John Zunski on Smashwords
Copyright © 2011 by John Zunski
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 On the Cusp
Chapter 2 Cemetery Street
Chapter 3 Secrets
Chapter 4 Paybacks
Chapter 5 Revelations
Chapter 6 An Eagle
Chapter 7 A Beetle and A Cop
Chapter 8 Ms. Dead America
Chapter 9 Bumperstickers
Chapter 10 A Decades End; Anotherâs Beginning
Chapter 11 Letters
Chapter 12 Countâs Log
Chapter 13 A Bansheeâs Cry
Chapter 14 What Happened
Chapter 15 Sisters of Fate
Chapter 16 Moving On
Chapter 17 Coming Home
Chapter 18 Promises
Chapter 19 Scandals
Chapter 20 Shannieâs Burble
Chapter 21 Good Byes
Chapter 22 Things Bittersweet
About the Author
Chapter 1 On the Cusp
“Get up!” she cried. “Run!” she smiled over her shoulder. The earth shook beneath our feet. “Faster! Faster!” Her voice swirled in the wind. “Feel it?” she shrieked, her hair dancing behind her. “Feels great. Just great!” Her laugh pierced the freight’s roar.
Swimming through the train’s blast, she reminded me of a salmon - always heading upstream.
Moments earlier, she danced across a warped balance beam forty feet above the river. “If I lose my balance, even for a second - a second - I could die!” Ignoring our pleas, her forehead etched with concentration, she continued. “For what? Like there has to be a what! Would you say I died in vain, died for the thrill?” Her arms flailed. “Yes,”
she answered. “Died of stupidity! Died for nothing, what a way to die! I like that. There isn’t pressure in nothing.”
Me, I’ve always felt pressure - even in nothing, even today. So I watch, I’ve always watched! Even today - I watch a snowflake slide down the front of her headstone and crash to the ground. I watch countless others stick atop her headstone. When I grow tired of watching, I run my hand over the smooth granite wiping away heaven’s frozen tears.
A breeze rustled the trees, their bare limbs swaying to the sound of her voice. I turned praying she would be sitting on the sandstone bench like she was thirteen years ago - Indian style, her wild mane speckled with snow flakes. I imagine her gaze staring across the dozing river, past the distant rushing traffic, into eternity. My gaze was met by a dusting of snow atop the bench. Disappointment consumed me. “People who do nothing but watch, feel nothing but disappointment,” she once scolded.
Today would have been her twenty-seventh birthday. Ten days ago was the first anniversary of her death. Two days from now the world will be standing on the cusp of a new millennium - without her; it will be so empty, it will be dawn without the sun.
“Happy Birthday Bug,” I whispered. “I have a surprise. It’s your favorite.” Careful not to spill a drop, I poured the steaming coffee on the ground in front of her stone. “How did you guess?” I watched the snow evaporate. “Yes, you’re right. Of course, I remembered. How could I forget? ” I tell her.
“If eyes are the gateway to the soul,” she wrote prior to her accident. “Our memories are its gatekeepers.” Like a dutiful gatekeeper, I guard our memories. “Out of memory comes ritual,” she said, hiding in the breeze. “Out of ritual - meaning, out of meaning -
warmth, out of warmth - love, out of love...”
“Us,” I whispered to the wind. “Beyond anyone, I remember you!”
“I didn’t forget,” I stroked the polished granite’s face. “It’s your recipe,” I confided as I placed the pie pan atop the coffee soaked soil. I retreated to the bench and cast my gaze over the sleepy river and past the rushing traffic, listening for echoes of her laughter on the wind.
Chapter 2 Cemetery Street
(June 1985) I think I’m in love. The moving truck had barely pulled away when there was a knock on the front door. Scrambling over scattered boxes and furniture I rushed to greet our first visitor.
“Hi, my name is Shannie (Shane-ie),” she said from under a mass of billowing blonde hair. Her flaxen strands tumbled like clouds on a blustery day.
“Hi,” I said looking into her perky face. Deep set eyes contrasted slightly with a thin, sharp nose and high, wide cheeks.
“I heard that there was a new kid moving in today and I wanted to introduce myself.”
She smiled, “What’s your name?”
“Ugh, James,” I said.
“Nice to meet you Ugh James.” Her green eyes sparkled.
“No, it’s just James.”
“Okay, that’s different. Hi Just James, you want to come out? I can give you a tour of the neighborhood.”
“Let me ask,” I said. Still staring at her, I yelled, “Dad can I go outside?” Shannie held my gaze.
“Have you finished your room?” he asked.
“Ah, yeah I guess,” I said.
“What do you mean you guess?”
“It looks like you’re busy. Anywho, I’m your neighbor.” She motioned to the only house between the graveyard and ours. “I’ll try back later.”
“Get upstairs and finish your room. NOW!” father yelled.
“Nice meeting you Just James, talk to you later.” she smiled, turned a around and skipped towards her house.
“It’s James,” I called after her: “just James.”
“You’re ridiculous Just James,” she laughed. As she ran a comb fell out of her back pocket. I ran up the stairs and looked out the side room window in time to watch her float through the single row of trees that separated her backyard from the cemetery.
“Mom!” I yelled. “I changed my mind, I want the side room.”
My parents were too tired to care. My sudden change of heart was surprising because the view from the side room was dominated by a graveyard. It was the genesis of my protests. I was worried sick about having more dead neighbors than living.
Our new house was a hundred-year-old brick elephant with high ceilings and a gabled roof. My father called it a Dutch Colonial. Its floors were old and cranky, whining whenever someone walked across them. There were four rooms on each of the two floors.
The first floor held an eat-in kitchen, dining room, and two sitting rooms. The four oversized rooms divided the floor into quadrants, each room opening into the next room.
On rainy days the first floor made a great indoor track - I won many imaginary gold medals circling that oval. Upstairs was a master and two small bedrooms plus a bathroom.
Two dormers jutted out from the steep sloped roof of my bedroom, over the years, I would make a habit of sitting in them watching neighborhood comings and goings. It also had a great little cubby hole that in later years was great for stashing pirated Playboys.
After unpacking, Dad and I picked up a pizza. “Why the change of heart?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I mumbled.
“I bet I do,” he teased.
“Well I was thinking that maybe I was acting too much like a little kid about the cemetery thing.”
“Oh really? It wouldn’t have anything to do with your visitor?”
“No way,” I said. “It’s just that I was thinking about the boneyard and everything - I think I watched too many horror movies. Like Granddad said, it’s the live ones you have to worry about.”
“Exactly,” Dad said.
