For Bonnielee Rasmussen Who never ceased telling me her stories. I hope you found a home, and I hope lilies and fireflies surround it.
Table of Contents
Stuck Window (Seth fails again) The Bigger Man (Seth shows Lars around) Cigarette Flirt (Lars meets Leanne) Flintstones Vitamins (Death of the little man) Recycled Toilet Paper (Birth of the little man) Boxers (Bigger man makes his stand) The Duckling (Seth chooses his quest) Glimpse of the Landlord (Helping Miss Muffin) Bad Haircut (Seth crosses the line) Radioactive Paint (Miss Muffin decides to move) Snake Crushing (Helping Miss Muffin move) Roaches and Fireflies (In Miss Muffin’s room) Sponge (Cleaning with the Mumble Bum) Eating a Hair (Nayeli cooks for Seth) Are You Expensive? (Nayeli tries to make friends) Burnt Index Finger (Nayeli sells a cell phone case) Dog on Crack (Nayeli uncovered) Purple Hand (Nayeli sleeps on couch) Whistling (Nayeli’s confession) Condom Balloon (Nayeli wants Seth’s money) Hand Shake (Nayeli considers her hand) Brick Dropped on Head (A girl climbs a tree) Camera Phone (Meeting Neko) Bed of Phone Books (Nayeli meets Neko) Wooden Head (Seth has a breakdown) Skirt Rebellion (Lars tells John about his past) Strange Little Man (Seth confronts Lars) Neighbor Lady (Neko finds her dad) Digging Holes (Burying the cat) Bags of Boxers (Lars asks for help) Texting the Landlord (Seth takes care of Neko) Scissors and Knives (John notices Seth) Sheets (John cleans for Leanne) Burning Cellar (Lars does fireworks) Photo Album (Leanne takes care of John) Snotty Apron (Lawyer arrives) No Smoking (The landlord comes back) Ice Cream Truck (Lars becomes the biggest man) Just Because It’s Broke (Neko loves her dad) Nayeli’s dream (Lars chooses his own adventure) Fudgesicle (Finding Nayeli) White Bandages (Seth gets a new job) Acknowledgements After the Credits (John holds a sign) *Appendix of deeper things/Bookmark/Postcard 9
Stuck Window (Seth fails again) Seth knelt on the dirty carpet and pressed the worn-smooth buttons on the old plastic telephone, looking at the phone number between each hesitant jab. The wooden side table wobbled, making the phone a moving target. Seth looked at the pug dog wheezing up at him. “What’re you looking at? You wait ’til today to pay attention to me?” The dog looked behind her as if she heard something through the dented screen door on the front porch. Seth looked back to the phone, realizing he had lost his place yet again, and clenched his jaw, frustrated at himself. Just then a squinty-eyed, wrinkly lady with a swept back forehead and long, oily hair swung the creaky screen door open and bustled in, bringing with her the sounds from the hot August evening. Over her shoulder hung a duffel bag of oxygen bottles, one of which was tethered to her face with a plastic tube. She wore a navy green turtle neck under a vest with Christmas icons and tinsel knitted into it. She glanced at Seth and, without pausing, said matter-offactly in her raspy voice, “Your peanuts are about to fall out.” She lumbered around the corner, a sneeze exploded from her, and her oxygen bag banged against the gurgling water heater in the hallway. Her beige Keds padded down the dirty cement to her room. 11
Seth’s splotchy, flat, middle-aged face appeared perplexed until he looked down and saw his fly was completely open. He clenched his lips together, embarrassed and disappointed in himself. He hung up the phone and zipped up. He closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath. He could not see the comical gaps in Miss Muffin’s teeth or find the humor in the tube that shot from her nose like a cork when she sneezed. He only felt her caustic voice and her sharp bite. “Okaaaayyyy.” He looked at the dog and spoke to her like mothers he had seen getting annoyed at their kids in his super market. “I’m getting reaaalllly sick of this.” Even the nicest people fling blame when it’s too hard to face any more of their own failure. He finally successfully dialed, and as it rang he grappled for his splaying pocket notepad on the dancing table. Then he held it six inches in front of his face, ready to read the blue scribblings on the top page. The phone rang and rang. “Why don’t you ever answer? You’re probably not even there.” Seth looked down at the dog, realizing the dog had heard him, and started to explain himself to her, “I mean, they told me he got me a place in this house and could call him whenever I wanted but he never even answers his—” The generic voicemail prompt piped in and interrupted him. After the beep he slowly read the following haiku from the notepad: I’m leaving Thanks for letting me Live in your house Seth squinted at the page. Something wasn’t right. He counted the syllables of the last line on his fingers, rolled his eyes at his latest failure, and tried to rephrase it. “I mean, Uh . . .
I’m leaving. Thanks for letting me . . . 12
USE your house.” He hung up firmly with clenched jaw. He leaned over the dirty couch next to the table and pinned his notepad against the wall with his hand. His knobby fingers pulled a blue multicolored pen from his pocket and tried to correct the last line. But the pen wouldn’t write because it was tilted slightly upside down. He was shaking the pen when Miss Muffin lumbered back around the corner, holding a small slip of paper she had torn from the door of Seth’s room, which was next to hers. It was a ragged sheet ripped from his little notebook. She jammed her finger into her ear to make sure her hearing aid was snug and asked in her abrupt, raspy voice, “What’s this all about?” She looked at the paper and read, “Goodbye all. You may have my things. Have good lives.” Seth shrugged hesitantly, hoping that he had found someone who cared. Miss Muffin reached into her bag and pulled out a minimegaphone. She thought Seth, as well as everyone else, could hear about as well as she could. And so she was always prepared to compensate. She repeated her question through the blaring megaphone and Seth winced. Then he answered with another, less certain shrug. Miss Muffin looked his skinny body up and down surreptitiously. He had some food stuck to his faded blue, oversized polo shirt. His shoes were floppy white Wal-Mart skate shoes. The zipper of his cinched up gray jeans hadn’t quite stayed at the top rung. She finally focused on his multicolored pen in his hand. She pointed at it and raised her eyebrows in a question. Seth looked at the pen too and realized she was asking for it. He handed it to her, assuming she was going to write something for him. But she took it, tested it unsuccessfully on her hand, wet the tip with her gray tongue and then got it to 13
write. She stuffed it into her pocket, satisfied to have claimed it before anyone else and walked down the hall into her room, dropping his note to the floor. It drifted down with the grace of an autumn leaf. But to Seth it just looked like something fading. He didn’t see the swallows swooping on the porch beyond the window in the dusky light. He didn’t see the one flower that had bloomed above the 12-inch high sea of weeds in the yard. Seth looked around him and saw the peeling, faded layers of ancient wallpaper. The drooping screen door. The cracking ceiling. The grimy edges of the room. It was all squeezing in on him. Like he were a tube of toothpaste. So he started his ascent. He walked through the hallway, dodging a gummy bear (which had recently been trampled into the cement floor and now attracted an army of ants), and he started clunking up the creaky stairs at the end of the hall. The dog sniffed the gummy bear and then caught up with Seth. The black shoe scuffs on the first landing were what caught Seth’s eye. He did not see the huge, faded, painted mural of a beautiful city on the walls wrapping around him. Seth got to the top of the stairs and slowly walked down the hall. He could hear voices clearly on the other side of the thin wall next to him. A man’s voice asked patiently, “I mean, you said you’re not on the pill anymore, right, Honey?” “Of course not, John! Do you think I’m stupid?” “Baby. Baby. I’m sorry. Calm down. I’m just trying to eliminate the obvious possibilities.” There was a moment of silence. Then the man’s voice chimed back in hesitantly, “Honey, maybe it’s because something . . . maybe I mean, maybe something happened when you were in the hospital.” “John!” She was angry. “I knew you were going to bring that up and try to use it against me. Just because I was experienced and you were completely prude when we got married, and because I happened to have some problems down there, 14
