….” I said and tears welled up in my eyes.
He grabbed my hand and pulled me behind him. When we reached the bathroom door I saw the man through hunched over and hobbling through the parking lot. I pointed him out and Papa blew through the restaurants’ entrance wild eyed like a hungry wolf. The man was in his car before we could reach him. His tire smoke sat in the air for a second like a cartoon thought bubble, and then was gone. Papa jumped into the Pinto and pushed my door open before I even realized he wasn’t standing beside me anymore.
“Come on, get in.” He yelled.
Before I could shut the door we backed out at full speed. The cup crunched again as we reversed back over it. The weirdo’s Cadillac was almost around the corner, and someone blew their horn at Papa as we raced out into the street. I couldn’t tell how fast we were going since the needle on the Pinto’s speedometer was stuck at thirty-five, but papa quickly closed the gap.
The Cadillac made wild turns on every street. Papa punched the gas pedal in one corner and rubbed bumpers with the man. After ten minutes we were deep into the country and surrounded by the dense woods of Honea Path. I didn’t think the weirdo was going to stop. I thought all the little twists and turns he was taking was just to get away from us, but then he pulled into a gravel driveway and the car made a slight skid.
The driveway ended at a railroad tie. A blue and white single-wide trailer sat thirty yards away. The weirdo jerked his car into park and it rocked from the sudden stop. He threw the door open and jumped out to make a run to the trailer. Papa didn’t bother with the extra second of putting the car in park. Instead he floored the gas pedal into the Cadillac’s bumper, which knocked the man into the ground, and crunched his car into the railroad tie. Papa was out of the car before the man could stand up, but the jolt threw me into the floorboard.
When I sat up the weirdo was nose deep in dirt and at the beginning of a boot sandwich. The man tried to get up, but Papa grabbed a handful of his hair then punched him in the temple. It didn’t take but one of those haymakers for the man to be out. Papa yelled something at the lump and punched him again and again. Then Papa reached down and jerked on the weirdo’s pants.
I don’t know what was going through his head, but he didn’t get to complete that thought. I tried to yell out to him when I saw a red haired man run around the corner of the trailer with a length of board. He was aiming for Papa’s head, but papa must have sensed him and turned at the last second. The blow caught Papa in the shoulder. He staggered back, but didn’t regain his footing before the man swung again. I screamed as the board connected with Papa’s head. When he was down and the man gave Papa one last crack in the side.
Papa was out cold and the ginger with the board turned his attention to me and stepped over my unconscious hero. I curled up into the floorboard and my chest felt like someone was squeezing the breath out of me. I could hear his footsteps in the gravel. The crunch was crisp, like he was walking on fresh snow. I was frightened. My whole body shook like I had a fever. Then I noticed Papa’s .25 shoved between the seats and the emergency break. I knew it was loaded. My little hands gripped the handle and I cocked the gun like I was turning on the power of a toy.
The ginger smacked the car door with his board. I about shot the gun it scared me so bad. I was so nervous my heartbeat blocked out the sounds of the ginger jiggling the door handle. He smiled down at me through the window and the door groaned as he pulled it open. He hit center in the steel of the metal hood with the two by four.
“Come on out of there.” He said
I pressed my back harder against the floor of the car and cupped the small gun at my side where he couldn’t see it. The ginger jabbed my shins with the board and the rough edges tore a hole in my pants.
“Come on. It’s going to be worse if I have to drag you out.”
I didn’t budge. He jabbed the board at my legs again and I balled up as tight as I could. When he finally reached in to get me he looked like he was moving in closer for a hug. He crouched down and opened his arms up with a snarl on his face. His free hand clamped around my ankle and then I pulled the gun out. He didn’t have but a brief moment to register surprise before I pulled the trigger twice. The recoil was barely noticeable, but the sound of the shots started my ears to ringing. The gun was so close to his head that he just seemed to collapse when the bullets went in him.
Specks of blood and face dripped down my forearm. The ginger’s board had fallen and wedged between the driver’s seat and the windshield. His head bled out onto my broken robot and stained my shoes as I climbed out of the car. I couldn’t budge him from the floorboard, and I had to step on his back to get out the door. I struggled getting him to the ground. With his legs in my hands I leaned back to pull on him harder, but his body barely moved. Little by little I pulled him out onto the gravel, then caught my breath with my hands on my knees.
I touched Papa’s face but he didn’t move. A big red lump grew on his forehead and the thin skin around it was warm. I shook him then petted his beard. His eyes fluttered open and the pupils adjusted to my face.
“Where is that damn train that ran over me?” He asked.
He yelped and grabbed his side as I tried to help him off the ground. I couldn’t help him walk since he was so tall. He rubbed his side.
“Asshole broke my rib. Where is he anyway?”
I pointed to the other side of the car. Papa stumbled around the back bumper to the passenger side and stopped when he saw blood on the chrome runner.
“Well, there won’t be no exit wound if you shot him with that .25. Bullet probably bounced around in his skull like a bee caught between two panes of glass. Let’s get out of here before the other one wakes up.”
When Papa backed up our car the Cadillac dropped a few inches like a hefty family sat in it. The .25 and pool of blood still sat in the floorboard, and the length of board in the backseat. Papa gave me his clean jacket to sit on, and if I hadn't felt the ginger’s arm bone snap I would have mistaken it as a tree root.
Papa never asked me for details, and never registered his car with the DMV. He drove the Pinto in a field behind his house and left it for rust. The weirdo from the bathroom was on the news telling people that an old man and a young kid tried to rob him, and then killed his friend. I helped dye Papa’s hair black. He laughed about it and told me Elvis had blonde hair. He dyed it black because he thought it made women like him more. But Papa was no Elvis. He was a different person after he shaved his beard. He whittled down the thick blonde to a pencil thin mustache and slicked black hair.
Before he took me back to my parent’s house I watched him apply mascara to his mustache in his bathroom mirror. The little curved caterpillar brush combed his mustache black. He changed himself for me so I could live my life without the guilt and spotlight, and I wouldn’t about to let death change that.
I shook the small canister of mascara I stole from my aunt’s purse to expel some energy from my raw nerves. I wasn’t sure how it worked and thought it might be like paint in the can. I unscrewed the little brush and swept the makeup over the old blonde with the slightest touch. A few fine stray lines ran down his cheek. It wasn’t perfect, but it was love.