When we got home my parents had another surprise for me, as if moving across country wasn’t enough excitement. “You’re going to have a baby brother or sister,” my mother said.
I almost choked on the strand of cheese I was sucking off my pizza. “Really, that’s great,” I lied.
“It’ll be here just in time for Christmas,” she chirped.
“There goes my Nintendo,” I said.
“JAMES, I don’t believe you,” she screeched.
“I know you don’t, nobody does, why would you now?” I licked the grease from my fingers.
“Don’t get wise with me young man. And stop licking your fingers. Any normal kid would be delighted to have a little brother or sister.”
“May I be excused?” I interrupted.
“Don’t interrupt your mother!” my father barked.
“All you ever think about is James, James, James! It’s all about James! Nobody else matters!”
“I didn’t ask for another baby.”
“Joe, you’ve created a monster!” Her face turned red as blood.
“I’ve created a monster? What about you? Don’t go pointing your finger at me?”
“You son of a bitch,” my mother started. Without a word I took another slice of pizza and slipped into the relative quiet of my bedroom.
A present rested on my bed. I ripped off the wrapping. Inside was a wooden cross.
“In case we’re wrong about the cemetery.” The writing was my grandfather’s. Holding the cross against my chest I flopped onto the bed. I already missed him. I closed my eyes and wished he moved with us.
As my parent’s yelling waned I looked into the night. Light from Shannie’s house beckoned like a lighthouse.
The next morning, Sunday, my mother drug my father and I out of bed, dressed us in our finest, and led us to Mass. My heart sunk as she grabbed my arm and gave my face a once over with a spittle-laden finger. Readied for our grand entrance, mom straightened her slouched shoulders and led us into the church.
In the vestibule, she grabbed my arm and swung me in front of them: “As close to the front as we can get,” she commanded.
Head hung low, I led my parents to an empty pew; the echo of my mother’s heels introduced us to the congregation. Mass couldn’t end fast enough. When the Priest concluded “Mass is ended, go in peace,” I mumbled “Thank God,” earning a dirty glance from the old lady sitting next to me.
If High Mass wasn’t bad enough, I endured my mother’s smooze session with the priest. Her redeeming qualities shined as we became official members of what my father called the parish of the perpetually miserable.
Dad was an introverted man who would rather use a slide rule than attend a cocktail party. Considering his job he had the opportunity for both. He was a nuclear engineer for Bechtel Corporation. Bechtel was contracted to build the Limerick Nuclear Generating Station, the purpose for us relocating from California to suburban Philadelphia.
My mother was an extrovert who would rather go to a cocktail party than read a book. She probably didn’t know what a slide rule was. Except for the fact that my father was invited to many cocktail parties I never understood why they got married.
“Isn’t this sweet,” my mother crooned when we got home. A freshly baked pie sat on the front porch. “Bless their hearts. If all neighbors were like this, the world would be a better place. Joe,” she said, her voice full of syrup. “I told you I had a good feeling about this neighborhood.”
I had no time for such business, Shannie was on my mind. I ran up the stairs, taking two at a time. My heart raced as I changed my clothes. I looked out into the sun-drenched afternoon before bolting down the steps and out the front door.
My mother screamed - the earth shattering variety that could wake the dead - a dangerous proposition in this neighborhood. I snuck back into the kitchen. “Jesus Christ, I’ve been poisoned. Call the ambulance! Joe, do something!” My mother leaned over the sink and spat up black goo.
My father put a finger into the pie and brought it to his nose. He tasted a small sample: “It’s mud. One of our warm-hearted-the-world-is-a-better-place-neighbors left you a mud pie.”
“Call the police!”
“You should be arrested for not knowing the difference between chocolate mousse and mud,” he gloated.
“I’m choking and you’re insulting me! You probably had it delivered!”
Their yelling faded as I made my way to Shannie’s front door. I was about to knock when I heard a loud whistle. “Hey Just James, over here,” Shannie’s voice teased.
I looked in the direction of her voice. A scattering of trees stood in her yard. I walked towards them.
“You’re getting warm.”
At the edge of the house I stopped and looked around the corner.
“Colder.” I continued towards the first tree. “You’re hot, absolutely scalding.” I looked up. Shannie sat perched in the branches. “You’re parents always this entertaining?”
“My mom is on the excitable side,” I answered.
“Twice in a day. Wow.”
“Someone left her a mud pie. She took a bite out of it and thought someone poisoned her.”
Shannie laughed. “I should have put Ex-lax in it.”
“You did that?”
“Is the pope Catholic?” Shannie asked. I chuckled. “It was one of my better ones. I usually don’t use sprinkles and M & M’s.”
“I like to make friends with the neighbors. Most of them move in with no intention of moving out, it’s only proper.” She climbed down and jumped from the lowest limb.
She landed a little heavy and fell to her knees. Getting up she brushed the dirt from her pants. “We have a long day ahead of us Just James. I have things to show you.”
“This is yours,” I handed her the comb. Shannie smiled. I melted.
Shannie Ortolan was thirteen going on thirty-four. Shannie was cultured. “If your mother was a history and a political science professor, you would be up on things,” she said.
We walked Beyford’s tree lined streets. Shannie asked endless questions. Her eyes sparkled as she spoke. I learned that she was a good listener and found myself wishing my parents paid as much attention.
“Here it is,” she said, nodding at the huge stone building guarding the corner of fourth and Main. “The most important place in town. If Wally’s doesn’t have it, it doesn’t exist.” I followed her up the three steps. Peeling paint bespeckled the old wooden doors.
A bell jingled as we stepped inside. “Hi Helen,” Shannie said to the old lady behind the counter. “I brought you a new customer. This is James, he just moved to town. He’s from California.”
“Hello James, nice to meet you,” The old lady crooned. I thought she said: “Hlwoe Chames Nigch ta meetch ya.”
“James, this is Helen.”
“Hi,” I said shyly.
“Got to go, have to show James the goods.”
Out of Helen’s earshot, I asked Shannie what was wrong with the old lady’s voice.
Shannie thought for a second: “She’s Pennsylvania Dutch.”
Shannie was right, Wally’s was a wonderland. It had everything. Over the years, I spent hours haunting the aisles, doing my share to wear out those old oiled hardwood floors. It even had a lunch counter where the town’s old cronies parked themselves. The day Wally’s burnt down Beyford mourned.
“Ah, here we are, the important aisle,” Shannie said.
My eyes lit up, I never saw such a candy selection. “Jesus,” I mumbled.
“What’s your poison?” she asked. “Me, I love Pixie sticks! I’m the Pixie stick monster! Me want Pixie!” Shannie growled. After filling two paper bags with enough candy to make our dentists cringe and their accountants smile, Shannie continued the tour.