you think that I messed up my parts. Well, how do we know it’s not your parts that don’t work?!” There was another pause, but then she blew up. “Shutup! Take that stupid smirk off your face! That still doesn’t mean it’s not your fault!” A pause and then she continued, “I’m getting out of here! If you didn’t have such a . . . uh . . . scummy job maybe we could get a place away from all these crazies . . . and I could have a . . . you know . . . because I would know people couldn’t hear us through these paper thin walls!” She swung open the door and Seth froze in mid-step, in front of the door. He turned and looked at Leanne’s fuming face and John’s exhausted one in the room beyond it. She slammed the door between them and Seth heard her frustration pour out of her, sounding like a train whistle on a chainsaw. Seth walked like a zombie past the room, effectively tased by the experience. He whispered to the dog, which followed close behind, “I’m not even a manager at McDonald’s like John. I’m just a stupid bagger at Leekers. What does that mean she thinks of me? You see what I mean? Nobody wants me here. They think I’m just dumb and crazy.” He looked down at the dog which was focused attentively on Seth’s every move. This made him feel a little better. But not enough to keep him from doing what he was going to do. He got to the reading room at the end of the hall and walked to a window. He grasped the little handles on the window and struggled to slide it up. It would not budge. He finally relented, and as he did he noticed his defeated 35year-old reflection in the rattling glass. His spirit fell even more. He pinched at a big pimple tucked between his nose and his cheek. Then he brushed his hair from the side of his head over his bald spot. “It’s just not fair,” he said to himself. “Even my body treats me like a stupid pimply teenager and an old bald geeeeeezer.” He poured all his blame into the last word. Then he noticed something stuck to his shirt and looked down. A clump of beans and rice had somehow dried onto his shirt just under his curled-over cotton collar.
He brushed it off. The dog leapt for and caught it before it reached the floor. Then she trotted away down the stairs licking her little chops. Seth watched her disappear and his eyes brimmed with tears. He looked back at himself in the window’s reflection but decided he couldn’t bear the pathetic sight anymore. He moved to the next window in the reading room and after a couple tries realized he hadn’t unlocked it. He scowled at himself for his latest mistake, unlatched it and jerked it open with some difficulty. He looked around the room one last time, with its scuffs and oily hand smears, its black cracked leather reading chair, and that toppling stack of old mail that had been under the window since he could remember. He said a quiet, “Goodbye.” Seth lifted his foot to step out of the window but stopped when he saw a strip of toilet paper stuck to his heel. “Dangit!” he cursed (but not technically in his mind) and looked around to see if anyone had seen. He plucked the paper from his shoe and wadded it up. He looked for a trash can but couldn’t find one, so he resorted to putting it in his back pocket instead of littering. He climbed out of the window onto the roof. The buzz of cicadas and the heat of the Kansas summer dusk hit him. He steadied himself against the house. Some of the big lights blinked on in the park a few blocks away. The sounds of Little League Baseball drifted past him. “I mess things up for everybody.” Quietly he made excuses why even the beauty wasn’t enough to keep him around. Seth scooted to the edge of the roof. The smell of someone barbcueing reached his nose. “I can’t even cook; I just get in the way.” He peeked over at the ground 15 feet below him, reeling back at the seemingly huge distance. A flock of geese flew in formation far above, honking among their posse. “I don’t even really have any friends,” he argued. “And mom—who even has olds-timers—she doesn’t even really remember who I am anymore either. And now I can’t get any 16
more of my depression pills from her that I’m almost, almost out of.” The leaves of the tall oak tree in the backyard rustled in the wind. “And Leekers just gave me a job because they felt sorry for me—just like their other baggers. I’m smart enough to figure that out.” He pondered for a minute, remembering the one thing that made him feel smart, and silently mouthed the words, “The only thing in the world I’m good at is writing haikus.” He remembered his sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Faucet, the first one he ever liked. She taught him how to write haikus when he couldn’t do the work the other kids were doing. Ms. Faucet had told Seth that he was at his best with bite-sized pieces of life. “Like sushi,” she had added. “Have you ever had sushi?” He would probably love sushi, he thought. He really loved Ms. Faucet. Seth heard the clopping of tall heels coming down the sidewalk in the front yard. A busty Mexican woman wearing an old trench coat threw her head from side to side, trying to conceal her face in her wavy black hair. The tall weeds on either side of the sidewalk rustled as rabbits darted away from the approaching high heel skewers. She kept her fist close to her face, sucking on a lollipop. Her long bare legs emerged partly from her coat at each step. Nayeli. Seth watched her until she disappeared from view, onto the porch where she started going off on somebody in Spanish. Sometimes she came home acting weird like this. And dressed really weird, with lots of makeup and not a lot of clothes—but the ones she did wear were tight and small. She usually cooked a lot on these nights. Seth loved her cooking. And she loved her own cooking. Seth had noticed that. In fact, it kind of scared him sometimes how much she liked eating. Seth paused and listened. She was probably going off on Miss Muffin, or maybe nobody at all. Sometimes she did that too. Seth looked to the ground again, trying to figure out how to throw himself over so that it would be final but it wouldn’t be so high that it would hurt. He didn’t know how to do this. But he couldn’t fail at this like everything else. The steps to the 17
front porch would be less distance to fall, so he crawled across the roof to the overhang above them. Laying on his stomach, Seth’s head faced downward on the roof. He awkwardly reached into his pocket for his notebook. “DARNIT!” He silently cursed when he realized he had left it downstairs. A moment later he remembered the toilet paper, pulled it out of his back pocket, and un-crumpled it to try and write on it. This was the perfect time to write his last haiku. Looking down at life from above. Once things settled down below he could finish the haiku and do what he came up here to do. But when he reached into his other front pocket he remembered that Miss Muffin had taken his pen. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. But after 20 seconds, Seth just relented and gave up on everything. What good would it do him now to care? He let his face rest on the rough asphalt shingles. Just then he heard Miss Muffin open the screen door, her bag of bottles banging against the doorframe. Her raspy voice cautioned Nayeli, “You should be careful what you say, Honey. They can hear everything you say. And they know Spanish too. I’m sure of it. They can translate to any language with the Wide World Web and that stuff. They’ve got microphones and cameras everywhere. Probably on this deck somewhere. In fact, I’m sure of it. Probably right up there.” “You no understand my life,” Nayeli accused. “My sister no let me come her house to see my leetle sobrinos no more. She think I too dirty. She no understand why I have to leeve like thees.” Miss Muffin continued in her raspy voice, “I’m just saying, Honey, that you should be careful where you shoot your mouth off. They’re gonna know, and it’s gonna be really bad, you know. Really, really—” She stopped and interrupted herself, “Ohhp-, maybe that’s one of them now. Hope you’re ready, Honey.” Seth looked up and saw a familiar homeless man waddling down the sidewalk. He was big and round. One of his legs was short, and the big black boot on that foot had to be 18
