THE COLLIER KIDS
by Tetman Callis
The Steins had a daughter who was friends with the Collier Kids and a son who was older and listened to rock-and-roll on the radio. Jeff Chorus was on his hands and knees in his front yard pulling weeds and heard Back in the U.S.S.R. coming from the Steins’ house next door. He whispered to the weeds, They’re Commies. A few weeks later he began listening to rock-and-roll on the radio and he became a Commie, too. But he was not a Collier Kid. (What is a Collier Kid? Jeff’s mom would say it is a child of between five and fifteen years of age and it lives on the block and its last name is Collier, Beausoleil, Wheeler, or Stein, and it is up to no good.)
The Girl in the Green Dress lived in a family that wasn’t on the block for long. If she had another dress no one ever saw it. When it hung out to dry on the clothesline in her back yard in the morning, no one saw her.
Her mother got drunk one summer evening around sundown and got in a screaming match with the Beausoleils. Jeff’s mom came and got him and his brother John, who was a year older than Jeff.
Come help me close the windows. Don’t dawdle. Do it right. Now, the two of you wait in John’s room until I tell you to come out.
Later, the Collier Kids told Jeff what had happened.
That lady? She was standing there on the curb.
She had a bottle of booze in her hand.
She went down in front of the Steins’ house and was standing there screaming across the street at us.
We don’t know what it was. She wasn’t making any sense.
We started screaming back.
Yeah, you don’t scream at us and think you can get away with it.
The Stuarts’ father was Major Stuart, United States Army. He went to Vietnam. The mother was Bunny. The Major came back and he and Bunny sat on folding chairs in their carport and burned letters in a coffee can. She was young and he was young, too. They called each other Mom and Dad. She had black hair and white skin and was nervous. He never smiled and rarely spoke and was always somewhere else. He didn’t like kids, not even his own. They were Abel and Baker and were younger than Jeff. They played soldier and scientist and astronaut together.
The Collier Kids came over.
Abel and Baker, what stupid names.
Your mom has a stupid name, too.
Yeah, and your dad doesn’t even like you. I heard him say so.
Bunny came out of the house.
You trash get out of my yard!
A ragged and dirty pair of panties was in the dirt in the yard. Where was it from? Grant Collier carried a long thin stick. He picked up the panties with it. He held them up, dangling from the end of the stick.
You call us trash? We don’t leave our dirty underwear out in our front yards. Ooo, they smell bad, too.
He flipped them at her. They landed on the porch at her feet. She started crying and went back inside.
The daughter of the Bridges was Viola and she wasn’t friends with anyone on the block. She went steady with Reggie Cotton when she was in sixth grade and he was in second.
Someone set fire to the Bridges’ yard and burned one of their bushes. No one knew who did it and everyone knew it was the Collier Kids.
The Farmers moved out and moved back in three years later. The Farmer boys were friendly before they moved away. They came back and they were snotty and wouldn’t be friends with anyone.
The Collier Kids passed by on the sidewalk and Mr. Farmer saw them. He stood behind the screen door.
If you kids set one foot in my yard, I’ll call the police!
The Collier Kids stopped. Grant Collier lifted up one of his feet from off the sidewalk and he put it down with the toe touching the Farmers’ yard.
You mean like this?
An hour later a police cruiser pulled up in front of the Farmers’ house. Two officers talked with Mr. Farmer.
There’s not much we can do. Maybe you could put up a fence. Have you tried talking to their parents?
The Collier Kids knew what everybody did on the block. Sometimes they snuck into people’s yards at night and spied.
Mister York drinks.
So? Everybody drinks.
No, he drinks booze, stupid.
Lots of it, too.
We seen him.
Have you seen his wife?
She hardly ever comes out.
She probably can’t get out the door.
Nunh-uh. I seen her come out. She came out through the door.
Mrs. York slowly waddled to the car. Mr. York opened the door for her. The Collier Kids said Mr. York was taking her to the hospital.
What other place could she go?
The Collier Kids tittered and whispered and watched. Jeff watched and was quiet.
Mr. Collier was Sgt. Collier, United States Air Force, and he went to Vietnam. He was in the air force since World War Two. After he came back from Vietnam he retired and drove a long-haul truck. He had a plastic dildo and Penthouse magazines in the cab and sometimes he was gone for weeks. He and his wife had four kids. They all had blue eyes and blonde hair.
The oldest was Rose. She never lived on the block. She was away at college when the Colliers moved in, then pregnant and married to the most acceptable likely suspect. They stayed married until the accidental baby graduated high school, then it was Splitsville for Rose and she left the country. Her bridal shower was at Jeff’s house. His mom sent him and John out to the front porch to play or read or whatever they wanted to do, just stay out of the way and don’t get in trouble. Rose was the most beautiful girl who had ever set foot on the block. Her beauty and her smile and her confidence stunned Jeff. She smoked long cigarettes and he almost couldn’t look at her.
Ronny Collier smoked pot and played the drums in a rock band and football on the high school varsity team. He rode a motorcycle and hung out with hippies in the park. He sat on his motorcycle outside his house and talked to Denise Wheeler and Traci Stein and there was Jeff.
Hey, Jeff, are you a pansy?
Jeff had heard of reverse psychology and the soft answer that turneth away wrath.
Ronny and the girls laughed.
Grant Collier was a year older than Jeff and was the leader of the Collier Kids. He had the same innate confidence his siblings had. Several of the girls were in love with him.
Simon was the youngest and was a year younger than Jeff. He stood in a little red wagon and wore one of the Wheeler girls’ bikinis. From a string around his neck hung a homemade sign that read Come See Twiggy. Grant Collier and Mary Wheeler pulled the wagon down the sidewalk.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s the world-famous model Twiggy! Come see her, only a nickel!
A transistor radio played and Simon danced.
Jeff mowed and edged the lawn and swept the grass and dirt on the driveway into a pile. Bobby Stein and Charles Beausoleil ran through the pile and kicked it around. Jeff yelled at them and swept it up. The boys ran through it and scattered it again. Jeff grabbed them and pushed them. They fell down in the grass.
He pushed us!
Ow! That hurt! Mommy!
The Collier Kids crossed the street from the Beausoleils’ front porch and surrounded Jeff.
What did you do?
Those little boys! You just pushed them down!
You bully! Pick on someone your own size!
Yeah! How would you like it if someone grabbed you and threw you down?
Somebody should do that!
We should teach him a lesson!
Grant thrashed Jeff and held him down and punched him in the forehead and raised a welt. Jeff lay on the sidewalk and cried after Grant was done. The Collier Kids went back across the street. Jeff got up and went home. Later the doorbell rang. It was Mary Wheeler and Francine Beausoleil. Mary had been his girlfriend the year before, for a few weeks.
We’re sorry, Jeff.
Yeah, Grant said he didn’t really mean to hurt you.
Jeff said, Get the hell out of here! which is what he had heard his mom say to them just the week before when they were playing on the Choruses’ front porch and raising a racket. He closed the door.
He was eating his lunch and the doorbell rang again. His mom answered. Francine and Grant told Jeff’s mom what he had said. She thanked them and closed the door and beat Jeff. She sprained her wrist. That evening at Kingdom Hall she wore an Ace bandage.
Oh, I did this spanking Jeff.
She smiled the way people sometimes do.
The Beausoleils had six girls and a boy. The oldest was already married and gone. She had two miscarriages and kept photographs of them on a small altar in her living room. There were also candles and a photograph of Jesus Christ.
The other five girls and their mother were loud and even when they talked they screamed. The boy was the youngest and stuttered. The father was sick and no one ever saw him. The Collier Kids said he had emphysema and was holed up in the back bedroom, hooked up to an oxygen tank.
The Beausoleils had two Dobermans and a something else. John Chorus practiced for the cross-country track team. He ran down the sidewalk and the dogs burst out of the Beausoleils’ front door and went for him. He jumped and spun around whooping and sprinted for home. He vaulted over the chainlink fence around his front yard and collapsed on the lawn. The Beausoleils shouted and screamed at the dogs until they came home.
