I’ve never had writer’s block. I can’t always write a strong enough piece for a website or anthology when I’m occasionally asked, but I never end up with a blank page (knock on wood). My writing problem is more that I have a difficult time writing something other than that specialized form of prose that so easily flies from my fingers, the literary genre known as “mortifying dreck.”

There’s a certain way you talk to Georgie if you want results, and by results, I mean cooperation, I mean if you want to avoid a black eye, or if you don’t want him fleeing out the basement window when your back is turned, or biting your thumb off at the knuckle, or throwing one of his celebrated fits in the pizza aisle of QFC, or pushing you through a sliding glass door.

For a ten-year-old with the adipose cheeks of a cherub, speckled blue eyes and a heart-shaped mouth, Georgie can be a holy terror.

Georgie’s problem is that he knows exactly what he wants at any given moment. In this respect, you might call him lucky.

The doctors have another name for it.

Georgie likes lists. Detailed lists, lists like roadmaps, invariably leading to his desired destination. Talk to Georgie in lists, and you’ve got a chance.

“First, Georgie and John the Boss go to school and see Miss Deb. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to library. Georgie picks out one video. One. How many videos does Georgie pick out?”

“One video.”

“Good. Next, Georgie and John the Boss go to the—”

“No go to! Cheese pizza!”

“No, not quite. First Georgie and —”

“No first! Cheese pizza!”

“Almost. We’re getting to that, I promise, but first—”

“No almost! Only cheese pizza!”

“But—”

“Noo! First Georgie have cheese pizza!”

I said you had a chance, I didn’t say you’d succeed.

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Then there’s another way I talk to Georgie, those times when he’s stationed like a mushroom in front of the television in a dead-wall reverie, entranced by Sacred Planet or Springtime with Roo, his speckled eyes wide, the crust of his pizza scattered all around him on the soiled carpet like a fairy ring, dried tomato sauce caked to his face.

Those times when he’s not wanting.

“Georgie,” I’ll say. “What if we all went about screaming and biting every time we didn’t get what we wanted? What then? What if John the Boss decided to escape out the window? Who’d buy you cheese pizza, then? Daddy Serge? What if your mommy never came home? What if Vera and Willie never came home? What if one day I just up and quit being a caretaker because, you know Georgie, I never wanted to be one in the first place, never wanted the black eyes and the bruises and the nine-hundred-and-forty-three dollars a month, never wanted all the shouting matches with Daddy Serge, never wanted to give Willie my old shoes that weren’t really old, talk to sweet humble Vera in closed quarters and wonder why she smells like fish, why everything smells like fish, never wanted to buy cans of dog food for someone else’s dog, or buy a used refrigerator for someone else’s food, never wanted Daddy Serge to accost me down at Doc’s on a Friday night and force me to shoot vodkas and look into his steely grey eyes as they cut me to ribbons, and tell him for the third and fourth time just what it is I see in Georgie, and why it’s not weird for me to take such an interest in someone else’s boy. What then, Georgie?”

Georgie’s not much of a listener, though.

Lists, maybe. Details, yes. But only on his terms.

When I talk like this, Georgie only shushes me.


I am many things to Georgie, he just doesn’t know it. To Georgie, I am only John the Boss, purveyor of cheese pizza, provider of details, chauffeur, keeper of the coveted library card.

Georgie does not know, for instance, that I am Walt Disney, or Sterling Holloway, or Shir-Kahn, when every afternoon like clockwork we phone Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida (same phone number as me, go figure), and I duck down into the fetid air of the Federov basement, where Tolstoy has just finished fouling the floor, and whimpers sharply like a wooden gate on its hinges. And with my cell phone I proceed to personify Mr. Walt Disney himself (who sounds exactly like John the Boss with a slight echo), enumerating the minute details of the Federov family trip to Orlando that will never happen, because last summer became this summer. Already this summer has the look of next summer.

And in between lay a lot of cheese pizzas and a lot of yelling and biting.

But mostly a lot of lying. Because the only thing there’s not a lot of is money.

Cheese pizza costs money.

We won’t talk about library fines.


Says Daddy Serge: “Orlando, Florida! Ha! Focking bullshit! All za time, Orlando, Florida! Fucking cheese pizza! Who pay for cheese pizza? Georgie pay for cheese pizza?


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But never mind Daddy Serge.

“Well, first,” Mr. Walt Disney of Orlando, Florida says, “Georgie and Mommy and Vera and Willie and Daddy Serge will come to visit me and my family at—”

“No Serge! John the Boss!”

“Very well, John the Boss. Georgie, Mommy, Vera, Willie, and John the Boss will come visit me at Walt Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida. We’ll have pizza and sodas for lunch.”


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“Details, details!”

“Cheese pizza. And Pepsi cola. Icy cold, with little dew drops racing down glass.”

“What glass?”

“The kind that’s fat on top and skinny on the bottom.”

“Next!”

“And after lunch, we’ll go to Universal Stu—”

“No, no Universal Studio! MGM studio!”

“MGM Studio. And then to Gatorland for—”

“No, no Gatorland! Next to Sterling Holloway’s house!”

“Yes, yes, Sterling Holloway.”

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Here, Georgie produces a rendition of his own, the aged Disney announcer at the end of two dozen Winnie the Pooh tapes. “Beloved voiceover talent Sterling Holloway. Voice of Winnie the Pooh, Kaa, Amos the Mouse, Cheshire Cat, and many more of your favorite Walt Disney characters.”

As far as I know, Sterling Holloway is dead as a stump. But it might please his ghost to know that he’ll never have a bigger fan than Georgie Federov. Never. Georgie has destroyed countless Winnie the Pooh tapes in the name of Sterling Holloway. So many in fact, that his library card is on probation, a point of violent contention in recent days, which has resulted in a broken rearview mirror and some soiled underpants (his).

First, he deftly breaks out the little plastic window on the middle of the tape. Next, he stuffs the tape in the machine. Next, he forces his sticky fingers into the slot of the VCR and manipulates the little spools, accounting for five busted VCRs (all used or donated) in the past three months. But Georgie achieves his desired result. Sterling Holloway’s Winnie the Pooh arrives in a warbled underwater tenor which Georgie refers to as “slow motion camera.”

I am often forced (by virtue of Georgie’s hair-raising decree), to speak this language myself for hours on end.

No, no, Slow motion camera! John the Boss say, ‘Walt Disney Studio presents’ with slow motion camera. Again! With slow motion camera!

Some evenings I come home hoarse.

My waning moments in the Federov homestead are always the same.

First, Willie and Vera arrive home on the bus. Willie is slump-shouldered under the weight of something besides his backpack. And Vera, God bless her, always clad in some hand-me-down dress with a floral pattern or fraying beadwork that’s tired at the edges from mending. She totes three dirty book bags and a used clarinet.

She’s got a song in her heart in spite of everything.

