After school, Mom orders me to the yard. Hollering from her bedroom, underneath thrashing blankets, while opening aspirin bottles, amid four-letter curse words, she announces her latest migraine. Middle of her forehead. A dagger through the skull.
Mom runs the cash register at Carl’s Grocery all day, and her shift at the diner starts at sundown, so I’m to come back inside then and bathe and finish my homework and, only after her head stops screaming, watch television. The television is broken; every channel plays only static. She promised two paychecks ago to call the repairman, but when I reminded her last week, after she emptied the grocery bag on the counter, she said to help myself to the money tree out back, pluck off enough to fix the TV and pay the utilities and move to Paris. Ask my father for a ladder when he gets back, if I can’t reach the branches.
“He’ll be back any minute,” Mom said. “Just a quick run for smokes and a two-liter of Coke, that’s all,” she reminded me. “Ask him when he’s back. Go ahead. Ask His Majesty for the royal ladder,” she said.
The usual activities await me: climbing the oak tree to name the unhatched eggs in the nest (Rudy, Miles, and Sylvester are my current choices); using the pocketknife I found along the railroad tracks to sharpen my fallen branch/homemade spear to fight off Marty Kellerman when he jumps me on my walks home from school; throwing pinecones on the roof and collecting two points when staying and one for gutter-rollers.
Instead, I risk it and stand at the chain-link fence of my next-door neighbors, the Cummings, to catch a view of sleeping Dragon, Zeus, and baby Sadie. Dogs scare me. Rottweilers terrify me. I approached Sadie, alone, last week, the crackling gravel under my feet sending both parents scurrying over, front paws on top of the fence and two foaming mouths barking, and I ran back in the house and had to change my underwear. Most days, from the kitchen window, I watch both dogs chase Sadie around a dirt circle in the backyard, underneath white T-shirts and underwear hanging from the clothesline, but behind both the inflatable pool with duct tape holding in leaks and a green station wagon surrounded by tire-high grass, which Mr. Cummings, who works in a garage but doesn’t fix cars, couldn’t get started two years ago, and bought a used minivan instead.
Timmy walks out to the yard and stops, stares. Hair hangs over his eyes like he’s months overdue for a haircut. Timmy is in my grade at school, but he eats lunch alone after we’re all back in class. Remedial, my mother calls him, but Timmy says he isn’t stupid. Books are boring, so he can’t pay attention. He’s too tired in the morning to wake up sometimes. Plus, his dogs eat a lot. Who else will feed them three meals a day, plus snacks?
Timmy walks over to the fence and says he’s seeing a movie and do I want to see a movie. The only theater in town is the dollar discount on Wooster, playing movies advertised from the previous summer, the same ones on VHS to rent from Walt’s Rentals, but we don’t own a VCR, so I tell Timmy I want to go. Timmy says the movie costs a dollar, and he’ll ask his mom if she has an extra dollar, so he runs back inside, and after a few minutes of four different voices yelling, plus one baby crying, Timmy returns nodding, so I’m going to the movie.
Mr. Cummings walks out first. Gray stubble covers his cheeks like he’s growing a beard or just forgot to shave today. He fights to pull open the stuck door of his mint-green van rusted with jagged pieces hanging from the bottom stained the color of winter sludge. Mr. Cummings catches me staring, and he stares back, lips pursed together, as if thinking about something, only not saying.
Mrs. Cummings follows, looking like a bowling ball wearing flip-flops and a baggy white T-shirt long enough to be a dress, covering the shorts she’s wearing, or the nothing she’s not. Timmy’s sister, Peggy, follows, barefoot and cradling her baby girl against her chest. Peggy missed a year of school after giving birth, and she never returned. She used to chain-smoke and sunbathe in a pink two-piece on the front lawn next to a radio blasting Metallica before she caught me spying from my bedroom window, and so she stopped. After the baby, she now drags trash cans to the curb wearing only her underwear and bra, clanging the lids and squinting through the sunlight at my bedroom window.
I hop in the back, in the third row next to Timmy, behind Peggy holding her baby, and behind five plastic bags overflowing with empty soda cans. When my backside hits the seat, the cushion squishes, soaking my pants. The Cummings, with Dragon, Zeus, and Sadie, all pile in some weekends and leave for hours, coming back and letting all three soaked dogs run out of the van, shaking off water after swimming at Bailey’s Creek. A sign by the creek reads, “Private Property: No Trespassing,” because it’s technically on Mr. Bailey’s property, hidden at the far end of his lot, behind a barn and a row of pine trees. Mr. Bailey got hauled off to jail for firing at swimming teenagers once, missing all three, but their parents pressed charges anyway. Got the whole town talking those two weeks last year. Now only herds of geese eat grass and swim in the creek, leaving behind floating green globs of poop to make the water smell how our toilet smells when it backs up.
The entire van smells like Bailey’s Creek.