Before the Beausoleils had three dogs, they had eight. Someone called the police who came and made them give four away. Before this they kept a horse in their back yard. The police came that time too and the Beausoleils got a ticket and had to stable the horse on the edge of town.
Jeff’s dog was Dog. Dog’s half sister one litter back was a dog with a real name and that was Calamity. She peed every time she got excited and she got excited a lot. She peed on Jeff when he was holding her on the patio.
Ooo! Stupid dog!
He threw her into the back yard. She landed and screamed. Jeff’s mom came out and the neighbor behind them came over.
Jeff, what happened?
I don’t know, she was just out in the yard and started yelping.
Jeff’s mom and the neighbor picked up Calamity and looked her over.
She must have stepped on a bee.
Yes, that must be it.
The neighbor looked at Jeff. Jeff knew he knew.
Jeff’s mom gave Calamity to the Humane Society a few months later.
She just wouldn’t stop peeing.
Topeka Sally’s family kept the dog that birthed Calamity and Dog.
Mom, Topeka Sally says they’ve got a fertile bitch.
Jeffrey, don’t you ever say that word!
Jeff didn’t know which word and was afraid to ask.
Topeka Sally had a brother whose name has been forgotten. He and she looked almost exactly alike although they weren’t twins. She was in Jeff’s second grade class and was his first girlfriend on the block. She and her brother and Jeff played Knights of the Round Table and used sticks for swords and round metal trash can lids for shields. Topeka Sally was the fair princess who had to be rescued. They made a hell of a racket with those trash can lids.
You kids cut that out!
Topeka Sally’s family moved out and the Wheelers moved in. Dan Wheeler raced go-carts at the go-cart track and fired rifles at the rifle range and gigged crawdads and frogs at the reservoir. He gigged a racoon and skinned it and tanned its hide and hung the hide on his bedroom wall.
If Jeff could choose his own big brother, it would be Dan.
Dan’s sisters were Denise and Janet and Mary, in that order. Denise was the first leader of the kids on the block. She outgrew that and grew into boys and clothes and music, and Grant Collier took over.
Janet Wheeler was not fat and she was not ugly. She was merely the plainest. Also, she didn’t have a belly button. When she had appendicitis and almost died, she was rushed to the hospital and cut open. When the doctors sewed her back together, her belly button was gone. She showed the other kids.
See? I’m not really human. I’m an alien from outer space.
Mary was the prettiest. She and Simon Collier started going steady when they were ten. All the kids knew they would get married when they grew up. None of them knew they would break up as soon as they got to high school, and that Simon would grow up to be more beautiful than any of the Wheeler or Beausoleil girls, a stunner in spiked heels.
Jeff’s mom put up a metal garden shed. She made it from a kit to replace one blown away in a dust storm. It was new and empty. Jeff was with the Wheeler girls.
Jeff, let’s go sit in your shed.
We can play spin the bottle.
You’ll win every time.
Jeff and the Wheeler girls closed the sliding door of the shed. It screeched. Light leaked in. They sat on the cinderblock floor and spun an empty Coke bottle, the glass kind with the shapely waist. The bottle rattled on the floor. Jeff won every time.
The door screeched open and the light flooded in and there was Jeff’s mom. She was tall.
You girls need to go home now.
The girls left. Jeff’s mom took him into the kitchen and held him firmly by his shoulders.
Look at me. Look at me! You must never, ever, be alone with girls again. Do you understand me?
Jeff was lying. He did not understand her. He never understood her.
Dan Wheeler told stories.
We came from Arkansas. We called it Our Kansas.
Our grandma used to sit on the front porch with a four-ten twenty-two over-and-under in her lap. There were gopher holes in the front yard and whenever a gopher would pop his head up, she’d blast him.
One summer all the kids in our neighborhood had a war. We had firecrackers and sticker bombs and we built forts and dug trenches. We even dug tunnels that went up to the enemy lines. Then we put a whole bunch of firecrackers at the end of the tunnel and blew up the enemy trench. And we had a sticker torture chamber as big across as your back yard, Jeff. If you were captured, they made you run back and forth across it until you talked. If you still didn’t talk, then they rolled you around in it.
The Angelos were an older couple. They painted their lawn green in the winter. Nobody knew if they had any children. Nobody ever saw anybody visit.
They had a low rock wall around their front yard and it was topped with a high wrought-iron fence painted white. Sometimes you could see Mrs. Angelo in a big floppy orange straw hat working in her flower beds up by the house. You could call out a hi to her and she would usually hear you and look up for a moment and wave. She wouldn’t come down to the fence to talk. The Collier Kids said Mr. Angelo painted her in the nude.
Does he really?
He does not. How do you know that? I’ve never seen him painting anything.
We snuck in their back yard and we saw it.
You did not. How did you get in their back yard?
Yeah. Their back wall is like twenty feet high.
No. It’s only twelve.
It is not. How do you know that?
Well, it’s not twenty.
We measured it.
You did not.
Yes we did. You weren’t there. You don’t know.
You saw him painting her and she was naked?
Was he putting paint on her? Why was he putting paint on her?
He wasn’t putting paint on her, stupid. He was painting her picture.
Oh. Well why didn’t you say so?
He said he was painting her. That’s what it means.
You’re so stupid.
Shut up, I am not.
So what did she look like?
We only saw her back.
Did you see her butt?
No, she was sitting down.
You guys are lying. You didn’t see anything.
Yes we did. You don’t know. You weren’t there.
Every weekday evening at 5:30 Mr. Angelo’s boxy little four-door sedan turned onto the block. He drove slowly, hunched over the steering wheel, peering through his little round glasses and never turning his head either this way or that.
The first kid to see him called out, Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo! The other kids took up the cry and dropped whatever they were doing and ran down the street to the Angelos’ house. The first two kids to arrive opened the gate to the driveway. Mr. Angelo drove in, smiling brightly and squinting through his glasses, looking neither to the left nor the right. The kids closed the gate behind him. He parked and went inside his house and came back a minute later with a bag of hard candy. He walked down the sloping driveway to the gate where the kids waited. He didn’t open the gate. He smiled and through the wrought-iron bars he handed each child a piece of candy.
One for you. One for you. One for you, and one for you . . .
Thank you, Mr. Angelo! Thank you, Mr. Angelo!
When every kid had a piece of candy, Mr. Angelo went back inside. The kids unwrapped their candies and popped them in their mouths.
We put the wrappers in our pockets!
No littering in front of the Angelos’ house!
Pick that up!
No one knew how the gate-opening custom had begun. Billy Johnson taught it to Jeff and in those days it was Jeff and Billy and his brother Mark and Topeka Sally and her brother along with Reggie Cotton and the Hausers and a couple of the Goldfarbs. They all moved out except for Jeff and Reggie, who handed the custom down to newcomers. With all the Collier Kids and Choruses and Ganders and Stepps there were sometimes a score of kids running down the street at 5:30, pacing the boxy little sedan and often outrunning it.
Mr. Angelo! Mr. Angelo!
There even were times the Collier Kids waited at the open end of the street for the first glimpse of Mr. Angelo’s car.
Here he comes!
Across from the Angelos were the Beys. They had three kids. Marie was the oldest. Jeff thought she was fat and ugly and he did not like her. She thought herself fat and ugly and she did not like anybody. In truth she was not fat, only full-figured, and she was not ugly, but there was no one to tell her that, not even the mirror on her wall when she plucked her eyebrows.
The youngest Bey was Cass. She was Debbie Gander’s best friend and was skinny and gangly and had a big nose. Often she could be found at church with her mom, religious in a Protestant way.
The middle Bey was Peter. He was removed from the general student population when he was fourteen for bringing a gun to school. Ten years later he was sent to prison for a stretch for a string of residential burglaries. Thirty years after that, he was killed in a shootout with federal agents who had come to arrest him for smuggling guns to Mexico.
The Twins were friends with the Collier Kids but they weren’t Collier Kids. Their dog had puppies and they carried two of them, a black one and a white one, one day to every house on the block and asked, Do you want a puppy?