supplemented with six inches of extra black rubber sole, causing him to limp. His shape and his long white beard made Seth wonder if he was really Santa Claus in disguise. But Santa Claus probably never came around anymore either, if he even existed. The hobo wore a green baseball cap and overalls atop a faded blue mechanic’s suit. They often saw him wandering around the town with a shopping cart, and he didn’t usually bother anybody. But this time he approached the house with purpose. His eyes darted from one window to the next, looking for something or someone inside the house. He had not yet seen Seth lying on the roof in front of him. Just then Seth heard a door slam and Leanne stomped down the stairs, probably because she needed to get out of the house and away from all the “crazies.” John’s footsteps followed hers. Seth cringed at the impending collision of all of them on the porch: The dirty homeless man, the angry Mexican woman, the paranoid Miss Muffin, and now the claustrophobic Leanne and her desperate husband John. Seth squeezed the toilet paper in his hand and braced for the encounter. He looked at the hobo who almost disappeared from view under the overhang. But the hobo slowed as he noticed Nayeli and heard her voice crack into sadness, “You all think I too dirty.” A compassionate look came across the hobo’s face. He reached out and stepped toward her as if he wanted to put a comforting hand on her shoulder. He disappeared from Seth’s view. Nayeli yelped in surprise, “No, no Señior. You cannot touch this for free. Vayate! You dirty!” At that moment Leanne threw open the screen door, arguing with John, who was close behind. She cried, “There’s just too many eff’n people here.” She paused when she saw everybody, first glad that they wouldn’t think she was a bad person because she hadn’t really cursed, but then realized that it was the “eff’n” people that heard her. That cancelled it all out. 19
Then she saw the disheveled hobo encroaching into their already packed house and put her head in her hands, crying desperately. “Does anybody up there even care!?” The hobo backed up several steps when he saw the horrified look on Leanne’s face. Seth could see him again. The big round man, his white beard and sad, compassionate eyes, stood in the fading sunlight wanting to help the crying women that just wanted him to leave. Two things went through Seth’s head. First he thought, “I hope nobody notices me here.” But his second thought was much stronger, “Poor Leanne could really use a tissue right now.” And before he realized it he had opened his clenched hand and dropped the ball of toilet paper off the roof. As if in slow motion, like a cloud descending from heaven, the ball drifted down and unfurled in front of the hobo. He saw it just in time to catch it. They were all silent for a moment. Everyone looked up, but only the hobo could see Seth’s caring eyes looking down from over the gutter. The hobo smiled an old, deep-creased smile. Then he broke the toilet paper into two parts and held one out to Leanne and the other to Nayeli. They both hesitated, waiting for the other to act, then both politely declined it. Miss Muffin rasped proudly, “See? I told you someone’s always watching us. I knew it,” then turned to walk inside. John smirked, “I guess someone up there does care, baby.” He figured it must be Seth and smiled. “Why don’t you come back inside, Honey?” Nayeli dabbed the dark eye-liner with the back of her hand. She was feeling more comfortable now that the hobo was backing away but also starting to doubt that this was just a normal hobo. Most of the group trickled back into the house, but the hobo looked up at Seth. A small smile crept onto the old man’s face. He seemed relieved about something. Seth, knowing he had been found out and his efforts thwarted yet again, slowly gathered himself up and moved to go inside. Once the homeless man knew that Seth was on his way in, he sighed, slowly turned, and limped back toward the street. 20
Pulling an old cell phone from his pocket, the hobo started to push the buttons. But when he saw a single flower reaching above the sea of weeds in the yard he leaned over and took a deep whiff. Before he got to the street, he glanced once more to make sure Seth got inside, then put his fat thumbs and ancient eyes to the task of deleting a voicemail on his phone. Miss Muffin’s raspy voice could be heard mumbling to herself as she wandered around the house. “I knew someone is always watching us. I just knew it.”
The Bigger Man (Seth shows Lars around) Seth rocked slowly, alone on the big deck. His rocking chair creaked and a dry breeze swayed the ocean of weeds in the yard. Sadness weighed on Seth’s eyes, and his gangly hand held his heavy head. His knobby elbow rested on the hard wooden arm of the rocking chair. “Hey there, guy.” A confident, colorful voice rained down on Seth from above. Seth lifted his eyes to the man standing beside him and tried to gain his bearings. “My name’s Lars,” the man said. He wore an old black leather jacket over a thin wife beater. A tattoo of some sort of creature peeked out of his shirt, scratching at his chest. His 21
hands were in his jacket pockets and a flimsy blue duffle bag hung over his shoulder. “You live here?” Lars asked. Seth sat up, looked the man up and down, looked out at the street that he came in on and then looked back up at him. He said a hesitant, “Yeah?” “I’m gonna be living with you guys. This is my new home.” Lars flashed a large smile. Seth raised an eyebrow. His mouth hung open, saliva brimming at the corners of his lips like usual. He didn’t say anything. “This is the low income housing place, right?” Lars asked. Seth looked up at him silently. “Ohhh-kaaaay?” Lars said. “What’s your name, little man?” Seth looked at the man’s duffle bag. Then he looked at his black leather biker boots . . . then his tattoo. He was still staring at the tattoo when he slowly said, “Seth. Seth Christian Anders.” “Hmm, so, Christian’s your middle name, huh? Some pretty big shoes to fill, I’d say.” Lars indeed said, and then winked at him. Seth looked down at his own big Wal-Mart shoes that weren’t quite filled with his normal-sized feet. “I’m just saying it would be pretty, uh . . . dull having to be a Christian these days.” He waited for Seth to get it. Lars cleared his throat and started again. “You’re a funny little man.” Lars looked into the windows. “What’s the deal with this place? Who else lives here?” Seth looked up at him. “I’m not a Christian. I’m Catholic.” “Ohh-kaaayy?” Lars was entertained. “So . . . you wanna be a friend and show me around?” Seth perked up a little bit. “You want me to be your friend? I mean—” Seth shook his head. “You want me to show you around?” “Yeah, Little Man. Is that possible?” Lars smiled to himself, but in the direction of Seth, becoming more confident Seth didn’t know the difference. The realization of having a new friend took a moment to sink in. Then Seth’s excitement pulled him forward and he hopped out of the rocking chair. “Um, yeah! Sure!” He cleared 22
his throat. Glancing down at his oversized polo shirt he saw the food stain under his collar and tried to rub it off. But thinking it would look less obvious he resorted to just holding his chin over it. Seth pulled his shoulders back and looked out over the front yard. Trying to look natural but speaking in his tough voice, he said, “So yeah, this is our house. Umm . . .” He looked at Lars’s face to see how he was doing. Lars smiled, so Seth continued, “This is the yard here. That’s our fence. That’s our other fence. These are our rocking chairs. Umm . . .” He turned around and looked at the house. He looked at the address numbers next to the door (halfway hidden behind a stack of phonebooks resting against the house). “Its address is 6—0—uh, 606 Broadway.” “What’s with the oxygen bottles and the phone books, brother?” Seth looked down at the crate of oxygen bottles, all in different stages of falling over, which were stacked against the wall of phonebooks. “Miss Muffin’s this old lady that lives here—you know her?” Seth glanced up and saw that of course Lars didn’t. “Oh yeah, ’course not, I mean. Well, she leaves her oxygen bottles out here to get picked up and stuff.” Lars leaned down, partly to hide his humored smile, examined the plastic strip around the nozzles and said, more sober now, “It looks like some of these are fully pressurized still. Seems like kind of a hazard out here in the elements.” Seth didn’t hear him and continued, “These are phone books.” He read the title on the top one, “‘The Yellow Pages,’ in fact. They’ve been here for forever.” He went over and adjusted one of the stacks against the wall. They began to fall and he scrambled to put them back in place. Lars opened the screen door, but Seth butted in front of him and opened the bigger door wider. “This is the inside of the house,” Seth said, his arms motioning as if it were a showcase in some gameshow. He thought he was doing a good job of looking cool. The stairs thumped and creaked as Nayeli came hopping down them. She walked quickly down the cement hall with her arms crossed and head low. Her baseball cap sat low on her head and she almost ran into Seth and Lars. Lars smiled widely 23