Next, someone invariably leaves their shoes in the hallway, their book bag on the kitchen table, tracks mud in the dingy foyer, or commits some other transgression which never fails to escape my notice.

Next, Daddy Serge arrives home at dusk, his truck headlights sprocketing the treeline as he rounds the corner.

Next, the truck door slams with a little too much reverb.

Next, squishy footfalls up the muddy walkway.

Next, four clomps on the sagging steps.

Next, Daddy Serge’s grand entrance. With drywall in his hair, sounding and smelling like three beers, he issues his standard one word greeting to Georgie—Out!, before berating the offending boarder like a drill sergeant for whatever shoe, bag, or musical instrument has strayed from its station.

Next, the questions: Why your mozzer not here? Why all za time she is late?

And last, John the Boss takes flight in his dented red Suburu wagon with three hubcaps. Down and around the bumpy driveway. Into and away from the gathering darkness.

Always with a sense of relief.

 

At dusk Georgie likes to shut his grimy curtains with pizza crusted fingers and squat in the corner on his tired mattress under the window. He turns off the lamp and holds his transistor radio right up to his ear and tunes it in between stations so that it hisses and crackles like a theremin in hot oil. Here, in the half-light, his speckled eyes are at their widest, his little red lips are parted slightly. But when I ask him what he hears, he only shushes me.


In Part I of this piece:

My best friend in high school, Mike, confessed that he needed help getting laid. It just so happened that I had a friend, Kathi–a real sex-bomb cherry–who I figured to be just the girl to top off his virgin sundae…

Part II: The Hook-Up

After explaining my hook-up idea to Mike, I contacted Kathi.

It didn’t take a lot of convincing to get her on board.

That Kathi: Back in high school she was a tried and true all-American party girl.


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But even with Mike and Kathi being up for the arrangement, it still took some work on my part.

A lot of back and forth calling to finally set a date.

One Saturday Mike had tickets for a nitro funny car race.

The next Saturday Kathi was scheduled to go to a nitrous oxide party.

Finally, after a couple weeks had passed, I phoned them both and, said:  “No more dickin’ around. You’re getting together this Saturday. And that’s final!”

Once the date was secured I devised a plan.

I made sure it was easy as A-B-C easy as 1, 2, 3.

That way no one would back out–especially Mike.

Still being a virgin, no telling what crazy excuse he might concoct at the last minute to bail.

Maybe he’d suddenly need to change the spark plugs in his primer-blue Nova.

Or floss his dog’s teeth.

Or get some weird-ass tattoo on his back.

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Yeah, with Mike, no telling what weird shit he might come up with at the last minute to dodge his de-virginizing party.

So I kept the plan simple.

Since the two of us pumped gas at the same local station in town, and since I’d be working day-shift that Saturday, and Mike, evening shift, I made him give me his house key.

Told him that by the time he arrived home at eleven, I’d be there with a case of beer, some weed, and Kathi.

And once I made the formal introductions I’d be gone.

The plan was a charm, it would go off without a hitch.

Especially since Mike’s parents would be out of town that weekend.

“So you ready to rock and roll?” I said.

“I think so,” said Mike.

With that, I produced a box of condoms.

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I slapped the box in his hands, and said: “Hit a home run, slugger.”

Mike ogled the condoms, then looked me right in the eyes.

I’d never seen him so happy.

The grinning Halloween pumpkin of his absolute joy rose straight into the sky.

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“Thanks,” he said. “No one’s ever done this for me before.”

“Not a problem,” I said. “I just want you to score.”

Once I left Mike I phoned Kathi to fill her in on the details.

Here’s the hitch though…

What I didn’t tell either one of them was that I had an additional part to my plan.

We’ll call it Plan B.

This Plan B involved a little pranking.

Like I’ve said before: Mike and I loved to prank each other.

Another person who loved pranking was my brother.

So I decided to get him in on the action, too.

Told him that before picking up Kathi I’d drop him off at Mike’s.

He’d hang out in the bedroom while Kathi and I waited in the living room for the soon-to-be-de-virginizedto get home.

Once Mike arrived and I’d made the introductions, my brother would duck into Mike’s bedroom closet, where he’d have box seats for the whole down-and-dirty.

“Are you up for it?” I said.

My brother’s face went all Christmas in June.

That’s because he also knew Kathi.

Sure she was a bit trashy.
But still, she was hot.

 

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“But how will I know when they’re coming to the room so I can duck in the closet?” he said.

We mulled over possible signals I could call out.

Shouting Whippoorwill would be too random.
Mike would definitely sense something was amiss.

Ditto with calling out a line from our favorite Vonnegut novel, Slaughterhouse Five:

“They crawled into a forest like the big, unlucky mammals they were.”

Finally we came up with an idea.

I’d sing a few lines from that Foreigner song: “Hot Blooded.”

“Perfect,” said my brother.

And so we were set.

And so the big night finally arrived.

It was party time at Mike’s.

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And after I’d snuck my brother into Mike’s bedroom,

And after I’d picked up Kathi and introduced her to Mike,

And after we’d downed a few beers and smoked a little weed,

Kathi and Mike were ready to go at it.

So I made my exit.

But not before I playfully belted out those words.

The words that would have my brother bolting for Mike’s closet:

“I’m hot blooded, check it and seeeeeeeeee. I’ve got a fever of a hundred and threeeeeeeee.”


Coming Soon, Part III…The Score, as Recounted in 33 1/3 RPM

Hello.

My name is Zoe Brock and I am a MySpace addict.

Wow. That’s embarrassing.

If you’d like to run me over with a train right now I’d be more than happy to lay down and oblige.

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Like most addictions my MySpace dependency took time for me to notice, acknowledge or declare.

It was not an addiction I anticipated.

Most addictions are so anticipated that they’re downright boring by the time they kick in.

Weed?
Yawn.

Various psychedelics, uppers, downers and sidewinders?
*whistles innocently and looks towards the heavens*

Cigarettes?
Fuckity fuck fuck.

Booze?
Hello? I’m Australian.

Sex, drugs and rock n roll?
Hello? I’m human.

Strip clubs with performing dwarfs?
Hello? I’m twisted.

Expensive shoes, raunchy lingerie and designer jeans?
Hello? I’m a big titted female with a shoe fetish and an ass made for Marc Jacobs.

Social networking on the Internet????
Ummmmmm……

NO.

It all began last year when a complete stranger, some author by the name of Listi, preyed upon me when I was bored, incapacitated, and unable to walk for three months, and encouraged me to
join MySpace in order to read his blog. Listi lured me with promises that I might potentially write for him on his new writers website “thenervousbreakdowndotcom”. At this stage I was ignorant, I didn’t know what a blog was and nor did I care. But, like an absolute twat, I reluctantly followed instructions… and now look at me. This Listi character must pay for his evil ways! He is nothing short of an enabler! HE MUST BE STOPPED!!!!!!!