The Colliers said, No, we already have two dogs.
The Beausoleils said, No, we have way too many dogs already.
Jeff’s mom was in the front yard when the Twins came by.
Hi, Missus Chorus, do you want a puppy?
Later that afternoon Jeff’s mom said, They’re such darling little girls, and those puppies are so cute, I couldn’t resist.
She named the puppies Inky and Spook. They got along with Dog and were never allowed inside. Jeff reflected sunlight from a small mirror and moved the reflection back and forth along the back yard’s rock wall. Inky saw it and chased it. He ran and jumped but couldn’t catch it. Spook never saw it and chased Inky instead.
The Twins threw a big birthday party and had a live rock-and-roll band in their carport. It knew only one song, the Birthday one by the Beatles, and played it over and over. Everyone on the block went to the party except for Jeff and John, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses and could not have gone even if they had been invited, which they were not, because everybody knew they were Jehovah’s Witnesses and didn’t celebrate anything, so why bother?
Nobody knew anything about the Two Guys. An immobile ‘54 Chevy lived on the street by the curb in front of their house. The Collier Kids said the Two Guys lived with their mother.
I’ve never seen her.
We’ve seen her.
She hardly ever comes out.
They had a fence like the Angelos’ but not as high. They didn’t bother anybody and nobody bothered them. They had two crabapple trees in their parkway. Summertime everybody pulled the crabapples off the trees and threw them at each other in crabapple wars. The hard little crabapples were thrown by their stems and stung when they hit flesh.
Ow! I’m telling!
No, you’re not.
Yeah, don’t be such a big baby.
After a crabapple war the street and sidewalk were littered with crabapples. The kids stepped on them and smashed them flat.
The last house at bottom of the block was often empty. No one knew why.
Yeah, that’s why no one wants to live there.
You believe in ghosts?
Sure! Everybody does.
Everybody knows there’s ghosts.
We went there one night and we heard it howling.
You did not.
You don’t know. You weren’t there.
It’s a bad luck house. Ask Jeff. Isn’t it, Jeff? That house? The haunted one? Where you cut your leg that one time? It’s a bad luck house, right?
I don’t believe in luck. It’s against my religion.
Gah, I can’t believe that. That’s so stupid.
Everybody believes in luck. You’re just making that up, Jeff.
The bottom of the block was a dead-end cul-de-sac everyone called The Bulge. The kids on the block, the Collier Kids and any of the other kids who wanted, played baseball there. Home plate was always on the south side and nobody knew why. Line drives could break a window at the haunted house or dent the fender of a parked car. Pop flies could end up in Mrs. Angelo’s flower beds or bounce around in traffic on the four-lane street that ran beyond the low wall at the base of the cul-de-sac.
Go get it!
Get the ball, Simon!
No! Gah, I didn’t hit it out there. You go get it.
Simon, you’re such a chicken.
You shut your mouth, you bun-hugger! Or I’ll smack it shut.
Jeff, will you get the ball? Mary, ask Jeff if he’ll get the ball.
Yeah, I’ll get it. Wait till these cars go by.
Hurry, Jeff! It’ll get smashed!
You guys! Let him wait. Jeff, be carful.
Did you hear what Francine said? She said, Jeff, be carful.
Be careful, Jeff!
Don’t worry, guys, I’ll be careful.
And so he was, and so he retrieved the ball, and so the game went on, until it was time to go home for dinner, time to start a new school year, time to take a summer job, time to grow up and move away and leave the block behind.
Summer is for Swimming, Shopping, and Stealing
A loose clot of kids walked along beside the four-lane street. There was no sidewalk. A trail was worn along the shoulder, above the curb. The trail went through desert—pale brown and red sand and dust, small rocks and some gravel, mesquite and creosote and goat’s-heads, nightshade with blue flowers and yellow seedpods, stunted yuccas, tumbleweeds both rooted and free-rolling, and tufts of desert grasses and wildflowers. Across the street was the neighborhood of tract houses where the kids lived. On the side where the kids walked, the desert stretched almost a half-mile to a mobile home park. Four tall radio broadcasting aerials stood in the desert, arranged in a large diamond. Guy wires stretched at taut angles from the towers to industrial screw eyes anchored in concrete blocks on the desert floor.
The kids wore swimsuits under their t-shirts and shorts, and flip-flops or tennis shoes without socks. They carried beach towels and suntan lotion; one or two carried packs of cigarettes and books of matches. They ranged in build from lanky to slender. The oldest was fourteen and the youngest was ten or eleven. Billie Jean Beausoleil was at that age where she seemed to have shot up like a weed after a summer rainstorm, her arms and legs long and rail thin. She was the youngest of the Beausoleil girls, the only blonde, and would grow into a stunning beauty. Francine Beausoleil was next-oldest and would be starting junior high in the fall. She wore glasses pushed up on her nose and always seemed to be squinting. Cindy Beausoleil was Grant Collier’s age and would come to be deeply in love with him, hoping they would marry, but Grant never married. Janet Wheeler, the girl who’d lost her belly button to emergency surgery, was also Grant’s and Cindy’s age. She would later be a bartending biker-chick riding Harleys in the Colorado Rockies. Mary Wheeler would start junior high with Francine and Simon Collier in the fall. She and Simon had been going steady for almost two years. They were the couple that seemed so natural, it seemed they would marry, but they broke up when they got to high school and, same as his brother, Simon never married. He and Grant carried themselves with an androgynous grace and assurance. They were not effeminate but they were not masculine. The only other boy in the group was Jeff Chorus. His parents were religious and strict. He was neither graceful nor assured.
The kids’ destination was Crystal Pool, a private spring-fed swimming pool in a small and run-down park that had seen better days, its tall cottonwoods scattered over dried and dying Bermuda grass and a sparse array of battered picnic tables. It was a fifteen-minute walk from their block to the pool. In the summer, at least one and usually most of the kids made the walk at least once and sometimes twice a day, six days a week. The pool was closed on Wednesdays for draining, cleaning, and re-filling.
Crystal Pool was large and circular. Its deepest point was in the middle and was over fourteen feet down. It was a challenge to reach the bottom and none of the kids ever did, which didn’t stop them from saying that they did. A dock stood in the pool to one side of the deepest point. Two diving boards, one low and one high, were on the dock. The deck around the pool was large and concrete; around that were grassy areas, with mulberry and mimosa trees around the perimeter. There was a raised lifeguard station, a kiddie pool, indoor showers that everyone was supposed to use before swimming and no one did, and an awninged area with ping-pong tables. Admission was by membership only and the number of memberships was limited.
Grant and Simon fought in their front yard. Simon was getting the best of it. Grant picked up a loose brick from the garden and tossed it at his brother. Their mother’s voice came through the opened kitchen window.
Grant! You stop throwing bricks at your brother! And put that back in the garden where you found it! The way I had it!
Jeff walked over from his house across the street. He carried a beach towel.
Hi, Grant. Hi, Simon. You guys wanna go swimming?
Sure, Grant said.
No, Simon said. I’m not going anywhere with Grant. He’s a futt-bucker.
Their mother’s voice came through the window.
Simon! Watch your mouth! Hi, Jeff!
Hello, Missus Collier.
You boys going swimming?
Yes, Grant said.
No, Simon said.
Let’s go, Grant said to Jeff. I already have my trunks on underneath my pants.
I need to get a towel.
Grant went in and got a beach towel, and he and Jeff walked to the pool. It was still early in the day. They swam for a while, then they stretched on their towels and took the sun. Grant had cigarettes and they each smoked one.
Ohmagod, look, Grant said. Look—over there. The German Woman.
Jeff looked. All the kids knew about The German Woman. She always sat in the same place, with a friend or two, on towels in the grass near the perimeter fence and the trees. She had a baby and sometimes she nursed it. Right there! She let down a strap of her bikini top and she did it! Jeff had heard about it but he hadn’t seen it until today.
Wow! he said quietly.
Did you see her nipple?
Yes! It was as big as my thumb!
