MY MOTHER'S boyfriend, who'd been living with us for six years, stomped up to Bret Harte one day, twenty minutes after the dismissal bell rang. Warm, rain just gone, and windless, it must have been May. I had on a tan corduroy skirt and T-shirt. It was definitely 1979. In Oakland.
I was waiting in the crowded Ninth Grade Court on my sister, who I was supposed to be taking to the orthodontist. The court was four round tables with umbrellas, a school-sanctioned, fenced-in area along the perimeter of our junior-high-school playground--needless to say, ninth graders only. Just as Pinch came up, moving like a turtle as always, except skinny as a piece of string, Seth walked up from the opposite direction. Drunk as a fucking skunk. Stupid as a motherfucker. In my head I was like, Damn, he didn't die today.
'Where are you supposed to be?' His face and neck were painted hard, rough brick red, and peeling gold horns had broken through the skin above his eyebrows. He hawked up something from his throat, then spit it out on the ground. He was talking to me.
I looked over at Pinch, who froze for the shortest second and then walked, at her same turtle pace, until she was near me, just inside the entrance to the court. Of course she wasn't allowed, because she was in the seventh grade, but no one said anything except Seth. Pinch's teeth were almost perfectly straight. There was no reason in the world for her to be going to get them worked on.
'Didn't I ask you a question? Paige!' His voice was sand and pink slobber. The knotty end of a tail had curled around one calf and rested on his foot.
My fellow ninth graders sat on benches, with instrument cases under their butts, and looked taller than they were. Some were purely alert, trying to figure out if he was going to kill people at random, or just me and Pinch. Some looked instantly wiser. They recognized the yellowy odors and bulbous eyes, if not the particular face. But they were surprised the schoolyard had been invaded. Oblivious clumps of kids ambled by the court, and from a nearby bungalow, short oboe and piccolo notes stamped the air. Band was the last period of the day.
Seth repeated himself, and I stared into his forehead, at the broad bottoms of the horns, where it must have stung when they pushed through. Staring just slightly above his eyes always put me in a daze when he was rambling. He'd say, Look at me when I'm talking to you, and I'd say, I am. Only the rare frown, pout, or tremble from me. That's how I played it.
Felt the still air on my eyes. Told myself to hold my chin up. 'I was about to take Pinch to the orthodontist,' is what I think I said. 'Was just on my way.' At my sides, fingers curled tight behind my thumbs. I glanced at Pinch, who was an arm's length away. For a twelve-year-old, she had soft, nine-year-old limbs. She was motionless but not stiff. Pinch's gray movie-camera eyes were thorough and hot with panic.
'I told you,' Seth said, 'not to be hanging up here in this court or whatever this little elitist bullshit is supposed to represent.' He had on creased navy suit pants and an undershirt and black loafers with no socks. There was a ring of had to be thirty keys in his hand. Seth looked at me with his iris and pupil indistinguishable from each other, and showed his carrot teeth. Black hair stood up on his scarlet-brown arms. The maniac was lost on a trip to pure hatred, but he'd managed to find me. And I never did anything to that fool. On the court I was scared and pissed at myself for being scared. Pissed at myself for even wondering what was his deal.
Seth said he was tired of my bullshit, took a step up and backhanded me across my face, his knuckles catching me right on the cheekbone. All those keys hit high near my temple, and like a fucking wimp I fell, the stupid slap pushing me down on the side of my kneecap, hip, and heel of my hand. He grabbed Pinch's wrist while I was still on the asphalt, on the white line that separated the court from the rest of the playground.
Dizzy. The reeling made me still and quiet. I had to get reoriented. Of course my eyes felt like they wanted to come out of my face, my mouth filled with water, I started sweating under my arms, on my nose, between my breasts. All that was normal. But I didn't like the fact that the spinning continued. Pain I knew how to accept--have patience, just let it get fainter and fainter. But even looking down and pressing my palms at the ground was no help with the slow twirl. The cracks in the cement and hard gray circles of gum spelled a message I couldn't decipher. My nostrils pulsed without permission. I could hear Pinch still breathing.
'Gimme your bus pass,' Seth said.
Shifted my weight so I sat flat on my butt. Got the brown leather cord from under my shirt and off my neck. Felt it rub against my face, felt it flip my hair up. I threw it in front of me, just beyond my feet. The pass and my house key were attached. Pinch got loose from Seth, darted out, picked them up, and then stood for a moment looking at me before Seth snatched the long cord back.
'Oh now Pinchy-Pinch wants to move,' he said.