The symptoms of my dependency kicked in shortly after my first attempt at a blog. The immediate responses and instant gratification fueled me to write more, to spend more time on the site, soaking up the praise and, while the knee injury I suffered from kept me inert, my fingers tapping on the keys were my only form of physical activity. Hours spent blogging and commenting quickly grew and began to usurp aspects of my life. At first I was able to brush off this inordinate amount of time as “research for my impending documentary on Internet social-networking”, an idea I conceived of shortly after joining, or “a sociological experiment”. I tried to file my addiction under “work”. But the sad truth is that I was hooked on attention and positive feedback after a life lived with little confidence and a desperate need for creative validation.

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The more I wrote the more people loved it, and the more they told me they loved it, and the more I wrote.

Easy.

Not so much.

The more people read me the more they wrote to me, and the more involved we became in each others lives. There was no symbiotic distance between reader and writer, but an uneasy truce between pseudo-friends and not-quite-strangers. I became enmeshed in relationships that weren’t tangible, were elusive and undefinable, and no matter how hard I tried to justify them as friendships they weren’t REAL to me a lot of the time.

A dangerous path.

It’s hard for me to understand how I could grow to care about so many people I’d never met, because I did care. I still do.

It’s hard for me to understand how my life became public knowledge, at my own behest. Does honesty have it’s limits? At what point will I learn to draw the line?

It’s hard for me to pick up this computer and not check my MySpace account to see how everyone is doing.

It’s hard for me to cancel my account.

It’s especially hard for me to cancel my account because I don’t know the password anymore. In a fit of enlightened pique, I forced my dear friend Sara to change it for me so that I couldn’t log on when I felt compelled to. And I am COMPELLED, kids, I’m jonesing like a common crack whore.

I’m sitting here in the midday sun with a snarl on my face and a twitch in my eye. Furious. Annoyed. Wanting on. Refusing to succumb. Conscious of the seductive power of feeling connected. Missing the people I’ve grown used to communicating with every day. Wondering how they are, if they miss me, what they’re doing, writing, saying, feeling.

But the truth is… life goes on.

Without wanting to diminish my time on there, or negate the several remarkable relationships I have forged, the ones I HOPE will be lasting, the question remains… if I left MySpace tomorrow would I even be missed? I’m unconvinced. Perhaps I’d be noticeably absent for a few weeks, but then I’d slither into the back of people’s consciousness, a gradual subside, before fading to black. Poof. See ya.

Very few people would care. Very few people would be even remotely affected. Why should they be?

Knowing how intermediate most of these connections are could make saying goodbye very easy.

I would never be so bold as to presume that I’ve made an impact on anyone’s life. There will always be fresh slants on humor and culture and news and random idiocy to rise up and entertain, better writers, prettier faces, funnier girls. There is definitely a market for it, a need. People are hungry, bored, unsatisfied, lonely. They are crying out for stimulus and love. They should be, it’s a cruel and crazy world out there, I’ve seen it. Human beings, further disconnected from each other by long roads and longer hours or work and stress, are crying out for companionship.

But so are my friends here in close proximity. And they also need physical contact, hand-holding, attention and love.

They need the thing I was in danger of losing touch with – touch itself.

In the last six weeks I’ve traveled America, eight-thousand grueling, exhausting, uplifting miles of it, meeting a lot of the people from MySpace that I needed to meet in order to begin solidifying those relationships and understand them.

I’ve experienced a journey far above my expectations, and also far below. America is sprawling, spreading, filled with sameness. In the midst of that sameness are a few hundred million individual, all different, all trying to find each other and connect in new, exciting ways. Ways that aren’t physical, ways that are safe and sheltered, ways that are semi-anonymous and easily controlled. I know, I’ve been out there… I’ve talked to hundreds of people on beaches, streets and sidewalks, in cafes, hotels, motels, bars and homes.

I’ve made my intangible friendships real ones. I’ve pulled and dragged and danced my unreal people into my world. They’re real. And they’re wonderful.

And now I can take the friendships that mean something and nurture them without a computer – a truly glorious feeling.

The journey is over and it was a trip.

I’ve come back to my life to find it in substantial disarray. Friends seem distant, I feel disconnected, relationships have taken strange turns. And yet, outside the sun is bright. Hummingbirds do their hummy thing. The beach beckons, friends call, and the world awaits.

And so I’ve taken a small break from all things MySpace. I ponder the likelihood of canceling my account, but am reluctant to commit. I tell myself it’s a great marketing tool for my movie and my writing. I tell myself it’s a great place to practice being a writer, to build an audience, to grow as an artist.

I also tell myself that to stay on MySpace now would be a distraction to life, an excuse to not further my dreams, a time waster.

I’m very confused.

MySpace has given me a great gift, and for that I should thank that Listi sumbitch. I can write happily these days. My readers and their criticisms and praise have given me that ability. I have no excuses, no lack of confidence, no insecurities to hold me back, no dedication to procrastination. I know I can do it. Look. You’re reading this now.

And so I sit here at my laptop. I smile at the screen. I click the application FINAL DRAFT and begin a fresh file. And I type.

SCENE ONE – EXT. NEW YORK APARTMENT BUILDING. A TOO-BRIGHT SPRING AFTERNOON.

And I’m writing a movie, not a blog, and I can see it’s characters move and swell and trip and fall and get back up again. And I laugh as I write my ‘comedy canon’, hoping it will blow people out of their seats.

I’m home. I’m homeless. I’m broker than a smashed plate. I’m jobless and carless but certainly not aimless. I have twenty weeks of post-production ahead of me and a deadline called Sundance. I have no idea what is going to happen, no idea what the future holds.

Life is bittersweet but it’s all I’ve got.

My name is Zoe Brock, and I am a recovering MySpace addict.

Are you?

Read Part One in which Lydia and I attend a police briefing, respond to an unfortunate situation at Burger King, roll a code 3, and embark on one of the most thrilling nights of our lives.

GLOSSARY OF TERMS

The Wood = Inglewood

Bump ‘Em Up = Scare someone a little

Break Leather = Pull your gun from your holster

Roll a Code 3 = Turn on the sirens & respond to a call

Lay a Dime = Make a call

Lapdogs = LAPD

IA = Internal Affairs

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Friday, April 28, 2006
8:14PM:
Sarge veers the cruiser to left again, into a subdivision of little apartment buildings. I’m looking out the window at some spectators standing on the sidewalk when I realize we’re about to come head to head with a red Bronco. There’s a young black man behind the wheel and no one else in the car. He attempts to drive around us but Sarge keeps the cruiser pointed straight at him and pushes down on the gas. There’s a police car behind the suspect and another one off to our right. The driver of the Bronco seems to realize this at about the same time I do and he slams on his brakes inches away from our bumper.