At the bottom of Main Street, the hill that is Beyford leveled out at the railroad tracks into flat ground that ran towards the Schuylkill River. As we approached the tracks the crossing lights came alive and the gates began to lower. “Let’s go Just James,” Shannie ran.
“What are you doing?”
“Come on, follow me. Run.” Shannie ducked under the dropping gate. The train’s horn cried. “Come on Just James.” She stood in the center of the crossing.
I froze. “Run James!” she shouted. I ducked under the gate and ran onto the tracks.
The train’s horn screamed. I looked to the right and saw the huge blue engine bearing upon us, its headlights glaring in the sunlight. I ran past Shannie.
“SHANNIE! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I yelled from the far side. She stood on the tracks, staring down the train.
She smiled at me before refocusing her attention. “SHANNIE, GET OFF THE
Shannie screamed as I moved for her. “STAY THERE!” The train’s horn bellowed. I jumped up and down in terror. I wanted to pull her off the tracks but I knew it was too late. “SHANNIE!” I screamed.
“FIVE, FOUR, THREE,” she counted before stepping off the track and standing next to me.
“Two. One.” The blue Conrail engine roared through the crossing. The engineer shouted something; Shannie waved her middle finger.
“Are you crazy?” I shrieked.
Shannie didn’t answer, but stood with her eyes closed and her head tilted back, her long hair dancing in the wind. When the last car rushed past, she opened her eyes and smiled. “Thanks Just James,” she said.
“Trusting me,” she answered.
We stood on the Schuylkill River Bridge trading candy and watching fisherman below. The afternoon sun smiled upon us. Tree’s shadows swam in the river. An occasional car passed over the bridge unnoticed.
“No,” she said.
“No what?” I asked.
“I’m not crazy,” she looked into my eyes.
“Okay,” I switched my gaze back to the fisherman.
“Why don’t you like being called Jim?”
“Would you want through life as Jim Morrison?”
She shrugged, “Why not?”
“It’s overrated.” I hung over the bridge rail and spit. I watched my loogie tumble before splashing in the river. “Hey look its Jim Morrison, it’s the American Poet, live and in person, back from the grave. It gets old fast.”
“Yeah but you’d look cute in leather pants,” Shannie chided.
“At least you don’t look like a blonde Medusa,” she tossed her hair with a free hand.
I smiled at the river.
That night, I sat in my room gazing at Shannie’s house. A naked woman walked across the room, her breasts leading the way. Wet lanky hair kissed the small of her back.
As fast as the show started, it ended. She turned off the light and disappeared into darkness. The woman was Shannie’s mom.
When I met her I blushed. So much for tweed jackets and elbow patches, I thought.
She bucked my idea of a college professor’s wardrobe. She wore a pair of cutoffs and a small top buttoned at her cleavage. That my eyes were at her chest level made for a great summer of viewing - I was never accused of staring.
Besides the skin show, she was the coolest mother ever. She took Shannie and me on adventures. Day trips to the Jersey Shore, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, overnight camping trips, she even took us to Live-Aid. Shannie’s mom insisted on being called Diane. When I called her Mrs. Ortolan she said: “That’s my mother’s name.” Even Shannie called her Diane.
The Ortolan’s house was like the library of congress - books were everywhere. Each room hosted at least one bookshelf, even the kitchen. The only room that didn’t have one was the bathroom. “I hope you put the seat back down, we’re not used to having a man in the house,” Diane said, delighting in seeing my face turn red as I scampered back to the bathroom.
Because of my blushing problem, Diane tormented me. I would have died if she ever learned why I blushed so much in her presence.
Unlike me, Shannie was nearly impossible to embarrass - she got flustered when anyone paid her a compliment. This would be a valuable tool for me.
Around Shannie my mother was pleasant but wary, on guard that the daughter of that wanton women would corrupt her son. She disliked Shannie; she despised Diane Ortolan.
My father adored Shannie - that they held conversations drove my mother bat shit. It infuriated her that a thirteen-year-old could hold my father’s attention, especially since she couldn’t.
My mother’s feelings manifested themselves when she tried her hand at gardening.
Her idea was to plant a seed, water it once, and expect the hanging gardens of Beyford.
She didn’t realize the work involved and became good at raising weeds. Diane, on the other hand, possessed a green thumb, and won numerous local gardening events. Her yard was so colorful it made the rest of Cemetery Street seem black and white. She boasted having over a hundred varieties of flowers in her beds. “Something is always blooming,” she crowed. My mother once said Diane was trying to lure a hundred varieties of men into her bed.
One evening I was walking through the kitchen when I heard my mother groan.
“Look at that, disgusting!” She was spying Diane pruning her flower beds. Diane was forever in a pair of cutoffs and a skimpy top.
“Mom, where do babies come from?” I asked.
“A woman’s body,” she answered her attention still upon Diane.
“How does it get there?
The color drained from her face. “A pill,” she stammered.
“How come when I asked you for a little brother you never took a pill?”
“Because your father and I didn’t want to have another baby.”
“But you do now?“
“Yes, we do.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because we’ve changed our minds.”
“Why?” I repeated.
“We’re ready for one now.”
“Because we are.”
“Jesus James,” my mother snapped. “Because we want this one.”
“Oh, like I guess you didn’t want me.”
“Of course we wanted you.”
“Really. Because I know you had to get married because of me.”
“Yes. This is true. But if I had to take a pill to get pregnant wouldn’t I have wanted you?” she asked.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” I scrambled out the door, satisfied with her explanation.
I found Shannie in her backyard, sitting facing the tree line. “Hey. What’re you doing?” I asked. She didn’t answer. I watched her sift dirt. “Earth to Shannie, Earth to Shannie, come in please.”
She noticed me when she sat down the sifting box. “Hi Just James.”
“What’re you doing?” I repeated.
“Making a present for our new neighbor.”
“What’s the present?”
“A mud pie.”
I laughed. “Who’s the new neighbor?”
Shannie shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Who’s moving out?” I asked.
“No one. The new one is moving in tomorrow morning.”
“No one is moving out but someone is moving in?”
“There’s nothing to be confused about,” she added water to the ingredients.
“Is someone moving in with you and Diane?”
“Nope,” She quipped.
Scratching my head I asked: “What gives?”
“Count told me there’s a funeral in the morning.”
“He lives in the cemetery. I’ll introduce you. Anywho, don’t you think it’s proper to leave a gift?”
“So you leave the stiff a mud pie?”
Shannie scowled at me. “Yep”
“You’re weird Shannie.”