Gravel splatters as the van takes off. We roll through the four-way stop at Main and ignore car horns and a flashing red at Decker. Timmy presses his face against the window, and I stare at Peggy sitting sideways in front of me, her shirt pulled up, bra slid down, for her daughter to breastfeed. Some girls in my grade have started wearing bras, but not all of them. I never paid attention to which girls wore what. Now that’s all I notice.
“Stop,” Peggy shouts, and her father slams the brakes as we enter the theater parking lot.
Parked across the lot is a red Trans Am, both doors open and music blaring. Three teenage boys sit on the hood of the car, passing around the same bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag, taking turns drinking.
Mrs. Cummings asks what she’s looking at, and Peggy says it’s Bo.
“What’s he doing?” Mrs. Cummings strains her neck to stare harder.
“He’s sitting,” Peggy says. “He’s right there. On his car. With Kyle and Kenny. Right there. He’s sitting.”
Bo’s rusted muffler used to announce his arrival from two blocks away. He parked his Trans Am in front of the Cummings’ house when visiting last year, peach-fuzz mustache over his upper lip and long hair hanging to his jean-jacket collar as he hopped out and headed to their front door. Whenever he spotted me playing in the yard, he’d nod and call me “little man” and walk in the house without knocking. After Peggy became pregnant, Bo stopped calling me “little man” or not knocking or showing up altogether.
Timmy removes his face from the window and asks why we aren’t seeing the movie yet.
Peggy whips around in her seat, her shirt still pushed up and bra pulled down, fully exposed with the baby’s eyes now closed and sleeping.
“It’s Bo.” She points out the windshield again. “In the parking lot. He’s out there.”
“I can see,” Timmy shouts. “I’m not blind. I’m not stupid.”
“Then shut up.” Peggy’s eyes dart back to the windshield. “Shut up and don’t be stupid.”
Mrs. Cummings yells for both children to shut up or she’ll shut them up herself. This is important, so they need to be quiet.
Mr. Cummings looks where his wife and daughter look. He scratches what is almost his full beard.
After ten more minutes of staring, Bo and his friends finish off their bottle. Kyle or Kenny, the one with hair to his shoulders, not all the way past his shoulders, hops off the hood of the car and spins around in a circle, heaving the bag-covered bottle off like an Olympic shot-putter. The bottle flies over a row of parked cars and lands on an empty patch of pavement, shattering. All three laugh.
Mrs. Cummings asks if Peggy saw that, and Peggy says, yeah, she saw.
Bo and his friends light up cigarettes and fail to walk over and clean up the shattered glass, so Mrs. Cummings tells Mr. Cummings to go next door. Go next door for a minute, because this might take a while.
We cross two lanes of traffic to the drive-through across the street most people in town call McDonald’s, but doesn’t have golden arches or those salty yellow French fries. Mrs. Cummings shouts over her husband to the microphone, ordering five hamburgers and five large Cokes. We pull around to the pickup window, where a girl with braces wearing a white paper hat covering half her forehead says we owe $8.75.
Mrs. Cummings digs in her purse, pulling out wrinkled dollar bills. Her lips move when she counts. Then she stops counting and digs around in the console to gather up loose change. She hands the money to Mr. Cummings, who stares at the change before pushing the money through the window to the girl.
The girl shakes her head. “Sixty cents short.”
Mrs. Cummings points to Peggy and says to look in the cushions. She tells her husband to look too. Us three in the back dig around. Dig and find some money.
Peggy holds up a quarter. Jimmy finds a dime on the floor, and I pull three pennies from the ashtray.
We hand the money to Mrs. Cummings, who holds the change out to Mr. Cummings, still digging around in the cushions between his legs.
“Hurry up.” Peggy stomps and one of the plastic bags topples over, the spilling cans waking her baby, now crying. She shoves the baby’s face back under her shirt, the sound of crying now replaced with sucking. “Hurry up. We’re going to be late.”
Mrs. Cummings leans over her husband and hands the money to the girl, who gives us the bags and cups of soda.
“Eat your dinner.” Mrs. Cummings hands food and drinks back to us. “And drink up. I ordered the biggest sodas so you don’t run out.”
We head back across the street to the theater parking lot. This time, Mr. Cummings parks in a real spot with a straight-on view of Bo’s Trans Am.
Mother and daughter stare out the windshield, chomping on their burgers and sipping soda through their straws. Mr. Cummings nods while chewing with his mouth open, taking slurps of soda in between bites, while Timmy eats and tugs his straw up and down, making a squeaking sound neither Peggy nor Mrs. Cummings hears or comments about.
I take small bites and keep my mouth closed, saving my soda until after eating, for dessert.
“He got Lucy Lyons pregnant, you know,” Peggy says.
“What?” Mrs. Cummings asks.
“Girl from school,” Peggy says. “Bo and her went out last month. Bo got her pregnant. They’re not together, but she’s still pregnant. From Bo.”