Sarge shines the spotlight right into the windshield of the Bronco, opens his door, pulls out his gun, and screams, Put your hands where I can see ‘em! Sarge is crouched behind his open door, holding the gun between his two hands, aiming it right at this guy’s head. I look back at the suspect. He’s terrified. My heart is pounding and I can feel a lump form in my throat. He’s just a kid, I realize. Whoever else had been in the street is gone and this kid is all by himself, facing off with a bunch of cops. He’s pushing his hands dramatically at the windshield before him. His palms are luminescent in the spotlight.

Suddenly my door is flung open and a female cop is crouching next to me. She’s got a shotgun in her hands. Put your hands in the fucking air, she screams. The suspect waves his hands at the windshield again. She cocks the shotgun with a loud double crack. Holy shit, I think, sliding down in my seat. I’m directly across from this kid but because of the spotlight he can’t see me. I’ll let you know if I’m going to shoot, she says to me. Cover your ears because it’ll be really fucking loud.

Sarge screams instructions for the suspect to climb slowly out of the car with his hands in the air. I’m all the way down in my seat now, my head just barely above the dashboard. I’m really scared. I don’t think the kid is going to start shooting but if he does I’m going to be directly in the middle of a gun battle. I watch him reach down slowly with one hand to open the door to the Bronco. Sarge and the female cop are absolutely rigid, like hunting dogs when they point. The second the kid’s two feet are on the ground a young Latino cop is on him, pulling his hands behind his back.

Sarge runs over while the other officer handcuffs him. I let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding and crane my neck up from my slouched position.

While Sarge talks to the suspect the Latino officer comes over and sits in the car with me so that he can run the kid’s info. I see his name come up on the screen: Lee Anthony, age 22. (*Name has been changed.) I can’t really hear what Sarge is saying to Lee but I make out the sentence, You’re lucky I’m old-school.

Then Sarge brings Lee over to our cruiser and leans him up against the hood.

Lee is facing me, just feet away, but because of the spotlight in his eyes he can’t see me. He doesn’t look that scared anymore. His big puffy jacket has fallen off his shoulders and is bunched up around his wrists and he’s wearing a couple of long, gold chains with, what I’m assuming are fake, diamond-encrusted emblems. Suddenly the Latino officer flicks off the spotlight. Thing’s driving me crazy, he says.

Now Lee and I are looking directly at each other. Sup, he says, nodding at me. Hi, I say back, feeling self-conscious. The Latino officer takes one look at this exchange and immediately flicks the light back on, causing Lee to squint in pain. I’m somewhat relieved. Sarge sits down in the driver’s seat next to me. Doin’ okay? I nod at him and muster a smile. I ask him what’s going to happen to Lee. Eh, we’ll just bump him up a little. I ask Sarge what that means. He chuckles and explains that it’s gang slang for scare him a little.

8:52PM: Turns out that Lee doesn’t have a license, just an ID, so they’re going to take him into the station. As Sarge starts up our cruiser I watch two officers lead Lee away to their squad car. I feel sorry for him. It’s Friday night. He didn’t really seem to be doing anything wrong and now he’s got to spend the evening dealing with this. His car’s going to get impounded. He’s going to have to call a parent or his friends to come help him out. I don’t envy him. We’re in such opposite places, me and Lee.

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9:20PM: After all the excitement with Lee Anthony everything else feels pretty subdued. Sarge seems to come down easily from it all but I’m still buzzing, waiting for the next time we need to roll a code 3—slang for putting on the siren and following up on a lead. I ask Sarge if it’s weird to drive a regular car when he’s not on duty. It is, he says. His wife yells at him a lot: This is not a pursuit. Sarge has always liked to drive fast. I remember that just before we got in the cruiser at the start of the evening he walked over to a maroon-colored Porsche. I ask him if that was his car. Yup, isn’t it a beaut? It was pretty cool, I admit.

Inglewood is starting to seem pretty small. There’s Louisiana Fried Chicken again. And now we’re passing my office for the fourth or fifth time tonight. I’m almost feeling bored but I just keep listening to Sarge talk about life on the force. He says when you’re on patrol you never use the term quiet. It’s bad luck. The second you say it all hell breaks loose. I’m tempted to say it. I wish we could go to more calls. I keep seeing them up on the screen but I know it’s Sarge’s job to kind of monitor the overall evening and not get caught up in little disturbances. He tells me some of the cop slang. My favorite is breaking leather, used when you pull your weapon from its holster.

Lydia sends me texts now and then. Later she’ll tell me about how her two officers walked her out of the station after the briefing without saying a word. She was feeling kind of nervous until they got in the cruiser and the female turned around, looked her in the eye and said, Okay. The most important thing you have to figure out first is…And it was here that Lydia was sure she was doomed to an evening of boring cop instruction but instead the officer continued, …where we’re gonna eat. Lydia just texted that they got barbeque. I have this fantasy of me and Sarge going to some kind of diner together. I’ll get to sit across from him in his uniform with the three stripes on the sleeve and that big gun strapped around his waist and the other customers will look at us and wonder what’s going on. We’ll eat something old school like steak and eggs and I’ll put a lot of Tabasco on everything and Sarge will grin at me and nod approvingly.

Up ahead there’s a Jetta with a couple in the front seat just sitting at a green light. We come up behind them and they slowly pull out into the intersection. Tourists, Sarge mutters. We follow them for about a hundred feet and they finally pull into a deserted parking lot on our right. Sarge pulls in behind them and gets out of the car. Within moments he’s standing beside the driver’s side window gesturing and obviously giving directions. I send Lydia a text: We just pulled over some lost tourists. What are u doing? She writes back: Starbucks.

I watch the tourists pull out of the parking lot and drive off in the direction from which we came. Sarge is on his cell phone again. When he gets back in the car he doesn’t say anything, just gets on the computer and sends out some kind of IM message to all the officers: Call my cell ASAP. Within seconds Danger Zone breaks the silence in the cruiser. I stare out the window at a flickering street light. Sarge is clearly upset about something and I don’t want to get in the way.

Okay, Sarge is saying into the phone, where’s the SIM card? Mike at the station called and Lee Anthony’s down there with a couple of friends and he’s claiming that the SIM card is missing from his cell phone…No, I don’t know…I don’t want to know…I just want that card to magically appear at the station so that this shit doesn’t go to IA.

He snaps his phone shut and lets out a deep sigh.

This is the kind of shit I was telling you about, he says to me. Sometimes this line of work goes to people’s heads. They do stupid things and we all have to pay for it. Lee Anthony’s claiming that someone stole the SIM card from his cell phone and if it doesn’t reappear then it’s going to go Internal Affairs and we’ll all have to deal with it. I’m surprised that something like this would get so much attention from above but Sarge explains that these days, with incidents like Amadou Diallo, cops are guilty until proven innocent. He sighs again and starts up the cruiser.