“Remember when you told Diane and me you were afraid to move next to a cemetery. Thinking zombies were going to get you. That’s weird! I’m just giving a grave-warming present.”
“You’re still weird.”
“Sounds like bribery,” I gloated.
“When I’m dead and gone, I hope someone cares enough to think of me,” she said.
I shrugged. “Lets go to Wally’s.”
The next morning I waited for Shannie’s call. The night before she had said: “don’t call me, I’ll call you.” As time passed curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to watch Shannie leave her grave-warming gift. I climbed one of the elm trees edging Fernwood cemetery.
The last of the mourners were leaving as I settled high in the tree. Moments later three men emerged from a building on the far side of Fernwood. One of them hopped into a backhoe while the other two walked to the open grave. Dressed in green work clothes, they reminded me of soldiers. The leader was a great bear of a man with a wide, kind face and short cropped black hair. His helper was fifteen or sixteen with features like the bear.
When they reached the grave they lowered the coffin before strapping a slab of concrete to the front-end loader and lowering it into the grave. When the bear was satisfied they undid the straps and the backhoe filled the grave. Over the years I became an expert at burial - I buried one of those I watched.
When they retired to the building, Shannie emerged from the trees. She carried the mud pie with an upturned hand. She sat the pie on the grave, said a few words and returned home. I was disappointed, I imagined her in a black dress, complete with a widow’s veil, walking at some mourning pace. At the grave I imagined her leading an elaborate one woman ceremony to coax the deceased to leave us mortal kids alone.
Watching Shannie taught me despite how often I think it should, the world doesn’t conform to my expectations. It’s an idea I still struggle with.
An hour later, Shannie and I walked across Fernwood. “Really? You’ve never stepped foot in a bone yard?” We climbed the side steps of a converted chapel.
“Nope.” Inside the TV babbled. Shannie banged on the screen door. The bear sat at the kitchen table eating a hoagie.
“Hi Doll. Who’s your friend?” His voice was deep and scratchy.
“This is James, he’s our new neighbor,” Shannie led me into the kitchen. The linoleum floor sported stains, rips and tears. The cabinets were peeling and in desperate need of a paint job. Dirty dishes littered the sink. “He lives in the old Manson house.”
I jumped as the door slammed shut. “Jesus boy, don’t piss on the floor,” Bear said.
The metal frame chair strained under his weight.
“James’s creeped out. He’s never been in a graveyard before.”
“No need to be boy, I never had me better neighbors than them dead ones, excluding present company of course.”
“James meet Mr. Lightman. He’s the caretaker.”
My head tilted upwards. He wiped his hand on his work clothes before extending his paw. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you,” His hand swallowed mine.
“Where you from boy?”
“Don’t call me sir, I work for a living. Mr. Lightman will do. What part of California?”
“Pleasanton, near San Francisco.”
“I know where it is, son. I spent time at Oakland army base - a long time ago.” He sat back down and gnawed at the hoagie. “What brings you to dodge?”
“My father was transferred.”
“Who’s he work for?”
“We got ourselves a nuke.” He threw his hands in the air. “Next thing you know the tombstones will glow.”
“They’ll hum too!” Shannie added.
“I’ll never get a good night’s sleep. I don’t know what would be worse, the humming or my son’s goddamned stereo” He took another bite. “I shouldn’t complain, your old man could keep me in business for a long time.”
The bear pounded the table with his right paw, rolled his immense butt off the seat and let go of the loudest, longest fart ever. “Sheesh, I told them not to use so much oregano,” he said.
“Jesus Leroy,” a lady’s voice cried from another room. “That’s out of bounds.”
Laughing, I pulled my shirt over my nose.
“Check your pants - better have not ruined another pair.”
“Hush now Flossy, that’s no way to speak when we have company.”
The bear turned his attention to the hoagie.
“When you going to learn yourself some manners?” the voice echoed.
“I ain’t doing what no one else doesn’t.”
“Hi there doll,” the voice said as its owner walked into the room. “Oh Jesus That’s foul.” She fanned her nose.
Shannie had her shirt over her nose, partially hiding her red face and tearing eyes.
She was trying not to laugh. “In front of company. You should be ashamed of yourself,”
Flossy said. My eyes teared; my face burned. The little lady playfully slapped the bear across the back of his head. Standing, she was as tall as the seated giant.
“Like you never farted Flossy.”
“I don’t do those sorts of things.”
“She can play the wind chimes, if you know what I mean.”
Shannie’s face turned purple.
“Pish-Posh you old fool.” She waved her hand.
The bear wiped his face. “I got holes to dig and stiffs to plant. Nice meeting you James.” He winked at Shannie: “See ya around Doll.” Shannie’s eyes followed the bear out the door. He climbed into a ratty faded blue pickup truck - Shannie called it powder fairy blue. With a cough the truck started and backed out of view.
The Lightmans lived in a converted church. After Bear left the army – he spent two tours in Vietnam – he bought the cemetery, converted the church and settled into civilian life. As Flossy rattled on, one of Bear’s helpers clomped into the kitchen. “Hey Shannie,”
“Hi Count,” she replied.
The helper opened the fridge and waited for food to jump out at him.
“Damn it boy. Pick you poison or shut the door. Don’t you roll your eyes at me!”
Flossy barked. The helper was the Lightman’s son. Shannie called him Count – Count as in Count Dracula, it was the price he paid for living in a cemetery.
I watched in awe as he took a long swig from the carton of orange juice. I never would have done that in front of my folks. The kid had balls.
“I oughta beat you with a stick,” Flossy said.
Count turned to his mother and belched.
“Boy, stop acting like you were raised by a pack of wolves.”
“Yes Ma’am,” Count smirked.
“Wipe that smirk off your face. I don’t care how big you are. I’ll dig you a hole and shove you in.” Count winked at Shannie before retreating into his room. Too cool, I thought.
That evening, something else was on my mind. Something my mother said didn’t feel right, so I asked Shannie: “Where do babies come from?” We were in her back yard.
“You don’t know?” she laughed.
“A woman’s body,” I said red-faced.
“No shit Sherlock.”
“No way, you brought it up.”
“Shut up, just drop it.”
“Why you blushing Just James?”
“Jesus, are you always so uptight.”
“I’m not uptight.”
“Just drop it! Okay.”
I thought she dropped it. Then she asked. “Who you planning on getting pregnant?”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh brother, are you really that naïve?”
My heart snapped. I think she heard it because she grabbed my hand and turned me towards her. “Sorry Just James. Didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. But you’re so Catholic. I thought everybody knew how to put a bun in the oven.”