It’s the baby that does that.
On the way home they passed by a garage sale. Two card tables set up on a driveway, peppered with an array of stuff, all of it marked with homemade price tags and none of it worth anything. A woman sat in a folding chair. Grant and Jeff looked at the items on display. Grant asked the woman about a set of salt and pepper shakers and Jeff stole a necklace of fake pearls.
Easiest job ever, Jeff said after they walked away.
I didn’t know you were such a little thief.
Have you ever shoplifted?
Oh yeah. You?
Yeah. We do it all the time, at Gibson’s and Northgate. Where have you shoplifted?
I haven’t done it much. I stole a squirt gun from TG&Y right at the end of the school year. I was scared I was gonna get caught, but I didn’t. And before that, when I was little, I stole a little racing car from Sprouse-Reitz. That time I got caught.
You did? What happened?
I was only four. I really wanted that car. It was one of those little ones with a friction motor. You could see it through the body. I still remember it had a price tag on it and it was twenty-five cents. I asked my mom to get it for me but she wouldn’t, so when she wasn’t looking, I took it and stuck it in my pocket.
Did they catch you at the store?
No. I didn’t get caught till after I got home. It was winter and we were wearing our coats. When we got home, my mom took our coats to hang them up. She always checked our pockets in case me or my brother had picked up a rock or a bottle cap or a dead lizard or something. And she found the car. With the price tag still on it.
I bet she beat your butt.
No, she didn’t. I’m surprised she didn’t. But she took me back to the store and she got the manager and told him. He squatted down in front of me and grabbed my shoulders and told me what a bad boy I was and how I should never ever steal anything again. I was crying so hard.
I guess the lesson wore off.
Yeah. Have you ever been caught?
Nah. It’s easy to get away with it, especially if there’s a bunch of us. The people in the store never know who to watch.
This was true. Should they watch the skinny girl with the long legs? She didn’t seem to be any trouble, at least not yet. Those other two girls, the ones who looked like they could be her sisters—the older one seemed mostly interested in one of those boys. Interested enough to steal for him? Best keep an eye on her. But she’s talking a lot with that other girl who looks about her age. Damn, there’s a lot of kids in this bunch. Where’d the one with the glasses go, the one who was squinting? There, she’s down that aisle, with the other girl who looks like the little sister of that other older girl, and with that boy, one of the tall skinny ones. He looks a little, you know . . . that way. That other one must be his brother. Then that other boy—he doesn’t look like he really belongs with them. But it’s clear they’re all friends. Some little gang of suburban hoodlums. Spoiled rotten. Probably haven’t seen the inside of a church since they were baptized. Assuming they’ve been baptized. Little heathens. What are they doing? Those three are all clumped up there and whispering. And those other two are obviously up to no good. Best just to clear them all out of here, they’re not going to buy anything. You kids. Hey! Hey! You kids—you need to buy something right now, or get out. Don’t make me call the cops.
The Store—the term for teen shopping before there was The Mall, before The Internet was more than a dream. It was how they asked permission or flat-out said it—Mom, can I go to The Store? We’re going to The Store, okay? Mom—where is she? Where are you, Mom? Going to The Store! Sometimes their moms might ask, What store? Which store? How long are you going to be gone? Don’t be gone too long, okay? Okay, Mom! and they’d be out the door and down the street, to cross the four-lane and then the desert and descend upon the Gibson’s or the K-Mart or the Sears Roebuck, or the favorite shops at Northgate Center, stopping usually at as many as a half-dozen, buying what they wanted or what they could afford, stealing what they could get away with—and they always got away, until later—and creating the disturbance clots of teens are known for, a ripple or sometimes a rip in the bourgeois continuum.
Grant Collier and his brother Simon, and Francine Beausoleil and her sister Billie Jean, and Jeff Chorus, the weird one, walked through the desert past the broadcast towers, on their way to The Store. Jeff decided to start fires.
It’ll be really cool, guys!
Gah, Jeff! No, it won’t!
Jeff had some matches and set three small bushes on fire. The winds were calm and the fires burned out before they could spread.
Shit! I was hoping for something bigger.
Jeff, you’re such a pyromaniac.
You’re going to get us in trouble.
This is boring. Can we go?
Let’s go, guys. I wanna get to The Store.
Grant led the way but Billie Jean held back.
I’m going home. I don’t feel very good.
The chili cheese burrito she’d had for breakfast wasn’t setting well, and she didn’t like Jeff. He was creepy. He wasn’t like Grant and Simon. He was always looking. And then writing things down in that stupid little notebook he always carried with that stupid little stubby pencil. And then doing idiotic things like setting bushes on fire in the desert. He was going to get them all in trouble.
Billie Jean turned and headed back home and the others continued through the desert and into the mobile home park. They discussed the possibility of making easy money through door-to-door seed sales—These old geezers are always planting flowers, they’d buy everything we had to sell, Grant said, and Jeff said, Yeah! I sold seeds door-to-door the summer after second grade and it was great!—but Grant didn’t ask how much money Jeff had made and Jeff didn’t tell that he hadn’t made squat and it wasn’t great, the sun was hot and nobody wanted to buy seeds from some little kid knocking on the door and Jeff’s mom had ended up having to buy all Jeff’s stock, most of which she had no use for even though she gardened, just to pay off the company that had shipped the seeds to an eight-year-old boy and why had she agreed to let him do that, anyway? Sometimes she just didn’t know what she was thinking.
First stop after the mobile home park was Sears. The Sears outlet was big and it had everything, except pants that would fit Grant and Simon. They looked and Francine told about a fight she’d had with Debbie Gander, and Jeff—what the hell was he doing? He didn’t have any money and his mom bought all his clothes anyway.
Yeah, I heard that fight. I was in bed already but my window was open and I could hear you guys screaming at each other. What was it about?
She’s just a scaggy bitch who thinks she’s hot snot on a golden platter, but she’s—Jeff, what the hell are you doing?
I’m stealing rubber bands offa socks. Look—I’ve got five already. And these two demonstration polarizers off sunglasses. These are really cool.
And he’s ripping price tags off pants, too.
Jeff! Gah, you’re so—.
Words failed Francine and she turned away from Jeff. What she wanted to do was smack him a good one. She had never liked him and she didn’t see how that was going to change. She wandered over to the socks display and picked out a pair.
They left Sears and headed for K-Mart. On the way there they passed by the Taco Box and along a concrete flood control canal. Two bikes were parked in the desert above the bone-dry canal and two boys were down in it.
Let’s see what they’re doing, Grant said. He led the way and he and Jeff scrambled down the steep side of the canal, Jeff almost losing his balance and having to run the final few feet and colliding with Grant to check his momentum. The boys in the canal were several years younger than Grant and Jeff.
What’re you guys doing?
Nothing. We’re not doing anything.
It was hard to tell what they were doing. They were skittish. Who were these older boys who had come down and what were they going to do?
Grant led the way and he and Jeff scrambled back up the side of the canal. Back at the top, Grant turned to Jeff and grinned. He had a subtle grin, his deep violet eyes hard to read.
Let’s push one of their bikes down.
He and Jeff grabbed one of the bikes and pushed it down into the ditch.
Grant and Jeff caught up with Simon and Francine, who had continued on toward the K-Mart.
What were they doing? Francine said.
Why did you push their bike down? Simon said. Did they say something to you?
No. I just wanted to. It was fun. They shouldn’t have left their bikes up there.
Yeah, that was stupid.
They walked on and approaching them were two girls crossing a large and open desert lot, coming their way from the direction of the K-Mart. The girls were no one they knew, a couple skinny blonde girls in shorts and simple tops and tennis shoes, passing by off the starboard quarter. Looks were exchanged and then words, in the manner common to groups of young and hormone-inflected bipedal great apes, their thumbs opposed to their fingers and their demeanor opposed to all strangers.
What’re you looking at?
I’m looking at you. Wanna make something of it?
I’m seeing skinny ugly scags.
Yeah, I’ll make something of it. Whadda you wanna make of it?