Amadou_diallo_time_cover

9:45PM: We head over to “the yard,” a squat building with an electronic gate outside. Inside there are gas pumps for the cruisers and a car wash. We went over there earlier because Sarge likes to start the night with a fresh wash. We back into a parking spot and Sarge cuts the engine. We just sit there in the dark for a minute and I get a little nervous. He’s been quiet and I’m not sure what we’re doing here.

Suddenly, out of the darkness another cruiser appears. It’s got its lights off too and parks nose to nose with us. Sarge leans an elbow out of his window as the driver comes over.

I don’t want to know anything about it but we’ve got about 20 minutes to make sure this SIM card gets back to the station, Sarge whispers gruffly. The officer outside nods and tells Sarge that he’s meeting another cruiser in just a minute and they’re going to sort it out.

We get out of the car and go inside. I need to use the restroom but Sarge doesn’t have a key to the ladies room. We’re gonna have to go over to the station. We get back in the cruiser. There’s a palpable sense of tension coming from Sarge but I can also tell that he’s enjoying playing the role of captain, that he kind of likes having to mind after these young officers. I imagine he’s a good dad.

When we walk into the station the first thing I see is Lee Anthony sitting there with two friends. Hey, he calls out to Sarge, Hey man, I just want my SIM card back. Come on man. I need to call my mom and my phone don’t work. Come on, man. Before I can hear Sarge’s reply I duck into the ladies room. I really need to pee. When I come back out Sarge is gone, presumably to the back, and so I take a seat a few chairs down from Lee.

Sup, he says, nodding at me again. Ain’t you that girl from earlier? I nod and give a weak smile. His friends are looking me up and down.

I just want my SIM card back, Lee is saying to me. Why didn’t they just take the whole phone? Why they gotta fuck with me like that? Come on, you were there. I know you saw somethin’. I stare straight ahead.

Alright, he says, you ain’t gotta talk about it.

A beat goes by and I let out a breath. Then he starts up again. You a cop? I shake my head and tell him I’m just riding along. You in training? I shake my head again, repeat that I’m just on a ride-along.

Fuck, I think, why did I just tell him that I’m on a ride-along? This is not going well. I crane my neck subtly to see if I can catch a glimpse of Sarge behind the front desk. No such luck.

Then: You got a boyfriend? I look up and Lee’s eyes are glittering at me. His friends chuckle and before I have time to respond Sarge opens the door to the office and calls me back. He apologizes for leaving me out there. It’s cool, I tell him shrugging casually. I don’t want Sarge to think I’m a wimp.

I follow Sarge’s imposing figure down the back hallway. I’ve only got two hours left of my ride-along. I never want this night to end.

What’s the training process like to become a cop, Sarge? He turns around and grins at me.

TO BE CONTINUED…read Part Three here.

I have been staring at a mobile above my head for the last 10 minutes—birch bark cranes twisted up like origami, strung from the brittle twigs of a dead tree branch.

At first, it seems simple enough—graceful, even.

I went red-eyed and messy-haired to my kitchen this morning to make coffee wherein I saw a large cockroach lying upside-down on my breadboard writhing in the throes of Death. 


I had laid poison last night and it was now taking effect on this roach’s entire system, his whole way of Being. And here I was to actually witness it. Christ. Face-to-face with the big consequences. On my breadboard. First thing in the morning. Jesus.

He was flat on his back, pedaling his legs in a medicated slow-motion Hell dance; his verve, his quickness, a bleary memory from another time– yesterday. I’m pretty sure this was the same commando roach I would see on reconnaissance missions in the pantry between the plastic bags of tomato ramen. I bet that just a few hours ago, he was wheeling and ruling in his headquarters under the refrigerator, telepathing suggestions to his underlings and just doing his ‘survival thing’. Now here he was, dying and double-clutching on my breadboard. This was all so very disconcerting to me…and utterly fascinating.

I ambled quickly to my bedroom to get my deluxe Swiss Army knife with the 10X power magnifying glass. I hurried back and flicked the magnifying glass out so that I might fully examine this Socratic insect on his final deathbed, choking on the Hemlock I had thusly administered. Amazing detail, I thought, as the eastern sun filtered through the kitchen window, conveniently illuminating this Stygian peep show. In one way, I felt slightly morbid and a bit sadistic doing this, as it was I who had plotted to kill him, to extinguish his fire, to effectively block his Life Path. It was I who had gone to the Thrifty on Vermont and Hollywood and picked out the most expensive roach bait traps, the shiny black boxes, the ones with the cartoon renderings of the little purple bugs with the Xs in their eyes.

I was faced with what I viewed as ‘personal enc-roachment’. I actually didn’t mind the little guys all that much but I was tired of girls saying how gross my kitchen was, they shrieking at the crawlers and stabbing at them with their high-heeled shoes. I had had enough. And I admit, I did this all with forethought and malice, moving with blinders past the ‘guilt factor,’ as I realized I was somehow bearing justice and wreaking truth. So there I was, bearing justice and wreaking truth and peering like some Cyclops god through the looking glass at this beautifully ugly hi-tech insect passing onto his reward on my crumby breadboard. Some reward, I thought. This was all so fucking disconcerting.

So I pull in nice and tight right up to his translucent orangey-brown face and Socrates looks me right in the eyes and curses me with his churning mandibles: One day, all this will be yours, Sonny boy. That’s right Mr. Curious, Mr. Pious, Mr. Cyclops God, Mr. Mercenary Jester who hath poisoned Gregor Samsa, King of the Roaches, you too will have your day under the glass, under the sun, under the gun, under the scrutiny of your malevolent peers. And hopefully you’ll be in that predicament before you’ve had a chance to leave a real legacy behind and then you’d be sorry that you had procrastinated so long and you’d fight to hang on and pedal your skinny legs so that you could continue to live and strive for glory but it would be too late by then because you would be paralyzed by the Anti-forces dripping coagulants into your nostrils and making you breathe noxious molasses until you choked on your own blood.

Well, I thought, today is Gregor Samsa’s day to die, and I am sorry for this, but I suppose I should grasp this opportunity to thoroughly examine his cephalothorax and the dwindling state that he’s in. And so I did, moving my monocle down past his hair-hinged V-legs to his abdomen, which was twitching and heaving with much melodrama. Lean and ridged and slightly pointed but rounded-off oh so elegantly. Pure precision design.