“My mom says it from by taking a pill.”
“I knew I should have put Ex-lax in that pie. She is so full of shit,” Shannie howled.
“What do you mean?”
Shannie reached out and felt my forehead. “Wanted to check if you are feverish.”
She stared at my crimson face. “Let me get this straight, you asked your mother where babies come from and she told you from taking a pill. You are twelve years old, right?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled.
“Does she have you believing in the Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny?”
“The tooth fairy?”
“That’s a start,” she sighed. “Geezus Pete, no wonder you’re a walking bowl of spaghetti.” At the tree line between her yard and the cemetery Shannie put an arm around me. My knees weakened. “Did you ask your dad?”
“No,” I lied.
“I’m too embarrassed,” I blushed.
“You’re too embarrassed to ask your own father?”
“I don’t know,” I answered miserably.
"Why don’t you try asking him?”
“Why are you such a pest?”
“Hey, you brought it up,” she said.
“Just drop it,” I mumbled.
“What do you think he would say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
“No I don’t.”
“Yes you do,” Shannie insisted.
“No I don’t.”
“YES YOU DO!”
“He’d told me to go ask your mother,” I blurted out.
“My mother? What does my mother have to do with it?”
“No. Not your mother, my mother. Like he told me to ask your mother, meaning my mother, you see what I mean.”
“Your folks are royally screwed.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Why don’t you bug him?” she asked.
“Like you bug me?”
“Yeah. Like I bug you,” Shannie said.
“Shannie Bug, Shannie Bug, drag your ass across a rug,” I chided.
“Anywho,” she said hopping onto a swing. “You did ask. And what Just James wants, Just James gets.” I hopped on the swing next to her and as I pumped my legs to catch up, Shannie told me about the birds and the bees.
There were times when Shannie spoke that I had no idea what she was talking about.
I would tune out and listen to the rhythm of her voice. It was soothing, almost maternal, more so than my mother’s voice - which was petty, trite, and aggravating. This was one of those occasions I listened to the rhythm, until she mentioned an erection.
“… which leads to a reptile dysfunction.”
“What? What’s a reptile dysfunction have to do with anything?” I asked.
“Silly James,” she laughed. “Erectile dysfunction.”
“What’s an erectile dysfunction,” I asked.
“You never had one?”
I stopped pumping my legs and let the swing slow. “How would I know I never had one if I don’t know what it is?”
“As much as you walk around with a hard-on, I’m surprised that you don’t know.”
“Like when have you seen me walk around with a hard-on?”
“Last week when Diane and I took you camping.”
“I wasn’t walking around with one,” I blushed.
“Oh James - loosen up. Only you would be embarrassed by something so natural.”
“Well pervert, what if I looked at you while you slept.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” Shannie said.
“I mean really looked at you.”
“What’s the big deal?
“I don’t know,” I mumbled. We’re so different, I thought as my swing ground to a halt.
From above me, her swing reached new heights. “Damn it, I wish Diane wasn’t home. I’d show you there is nothing to be ashamed about.”
The rest of that night I was on edge. My mother even noticed: “What’s wrong,” she asked.
“Nothing,” I lied. “I don’t feel good.”
Later, lying awake in bed after another Diane inspired dysfunction, Shannie’s words echoed. With horror and excitement I wondered what would happen the next time Shannie and I were alone.
She made a game of teasing me. She understood how uneasy it made me.
The next day I asked my mother, “Why did you tell me you got pregnant from a pill?
A pill doesn’t make you pregnant, it prevents it.” Her face turned red. Fury burned in her eyes. The glass she was drying was suddenly airborne. “ARE YOU CALLING ME A LIAR? You unappreciative little bastard, I gave up my life for you and you show your thanks by calling me a liar?”
I ducked. The glass whizzed by and smashed against the wall. “Jesus! You’re whacked!”
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?” she screamed. She moved closer, threatening me with the dishtowel pulled taught in her hands. “You call me a liar and have the audacity to use the lord’s name in vain?” Veins bulged in her forehead. “And you call me crazy?”
I ran out the door. “GET BACK HERE THIS INSTANT!” She yelled after me. I sprinted down Cemetery Street, past the old piano factory and the Junior High. My lungs burned as I raced down the tree lined street. Just past the Lucas funeral parlor, I braved a glance behind. I was relieved she wasn’t following. At the bottom of Cemetery Street, I cut across a backyard, crossed the railroad tracks and the vacant lots. On the bank of the Schuylkill River, I found a secluded spot and sat against an uprooted tree. Panting as I caught my breath, I pulled my knees to my chest and cried.
The slow, steady current of the river eased my emotions. I worried about my family.
Back in California, we seemed to get along. We had our upsets, but nothing like this.
Since moving to Beyford, my mother seemed increasingly on edge. “It’s hormones,” my father said. “Pregnancy,” as an afterthought, he added: “the move was hard on her.”
“I thought she wanted to leave California?” I asked.
“Pennsylvania is different than she expected. She’s having trouble making friends,”
my father answered.
Go figure, I thought, she couldn’t get along with Diane, and she is the coolest grown-up I ever met.
Despite being critical of my mother and never passing up an opportunity to rake her across the coals, Shannie was fair and would give me her honest opinion. That evening I asked.
“She hates her life. Imagine sitting on an unwanted egg, passing time till it hatches.
The only thing she has to look forward to is making another person miserable,” Shannie answered.
“If you want a high opinion of a dog, don’t ask a cat,” she scoffed.
“I thought I asked a bug.”
“A lightning bug mind you, I will illuminate you with my brilliance.”
“Okay brilliant Bug, what makes you think she doesn’t want the baby? She told me she wants it.”
“Geezus Pete. You believe everything she says? She did tell you she got pregnant by taking a pill,” she paused, measuring her words. “Do you think anyone would wait twelve years before having another wanted hatchling? I’m thinking about this time the rooster would be having his pecker snipped.”
I shrugged my shoulders. I had no idea of what Shannie was talking about; I was wrapped up in her style. Comparing speaking skills, mine was pencil marks on scrap paper, Shannie was oil on canvas, she was all about color, theme, and texture.
When I walked into my kitchen. my parents were having a civil conversation. Other then a frown from my mother our spat wasn’t mentioned.
That night I realized Shannie was right. My parent’s were getting too old to have a wanted baby. They waited ten years after packing away the last of my diapers. My father was forty-five, my mother was turning forty next month. Maybe they’re trying to save their marriage, I thought as a freight train’s horn echoed in the distance.