You’re already made but you’re too dumb to know it.
I’m seeing you and your face looks like the doctor tried to push you back in when he saw you coming out of your mother.
You guys sure hang out with an ugly bitch.
It’s the best they can rate.
Jeff flipped off the girls. Any time, any time, one of them said. Jeff said, Yeah, any time, you whore.
Same to you.
Fucking bitches! You’re the ugliest pieces of trash I’ve ever seen!
White trash from the gutter!
Jeff continued flipping off the girls.
Come and say that to my face!
Grant and Jeff started walking to the girls. One of the girls bent and picked up a rock. Grant and Jeff stooped and picked up rocks without breaking stride, then charged the girls at a run. The girls turned and ran away, not stopping until they had crossed a six-lane street.
Jeff and Grant dropped their rocks and rejoined Francine and Simon. They continued on their way. Francine was upset.
Those ugly pieces of cheap trash! Who the fuck do they think they are? We didn’t do a fucking thing to them!
And they walk by like they think they own the whole goddamn world and pick shit with us! Ooo, I wish I could get back at them!
Simon had turned and was walking backwards.
You’re gonna get your wish, they’re coming back.
The four kids stopped, and Grant and Jeff ran through the desert toward the girls. This time the girls held their ground. Grant and Jeff stopped.
You cheap whores!
You fucking bastards!
You can kiss my ass, you scag!
You’re what your mom pulled out of the toilet after it got clogged!
Grant and Jeff returned to Simon and Francine. The two girls walked by them, about thirty feet away, also headed in the direction of K-Mart.
Our big brothers are going to knock the shit out of you!
What big brothers?
You liars! I don’t see any brothers, big or little.
Who would want to be the brother to a scag like you?
Oh, I’m so scared. Pretend brothers and real whores.
When they got to the K-Mart, Francine stopped at the Customer Service desk to have her bag from Sears stapled shut. The two blonde girls were with three boys now, and they walked past in single file, boy-girl-boy-girl-boy. You sons of bitches, one of the girls said, and, Way to tell ‘em, one of the boys said.
I want to look at tennis shoes, Francine said to Grant and Simon. She led the way to the shoe department, with Grant and Simon and Jeff in a loose formation trailing behind through the aisles. She looked at girls’ shoes while Simon and Grant looked at boys’ shoes and Jeff took out his little notebook and stubby pencil and wrote something down. The two blonde girls had followed them. One moved toward Grant as though to confront him. She didn’t see Simon standing at the end of the aisle she was passing by. He stuck a foot out and tripped her, and as she stumbled, Grant gave her ankle a quick, sharp kick.
Whoops, he said.
She started crying. The other girl said, You’ll see who you kick next time!
I’ll kick you, Grant said.
The three boys who had come in with the two girls approached. Grant said, Let’s go, and he and Simon and Jeff and Francine quickly left the shoe department. We can get out through the garden center, Grant said. They did, and as soon as they were outside, they ran across the K-Mart parking lot to a bank next door, saw they weren’t being followed, and walked the rest of the way across parking lots and a street to Northgate Center, where they stopped at the TG&Y.
There was a soda counter and they sat on stools. Simon and Francine had money and ordered cokes. Grant had money and chose not to spend it. Jeff had no money. He and Grant ordered water. The woman working the counter said, I don’t give water but there’s a fountain around the corner.
Grant and Jeff went around the corner to the fountain. They were in aisles stocked with decorative stuffs and started looking at them. There were polystyrene cones for making who-knows-whats. Jeff pinched the rounded pointy top off one of them. Grant frowned.
Jeff! How would you like it if someone tore the end off and you wanted to buy it?
Yeah. I guess you’re right.
Simon and Francine finished their cokes and went to look at some rings in a pair of display cases near the store’s front door. Grant joined them while Jeff stayed in the decorations and used his stubby pencil to poke holes in small packets of glitter. He opened a small packet of six yellow plastic gems and took four. He walked to the greeting cards aisle and looked at cards for a couple minutes, returned to the decorations aisles and took the other two gems, then joined his friends at the rings.
These ones are really neat, Simon said to Francine.
Yeah. Look at this one.
They’re sterling silver, Grant said. He studied one display case. There was a lever on the side. He moved it and it freed the rings to be taken out and tried on. Not all of the spaces in the case had rings.
Jeff took a ring and tried it on. It was tight. He had trouble removing it. He got it off and put it back, then felt stupid when he could have stolen it. He made up for this mistake by stealing another, although it turned out to be too big. Grant stole one and Jeff didn’t notice. Grant told him about it later and showed it to him.
It fits my finger perfectly.
Cool! I didn’t even see you take it. That proves how smooth you are.
Simon and Francine looked at the rings in the other case.
Look, Simon. I want to try on one of the littler ones.
Maybe them’s be the ones. We be see them’s be.
Simon tried to move the lever on the side of the case. A man in a suit was there by his side.
What are you kids doing?
We want to see these rings.
You should ask for help. Someone would be glad to help you.
We didn’t see anyone here.
The man said nothing to this. The floorwalker who was supposed to be working this department was—who knows where? He was going to have to have some words with the GM about her. This was not the first time she had wandered off during her shift without telling anyone where she was going. Bathroom breaks were fine, as long as she didn’t take an unreasonable number of them and she let someone know. And she secured her station before she left. She hadn’t. Those cases were not secured. They didn’t have alarms, but they had locks. And they were left unlocked. He hadn’t counted the number of rings in them before the store opened this morning—that wasn’t his job—but he wouldn’t be surprised if there were fewer there now than had been sold.
You kids gonna buy anything? If you’re not gonna buy anything, it’s best you leave.
Come on, guys. Let’s go.
We don’t want your stupid rings anyway.
Let’s go to Toys By Roy, Grant said. We need to get Tiffany something.
Baby Tiffany! It’s going to be her six months’ birthday!
She’s so cute!
You guys, it’s so great you’re uncles. What’s it like?
It’s not like anything, Jeff.
We’re not any different.
They spent ten or fifteen minutes in Toys By Roy.
What do you get a baby? I can’t decide.
She’s spoiled enough already. Let’s go.
They stopped by a Hallmark card shop and spent a few minutes. It was a small shop with open views and several employees on duty. The kids quickly determined they would not be able to steal anything.
We need to get some pants.
They went to J. C. Penney, where Grant and Simon spent a while trying on pants till they could find some they liked and that fit them. They were long-legged and narrow-waisted. And the school dress code had changed. Vive la Revolution!
I’m so excited! We get to wear blue jeans to school!
Jeff, are you gonna wear blue jeans this year?
I dunno. My mom doesn’t want me to.
She dresses him in outfits.
Why doesn’t she want you to?
I dunno. She just doesn’t.
Well, just do it. What’s she going to do, follow you to school and pull your pants off? I could just see it. Come here, Jeff! Take those off right now!
The kids laughed. Jeff didn’t know about classes and class differences and class consciousness. He knew it was very important to his mother what other people thought. And not just any other people, but the neighbors.
What will the neighbors think?
It looked like the neighbors would all be wearing blue jeans to school come fall. At least the boys would.
It’s so unfair, Francine said. You guys get to wear pants, and now you’re gonna get to wear blue jeans, but us girls still have to wear dresses.
It’s because you little darlings look so sweet and innocent in dresses.
Fuck you, Grant.
Grant and Simon tried on pants and Francine told them if they looked good or not when they came out of the dressing rooms. Jeff tore price tags off pants.
Jeff, would you stop that!
Jeff did. He went off to another part of the Men’s and Boys’ section and stole a Boy Scout pin that he gave to Grant, and he passed through the Women’s and Girls’ section and stole a 14-carat gold-plated bracelet with two cultured pearls on it. Mrs. Collier had given her boys money to buy pants and when they finally found pairs that fit, they bought them and they and Francine and Jeff left and crossed the desert back to their neighborhood.
The Colliers had a camper in their driveway, up in front of the carport. It used to be mounted in the bed of Mr. Collier’s old blue Chevy pick-up, when the family were younger and the truck and camper were newer. Now the truck was more useful for hauling other things, and the camper was more useful as a clubhouse for the kids.