Looking closer still, his abdomen metamorphosized into the face of a woman before my very eyes. A moon-faced woman with a little Flip Do from like, the 30’s, and she had a beauty mark on her cheek, on both of her cheeks actually, perfectly symmetrical beauty marks, and she closed her eyes as if she were listening to some strange music that she had never heard before and she cooed and pursed her lips and moved the back of her hand over her forehead and she sighed and batted her lashes until they came completely open and just then it struck me, she looked just like Anais Nin, 

 

 


 

Anais_nin

perky and beautiful and classic and avante garde in a totally new Silver Lake kind of way and she poofed her cheeks out and then she sucked them in and became pouty like a French postcard girl who had so much laundry to do that she didn’t know what to do and because she had absolutely nothing clean to wear, she had to do her laundry in the nude, bending over, lathering and squeezing and rubbing her garments down into the soapy water, then pulling them up, letting them drip, and then she would push down on them again and they would bubble out of the water like the lively little breasts that she herself possessed and she would clutch at them and scrub her fine garments clean and careful not to get her forehead wet with soapy water, she would take the back of her wrist and dab the sweat from her brow and sigh and bend over again and then come back up and then go back down again and then come back up to wring them out. She shuffled in her woodblock slippers across the hardwood floor like a veritable white-faced Geisha, bobbing and delicately swaying in front of the plate glass windows where she looked out to her garden to see Juniper bushes and Japanese Sand pear trees and Japanese water and Japanese stone and Japanese lifeblood and Japanese bone and Japanese beauty and Japanese pain and Japanese sunshine and Japanese rain.

The light through the kitchen window dimmed behind a cloud and the room darkened down a bit so I pulled the magnifying glass to the side and viewed the cockroach once again whole with Naked Lunch eyes and I could see that he was now through trying. He was a bumming boy, obviously in a great deal of pain. He was bushed, he was whipped and I didn’t blame him. I mean, how could I, after all that we had been through together? He had put up a formidable fight and for this I admired him. I looked down at him and sort of wished that we could be friends, colleagues, drinking buddies or some such stature of equal footing, as I was now uncomfortable and feeling terrible pangs of remorse for inflicting the Death Penalty on a being who was guilty of no crime except natural cohabitation. Was this sentence of Death a mortal sin or could this be classified as venial?

I mean, he was always pretty considerate of me, skittering out of the way when the kitchen light came on to make way for me, just doing his thing like anyone else in Los Angeles, fending for himself and basically getting what he could get. Was I too fucked-up and desensitized to realize that this being was no less important than me, or a CEO of some massive corporate enterprise of for that matter, a revolutionary spiritual leader? What had I been thinking? Had I gone too far with my paranoia and glossy pride? Where had my values gone? I didn’t normally prescribe to hierarchies or human constructs. I’d like to think of myself as being a peaceful, justice-oriented person. Laissez-faire. I’m from San Francisco, for God’s sake. I’m into Fugazi. I revere the principles of Dr. King and Gandhi.


 

Mlkghandhi

 

I am not built upon a foundation of hubris. I am not a killer. Jesus, I am a vegetarian, a martyred protector of my animal/fish/bird/insect brethren and now this because I briefly considered this living being not worthy of sharing my space and placing importance on what other people might think. Who the fuck am I to do this? Who the mother-fuckin’ fuck am I? I mean, I relocate spiders, don’t I? Why is this different? Fucking shit. I had no idea of the repercussions involved. I thought roaches were somehow omnipotent, able to withstand a nuclear blast where humans would melt into ash. I didn’t realize they could experience real pain and suffering. Yet my selfish whimsy was halting a formidable Life force. Who the crappin’ Hell am I to do such a thing as this? Shit. I might as well be a power-drunk occupational jar head.

At that moment of my consternation and self-immolation, the King seized. Gregor Samsa ceased to live. Anais Nin was still. Socrates closed his eyes for the final time. I touched his V-leg and he did not respond. I flicked his ribbed antennae and it was limp. The cloud moved past the sun, bringing full illumination to the cutting board. Long shadows cast upon him summoned the brittle body of Jesus. I, a societally-pressured Pontius, swallowed a stone and grabbed one of his legs between my forefinger and thumb and lifted him gently up. I took one last look at him from another angle and then I dropped him down into the brown paper garbage bag underneath. I asked God to bless him, and to forgive me, and then I put on some coffee.


 

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Just the other day I heard that James Taylor song, “Handy Man,” on the radio

For reasons I’ll eventually explain

That sappy song has left an indelible mark on my memory

It all started with virginity, a true love of music

And, of course, Mike

Back in high school Mike and I were best friends
One way we expressed our friendship was through listening to: Pink Floyd, Neil Young, and Van Halen

Still another way we expressed our friendship was through partying


Photoa


We’d spend hours and hours drinking and smoking while listening to: Pink Floyd, Neil Young, and Van Halen

Yet another way we expressed our camaraderie

Was through constantly trying to one-up each other in the prank department

Here’s what I mean

Let’s say we were pounding beers one night
Mike might spit in my bottle when I wasn’t looking
And would only reveal his trick after I’d polished off my brew

Then to retaliate
The next time we were drinking
Maybe I’d sneak one of my grandmother’s estrogen pills into his Miller
While he was obliviously rocking out to the stereo

Maybe I’d confess to what I’d done after the fact
Or maybe I’d just sit there and watch

Wondering whether he’d sprout tits before the night was over


Photob


Oh we thought we were funny all right
Mike and I thought we were one great big fucken laugh factory

Photoc


But then came a time in twelfth grade
When we needed to get serious about life

“Can you help me?” Mike said one night
While the two of us were driving around in his primer-blue Nova
Listening to Pink Floyd’s, Animals

“Help you what?” I said

“I, um. I mean…can you…um…can you help me…um…you know…um…”

Before I continue let me tell you something about Mike

He was a beautiful soul, would give you his drugs
Or the shirt off his back

But straight up
He was a complete social retard
He was the sad, rainbow-headed child lost in society’s huge sea

Photod


Now back to our conversation

After I’d machete-cut my way through the jungle
Of Mike’s “ums” and “you knows” and dense dead air
I realized what my sad, rainbow-headed friend was trying to say

He needed my assistance in getting laid

“I think I can help,” I said

Mike’s face grew brighter than his Nova high beams. “You serious?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Her name’s Kathi.”

“Who’s that?” said Mike

Of course he’d say something like that
Bless his soul; he was a complete social retard

But I knew Kathi
A lot of guys knew Kathi

Photoe


She was a natural blonde
She was stacked

She was a twenty-eight-year-old white-trash vixen
Shoehorned into a baby fat-bearing high school girl’s body

What I knew then, and what Mike would soon come to realize
Was that Kathi would be the perfect sex cherry to top off his virgin sundae

Something else about Kathi

Throughout high school the two of us were friends—good friends

But we never made it

That’s because Kathi and I knew better than to fuck around
Otherwise things might get too deep between us

And the way we figured
It would only be a matter of time before we’d disappoint each other
And that would ultimately lead to a great big crash-and-burn

Photof


Kathi and me

We appreciated our friendship much too much than to trash it like that

That’s why we just stayed friends
Good friends

And good friends know things about each other

Like with Kathi, I knew she loved sex

And my other good friend, Mike: he needed sex

Another thing I knew about Kathi: she loved to party

Ditto with Mike

Put all those things together, I thought
And maybe I could bring some joy into the lives of two dear friends

While also starting a brand-new chapter in Mike’s ex-virgin life

But that would take a little work on my part

And a little scheming

And maybe even a little pranking…


Coming Soon…Part II…The Hook-Up

ANYWHERE, U.S.A.-

The drive is an endless repetition of fun and unfathomable boredom.