Chapter 3 Secrets
Shannie led me to a secret place. We slipped through Fernwood and under shade trees that dotted the ridgeline. To our left, traffic raced along the Expressway. We followed the ridge until we came upon a huge maple tree, its base so thick that each of its four limbs could have been a separate tree. Leading the way, Shannie climbed atop the base. I stopped myself from reaching up and boosting her butt. Instead I eyed it. Since, it is what I measure all others against.
“Take a look down there. That’s where we’re headed.”
“A junkyard?” Behind a hedgerow were piles of old refrigerators and stoves, washers and dryers. Beyond was an auto graveyard. Shannie called the place gi-normus. “It’s more than a junkyard - it’s a treasure chest. You never know what you might find. And we, my friend, have the keys - sort of.” Mischief fell over Shannie’s face. “Count and I can get in and out whenever we want. No one else knows.”
“Hold your horses. We’re meeting Count. He kind of has tickets,” Shannie said.
“Tickets? Why do you need tickets? I thought you get in whenever you felt like it.”
“We can. But, it takes a bribe.” Shannie curled her brow. “I’d hate to see the dog have you for lunch. It knows me and Count. You’re new blood.”
“Bribe him? With what? A can of Alpo?” I asked.
“We’re not. You are Just James.” Shannie patted my back.
I leaned against a limb. “With what?”
“A steak. Count’s getting one at Friedman’s market.”
Oh shit, I thought. “What kind of dog?”
“A big, mean one,” Shannie teased.
“A word to the wise, don’t come here alone. He know us. You have to grow on him.
Kind of like a fungus.”
“What kind of dog?” I repeated.
“Shit,” I mumbled studying the heaps of junk.
“A big mean one. A big mean hungry one,” Shannie continued. “A big mean hungry one with a taste for flesh.”
“Fucking Friedman’s,” Count rumbled as he approached. “I had to dumpster dive to get a decent piece. You’d think with the business we give them they would save us decent scraps. Damn Jews.”
“They’re German,” Shannie said.
“Jews, Krauts.” Count waved his hand. “They’re all the same.”
“You’re such a redneck,” Shannie said.
“At least I’m not a Commie-Pinko.”
“At least I’m not a close minded hick,” Shannie retorted.
“At least I’m not so open minded my brain falls out.”
“Yours already did,” Count said.
My head bounced back and forth to their banter. “We going to exchange pleasantries all day?” Shannie said jumping from the tree. She led the way towards the junkyard.
“Here, this is for you,” Count handed off the bag of steaks like a football. The bag slammed into my gut. “Dog is a mean mother. You should’ve seen what he did to the last kid. He took a chunk out of the poor bastard’s arm. Kid bled like a pig.”
“The dog went after him,” Count answered.
“No shit,” I said. “What happened to his arm.”
“He got gonorrhea, chlamydia, gangrene something like that. They had to chop it off,” Count smiled.
“You’re full of shit,” I protested.
“Honest to God. After they chopped his arm off, the owner of the junkyard, damn it, what’s his name Shannie?’
“Gus,” Shannie said weaving down the hill.
“Yeah, Gus the Russian Jew was so pissed he told the kid’s parents he would press charges for trespassing unless they gave him the arm. He wanted to feed it to the dog.”
“You’re full of it,” I hoped he was lying. “Why didn’t the kid rat you out?”
Count laughed, “I told the pecker head I’d tear off his other arm and shove it up his ass, then he would walk around with a tail looking like the rat bastard he is.”
“Bullshit!” I cried.
“It ain’t bullshit. It happened,” Shannie said.
“Why did the dog go after him?” I worried aloud.
“Who knows what goes through the mind of a mongrel? Come to think of it, that was the only other time I dumpster dove. I think the mutt was pissed he didn’t get a fresh cut.
Probably wanted a porterhouse or something.”
We slipped behind the hedgerow and stared at the chain link fence. As I stood between my friends I eyed the barbed wire draped along the top. “Ever climb over barbed wire?” Count asked.
“Nope,” I gawked at the stacks of wrecked and rusting hulks of dead Ford’s and Chevy’s.
“There’s a first time for everything. Listen up, you got to be absolutely quiet, you can’t even fart. You don’t want Duke Nuke ‘em hearing ya.”
“Who’s Duke Nuke ‘em?” I asked.
‘The dog, dumb ass,” Count hovered over me. He poked my chest to emphasize his point. “Believe me when I say he ain’t a happy camper. Especially if you wake him from his siesta.”
“Mum’s the word,” I whispered.
“Good,” Count patted my back and took the bag from me. “Listen up, when you climb over the top be careful. Cut your hand on a barb and you’ll bleed like a pig. Duke Nuke ‘em’s like a shark. He can smell blood a mile away. Don’t rush. Understand?”
“Don’t rush,” I repeated.
“Whatever happens don’t panic. And remember, keep your goddamn trap shut. You want to find Duke in a good mood.”
“You sure you done this before?” I looked at Shannie for reassurance.
“Of course knucklehead,” Shannie smiled.
“What about the steak?” I asked.
“We’ll worry about that,” Count nodded at Shannie. “Keep a clear head and remember if anything happens - we don’t know you. If you rat us out you’ll be wearing an arm as a tail. Just keep your trap shut.”
The blood drained from my face.
“Get going, we’re right behind ya.”
“It’s a piece of cake James. You can do it,” Shannie gleamed.
“You waiting for the leaves to change? Get your ass over that fence!” Count barked.
I scrambled up the fence. As I climbed over the barbed wire, I thought how enjoyable it would be to watch Count’s fat ass struggle. I made it past the barbs without a scratch. When I got to the ground Shannie and Count were gone - and they took the steak with them. “Hey! You pricks, where did you go?” I yelled. My voice bounced off the hill and rained over the junkyard. Duke’s dark baritone drowned my echoes. I froze. “This ain’t funny, you bastards! ” I yelled: “Paybacks are a bitch!”
I was launched forward, landing on my hands and knees. I looked up. Count hovered over me. “I told you to keep your mouth shut!”
“How did you get in?”
Shannie laughed. “Through the hole in the fence.”
Duke Nuke ‘em’s barks closed in on us.
“Douche bag, I told you to keep your trap shut.”
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“We can’t, Duke Nuke ‘em will chase us,” Shannie said.
“Get in one of the cars,” Count ordered. I hesitated. “Run!” he yelled. I ran for a rusted old pickup. I jumped inside the cab. The Rottweiler barreled around a corner. It stopped. Standing its ground it snarled and barked at my friends. Count took a steak from the bag. “Here you go buddy.” The dog sat. It drooled eying the meat. Count held out the steak. Duke Nuke ‘em ripped it from Count’s hand.