Jeff sat curled on one of the small side bunks and wrote in his notebook. He wrote, I stole this notebook. Simon and Grant and Billie Jean and Mary Wheeler were on the other side bunks and the larger upper bunk. It was late afternoon and the sun shone in through the small windows. The camper door was open.
You shoulda come with us today, Mary, we had fun.
Sorry I missed it, Grant.
Let’s play prostitute, Billie Jean said. You guys wanna play prostitute?
Mmm . . . I dunno.
Irtsquay eethey ooshday agbay at-they effjay, Grant said.
Squirt the douche bag at Jeff? Why?
He doesn’t know what it is.
Jeff, do you know what a douche bag is?
What is it?
If you don’t know, Simon, I ain’t gonna tell you.
Oh, you don’t know. He doesn’t know.
Yes, I do. But I don’t talk about sex.
Do you understand pig Latin, Jeff?
No. What is it?
It’s what I was speaking when I told Mary to squirt the douche bag at you.
Don’t worry, Jeff, Mary said. We don’t have a douche bag.
You guys, I don’t wanna play whore, Simon said.
I’ll be a whore with you, Mary, Billie Jean said.
I got a idea, Grant said. Pretend you’re thieves, like the normal life we live.
There was more and Jeff wrote as fast as he could, but he couldn’t keep up. He was still writing when Janet and Francine came in.
Jeff, why are you always writing in that notebook? Janet said.
I want people to know. What it was like.
What what was like?
Us. What it was like for us, here.
You want people to know? Francine said. What people? Who’s ever going to read that? That’s stupid. No one cares about us. We’re just a bunch of white-trash kids.
A pack of thieving little heathens, Grant said.
No one could read his handwriting anyways, Simon said. Have you seen it?
Let’s see it, Jeff.
No, Jeff said. He put his notebook and pencil in one pocket and started pulling things out of another pocket.
Hey, I wanna give you guys this stuff.
He pulled out the bracelet and the ring and the six yellow plastic gems.
This ring doesn’t fit me, it’s too big. Whoever it fits can have it.
The kids tried the ring on and passed it around.
Hey, it fits me.
Janet held up her hand and showed it. She had the ring on her thumb.
Can I keep it?
Sure. Francine, do you want this bracelet?
Francine took it and looked at it and put it on.
She never grew to like Jeff, but she came to find him tolerable. The bracelet helped. It also helped that he thought they were all worth writing about, even if it was stupid and no one would ever read it.
And here, Mary and Simon, these jewels are for you. Two for you, Simon, since you’re the guy, and four for Mary, since she’s the girl.
Thank you, Jeff.
Thank you, Jeff.
Mmm, wow. Yellow plastic rubies. Don’t I get anything?
Grant, I already gave you the Boy Scout pin.
Oh, yeah. That’s right. I forgot.
There was more, but before Jeff could write it down, he heard his mother calling him from across the street.
Oop. Gotta go. Grant, you gonna go swimming tomorrow?
Okay. I’ll come over and we’ll go.
Okay. Not too early, though.
Jeff went home and it was almost dinner time.
Jeff, I want you to wash up and set the table. Did you have fun today?
A little. We went to The Store. Grant and Simon got pants, and Francine got a pair of socks.
Is that all ?
It was early in the morning and it was quiet until Grant and Billie Jean set off a firecracker by the front door to the elementary school. Jeff and Simon were walking away from the school and the blast echoed down the street. Simon spun around to look.
Ahmm, they’re gonna get in trouble.
But they didn’t.
Later Jeff saw that Grant and Simon and Francine had gone into the camper, so he crossed the street to go into the camper, too. The door was closed and he opened it.
Ohmygod! God! Shit!
Grant and Simon and Francine scrambled to put out their cigarettes. Then they saw it was Jeff.
You scared us to death, Jeff!
But they didn’t die, not yet. Jeff and Francine smoked three cigarettes apiece, and Grant and Simon two apiece.
We might go to the store this afternoon.
I wanna come, but I gotta do some yardwork first.
Jeff went back home to do the yardwork. His mom set him to edging around one of her flowerbeds with a flat spade hoe she had just bought. He didn’t know how to use it but how hard could it be?
You can’t do anything right! Now tear all that fencing out and go back and do it right! Then when you put it back in, you make sure you set it up straight!
He tore all the fencing out and took up the flat spade hoe and wondered why he couldn’t use the clippers, he knew how those worked. He thought his mom should go to hell but the Devil probably wouldn’t take her—his very thoughts, without fear of Divine retribution—and he looked across the street and saw the roof vent on the camper going up so he knew the Collier Kids were in there smoking again and one of them, probably Grant, was working the hand-crank to open the vent.
Jeff finished the edging and set the fence up again and cut his thumb and his mom came out to inspect his work.
I’m probably going to have to tear all that fence out. You can do it after lunch. And then I want you to do your brother’s chores. And don’t give me that look! You know I already told you about that! The days he has his work at the hospital, you need to help out! He does all the work around here. You need to stop being so lazy and take more responsibility. Now get inside and eat your lunch. Are you listening to me?
Beyond her, across the street, he saw Grant crossing the side yard to go to the Beausoleils’. Jeff hated his mom. Everybody else got to have fun but he had to be his family’s slave. And his brother’s work at the hospital? Ha! His brother was a candy-striper who worked as a projectionist at the hospital theater. He got to sit on his ass and watch movies all afternoon.
After lunch and after tearing the fence out and doing his brother’s chores, Jeff crossed the street to the Colliers’. Debbie Gander was in her carport and called after him.
They’re not there.
Where are they?
Debbie pointed and it looked to Jeff like she was pointing at the Wheelers’ house. He started to go there and Debbie called after him.
They’re not there.
Where are they?
Jeff turned around and went home. Those sons of bitches. They went to the store without him. God damn it. He could just imagine all the fun they were having. They’d probably come home with a giant haul. Steal everything they could get their hands on. A dozen silver rings. Gold-plated charm bracelets on every arm. Maybe even pairs of pants and packs of cigarettes. Those asses. Jeff knew they didn’t care about him. Not really. Oh, they pretended. Shitfuckers. They probably didn’t even really want him for a friend.
He knew what it was. Why they probably didn’t really like him. It was because he cut all his hair off at the start of summer. It had been down to his nose. He had the barber cut it down to the stubble. That was almost two months ago and so it was longer now, but still. They had called him Peach Fuzz when he first did it.
Hey, Peach Fuzz! Wanna go swimming? Aren’t you scared of sunburn?
He was scared of his parents and wasps and horses and talking to Aimee Chambers, the girl he truly loved, and he was scared of getting beat up, but he was not scared of sunburn.
It was cool in the living room in the early afternoon. Jeff sat in his dad’s chair and read one of his mom’s Readers Digest Condensed Books. Not as interesting as Ball Four. That was one of his dad’s books. A paperback. Jeff was reading it earlier in the summer when his dad caught him and took it away.
No, Jeff, you’re too young for that.
It was good. It’s where he learned the word shitfuck. That was a cool word. Too bad there weren’t more opportunities to use it.
This Readers Digest book, it was okay. Didn’t have any swear words, though.
Then it said something about making love. Making love. Wait. The way it said it. They took all their clothes off and made love. Wait. Wait wait wait.
Oh my god. That’s what making love was. Fucking! Holy shitfuck! It was fucking!
Was it really? He read it again. It seemed to be that was it. Fucking. Oh my god, and all this time he’s been saying how he wants to make love to his girlfriends. He didn’t mean fuck them. Was that what it meant, really? It was hard to tell from the way it was written in the book. He’d have to ask Grant. Grant would know. Grant knew blow job, jack off, and cunt. He even knew cornhole. He was bound to know making love.
They were gone all afternoon, since before lunch. Jeff kept glancing across the street to see if he could see if they had come back without anyone seeing that he kept glancing across the street. But his mother saw. She had super-human X-ray radar vision, just like Jimmy Gander said.