at her and stood in the doorway, which he could tell she meant to pass through. “Hello there.” He smiled down at her. She looked up at him from under her ball cap. “I’m Lars.” He held out his left hand. Nayeli offered her left hand, hiding her right one behind her back. Seth saw a BandAid around the index finger of the hidden hand. Lars took her fingers in the way of an English gentleman and bowed slightly. “It’s nice to meet you.” She smiled slightly and without thinking said, “Un gusto.” She shook her head and stuttered to find the right English words. Lars said, “Ah, I speak a little bit of Spanish. ‘Mucho gusto.’ You seem kind of nervous, my dear.” He said this with a challenge in his smile. She looked at him, confused. He tried again. “You look nervous. NERVOSO, you know, Embarrassed. EMBARAZADO.” He smiled charmingly and winked at her. A look of horror crossed her face at the last word. She looked down at her thin waist and curvaceous hips to see if she indeed did look pregnant. She pulled her pants up to cover her tiny tummy which ripped the Band-Aid halfway off her finger. Nayeli then flashed a look of hatred at Lars, pushed her way through the door, and stomped down the steps. As she walked away down the sidewalk she held her injured finger in front of her, picking at it obsessively. “What’s wrong with her, Little Man?” He admired the full curves of her body bouncing beneath her tight jeans and Tshirt. The wind furled and unfurled her glossy black hair. “Pfff—I don’t know,” Seth said, glad to have Lars’s attention back. “She does stuff like that sometimes. But she also cooks lots of food and leaves it in the refrigerator. You can have some if you want.” “Really? That’s interesting. I have a keen interest in food, myself. I’m working on starting a restaurant.” Seth walked into the living room, not listening to Lars. “This is our house. That’s our Christmas tree from a couple years ago. That’s our TV. It only gets two channels and they’re 24
totally lame—and the sound’s messed up. There’s our fireplace. That’s our couch. It’s kinda really old.” “Pshhhhh.” A whisper came from the kitchen. The tip of an oxygen bottle stuck out from behind the kitchen doorway. “Pshhhhh!” Seth walked into the kitchen and looked at Miss Muffin hiding around the corner. She shook her head at him. Seth looked confused. Miss Muffin gestured by pointing her thumb toward the other room. She whispered, “Him. He’s not good. He’s not good at all. Very bad.” Seth looked back at Lars, who stood in the middle of the room waiting for him, his legs spread slightly, hands in his pockets. The duffle bag started to slip from his right shoulder, but instead of scooting it up with his shoulder, he reached over with his left hand and tugged it back into place. Something was weird about his right arm. “Anyway,” Seth stepped back into the room and spoke to Lars. He gestured to Miss Muffin behind the wall and whispered, “She’s kinda crazy.” Lars said out loud, “I don’t mind crazy people. You seem kinda crazy yourself, Little Man.” He smiled at Seth. Seth raised his eyebrows questioningly; his hands hung awkwardly at his sides. “Hey, don’t worry about it, Little Man.” Lars leaned in and slapped him lightly on his thin shoulder. “What else is in this house? Show me the back yard.” He could see it through the kitchen. Seth walked him through the kitchen. Lars smiled at Miss Muffin, who made a cross with her two index fingers in front of her face. Only her eyes followed him. Seth went down a couple steps into the sunny laundry room. Lars whispered, “Now that’s a woman who might be better off just taking her whole bottle of pills.” Lars laughed. Seth looked up at him, confused. Lars saw his confusion and responded. “I’m just saying, she might be happier dead. I mean, if you can’t enjoy life, why stick around?” He slapped Seth on the shoulder and winked at him with both eyes and a smile. 25
“Oh.” Seth thought hard. “You mean all the medicine in the bottle would be enough to kill someone—if they wanted to? Okay.” He continued digesting the thought. Lars looked around the laundry room. “Oh good, you have a washer and dryer. Righteous.” Seth stopped and turned around. He looked at Lars and then at the washer and dryer. The sun shone through the trees outside and through the greenhouse-like windows. It speckled everything in the room, including Seth’s shoulders and balding head. “Yeah, this is the laundry room. Here’s our washer and dryer and here is the counter to fold your clothes on.” The dryer rumbled quietly and a pair of Nayeli’s gold leggings hung over the counter to dry. Seth forced open the old wooden door with peeling green paint, grating over the small cement back porch. “This is our back yard.” A gigantic oak tree grew out of the middle of the yard. “That’s our fence. That’s the alley back there.” Seth stepped into the yard, walked around the side of the house and pointed. “That’s our storm shelter . . . cellar . . . place.” “Woah, wait. There’s a storm shelter under there?” Lars looked at the large mound of degenerating household items piled against the house: garden hoses, old bicycles, fold-up tables, an old kiddie pool, a stack of buckets, a broom, an old mattress. It looked like a multi-family garage sale had been swept against the side of the house. “Yeah,” Seth said. “One of the rules is to keep the storm sheller—uh, I mean celter—” He shook his head in frustration, “storm shelter thingy clean.” “Rules? There are rules?” “Oh yeah. There’s a plaque in the entryway that says all the rules. We’re all supposed to take care of the house. I’ll show you.” Seth slipped by him, through the yard, and back into the house. They walked through the kitchen (Miss Muffin had escaped to her room), through the TV room, and to the front door. Seth closed the front door and, hanging on the wall behind it, they found an old wooden plaque with words etched down the front. “Whoa, it looks like someone spent some time on this. Who made it?” 26
“I think the Landlord did.” Seth’s eyebrows furled. “Oh yeah? Where’s the landlord?” “I don’t know.” Lars raised his eyebrows and waited for more of an answer, but it didn’t come. So he continued, “This social worker lady said the landlord here had specifically requested I live in his house, and she said he’s here a lot. I’d like to meet him.” “I don’t think I’ve ever met him,” Seth said and shrugged. “He never comes around?” Seth shrugged again. Lars continued, “Then how does he enforce these rules and stuff?” Seth shrugged again. “Do ya even know how you got here?” Lars corrected his degrading tone by saying, “I mean, how’d you get here and stuff, brother?” “Well,” Seth swallowed, “This one lady said this one guy said I could live in his house after my mom went into the old folks home and she gave me his phone number that I could call any time.” “Yeah, that lady must have been your social worker and that guy was the landlord.” Lars pulled the strap of his duffle bag higher onto his shoulder and ran his hand through his shiny black hair, using the same hand. “So how do you guys pay rent and stuff?” “According to the rules . . .” Seth scanned the list and found the bottom one, “. . . we’re supposed to pay what we can.” Then Seth pointed to the slotted drop box underneath the plaque. “But I don’t think anybody does because . . .” He tried to peer into the slot. “. . . Because the landlord never comes around to check it, I don’t think.” “Oh yeah?” Lars’s eyes wandered and he looked down the dirty cement hallway. He sized up the first dented, handle-less wooden door that happened to be Seth’s and then the fraying doorbell wires by Miss Muffin’s door next to his. Her door was slightly better than Seth’s. He spotted Miss Muffin peering out at him. Her face disappeared as her door slammed. “So . . . just curious . . .” He avoided eye contact with Seth. “How do you guys determine who gets which room?” 27