“You little son’s a bitches, I see yee these time. I catch you and beat you asses.” An old man waved his cane as he waddled along the outside of the fence, his face flush.
“Shit, It’s Gus the Russian Jew,” Count said. Shannie and Count took off.
“You little bastards, I see you. Duke sic.”
Ignoring his master, the dog worked on the steak. The old man’s curses trailed off as he hobbled along the outside of the fence. When the dog finished, he scavenged for leftovers. “Want company?” Shannie asked?
I jumped, banging my head on the roof. “Owe, fuck,” I muttered rubbing my head.
“A little jumpy?” She chuckled climbing into the truck. Count’s voice bounced through the junk yard. Duke looked up. Duff and drool hung from his jowls. He barked and trotted after Count’s voice. “What’s Count doing?”
“He’s running screen. We’ll meet him at the tree.”
I looked into Shannie’s eyes. She smiled. I closed my eyes and leaned towards her.
In the distance, Duke Nuke ‘em barks chased Count. “We better get out of here,” Shannie said.
Shannie led me to the hole in the fence. I held it back as she slipped through. She returned the favor. Shannie slipped her hand into mine and led me up the hill and into the tree. If it wasn’t for Count, I’m convinced we would have made out.
“When I tell you to keep your mouth shut, keep it shut,” Count barked as he approached the tree. It’s advice I struggle with. If I listened, I would have saved many detentions, an occasion black eye, stitches, and public humiliation. Count’s advice would have made life with my mother easier. She was constantly irritable. When she bitched to an empty room, I felt obligated to advocate for the walls. My father didn’t argue, when she nagged, he hid. When it got really bad, he drove away. One Saturday afternoon, he left my mother haranguing the kitchen walls.
“I know why he’s miserable. You’re the only one who wants the baby,” I said.
“Who the hell asked you?”
“You know what? I am sick and tired of your opinion,” my mother barked.
“Yeah, so I’m tired of your whining. All you ever do is whine, whine, whine, whine.”
“You bastard! You’re just like your father. All you can think about is James, James, James.”
“Yeah I know." I waved my hand - I picked up the habit from Count. “It’s all about James.”
“Just once stop and consider what it would be like to be in my shoes?” she yelled.
“I have, they reek like a pig farm.”
Her right hand connected. I saw stars. The left side of my face went numb, my knees gave out and I tumbled to the floor. My eye swelled. I rubbed my face, blood covered my hand. Her wedding ring broke open my skin.
“I’m sorry,” I blubbered – guilt filled tears stinging the cut.
“Oh my God,” she cried standing over me. “James, you okay? My God, you’re bleeding. “Come.” She helped me up and led me to the bathroom.
I had trouble catching my breath between sobs. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it,” I repeated.
“Shhh,” she said hugging me. “It’s okay, baby, it’s okay.” Her hands ran through my hair. She sat me down on the toilet and inspected my cut. “You’re going to need stitches,” she said.
“No!” I pleaded. “I’ll be all right.”
“James. Don’t argue, you’re going to need them,” she said.
“I’m scared. I don’t want anything to happen.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Her face told a different story. What she did was wrong, but if I kept my trap shut, she wouldn’t have hit me. I didn’t want her in trouble, especially with the baby on the way.
“I fell down the stairs and hit my face on the banister,” I said.
"No James. We can’t lie,” she whispered.
“I’m not lying, That’s what happened. I was running in the upstairs hall, you told me to stop. I got smart with you and God punished me – I fell down the steps.”
She placed her forehead to mine. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
Despite applying pressure, she couldn’t stop the bleeding. “I have to call an ambulance,” she said. Leaving the bathroom she muttered: “I wish your father would get home.”
“NO!” I yelled following her from the bathroom. “Call Mrs. Ortolan. She’ll give us a ride.”
My mother shook her head. “No James, I can’t do that. I just can’t do that.”
“Please, please,” I pleaded.
Ignoring me she said, “Mr. Miller is home, I’ll ask him if he’ll give us a ride.”
Within minutes we were on our way to the hospital.
I started to believe my lie. Aside from an Emergency room doctor no one doubted me - I convinced him after a brief interrogation - no one, except Shannie. “I don’t remember a set of brass knuckles being part of your banister’s decor,” she quipped. My father mumbled something about being careful near the stairs – “you’re lucky you didn’t break an arm.” When Count saw my black eye and stitches he said I looked tough enough to play football. Knowing she owed me, my mother signed off. I joined the Junior High team.
For the remainder of summer vacation, Count and I spent each morning playing catch and hurdling tombstones. Count was the starting pulling guard on offense and nose tackle on defense. Not only was he the biggest player on our team, he was the biggest player in the league. More frightening then his size was his speed. I was no slow poke and he could stay with me in the forty. After one of our races he informed me it was time to see if I could take a hit. “Forget it, I’m not going to be your tackling dummy.”
“I believe in a fair fight. I’ll give you a three second head start.”
“You’ll never catch me,” I boasted.
“We go until I get you or I can’t run anymore,” Count challenged.
“Deal,” I answered. I was about to learn the meaning of freight-trained.
We started at the front of Fernwood. After fifty yards I looked over my shoulder -
Count lumbered along. I was lolled into a false sense of security, I never seen him run further than forty yards. Piece of cake, I thought taking the turn at the rear of the graveyard. I looked over my shoulder again. Pow, he nailed me. My head bounced off the ground, pain exploded through my skull. Count called it a rock headache. It probably was a concussion. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t be my last head injury.
“Just what I figured,” Count cried as I held my head in my hands. “You’re panty-waist wide-out material. You can run like the wind as long as the wind blows towards the sidelines.”
After the season started, I realized he was easy on me. It was frightening how hard he hit people. I’m amazed no one died. When I asked our coach why he winced when Count clobbered someone, he said: “I hope it doesn’t hurt as bad as it looks.” Count wasted people with a smile. He’d destroy them, help them up - extending a word of encouragement, and waste them again. He only got mean when someone called him Cunt.
There was one on every team – I learned that the world will never be in short supply of idiots.
Once, while playing defensive back, I was in on a tackle when the running back called him Cunt. "I’ll show you who’s a Cunt," Count snapped. The next play he broke the kid’s leg.
I’m glad I never pissed off Count. I knew there was one name I’d never call him.
Shannie and I were walking down Main Street when I asked if she ever saw Count get mean.
“Never,” she said.
“Hell-low Butterfly,” an old gravel laden voice interrupted from across Main Street.
"Russell,” Shannie cried. “How are you?”