Have your friends come back yet?
I don’t think so.
Why don’t you go check?
I haven’t seen them.
No way was Jeff going to go check. Have everyone on the block—which at that point was no one, the street was empty, but you never could tell who might be looking out a window—have them all see him crossing the street like some mangy heartbroken starving lost dog? Or worse yet, like some thirteen-year-old Peach Fuzz whose friends had left him behind?
The vent was up. Grant, Simon, Mary, Francine, and Jeff sat in the camper and smoked cigarettes. Grant held up his hand, his fingers splayed.
Look, I got another ring.
Cool! I wish I could’ve gone with you guys.
We missed you, Jeff.
That’s such bullshit, Mary. We did not miss him. We did not miss you, Jeff.
Gah, Francine, that’s mean.
What, Simon—it’s true. You guys may have missed him, but I didn’t.
We missed you, Jeff. We had a good time, anyway.
Even Francine missed you. She has a secret crush on you.
Gah, Grant! I do not!
Yes, she does, Jeff. When you’re not around, all she talks about is you. She wants you to take her in your manly skinny Peach Fuzz arms and make love to her.
God-damn, Grant, shut the fuck up! Or I’ll smack you!
Grant, Shmant, smack your pant.
What? Simon, you’re so weird.
I was reading in a book today and it said something about making love, and I always thought that making love was like telling someone that you love them and writing poems to them and giving them flowers and rings and stuff, but in this book it made it seem like it was fucking.
That’s because it is.
Oh, my God, Jeff—you didn’t know that?
No, Simon, I didn’t.
I thought everybody knew that.
What book were you reading?
It was one of my mom’s Readers Digest condensed books.
Things are getting hot at the old Readers Digest. Hey, guys, let’s play Truth or Dare. We won’t do any of that crazy stuff people do with truth or dare. We’ll make it sensible. We’ll play that, let’s see—the truth will be, tell your darkest secret that you don’t want anyone to know, and the dare will be, fuck Mary for twenty-four hours.
Grant, you’re so full of it.
You’re just jealous, Francine.
Um, hey, guys, do I get to have any say in this? I can’t fuck for twenty-four hours. You’ll have to start without me.
Oh, Mary, you’re no fun.
Jeff got up a half-hour late. His mom did not say good morning.
Young man, I woke you up on time. You have only yourself to blame if you’re running late.
And I expect you to do your chores before you go to school this morning. Don’t dawdle.
Grant and Simon and Mary and Francine and David were all waiting in Jeff’s carport when he came out.
Gah, Jeff, what took you so long?
Yeah, we’re gonna be late.
That’s first bell. Did you hear? First bell just rang.
Well, we should. I don’t wanna get there late.
We should go.
The kids walked.
That’s second bell. Second bell just rang. We’re gonna be late.
Yeah, no way we’re gonna get there on time.
The kids walked.
That’s final bell. I don’t wanna go in after final bell.
I hate it. If I’m late, my teacher makes a big deal of it in front of everybody.
Let’s ditch First.
We can miss First, anyway.
That’s right. They take attendance but it doesn’t count.
No, not until Second.
Then why do they take it if it doesn’t count?
They want all the little boys and girls to do their very best to get to school on time.
Why doesn’t it count First period?
They know some kids are gonna be late. It’s Second that counts because that’s the one where they decide how much money the schools get.
The more kids they have, the more money they get.
Oh. I didn’t know.
Did you think they just gave the schools however much money they wanted?
I thought they just gave as much as the schools needed.
Jeff, if they did that, we would have new Science books.
Our Science books don’t even know we’ve been up in space.
The kids wandered streets in the neighborhood between their block and the school. A stray dog saw them and followed them.
Are you lost, little dog?
What a cute little dog.
He’s got a collar.
Probably he got out of somebody’s yard.
The kids reached the northern edge of their neighborhood, where the streets and houses ended and the desert began. The school was a block away. Francine looked in that direction.
I’m gonna go, guys. I’ll get there before Second, and when the bell for Second rings, I’ll go in.
David looked at Francine, and then at the others.
I’m gonna go, too. Are you guys gonna keep ditching?
Yeah, I think so.
Mary, do you wanna keep ditching?
Yeah, I’ll stay with you guys. What about you, Jeff?
Francine and David headed to school. Grant and Simon and Mary and Jeff headed back down the street they had just come up. The little dog followed them for a while and then it went away.
Adults were around and were not oblivious. A couple of women in the neighborhood saw the kids.
Aren’t you kids supposed to be in school?
It’s eighth-grade ditch day, and we’re ditching. They let us.
The women weren’t fooled for a second. One of them called the police.
I’d like to report some children wandering the neighborhood. Teenagers. I think they’re supposed to be in school. No, I haven’t seen them do anything. They’re just walking down the sidewalk. One of them is a girl wearing a really nice coat. Rabbit-fur, I think. No, they don’t look like hoodlums. They’re just kids, but I think they should be in school. What? Oh, they’re white, I think. They look white. No, you don’t need to send anyone to my house, but if you send someone to patrol the neighborhood, you’ll see the kids. They should be in school. Okay. Thank you.
The kids stopped at the end of a dead-end and sat on a low rock wall for a few minutes. Grant said, The reason people aren’t suspicious of us is because Mary looks like a sensible young girl in that coat—
That’s a nice coat, Mary.
Thank you, guys. I like looking sensible.
And Jeff, you look like a brain—
It’s those glasses, and his short hair.
And I look like a sensible young girl’s boyfriend, and Simon looks like my brother.
But I’m her boyfriend.
That doesn’t matter, Simon. She looks sensible enough to pick me.
The kids crossed the four-lane highway that bordered their neighborhood there and walked into the desert where the unpaved streets led up to a Minute Market. At the Minute Market they bought candy bars with their lunch money and stole pieces of penny bubble gum. There was a pay phone out front.
Jeff, you sound an awful lot like your mom. You should call the school and pretend you’re her and make up an excuse for being absent.
Okay. I’ll tell them I had an asthma attack. Do you know the school’s number?
The pay phone had a phone book, but the school was new and the phone book was old. No call was made.
In the lot next to the Minute Market was a row of four old shacks. They were stuccoed concrete block ruins that had been there as long as the kids could remember. When the kids were younger, the shacks had been haunted. Now they were just dirty and empty and tumble-down. The kids went into one of them and stayed for a while and talked about nothing. They tired of this and Grant said, We had probably better go to school. The others agreed. They left the shack and headed back to their neighborhood. When they neared the school Grant said, Jeff, you go in first, and we’ll follow a few minutes later, so it doesn’t look like we were all ditching together.
Jeff went in first. It was during class so he had to stop at the office to get a pass.
Hi. I’m Jeff Chorus. I’m late because I had an asthma attack and had to stay home till it was over.
The secretary looked at her list.
Jeff Chorus. We already called your mom, Jeff. She said you left for school this morning on time.
The secretary gave Jeff a pass. He went to class. It was one David was in, too. They exchanged glances. In a few minutes the announcement came over the school P.A. system.
David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office. David Stepp and Jeff Chorus, report to the Administrative Office.
They reported. The secretary was strictly business and did not smile.
You boys have a seat. Mister Mitchell will be with you shortly.
David and Jeff sat in two of the tube-frame-and-plastic chairs that infested institutional spaces. Two uniformed police officers came out of Mr. Mitchell’s office and for a second Jeff thought he and David were about to be taken to the D-Home in cuffs. The D-Home. No one knew where it was and everyone knew it existed, knew it was where they put you when you were a kid and they wanted to put you in jail and they couldn’t because you were a kid.
The officers were smiling and walked by David and Jeff without looking at them.
Mr. Mitchell stood at the door to his office. He was a slightly overweight middle-aged man with glasses and a small handlebar moustache and he wasn’t smiling.
Come in. Have a seat.
He pointed to a red vinyl sofa. The boys sat.
When did you leave home for school this morning? Why were you late? Where did you go? What were you doing?