Seth looked down the hallway at the doors. “Well, John and Leanne—they have the biggest room upstairs. He has a good job (he’s a manager at a McDonald's) and has a wife (she’s really beautiful). I think that’s why they get the best room—because they’re the best people.” Lars hid his entertained smirk. “What about the rest of you guys?” Seth looked at the split in his hollow wooden door and the reflective “00” address stickers on it. He humbly said, “I think we just kinda figure out who deserves what.” The sound of clicking toenails trotted down the hall above them and the dog came down the stairs. She continued down the cement hall and trotted past them, headed for the kitchen. Seth said, “That’s Barrie, the dog. I don’t know her real name, but that’s what we call her because she buries everything.” Lars laughed, “Ok. Barrie the pug dog. Alright. So what’s upstairs?” Seth and Lars climbed the dirty, carpeted stairs and stood at the top. Bright light poured in through windows at the end of the hall, illuminating the white plaster walls. “This is Nayeli’s room.” Seth pointed to an oak door on the left with a cheap plastic yellow flower tucked into the rim of the spyglass. He pointed to the next door on that wall. “And here is the nice bathroom.” He pointed across the hall on the right side. “And this is John and Leanne’s room. They have the biggest room and they have a walk-in closet.” Then Seth whispered, “Everybody wants that room but they’re pretty much the coolest people in the house so they get it.” They walked to the end of the hall into the common space. John sat in a chair with his feet up on a window sill, reading a book. “Oh! This is John,” Seth said. “He’s the cool one.” John stood up. He set down his book and straightened his Hawaiian shirt around his slightly thicker midsection. He offered his hand. “Hi.” John had short black hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. 28
Lars deftly grabbed his own right hand with his left and lifted it to shake hands. “I’m Lars. I’m moving in.” “Oh, yeah?” John raised a surprised eyebrow. He also tried to hide that he was taken aback by Lars’s strangely lifeless right arm. Lars continued, “The lady assigned me to this house. She said the landlord would be around to talk to.” “Hmmm. Social worker?” “Something like that. Is the landlord gonna be here any time soon?” “No, not that we’re aware of. We’ve never seen him.” John shrugged at Seth. “We kind of just take care of ourselves here.” A prolonged silence arrived and they all looked awkwardly around the room. “So, what do you do, Lars? Do you work?” “Oh, I just run my own business,” Lars said. “There’s very high demand for my product right now. Clients banging down my door practically.” “Oh yeah?” John asked. “May I ask, what do you sell?” “Frozen foods, actually. I do the marketing and sourcing. I orchestrate all the deliveries. I have to do the financing and basically have to work lots of hours to make sure people are covered, you know?” “Really?” John, wary of the egotism, was yet intrigued. “So have you been doing it a long time?” “I delivered my first shipment about 10 years ago.” Lars pushed a lock of hair back with his hand. “It basically took off like a wildfire from there.” “Does the wildfire melt all of your frozen foods?” John smirked at his clever joke until he realized it was dumb. He regained his composure and said, “Well, I’m a manager at McDonald’s—just 20 or so employees—and I just got done for the day so—” Lars interrupted with, “That’s cool, man. Gotta start somewhere.” John continued, “Well, uh, I only went to a couple years of college before I was drafted to the Army, but I’m a pretty quick learner if you have any tips on how to run a business better.” “You bet, John. I am at your service, I mean, when I’m not working, of course. I have to work a lot of weekends.” 29
“But, wait a second,” John said, “How’d you get stuck in this house with a job like that?” “Well, that’s a good question, because I usually wouldn’t have to live in a place like this, you know?” He ran his fingers through his hair and checked for dandruff. Some of his black locks had fallen out of his pony tail. He spoke deliberately, emphasizing with his hand as if he was teaching John a deep business principle. “You see, sometimes it’s important to step out of your environment and get into one that’s a little bit uncomfortable . . . to really get back down to reality—to get some fresh ideas. I like to see how the little people do things. Like, I’m sure if I looked in your freezer, for example, I’d learn something about how you guys keep frozen food. Anyway, suffice it to say, I looked up a social worker who knew of good places to stay and she said this place is as inspirational and interesting as any. And I can already tell she is right.” John nodded and almost reached to shake Lars’s hand again but stopped when he remembered it was lame. “Well it’s an honor to have you in our house. I assume the landlord—or your worker—figured out a room for you or a bed to stay in somewhere. We always seem to have enough of everything in this house, food and toilet paper and all that stuff. Somehow there’s always enough.” “Thanks, John. I’m privileged that you guys’ll have me.” He bowed slightly. “Oh, and nice tattoo, by the way.” John glanced at Lars’s chest through his open jacket and under his wife beater. “A fighting bumble bee, I guess, right? That’s cool. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee—or something like that, right?” He made mock jabs in the air. “No, man!” Lars looked down indignantly and pulled the strap of his wife beater aside. “It’s a dragon, bro. Those are like his scales and stuff.” “Oh,” John leaned closer but felt uncomfortable looking at Lars’s chest very long. “I see it now, I guess. Yeah right there. Okay.” He pointed vaguely at the tattoo. 30
There was a pause. John looked down by Lars’s feet. “So you’ve met Barrie?” Lars looked down at the dog arriving behind him, panting and happy. Lars nodded. John smiled and said, “She’s a good dog. Pug dog and beagle mix, we think. Poor thing has allergies though. And she’s always on a mission to find something new to bury. Anyway, welcome to the house. My wife Leanne will be coming home from work soon (she’s in retail) and I’m sure she’d like to meet you too.” Lars nodded and winked both eyes. He and Seth turned to go back down the stairs. Lars stopped at the bathroom and told Seth, “I’ll meet you downstairs, my friend.” Seth walked down the stairs, letting Lars’s words soak in. A smile grew on his face and his chin rose. He whispered proudly to himself, “My friend.” He reached the bottom of the stairs and walked down the cement hallway without looking at the dirty walls or doors. Then he turned the corner at the end of the hallway and stopped by the front door. Leaning against the corner, he put a hand on his hip, and crossed a leg in front of the other. He looked down to make sure he looked cool. Seth’s eyes drifted across the living room and entryway to his left, past the bathroom doorway covered by a shower curtain on his right and eventually came to rest on the wooden plaque on the wall in front of him. He glanced up the stairs and then down at himself. He stood up straight and scrubbed at the stain under his collar until he got frustrated and stopped. Eventually he covered it with his hand and did his best to brush it off mentally. Leaning against the corner again, he put his hand in his pocket like Lars had done, crossed his legs and then, slowly and seriously, read the rules to seem busy while he waited: Rules for living at 606 Broadway 1) Respect the landlord 2) Take care of each other 3) Keep exterior of house clean and trim 4) Keep interior of house clean and orderly 31
5) Keep storm shelter clean from debris, inside and out 6) Pay what you can pay for rent Suddenly the walls roared with the sound of rushing water. Something slammed into a wall upstairs. Seth scrambled and jumped onto the couch in the TV room, lifting his legs from the floor. Mice and cockroaches poured from the walls and scrambled aimlessly around the room. A minute after the melee on the floor disappeared, Seth heard Lars coming down the stairs. Seth quickly stepped down from the couch and leaned his shoulder against the wall with one hand in his pocket and the other propped on his hip. He crossed a leg, glanced down at himself quickly and waited for Lars. When Lars came around the corner Seth told him with his tough voice, “I forgot to tell ya about the toilet up there. You have to turn the faucet and the bath tub on full blast before you flush. One of the people who used to live here installed a really powerful toilet because they wanted more power, but the house wasn’t made for it or something.” He forced the last words out of his empty lungs. Lars responded, “The toilet startled me but I think it startled the dog more. First he busts into the bathroom while I’m standing there doing my thing, like he’s waiting his turn (we need to get a new handle on that door, by the way) and then when I flushed, he ran straight into the door with all his might—I had closed it behind him—but it didn’t even faze him. I opened it up and he darted out as fast as he could.” Just then Barrie trotted down the stairs with a mouse tail hanging out of her mouth. She continued past them and toward the doggy door, her curly tail wagging the whole way.
