“Man, why would you loan her money in the first place?” the guy asked the pay phone. “Yeah, so, you see what happens.” Thick green paint splotches splattered his jeans. He had super-broad shoulders and skin as dark as I’d seen skin get, and he looked exhausted. He looked past me, to two little boys slapping at each other.
“I gotta go,” he told his faraway friend. “My wash is almost done.” When he slammed the phone onto the hook the kids straightened up, but it was too late. He was crossing the room, he was yanking them apart, he was plopping them down on the bench on either side of him and whispering horrible promises of what would happen if they didn’t sit still. One boy caught me staring and made a face, so stuck in his own misery he couldn’t see my own.
I was sixteen, and I had no one to teach me how to drive. Mom worked every day that summer, and her hair was long and shaggy—if she didn’t have time for a trim, you can bet she wasn’t taking time off to give me lessons. Grandma had Alzheimer’s and dad was locked up near Coxsackie, and there was no one else, no family friends, no relatives, no neighbors with spare time and a spare car. Nothing had ever made me feel our poverty so hard, or our isolation. Every passing week deepened my disgrace.
“No fair,” I said, since, while I was staring at the exhausted man, Lisette had ripped off my arm and beaten me to death with it. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
“That’s no excuse,” she said. On the greasy screen of the arcade console, her character danced the cha-cha-cha over my character’s corpse. She held out four quarters and asked: “ready for a rematch?”
Lisette was so good at the game that I didn’t mind getting smashed to bits. Every day that summer we ended up in the laundromat. Kids would stand around us and watch her in awe. I never once managed to win.
This time, though, we had no audience. “Girl!” I said. “Where’d you get moves like that?” Her arm was warm and muscular against mine.
I kept looking back towards the two little boys. Remarkably well-behaved, now that their father was brooding beside them. I envied them the gift of a brother, but mostly I pitied them. Youth meant powerlessness to me. Elementary school in the desolate Caucasian Hudson Valley had been miserable. Mom said it was racism. I was glad she thought that. If they were racists, it meant it wasn’t my fault. Maybe they were racists, but they didn’t say racist things. Mom’s white and dad’s light-skinned, so it’s not like I’m something straight off the Somali plains. If the kids around me didn’t like black people, they kept it to themselves. The issue was: they ignored me, and I needed attention. Badly. I took extreme steps. I’d let lunch rot in my cubby, then stuff it into someone’s backpack. I’d steal jewelry from one girl and plant it on another. The teacher taped our drawings to the wall, and I’d write curse words on them.
Then I’d get into fights with kids who didn’t dig the things I smeared on their clothes, or the crazy lies I spread about them. One punch and I was on the ground, weeping, plotting assassination. I had no tolerance for physical pain, thanks to my mom, whose idea of punishment was locking up the Nintendo in the closet. My problem has always been: I don’t know how to respond to things that upset me.
The black guy was passed out in his seat, lulled by the rumble and throb of the dryers behind him. His sons sat perfectly still on either side of him. Lisette and I walked out into the blazing day.
“Ugh,” she said. “I hate summer.” Sitting on the sidewalk, we compared the contents of our pockets. There wasn’t enough change left for a single soda, not even the Shop-Rite brand.
“That’s Andreas.” I said, pointing to someone coming out of a new red Mazda. The man slammed his door shut, pocketed his keys. “Do you know him? His brother died, a couple years ago.”
“That’s so sad,” Lisette said. She was a recent arrival, and my small-town knowledge of people’s private lives gave me—paradoxically—a sense of worldliness and experience.
“Car accident,” I continued. “Hit by a drunk driver.”
All the older boys obsessed me, but I saw Andreas as a rock star. His grief had given him a new glamour, and everyone showed him the respect and kindness they never showed me. I prayed for a brother, so he could die.
Five minutes later he came out of the store and I started to cross the lot, driven towards his car by a courage I didn’t know I had. “Hey Andreas,” I said, since we got there at the same time.
“Gupp!” he said. “What you up to, little man?”
“Just hanging out, basically.” Nervousness made me blurt: “I’m pissed off because I just turned sixteen and I can’t get my driver’s license.”
“There’s that, but I don’t even have anyone to teach me.”
He leaned his back against the car, arms crossed over his stomach. “Your parents don’t know how to drive?”
“Sure, but my dad doesn’t live around here and my mom’s working 24-7.”
“Hm.” His big eyes scanned the edges of the lot. Planning his great escape from this shitty town where idiot black boys bugged him with their problems. What response had I been expecting? I waited for him to laugh in my face, or raise his fist to strike me. Would Lisette hear my humiliation?
“You want a Klondike bar, Gupp?” he asked.
“Sure!” I said, then bit back the eagerness in my voice. It was not cool to get excited about ice cream.
He held out two. “No prob. Take one for your girl. I was over at a buddy’s house, there were a bunch of us, and everybody got the munchies. I got picked to go to the store because I was the only one who could see straight.”
I practically shoved that thing into my mouth, shocked that something could be so cold on such a hot day. Through the soles of my All-Stars I felt the pavement, burning like the door to a room on fire.
“You need a driving tutor,” he said, once he’d watched me swallow.
“Pretty much,” I said.
“Want me to do it?”
“Are you serious?”
“As a heart attack.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’d be great.”
“I work nights,” he said, “six to midnight, washing dishes. So I have the whole day to myself. Tomorrow at noon?”
I gave him my address.
“Now you better bring your girl her Klondike bar before it melts.” He saluted me.
“Ok. Bye.” I ambled back, but I was breathing fast when I got there. “He remembered my name,” I said.
“Of course he remembers your name,” she said. “Because it’s retarded. Something you name a stuffed animal. Gupp. What the hell is that?”
He remembered me because at Hudson High you stood out if you weren’t blonde. “Let’s split,” I said. “I have to get ready for my driving lesson.”
Lisette’s smile was even broader than mine. When we kissed goodbye, she grabbed my behind in both hands. I passed her my gum. I had come a long way from the first grade. I didn’t need non-stop attention anymore. All I needed was to be in total control of any given situation.
Why Do We Exist?
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Literary Fiction, Noir, Pulp Fiction, Short Stories