The boys told him. They didn’t say anything about Grant or Simon or Mary or Francine.
Do you know where Grant and Simon Collier are?
No, they didn’t know, though they admitted the Collier brothers had ditched with them.
All right. I’ve talked to both your mothers. They will be here at lunch to pick you up. You can go back to class now. Be sure to be here at the front office when the lunch bell rings.
At lunch his mom was waiting at the office when Jeff got there. She took him home in her station wagon.
Don’t try to lie your way out of this. I don’t need to hear a single thing out of your mouth. David and his mother were at the school when I got there. She took him home. He told us what happened. He tried to talk you all out of it. He only ditched because you did. Wipe that look off your face. You hear me? I knew you kids were going to sneak out and cut school. I heard you talking about it in the carport before you left. You can’t fool me. You’re always up to no good. You’re never going to amount to anything. You can’t even find your way to school. I’m going to walk you to school tomorrow. That way I’ll be sure you don’t get lost. And don’t you dawdle about getting home from school today. I’m going to feed you a sandwich and take you back to school. Your father will talk to you when he gets home from work tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes his belt to you. You’re not too old for a good whipping.
They got home and she fed him a sandwich and he didn’t taste it. White bread and mayo and American cheese. She took him back to school. He stayed there until it was time to come home, and he came home.
Now you stay in your room. And don’t let me catch you doing anything enjoyable tonight.
Jeff stood in his room. He did not sit down. Would that not have been enjoyable? He bit his nails. He stood at his window and looked out at the block. The sky was infected with broken low gray clouds. The lightest patch was oddly bright. Jeff thought that if that had been where the sun was, it would have been on a late morning of a winter’s day in Australia. He didn’t think he’d ever go to Australia. Might as well dream of flying in outer space, captain of a warp-drive Federation starship. Seemed about as likely.
He saw Grant and Simon and Mary sneaking down the street along the fronts of the houses. They looked like spies in a movie or a TV show. They got to the Colliers’ house and tried to sneak in through Grant and Simon’s bedroom window but it was shut. Mary continued to her own house, walking down the sidewalk now, and Grant and Simon went inside their house via the front door. Jeff looked at his clock. It was an electric clock with a second hand. The time was 4:18:11. Jeff bit his nails.
Jeff stood in his room for two hours. His dad got home from work and came into Jeff’s room with Jeff’s mom.
I oughtta tan your hide, boy. I’d beat some sense into you if I thought it would do any good. Your mother and I have decided you’re not getting any dinner tonight. You’re to go straight to bed. Brush your teeth, get ready for bed, then lights out. You hear me?
And you are not allowed to keep your door closed, Jeffrey, until we give you permission. And there will be no more talk of asthma attacks. Since your excuse for being late to school was that you had an asthma attack, we’ve decided that your asthma is all your imagination. I don’t ever want to hear another word from you about it. Now do as your father told you.
Jeff brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. He didn’t need to turn his light out, it wasn’t on. It would be more than an hour before the sun went down. The sky was still cloudy and gray. He got into his bed and after a few hours of feeling frightened and sorry for himself, and pissed off at David for lying about whose idea it was to ditch, and envious of Grant and Simon and Mary for spending the whole day out, and hungry, he also felt hungry, he drifted off to sleep, his last thoughts being of Mary and Mary is really nice she’s the prettiest girl on the block she has a good sense of humor she is never mean to people i’m glad i got to go steady with her a few years ago that was when was that we were playing on the playground it was friday the thirteenth and i ran into her and we knocked each other down and it was an accident i hate friday the thirteenth she broke up with me i think it was she really wanted to go steady with i can’t remember . . .
His mother didn’t walk him to school the next morning. He walked alone. Within a half-block of the school grounds, in front of everyone who was gathered in front of the school, all umpity-hundred of them waiting for the first bell to ring and the school doors to open, Jeff’s mother drove up in her station wagon.
Jeffrey! You come here!
Jeff came there.
You didn’t do your chores this morning!
She slapped him. The sound of the slap rang out like a shot.
You didn’t tell me you were leaving for school!
She slapped him. The sound of the slap echoed off the school building’s front walls.
You didn’t mop up the water you spilled in the kitchen!
She slapped him. The sound of the slap resonated in the mountain canyons on the distant horizon, scattering rabbits and birds.
Jeff’s mother drove away and Jeff crossed the street to the school. He stared straight ahead and did not look at anyone.
A Rude Northern Race Did All the Matchless Monuments Deface*
Jeff Chorus broke his hand. The sinister one. In a fight in Gym class with a short and stocky seventh-grader.
Plaster casts for broken bones in those days, even for parts cartilaginous as young teens’ hands. Many kids signed the cast, as was the custom, Grant and Simon being the first.
The three boys went up to the elementary school of an evening after dinner. Autumn in the desert city, jacket weather. They had nothing better to do—
this is not true. They had a world of knowledge to learn—physical science, biology, chemistry, history, literature, philosophy, poetry, art, music, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, any language that was not American English—a world about which they knew almost nothing and their parents sometimes less, though their parents knew enough to be viciously suspicious of any learning too far removed from the Bible or Home Economics. Remember what the Good Book says about philosophers. And all those artists and poets and lazy bums who write novels? Everybody knows they’re drunks and drug addicts, fornicators and faggots and unspeakably worse things, all Hell-bound down the wide Perdition Highway. All boys needed to know was enough to get a job and keep it, and all girls needed to know was enough to get a husband and keep it. Any more than that was just so much stuff peddled by people who didn’t want to do an honest day’s work. Wouldn’t likely know how. Everybody knew this. Didn’t need to go to school to find it out.
So Jeff and Grant and Simon, two eighth-graders and a seventh-, went a-strolling in the gloaming. The front gate to the school grounds was unlocked. The elementary school had started as a cottage school and the cottages still stood, still used as classrooms for the lower grades. The boys wandered among them.
What’d you find.
This window’s open.
A casement window on one of the cottages was slightly ajar. Jeff and Grant pried it farther open. Cast-handed Jeff bashed in the screen. He took papers, school assignments the kids had done—finger-painting and collaging and filling in blanks—from off the high, broad window sill and dropped them in a shallow mud puddle. Simon and Grant reached in and scattered to the cottage floor whatever books and papers they could reach.
Instantly, Grant sprinted toward the front gate. Jeff looked after him and toward the main building.
Jeff and Simon ran away from the front gate and back around the main building to the back gate beyond the gym, a full city block away. The back gate was locked, the fence chainlink and eight or ten or twelve or twenty or who knows how many feet high, you couldn’t just jump over it. Grant approached, walking up the sidewalk along the street outside.
You guys, I saw the janitor run into the office.
Oh my God, he probably called the police.
I think he did. We should get out of here.
Simon scrambled over the fence. Cast-handed Jeff tried but couldn’t.
Shit. Guys. I can’t climb this fence.
Here. Let me help.
Grant climbed over the fence and helped Jeff get over, and the three boys walked into the twilight streets heading away from the school, certain a police cruiser was about to pull up at any moment.
But none did. The vandals returned to their encampment and regaled themselves long into the night with tales of their exploits, of the ten thousand windows shattered at the Palace of the Ventanas, the million volumes scattered from the shelves at the Imperial Library of All Knowledge, of the paintings ripped from the walls and cast into the muddy streets in front of the Temple of Beautiful and Somewhat Obscure Objects, and of the thrones they would someday occupy and the nations they would rule.
*John Dryden, “To Sir Godfrey Kneller,” 1694.
Tetman Callis is a writer living in Chicago. His stories have appeared in such publications as NOON, Atticus Review, Cloudbank, Four Way Review, Book of Matches, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and best microfiction 2019. His stories “Georgey-Dear” and “Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Pickles and Fries” have appeared in The Writing Disorder. He is the author of the memoir, High Street: Lawyers, Guns & Money in a Stoner’s New Mexico (Outpost 19, 2012), and the children’s book, Franny & Toby (Silky Oak Press, 2015). His website is https://www.tetmancallis.com; he can also be found on Facebook.