Cigarette Flirt (Lars meets Leanne) Seth and Lars sat on the deck; their rocking chairs creaked in unison. Seth leaned forward in his chair, watching the heel of his shoe balance on the toe of the other. Lars leaned back in his chair, his good elbow leaning on the armrest. Lars took a drag from his cigarette. “You know, Little Man, I’m the type of guy who always wants to improve himself. Get a little closer to my goals each day, you know? Earn a little more money. Associate myself with bigger and better people.” Seth looked up at Lars’s olive-colored face and the jutting, hawk-like nose. His leather jacket was draped over the back of his chair and another faded tattoo now showed on his shoulder. Seth’s shoe fell off of the other and almost hit Lars’s chair. Seth winced. He looked up to see if Lars noticed. Then he looked down and saw a piece of rice on his shirt. He winced again and flicked it off. Lars continued, “I like to call it the ‘bigger man’ philosophy.” “Pfff. I know what you mean, man. Ha!” Seth looked up to see if he had responded to Lars’s response adequately. Lars turned his head and looked at him with an entertained smirk on his face. He turned back to the yard and continued, “I mean, no offense to you, brother, but I think you should work on some things. You know, become a little more confident in yourself. I mean, this is just my opinion. I’m not telling you what to do.” Seth leaned back and waved off the offense. “No, no. I know what you mean. . . . I mean . . . um, well, I know what you mean. Yeah.” Lars took another drag from his cigarette and stared out into the yard. “Woah, there’s something moving in the grass 33
over there.” Lars pointed, his cigarette held coolly between his fingers. “Haha. Yeah.” Seth said absently. He bit his nails and watched his shoes teetering on top of each other. “Oh, who’s this?” Lars smiled wryly toward the red-head at the edge of the yard and took another drag on his cigarette. Leanne walked quickly, her eyes on the ground and her purse pinched tightly under her arm. She glanced up before she attempted the walk to the house, and glanced again when she noticed Lars. Then she braved the gauntlet, keeping alert to movements in the tall weeds on either side of the cracked cement. Seth was lost in his thoughts, chewing his nails and watching his shoes with furled brow. Leanne mounted the steps and looked at Lars. “Hi there.” Her tone was friendly. She held out her hand at the end of her slender, freckled arm. Lars smiled up at her, put the cigarette in his mouth, and took the end of her hand in his left hand. He bowed his head slightly. His other hand lay in his lap, the thumb holding onto a belt loop. “And who are you?” His cigarette bounced in his lips. “I’m Leanne.” She smiled widely as she put her weight on one hip. She looked over at Seth and her tone became overly nice. “Hi Seth, how are you?” She looked back at Lars without waiting for a response. Seth looked up absently from his shoes, his mouth hanging open. “I’m Lars. I just moved in.” Lars blew out smoke which drifted into Seth’s face. “Oh . . . ohhhkaaay.” She was a little surprised. “Uh . . . glad to have ya, I’m sure.” Lars bowed his head ceremoniously again. A moment passed before she broke the silence. “So, what do you do? Do you work?” Leanne adjusted the purse under her arm. “I do work a little bit,” he said, smiling. “I own my own business.” “Really?” She was impressed. “Nah, it’s just a little thing. Just a 34
couple hundred clients we deal with daily. Frozen food industry, actually.” “Oh, then you’ll like this house. There’s always new food in our refrigerator and the freezer always gets restocked somehow.” She smiled and put her hand on her hip. “Oh! I like your tattoo! Is that a rainbow? That’s beautiful.” “No! It’s a dragon,” Lars said, annoyed. He looked down and pulled the strap of his wife beater aside so they could see the design clearer. “His scales are iridescent, see?” Lars traced the design briefly with his finger, careful not to touch his cigarette to his skin. “Oh, yeah. I think I see now. Oh that’s his head—I think? Anyway, it’s really beautiful—um really nice I mean.” She put her hand on his shoulder. As his eyes skipped up her arm and onto her face he warmed up to her again. He nodded his appreciation. Seth looked up and saw Leanne’s hand on Lars’s shoulder. He suddenly blurted out, “You’re John’s wife.” She looked up at Seth and smiled an insincere smile. Her tone was baby-ing. “Yeah, that’s right, Seth.” She looked at Lars. “John’s my husband. We live in the room upstairs. Where will you be staying?” “Well,” Lars looked at Seth. “I’m not sure yet.” Seth’s eyes clung to Leanne’s hand on Lars’s shoulder. “We’ll have to see where I end up sleeping tonight, I guess.” He winked at her with his whole face. “Well, okay. Lars, it was nice to meet you. Welcome to the house. Let me know if we can make you feel more welcome in any way.” “Thanks, dear.” He put his cigarette in his mouth and shook her fingers again. She adjusted the purse under her arm and walked into the house, being cautious not to touch the phone books and oxygen bottles by the door. Lars turned to Seth and saw him chewing on his nails, nervously staring at Lars’s shoulder. Lars glanced at his own shoulder and shifted uncomfortably. He took a drag on the cigarette and thought for a moment. Then he whispered to Seth, “Uh . . . that’s what I mean, Little Man. Did you hear the 35
way she was talking down to you? You have to stand up and deserve more than that.” Lars had sufficiently turned Seth’s concern inward. He looked up at Lars, horrified at this realization. Seth looked through the windows into the house for Leanne in disbelief. “I thought she really liked me.” “Maybe she does, man. But does she respect you? You gotta be the bigger man, brother.” Lars leaned back, relieved that Seth was distracted by something else. Seth slumped down into his chair. A look of sadness weighed heavily on his face and he stared blankly out over the yard. Lars got up and patted Seth’s shoulder once. He said softly, “It’s okay, Little Man. Don’t get too down on yourself, alright?” Lars went into the house, impressed at his clever escape.