"Fine,” the gravely voice coughed. “Just fine thank you. You behaving yourself young lady?” Across the street, under a plume of cigar smoke, stood an aging black man wearing sunglasses and carrying a white cane. His gray hair matched day-old stubble. A sweat stained undershirt covered a healthy potbelly.
“But of course,” Shannie replied. She motioned for me to follow her across Main Street. “What kind of trouble can a girl get into in this town?”
“Loads if your gallivanting around town with a young fella,” Russell smirked.
"James isn’t trouble. It’s me James has to worry about,” Shannie said.
It was hard to tell if the old man’s chuckle was spiced with a cough or if his cough was spiced with a chuckle. “Nice to make your acquaintance James,” he shook my hand.
“You must be of high standing to meet this lady’s standards.”
"Nice to meet you,” I mumbled withdrawing my hand from his cold, sweaty embrace.
“How was your trip?’ Shannie asked.
"Fine doll. But you know how I am. I couldn’t wait to get home. I missed my Butterfly.”
“I’m glad you’re home. I missed you,” Shannie said resting her cheek against Russell’s potbelly.
"What’s the story on him,” I asked after we parted company.
“Everybody knows Russell,” Shannie answered. I learned Russell haunted Main Street, at any given time he sat on the park bench across from the town hall or pushed a broom in front of Wally’s. Shannie scolded me when I asked how he could push a broom if he couldn’t see what he’s sweeping, “Just because he’s blind doesn’t mean he’s an invalid. He knows the sidewalks better than anyone.”
“How do you know him?” I asked.
"He’s a friend of the family. He was there when we needed a little help,” Shannie said.
“What kind of help?” I inquired.
"Let’s just say – when in doubt, seek Russell out,” Shannie said.
“What kind of doubt?” I persisted.
“That’s none of your business,’ Shannie responded.
I changed the subject “Wait a minute, if he’s blind how did he know we were on the other side of the street?”
“He probably heard my voice,” Shannie tugged an ear.
“I was doing most of the talking,” I claimed.
“If he didn’t hear me, he…” Shannie sniffed twice. “… smelled me.”
“James, phone,” my mother called. The smell of barbecued steak wafted through our backyard. It was Labor Day, my mother was in a good mood and my father emerged from his stupor. “Just James,” Shannie’s voice rang through the receiver. “Tomorrow’s the day.”
“For?” I asked.
She giggled. “Diane has classes all day and you start school on Wednesday, it’s tomorrow or never.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count,” Shannie said.
Oh that! I thought. “What time?” I stammered.
“You oughta think with your small head more often. You catch on quicker,” Shannie teased.
"Ha ha,” I said.
“Eleven. Come around to the back door.”
“Eleven it is.” I hung up and returned to the picnic table. I studied the steak’s rare middle as I chewed. The sight of it lying in a pool of its own juices cost my appetite, at least that was my excuse. I slipped from the table under the cover of my parent’s conversation.
The evening drug slower than Christmas Eve for a five year old. In my bedroom, I paced the floor. When I tired of that, I went to Count’s. “The boys are running an errand,” Flossy said. I made my way to the maple tree. I climbed and watched the holiday traffic. I wanted to talk with Shannie. Instead, I walked to Wally’s. With Shannie on my mind, I bought Pixie sticks, I hate Pixie sticks! Go figure. Back in my room, I paced.
I learned dealing with the opposite sex was nerve wracking; no wonder my parent’s were so screwed up, I thought. A light went on in Diane’s room. I shut mine off and raced to my perch. Shannie stood in Diane’s doorway, arms folded across her chest as she leaned against the door frame, her head tilted backwards. She spoke, I tried reading her lips. Diane appeared from the corner of her room and walked past Shannie into the hallway. Instead of following, Shannie walked towards the window and stared in my direction. After a moment she slipped from Diane’s room.
As evening turned to night, sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned, my mind awash with images of what tomorrow would bring. When sleep came, it was shallow and filled with dreams. The images were random and disjointed. In one dream, Shannie and I were in her bedroom, but her bedroom was in the maple tree. We were about to kiss when a tornado roared up the hill from the junkyard. Suddenly, we were running hand in hand inside a cave. Water trickled from the cave's wall’s. Rats squealed as we ran past.
Suddenly, the walls trembled. A rumbling light chased us.
In another, the kitchen door slammed. My mother’s voice raced up the stairs. The bedroom door muffled her words. Her voice and footfalls climbed the stairs. I don’t want to deal with this, I thought pulling the blankets over my head. “Go away, go away,” I pleaded to my blankets. The door to my bedroom was thrown open and her eyes sliced through my blanket. Fire truck sirens drowned her shouts.
Fire trucks did wake me. I sat up trying to sort dream from reality. The reflections of flashing red lights filled my room. Sirens raced up Main Street past Fernwood. I bolted from bed and glimpsed a fire truck racing by. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.
I stood at the bottom of the Ortolan’s back steps, surprised how high their deck seemed. One by one I took the steps, my heart raced. I knocked on the sliding door. “It’s open,” Shannie’s voice rang.
“Hey Bug,” I cried.
“Bring your birthday suit?” she called from her bedroom.
I was at a loss for words.
"Cat got your tongue?” she asked emerging from her bedroom.
“Something like that,” I said. I was disappointed, I was hoping she’d be wearing her bikini. I didn’t expect to see her in painter’s pants and a T-shirt. “You sure you want to do this?” I asked.
“But of course. I promise I won’t bite. Want something to drink?”
“Coke,” I answered.
“We can do this one of two ways,” Shannie opened the refrigerator door. She stuck her head inside, exaggerating her pose. She popped open the can and sat in front of me.
“We can play strip poker or spin the bottle.”
“Spin the bottle.” I didn’t know how to play poker.
“Drink up,” she said sitting across from me, eying me as I drank.
I took my time. Sitting with her legs crossed, chin resting in her palm, Shannie stared into my eyes.
"Let me help you.” Shannie chugged the rest of my soda. As she tossed the can she left out a world-class belch.
“Good push,” I said.
“Excuse me,” she laughed. At her bedroom door, she turned and said, “Just James.
Whatever happens today, I mean, when you go to school and start meeting other girls, and find a girlfriend, which you will, don’t think that I will be pissed. We’re friends James, best of friends. I don’t want you to think you can’t be interested in anybody else.”
My face throbbed worse than when my mother socked me. “I wouldn’t think of being interested in anyone else."
"You haven’t met anyone else,” she said.
“That’s not true.”
"Name one,” she challenged.
“I thought that… well, never-mind,” I stammered.
“Thought what Just James?” Shannie grinned.
“That, ugh… forget it,” I mumbled.
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