Mrs. Cummings shakes her head and says it’s typical. The whole thing is typical.
They both stop talking to stare through the windshield.
Still sitting on his hood, Bo lights up a cigarette, smoking away. Kyle or Kenny with hair past his shoulder reaches into the car to turn the music louder. Nothing else happens, and we sit and witness every second of it.
A woman waddles out of the movie theater carrying a tub of leftover popcorn. She leans her shoulders back when walking, for balance, to keep her round stomach from toppling her frontward. When she passes the teenagers, all three laugh, and Bo says something, from the van, we cannot hear. The woman hears, and she stops and curses all three of them out. Even in the van, we hear what she says. We hear every filthy word.
Bo slides off the car and snatches away the woman’s popcorn. He tilts the tub to his lips and chews out a mouthful, passing the tub to his friends.
“You see that?” Peggy points at the scene.
“I saw,” Mrs. Cummings says. “I saw it alright.”
The woman tries to take back the popcorn, but Bo and his friends get in his car, driving off.
“He’s getting away,” Peggy shouts.
“Go after him,” Mrs. Cummings says to her husband, and he hits the gas, putting us back on the street, front bumper inches from Bo’s back bumper. We drive like this down Elm and onto Cedar. Bo drives like the speed limit is a laughable suggestion, whipping around turns without braking. Our minivan follows, weaving in and out of traffic to keep up. The baby’s face falls from under Peggy’s shirt and cries, but Peggy’s too fixated on the Trans Am to do anything about it.
“You’re not getting away with this, Bo.” Peggy’s hands shake while holding her baby. “You’re not getting away. I see you.”
“He’s not getting away,” Mrs. Cummings says. “We won’t let him get away.”
Smoke seeps out from underneath the hood. Something under the floorboards rattles, but Mr. Cummings shoves his foot harder on the gas, so I grip the armrest with my left hand, my right clutching my drink, as the missing cup holder is broken off, rolling along the floor with aluminum cans from one of the spilled bags, until a busy intersection when Bo’s brake lights turn red like a stop sign only we don’t stop. We can’t stop. There’s no room to stop.
When we hit Bo’s back bumper, both Timmy and I slide forward into the back of the seat in front of us, the other four plastic bags toppled over, rolling on the ground to the front of the van.
The baby cries louder, nothing under Peggy’s shirt working to silence her.
Mrs. Cummings looks back and asks if we’re all alive. She says to her daughter how Bo almost got us killed, only Peggy doesn’t answer, already out of the van and darting up to Bo standing and inspecting his smashed bumper.
Peggy carries her crying baby up to Bo. She points a finger in Bo’s face and yells and holds out her baby to him, who Bo stares at but doesn’t grab hold. Peggy yells something about being first, and Bo just stands there, his head down, and takes the yelling.
Mrs. Cummings gets out and does some yelling herself, pointing to the crying baby, pointing at Bo, and back to the baby.
Mr. Cummings backs up the van, and Bo’s bumper drops to the ground. Mr. Cummings pulls a bungee cord from the glove box and gets out, tying up Bo’s bumper until it only sags, not sits, on top of the pavement.
After Peggy and Mrs. Cummings finish yelling at Bo, they get back in the van. Mr. Cummings points to the tied-up bumper for Bo to see before getting back in the van. We all sit until Bo drives off, spewing sparks as the bumper scrapes just overtop the pavement. When his car turns the corner and disappears around the bend, we keep staring. Then Mr. Cummings hits the gas and we drive along at a leisurely pace, going not to the movie or anywhere in particular.
Back home, I walk in the house in time to catch Mom buttoning up her diner uniform. She says to finish my homework and go to bed.
She spots the drink in my hands, still half full, and asks what it is.
“Coke,” I say.
“Coke?” Mom shakes her head, exhaling through her mouth. “Dump it out,” she says. “Dump it out and don’t take another sip. I can’t afford the dentist. You want to get cavities?”
She makes me march to the sink and dump the soda down the drain. She says to lock the deadbolt when she’s gone. The key unlocks the door, she always reminds me, but not the deadbolt.
“He’s not coming back,” she says. “But still, lock it anyway, if he changes his mind. Lock it every night. That’ll teach him.”
In the bathroom, I squeeze out the toothpaste and brush my teeth before tucking myself into bed and pulling the covers up past my nose. I stare at the dark ceiling.
His rusted muffler announces his presence from two blocks away. I run to the window and throw back the curtains as Bo parks on the street. When he stops, the bungee cord snaps, his sagging fender now lying right on the pavement. Bo hops out and stares at the back of his car. He looks up and catches me staring from the window.
“Little man,” Bo says. He nods.
Bo walks to the Cummings’ front porch. The door is unlocked, and Bo walks in. He walks in without knocking, the king returning to his castle.
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