We are human curiosities in the small towns where we stop to refresh, revitalize, refuel and retire. People eye our cameras and booms with delight, apprehension, disgust and desire.

Other people are unfazed.

I like those people the most.

If I’m going to be honest with myself, financial necessity delivered me to my present occupation as a caregiver more than any humanitarian impulse. I was broke when duty called me to minister those less fortunate than myself, so maybe I’m no Florence Nightingale.

But I’m wiping butts.

That seems like the important thing.

Don’t get the idea that anyone can be a caregiver. The state requires certification classes. Everything I learned about proper caregiving, I learned from The Fundamentals of Caregiving, a twenty-eight hour night course I attended at the Abundant Life Foursquare Church right behind the Howard Johnson’s in Bremerton.

There, in the impossibly stuffy environs of a church basement, accompanied by the belching of an ancient radiator, I consumed liberal quantities of instant coffee with non-dairy creamer as I (along with fourteen middle-aged women), learned how to insert catheters and avoid liability. But mostly I learned about professionalism.

I learned how to erect and maintain certain boundaries, to keep a certain physical and emotional distance between the client and myself in order to avoid burnout.

I learned that caregiving is just a job.

Trev is my only client. I spend anywhere from twenty to thirty hours a week with him.

We eat together, shop together, and even go to the bathroom together, sort of. He’s twenty years old and currently unemployed and doesn’t really want to go to college. Trev’s already enrolled in the college of life. He still lives with his mother, who juggles three jobs and ought to wear a cape.

His father ran off when he was three years old, two months after Trev was diagnosed.

Funny how that works.

There are a thousand questions I’d like to ask Trev– Are you scared? Are you bitter? Why not?— but somehow I can’t. Perhaps because my professional credo forbids it. If I should overstep my boundaries, I need only recall this helpful mnemonic:

Professional

Reliable

Objective

Or this one:

Honor

Encourage

Listen

Provide

If there’s one thing you should know about Trev before I tell you anything else, it’s that he’s very particular about his shoes. The shoes make the man, he insists. He’s not so particular about his shirts and pants. In fact, all his pants are green and all his shirts are blue. But not his shoes. His shoes are a different matter entirely. They’re aligned neatly on three shelves running the length of his double closet: footwear for every conceivable occasion, from clam digging to salsa dancing. He even has cleats.

Shoes are the nexus of our morning ritual.

“What’ll it be for shoes today?” I’ll say. “Wingtips?”

“Nah.”

“What about the white Chucks?”

“Not after Labor Day.”

“Docs?”

“They don’t breathe.”

“Beatle boots?”

“Not in the mood,” he’ll say.

I reel them off. He declines them. It’s our daily exercise in independence.

Shoes_closet

Trev has never salsa danced. The fact is he stopped walking ten years ago. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is tying him in knots, twisting his spine and tightening his joints so that his ribs all but rest on his hip bones now, and his legs are bent up toward his stomach and his feet point downward and his toes curl under and his elbows are all but locked at his sides. A pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination.

“Look at the turd-cutter on her,” he says. “How would you like to throw a snot on that?”

“Hell yes,” I say. “I’d tap that. But I could do without the poodle hair.”

Poodle_hair_2

We’re sitting in the food court at the mall, where we’ve come for the express purpose of engaging in such hypotheticals. We never eat here; we always eat up the hill at Red Lobster. We just come here for the sights.

Tall ones, fat ones, black ones, brown ones. Trev and I are both a little girl crazy. Me, because no matter how hard I try I can’t forget the thrill of being sheltered in Molly’s arms, and Trev, I suppose, because he’s yet to taste the thrill. But we never really discuss it in those terms.

“Would you bang her?” I say.

“Sure, I’d bang her.

“You think you could handle all that woman?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m asking you.”

“Should I ask her out for a pizza and a fuck?” he says.

“A fuck and a pizza,” I say.

“How about just a fuck?”

“No, the pizza’s classy. Trust me.”

Poodle Hair breezes by toting two Cajun corn dogs and some curly fries, with a boyfriend trailing in her perfumey wake. They take a table in front of Quiznos and begin eating together silently, as though they’d been eating together their whole lives. I’ll bet Molly and I used to look like that when we ate together. I know we were silent, anyway.

“What is she doing with him?” says Trev. “What a tool.”

I wave them off. “Screw it. She’s probably a psycho.”

“Yeah,” he says. “Probably.”

We lapse into silence, alone with our hypotheticals.

I once asked Trev what he’d do if he awoke one morning with all of his muscle functions, which is about as hypothetical as it gets since his condition is progressive and incurable. I was thinking: climb a mountain, run a marathon, chase a butterfly down a hill.

He said: Take a piss standing up. He grinned, but he was serious.

Poodle Hair and I exchange a brief glance. Or maybe I’m imagining it. But it felt like a glance. As a rule chicks with poodle hair dig me. It sounds arbitrary, and I don’t know what it says about me, but I swear it’s true, chicks with poodle hair almost always dig me. When I go fishing for a second glance, Poodle Hair is evasive. She’s getting cuter by the second. She has nice teeth. She looks good holding a corn dog. I’m now convinced I could spend the rest of my days beside her. Even if she got a little fat. But first she needs to look at me again.

Bingo! We lock gazes. But what’s this? Now she’s whispering something to her boyfriend who lowers his corn dog mid-bite. Now he’s staring holes in me. Now I’m looking at Trev, now at Trev’s shoes, checkered Vans.

“What?” says Trev.

“Movie?” I say.

“Yeah, all right.”

And without further delay, we stand to leave, well, I stand to leave, anyway. Hunching his shoulders to buttress the weight of his head, Trev clutches his joystick with a knotted hand and whirs around in a semi-circle, piloting himself toward the exit.

“Regal or Cineplex?” I say.

“Regal.”

 

Trev loves movies. Until recently, when he started losing some of his finer digital functions, he was a ticket taker at the Regal Ten, where he still enjoys free admission. We see at least two movies a week together.

He likes action adventures the best, because of “All the ass-kicking and cool exploding shit.” But secretly I think he likes the heroes because their strength always begins and ends with their weakness. Or maybe I’m projecting.

Today we see Hulk. Every time Dr. Bruce Banner gets mad, he turns green and swells up to double his size, and starts kicking ass. He gets mad a lot. Hulk has no interior life. I guess that’s his weakness. As is our custom, Trev and I discuss the film afterward on the walk up to Red Lobster.

“If he’s angry, why doesn’t he turn red?” says Trev.

“Got me,” I say.