Flintstones Vitamins (Death of the little man) Seth sat Indian-style on his bed, leaning against his pillow that was propped up against the wall. He held another old, cracked, blue multi-colored pen above a blank page of his pocket notepad, unmoving. He bit at his dry lips, trying to think of what he wanted to write. He flipped back to the first few pages and read one of his old haikus. Mom’s been gone For three days, did she Forget me? 36
The rings of the shower curtain rattled in the bathroom doorway. Seth shoved his notepad back into his pocket. “Bathroom’s all yours, brother. There was a mouse in there, by the way, but not anymore.” Lars seemed proud of himself and wiped his big black boot off on the door frame of Seth’s room. He put his toothbrush into his duffle bag on the floor. “Do you think I could use one of your blankets tonight, Little Man?” Seth looked at his only blanket and his one sheet scrunched at the bottom of his bed. “Um, sure. I have a sheet too. That should be enough for me tonight.” Lars cleared space on the cement floor of Seth’s room and placed three couch cushions end to end. “Are you sure you don’t want to just sleep in the TV room on the couch . . . brother?” Seth asked. “Nah, unless you snore or something.” Lars dug into his duffle bag for something. Seth wasn’t sure if he was joking. Seth didn’t think he snored. He tried to laugh but suddenly he felt unwelcome in his own room. He got up and went into the bathroom because it was his turn. He looked at his large, flat face in the mirror. Then at his skinny neck and thin shoulders. He pinched at a couple of zits, and then brushed hopelessly at his thinning brown hair. He rubbed at the grease stain on his collar and then stared at it in the mirror. His disenchanted stare didn’t move as he opened the medicine cabinet and took out his orange medication bottle. He shook it and heard nothing inside. His hands opened it autonomously, and he turned the bottle upside down. Nothing fell out. Absently, he whispered, “All gone.” He set the bottle and the cap down on the sink. His stare finally broke and he took his Flintstones vitamins from the cabinet. Gritting his teeth, he pressed the lid down, and twisted it off. He rattled a few of them into his clammy palm and stared at them for a long time.
Eventually he put all of them back except for a blue one. He examined it. “Wilma Flintstone.” He bit the vitamin in two and chewed each half cathartically. Seth brushed his teeth lethargically. Then he lifted the toilet seat and looked at the yellowish clumpy mixture of soggy tortillas and rice before he took a deep breath and started to relieve himself. The toilet had been broken for days but he didn’t know how the half-digested Mexican food got in there. He looked at the topless toilet tank and the bar attached to the flush lever sticking out of the water. It had what looked like a bit of blood on the sharp tip, like someone had tried to flush by forcing the lever with their hand and slipped. “Nayeli?” Seth remembered her Band-Aid. His eyes wandered over to the bathtub as he worked things out. He looked over the uniquely beautiful, white-plated iron scrollwork on the bathtub but didn’t seem to really see it. When he went back into his room the light was already off. Lars held the blanket tightly around himself, fidgeting uncomfortably on the little sofa cushions. Seth sat down on his bed and lifted his feet out of his big skate shoes. He pushed his feet under the sheet and found something at the end of his bed. “Oh, is this your duffle bag, brother?” Seth asked, still trying out the title of “brother.” “Oh yeah. Don’t worry about that. I didn’t want it to be on the floor all night.” Lars spoke in a voice that showed how uncomfortable he was with his bedding. Seth slid his feet into the sheets next to the bag and laid back. He remembered his notebook and pulled it out of his pocket. Sitting up, he drew his pen close to the notepad and squinted. Struggling in the darkness, he looked up at the lifeless light bulb hanging in the middle of the ceiling. He flipped to the first poem in the book from years ago to see if he could read it. I heard Todd Tell his mom that I’m Not his friend “Man, this place is dusty,” Lars said. 38
Seth quickly slapped the notebook shut. “I wish my allergies weren’t such a problem.” Lars rolled over uncomfortably, pulled the blanket up, snorted and coughed. Seth opened his notebook again to a blank page and folded it over tightly. He readjusted and tried different focal lengths, but it didn’t help; it was too dark. Finally he dropped his hands to his sides and stared at the wall in defeat. “Wow,” Lars snorted again. “My allergies are really bad tonight. It’s all this dust on the floor, I think. Got any good ideas, Little Man?” Seth looked around as if he might find something that would help. “Ummm . . . well, do you just want to sleep in my bed tonight, I guess? I don’t really have allergies.” “I don’t know, man. I don’t want to kick you out of your own bed. That is really admirable and really generous, though. You’re such a nice guy. I mean, but maybe I should take you up on it, though. My allergies are just so bad tonight.” “Yeah, umm . . . I don’t mind, brother.” Seth stood up hesitantly in his droopy socks. “Here you go. It’s all yours, my friend.” “Righteous!” Lars got up with the blanket still wrapped around him. “Man, you didn’t have to do that!” Lars patted Seth on the shoulder and then splashed comfortably onto Seth’s bed. He suddenly had no allergy problems. Seth watched Lars wrap himself with both the blanket and the sheet and then looked down at the stained, dusty couch cushions scattered on the floor. He bit at his nails and looked back at Lars, who had turned deliberately away from him. Seth then raised his arms at his sides, realizing that he had been duped. Seth slipped out the door and went into the bathroom. He pulled the chain to turn on the light and stood in front of the cracked mirror. The empty orange pill bottle on the sink caught his attention and he stared at it for a minute. Then he picked it up, pretended to empty all of its contents into his mouth and swallowed. He looked at his face in the mirror and put his hands to his neck, as if he were choking. 39
The oil stain on his shirt caught his attention, and a deeply frustrated scowl crawled across his face. He pulled down on the bottom hem of his shirt with all his might as if trying to rip his sharp shoulders through the seams at the top. Having failed at that too, he relented, breathing hard. His eyes were moist. He pulled his notepad out of his pocket and flipped to a clean page as he sat down on the toilet seat. He breathed in deeply, calmed himself, and wrote: I thought I Had finally found My first friend. He counted the syllables listlessly on his fingers and then stood up. He slipped out of the bathroom and through the door of his room again. He looked at Lars lying on his bed, facing the wall. Something caught his eye above his bed as his eyes adjusted. Three new photographs hung by tape on the wall. Also Lars’s jacket now hung on his bedpost. Seth stepped forward and almost tripped on one of his own shoes. He looked down and saw that Lars had thrown Seth’s shoes toward the door. The other was leaning against the wall beside the door where it had landed. Seth lifted his hands at the injustice. He swallowed and let them fall slowly. He looked at the back of Lars’s head, hurt. Seth stepped closer to the bed and stood there for a long time, staring at the new pictures taped above his bed. The vague shapes in three photographs looked like: 1) A man putting a baby in a car seat. 2) A man in a jersey standing with his arm over a boy’s shoulders at a basketball game. 3) An older woman with curly hair in a nice dress asleep on a couch in front of a TV. Seth sniffed but stopped himself when he heard how loud it sounded. Lars cleared his throat purposefully and rustled uncomfortably in the bed. Seth twisted his torso to look back at the door as he snuffled again. He scanned his cluttered room slowly. He had 40