He got in her tiny, lightbulb face. Might have been trying to gouge her eyes out with his horns. But every place on my body except for right under my eye felt shot by a huge needle of Novocain. Fingers fat and dead, legs splayed from my hips like a paraplegic's. Air licked at wetness on my face and I hoped there were no tears, I hoped there was a cut. Eyelids got heavy but I wouldn't blink. I watched his hands stuffing the cord in his pants pocket, was wary of his feet. I'd have to get up, though, if he fucked with Pinch. Even if I couldn't do anything, I'd have to get up just so she'd see that I had. But he was just teasing her, twisting up his face a half-inch from hers, calling her a baby, a waste. I pushed my tongue against my bottom front teeth, drank spit. As if this is the worst, I wanted to yell at his weak ass. I wanted to say, Is this all you fucking got.
'You can walk your ass home,' Seth turned and said to me. 'And if your little friends are really your friends, they might walk with you.' He looked at them when he said the last part, and a bushy-haired white girl who I barely knew had the sense--late!--to call for a yard teacher. Most of the kids began to inch off, then run, some lugging their trumpets or violas, some abandoning them for the sake of speed. 'Since you want to hang with these pussies so bad,' Seth called out--half to me and half to them--'since they're so much more important than getting your sister to where she needs to go . . . you see how much they like you now.'
He pushed Pinch off ahead of him. The turtle pace was gone. She had to jog a bit every few steps to keep him at a safe distance behind her. I knew Seth wasn't taking my sister to the orthodontist, knew she was scared but not crying, knew she was worried about me on the ground in front of all those kids. They weren't my friends. They were just other ninth graders, mostly fools from Band. Even Mom would know that. Seth had never been up to Bret Harte before, for anything. The only friends he knew of mine and Pinch's were kids on our block who knew enough to break wide when they saw him.
My sorry self still waited to rise. I had to. Even on the ground I'd no sense of balance. A skeletal boy walked over with his big pores in his cheeks. Had hambone wrists, big flat ears, and a dollar-sized patch of silver hair. Sat not too far from me in Spanish II. Or Living Skills. He had my clarinet case and book bag.
'You can take the bus home,' he said, putting a transfer in my hand, 'if that's where you're going.' My face hurt and my knee was bleeding. He looked like the novitiates at my nannah's church. I'd never paid the boy any attention. Hadn't noticed the silver hair.
'I'm not going home.'
'Are you trying to wait for the yard teacher.'
In my head I said, No. I'm trying to figure out if this is regular life.
Then my true friend Obe--short for Obeden--came running up from over by the racquetball courts, wire-rimmed eyeglasses bouncing on his nose. He pushed in between Novice and me, and in his raspy voice Obe said I could come to his house for a while. Obe and I had become friends because he was one to save his lunch money to buy tropical fish, and my mother usually packed big lunches with liverwurst and canned puddings and Obe and I shared it all. I also loved, although not as much as he did, to watch Obe's fish in the big tanks his father built for him. Obe collected rainbow-finned fish that were finicky about temperature and light and food. He was always reading about them and scooping out the floating dead. When he spoke more than five sentences at a time, it was usually about the cichlids.
'He's not my father,' I said, like Obe didn't know that already. 'I hope those fools from Band know that.' I'd said it so Novice would know.
'They do,' Obe lied. 'If they don't, I'll tell them.'
'Don't tell them shit.'
I got it together to stand up--shook Novice and Obe off--put the transfer in my bag. Plaid-shirted yard teacher sidled up and said, 'What's going on here.'
Novice and Obe barely looked over. 'Nothing,' they said together.
'What happened to your face,' the gaunt man said, with the whistle dangling from his wrist, and orange hair exploding from his ears. He waited on one, but didn't want an answer. I collected my stuff, started walking toward the bus stop on Foothill.
Mom always said that the thing about Foothill and MacArthur and all those endless Oakland boulevards was that no matter how far away from home you were, if you found one of those streets, you weren't lost at all. I got on the No. 40 bus with my book bag, my clarinet, my face fucked up. Rode west like a cowgirl. I was hazy and hated that I had to hold on to the seat. Said to myself, I don't want to get killed or raped or anything out here. But my ass is not going back to that house. I only wished I had Pinch.
That's all I was crying about. My sister was with that fool and who knew when Mom would get home. And what could she do, anyway? I couldn't go back, though. I wouldn't call. The bus was packed. I could see the gnarled, lucky people, their simulated concern. I know I was crying. Everyone knew, everything hurt. No one cared. I was on my own, and if Oakland was hell--and it was sometimes, in some parts, in bright light--at least it was mine and I knew my way around.
Passed a stop and screamed the loudest I'd ever screamed. Tall, bald, shrill shriek. I'd pulled the string that rang the bell, and the No. 40 kept moving. I screamed words, they had to have been words. I heard brakes screech but they weren't louder than me. Got off with my bag and case, and with vomit coming up my throat, burning along where the scream had torn.
I was fine, though, fine.
I wished and wished I had Pinch. That was the only thing.
Copyright © 2003 by Danyel Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.