“And what happens if Bruce Banner is banging a chick and he gets angry? Like, if he’s balls deep in a chick, and she scratches his back too hard?”

“I guess he’d probably start crackin’ some ribs with his fat hog,” I say.

“That’s fucked up,” he says.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever grow up. It often occurs to me that Trev never will.

As we work our way up the hill past Home Depot and Target and Red Robin, the conversation turns to Molly. I turned it there. I’m still trying to order certain events in my life, particularly events concerning Molly and a certain surfing Buddhist, who also happened to be my best friend. I have a lot of questions. Trev is less philosophical.

Redlobster

 

“Fuck her,” he says. “She was a slut.” He knows it isn’t true.

“I wish it were that simple,” I say.

“Mm,” he says.

“You gotta understand, I thought I was gonna grow old with Molly.”

“Fuck her,” he says.

 

According to the Fundamentals of Caregiving, Trev doesn’t need to know that my wife ran off with a surfing Buddhist who just happened to be my best friend, or that I’m a grad school dropout, or that I’ve practically never had a job that paid more than $8.43 an hour, or that I can be reduced to this helpful mnemonic:

Scared

Hopeless

Lazy

Unambitious

Born loser

 

 

We’ve arrived at the Red Lobster, where we’re standing in the foyer. The hostess appears, clutching a pair of oversized crab-shaped menus. She wears a red polo shirt with big boobs inside. Trev’s looking them right in the eyes.

“Two?” she says.

“I’ll say,” says Trev, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth.

The joke’s lost on her.

Trev orders the fish and chips like he always orders the fish and chips. I order the surf and turf.

“Did you see the funbags on her?” he says.

“Yeah. But think about it,” I say. “For years I broke bread with the guy. We went surfing, camping, you name it.”

“Get over it,” says Trev. “Pass me a straw, please.”

“I just don’t get it,” I say, passing him a straw. “How could he do that?”

“Fuck him. Could you take the paper off?”

I unwrap the straw and pass it back. “What the hell did I ever do to him?”

“Look,” says Trev. “Here’s what you do. Ask yourself what Hulk would do if his wife had an affair with his best friend?”

“Hulk doesn’t have any friends,” I observe bleakly.

“Whatever,” he says, an edge of impatience in his tone. “Get in touch with your inner Hulk, dude.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think?”

He shifts ever so slightly in his wheelchair; his heavy head lolling to one side, his forearms dangling out in front of him like a tyrannosaurus.

“Poor you,” he says.

I’m tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at a charter school that opened five months after the levee breaches flooded 200,000 homes in New Orleans. There are 319 kids in the school, and the Moorhead sisters get there by city bus. The apartment they relocated to is on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’s recently decided to open her own catering business. The sisters are both in the 7th grade because LaDell repeated. She’s quiet, serious, with a smile that trips up my breathing, it’s that lovely and deserving of more time. Brianna’s wiley, outgoing; she giggles if I ask her to explain what a skeleton is, or when she’s telling me how the kids – because we’re writing a sentence with the vocab word derisive – at first made fun of her last name. “Head is a boy’s . . . private, and more is more of,” she points there, “there.”

I work with them separately, either shadowing them in class, or taking them down the hall to the Resource Center. Tulane work-study students pass us with their reading buddies. Before the storm, New Orelans had the lowest test scores in the country, and $12,000,000 had been stolen from the school board’s coffers by workers faking pensions, or cutting checks for dead relatives. 80% of the kids are behind. When I first started with them, Brianna was reading close to grade, but LaDell tested at 3.4, a third grade level. Neither of the sisters knew the multiplication tables, so we’ve been triaging the remedial work, which is quickly becoming their regular grade work. They don’t need real time to catch up.

A few months ago, their class was reading The Skeleton Key, a story about three Frenchmen who work in a lighthouse off the coast of Spain. A derelict ship crashes into the rocks of the key, and ravening rats swarm the island and drive the men inside an airless tower. “Ravening comes from ravenous which means starving,” I explained to LaDell. “Like I am.” I unwrapped the Pop Tart in my purse because I’d left the house without breakfast, and offered her some. “I’ll wait for the cafeteria,” she said. We’d been sharing a box of orange tic tacs tic tacs. Brianna only likes white tic tacs . . . Basque, hordes, phosphorescent, maritime. These were the vocab words.

“My cousin caught a rat in our backyard,” LaDell told me. She’s prone to stopping in the middle of a sentence she’s reading when the text reminds her of something. “He put him on a shovel and chased me.”

“How’d he keep him on the shovel?” I said.

“He dead.”

I don’t correct their grammar. When we read a Langston Hughes story earlier about a woman who fixes a meal for the boy who tried to snatch her handbag, they stumbled over the black dialogue. “That’s wrong,” they said. “I know,” I said, “but it’s how these characters speak.” Verisimilitude. A word I barely know myself.


Henry_holt_reader


This creepy adventure story was making me uncomfortable with its allusions to The Flying Dutchman, a man v. nature folktale that seemed the opposite of apt. The library had books about the underground railroad, Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington. I’d forgotten that as a girl I liked characters who had nothing to do with me, because irrelevance got reality off my back, and gave me more places to roam. Maybe the Moorhead sisters didn’t need to be reminded again that they were once slaves.

LaDell read about the sailors’ bodies, eaten clean by hordes of rats. “Rats look for water,” she said. “I saw them in our street after it rained. The house beside us never got cleaned out since Katrina. The furniture’s in it.”

“These are maritime rats,” I said. “Not city rats.”

“They’ll come in our apartment,” she asked.

“No, no,” I said. “They don’t like the noise your family makes.” I shook out orange TicTacs and she picked one off my palm. “That man should clean out his house, don’t you think?”

“He sick,” LaDell said. “My aunt might take some things from there. The man said she could. My grandmother thinkin’ about movin’ in.”

The Moorhead sisters evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. A week earlier, a woman had been shot and died on the corner beneath their window. It was their mom who called 911.

I walked LaDell back to class and picked up her sister. Brianna arranged her papers on the table and asked to borrow my purple pen. “Choo!” she sneezed, and a half-dissolved tic tac flew onto the page. She giggled. “I can’t eat that!”

“Sure you can. Paper’s clean.”

Back it went in her mouth. Brianna wants to be a nurse, like her mom. LaDell wants to be a singer, like Beyonce. They tried out for the school’s dance team and got cut, but last week they found out they’d made the cheerleading squad.

Photos of real rats were scattered through The Skeleton Key. Brianna squirmed in her chair. “Their eyes aren’t red like that,” she said. She’d finished the story, so we were reviewing a chapter on problem verbs – lay/lie, raise/rise, may/can, sat/set – and I had to keep flipping to the back for the correct answers. After thirty six-years, they’re still not clear to me. She corrected me on a couple of fill-ins that I guessed wrong, shook out white tic tacs, and lined up an hour’s worth in the crack of the book.