no photographs. Then he glanced at the string on the blinds, and for a moment imagined how he could wrap it around his neck and get it tight enough. But he gave up on the idea because he’d wake up Lars. The window was so dark. Why was the world such a dark place? Had the sky always been like this? He thought for a few moments and then with a sad resolution decided what he would do. He walked to a pile of his clothes in the room and changed into a white T-shirt and his Kansas City Chiefs pajama pants. He walked to the door, took one last look at the room and slipped out. He left the light off as he shuffled past the shower curtain, into the bathroom. He opened the medicine cabinet and pulled out the bottle of Flintstones vitamins. The speckled image of his sad face glared at him when he closed the mirror. He wiped his eyes. “I don’t have any pictures,” he whispered. “Mom is my only family, and she doesn’t even really remember who I am anymore.” He counted each thought on his fingers like he counted the syllables of his haikus. “Leanne doesn’t respect me. Nayeli doesn’t talk to me. I make a fool out of myself all the time around John. I thought Lars wanted to be my friend but he just used me for my room. Nobody likes me.” He picked up the orange pill bottle in his other hand and looked at the label absently. “And mom’s too old and about to die so I can’t get more medicine to stop the depression.” Reaching to wipe his eyes, he looked down and noticed a dark shape in the corner of the bathroom. He stooped. It was an old mouse that Seth often saw scooting along confused. He usually helped it find the hole back into the wall. But this time, as Seth nudged it along, its face dragged blood across the tile floor. Seth jerked his hand back, startled. His face gaped and then tightened in anger at the injustice. He realized Lars had stepped on it like it was a mere cockroach. It only took a single square of toilet paper to pick up the mouse. Its motorcade was a solemn walk to the toilet and its open casket was a lifted toilet seat. He held the mouse above 41
the water and whispered, “When you wake up, I hope it’s in a much better place than here.” He dropped the mouse in and tried to flush. It didn’t work, of course, and he winced at yet another of his stupid mistakes. He closed the lid and looked at the bathtub. Seth’s thoughts burrowed deep into him for a long time and then he nodded. “When I wake up . . .” He wiped his eyes and grabbed the bottle of Flintstones vitamins again. He stepped into the cast-iron bath tub and settled in. Resting his head on the scrollwork, he pushed his feet into the bottom, being careful not to touch the slimy brown hairs in the drain. The bath tub rang several times like a deep, sad bell as his bony elbows bumped the sides, trying to get comfortable. He twisted the bottle’s child-proof cap. It spun freely but did not come off. He growled and wrenched at the cap with his teeth. Surprisingly, it clattered to the bottom of the tub. He shoveled vitamins into his mouth and began to chew. A look of enjoyment grew on his face as he crunched up little families of tasty Flintstones. Mom had always told him it was best to eat one at a time. Boy, was she wrong. As he chewed he thought about the old mouse, and his sadness grew deeper. And then anger came. But when good people get angry, it can make good things happen. This got his brain working and realizations started to come to him. On his very last day, life was beginning to make sense. He put his thoughts together into phrases and felt proud of these wise new sayings. They were like the ones on those posters in the breakroom at work. A cloud of vitamin dust shot from his mouth as he tried his first thought out loud, to see how it sounded. “If all sad people would help each other then they wouldn’t be sad.” Then he mused, “I wonder if writing fortune cookies was what I was supposed to do in life?” He pretended to open a fortune cookie and curiously read his next realization, “Kindness . . . uh . . . kindness costs nothing . . . to give away.” “Quiet, please!” Lars yelled from Seth’s old room, annoyed. “Trying to sleep in here!” 42
The smile left Seth’s face. All his new thoughts completely deflated when he remembered nobody cared. Tears filled his eyes again. He looked down at the bottle and remembered his mission. He poured another pile into his hand and stuffed it into his mouth. He bent down and wet his mouth from the dripping faucet. Pressing his eye to the mouth of the bottle, he thought he saw only a couple mouthfuls left. A new wave of sadness rolled him onto his side, tears dripping onto the cold porcelain. He punched at the splash marks as if they were to blame. The ring it made in the bathtub reminded him of the intro bell on the PA system at his grocery store. “Cleanup at the south door,” he automatically announced. Now he would never get to announce anything on the PA system. Ever. “I said please!” Lars barked from the other room. “Who are you even talking to in there?” Seth’s eyes filled with tears anew so he stuffed his face with the rest of the vitamins and chewed. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his little notebook and his last multicolored pen. He held the pen over the notepad while he thought of his real last haiku. Finally he scribbled in big, sloppy letters. Life is not Worth the living when No one cares He counted the syllables on his fingers—several times to be sure. A proud look shimmered on his face. It was perfect. His final haiku was his finest. Then his froggy lips, brimming with rainbow saliva, contorted and he grabbed his belly in pain. The empty bottle rattled to the bottom of the tub, clanging like the bell’s final toll, though this time the quick, high-pitched percussion sounded like a fun jingle from Mario Brothers. A strange transformation took place as his heart rate calmed and his breathing settled, as his fate seemed more and more permanent. Things became clearer than ever before as the pressure to be good enough and the need to be loved by 43
people mattered less and less. It seemed so simple now. So undeniably true. Life had been a gift. The saddest look of all shriveled his face as he realized he could have done things differently. More tears squeezed from his eyes. He swallowed, wiped his face and brushed off his shirt so he would look cool when they found him. He crossed his arms awkwardly over his chest like the Halloween Dracula he had seen in his grocery store. He realized he had no idea how to die, and now it was the last thing he ever wanted to learn—well, but he meant not for a long time. He took a deep, shaky breath. It had seemed so dark for so long. Why couldn’t he remember what blue sky looked like? His eyes closed and he fell into a deeply sad, resolute sleep.
Recycled Toilet Paper (Birth of the little man) The alarm on a digital wristwatch went off in John and Leanne’s room and rang through the house. A pair of feet hit the floor in their room and then came the sound of doors and drawers being opened and closed. Hangers screeched back and forth. Lids of boxes hit the floor. Leanne’s voice rang out, “John, just shut that stupid thing off!” Exactly one minute after it began, the alarm ended. A few seconds after that, so did the frantic shuffling. This commotion woke up Barrie, who had been sleeping on the cracked leather chair in the reading nook upstairs. She trotted into the upstairs bathroom, looking for water. The toilet seat was closed, and the bathtub was empty, so Barrie descended the stairs and slipped under the shower curtain of the downstairs bathroom doorway. She looked at the closed 44
toilet seat. Then she looked into the bathtub. She saw Seth lying in it with his mouth open and head back. Barrie barked, turned around and trotted toward the kitchen. Seth opened his eyes and saw the cracked ceiling. He lifted his head slowly and swallowed. He looked to his right. His eyes fell upon the plastic toilet paper packaging crumpled next to the toilet. The picture of the three green arrows making a triangle caught his eye. He read, “100% recycled,” and squinted to make sure he read it correctly. He looked up at the clean, white roll of toilet paper in the dispenser. He swallowed and thought, Why would anyone want recycled dirty toilet paper? But sure enough, it was white, like new again. His eyes drifted into the bathtub. He noticed the beautiful scrollwork on the edge of the tub and smiled almost imperceptibly. His dried lips cracked. The empty vitamin bottle at the bottom of the tub caught his eye, and he furled his brow. His eyes drifted onto the flat, broad surface of his stainless, white T-shirt and he remembered the night before. Joyful tears came to his eyes. He clambered clumsily up, wincing at the pain of being cramped in a bathtub all night. He stepped out of the tub and squinted at the shower curtain over the doorway. It was bright and white with sunlight, like an angel. Was he in heaven? No, he thought, and a big smile cracked his lips more. Even better: I’m still alive. His body shook with joy. He looked up and boldly stepped toward the glowing shower curtain, eager to see his beautiful house again. Suddenly he buckled over and covered his mouth. He scrambled to the toilet and threw up.
Boxers (Bigger man makes his stand) Over the next few days Seth wandered. Nowhere in the house seemed to fit him quite right. He spent some time sitting in the reading nook upstairs. The brightness was nice, but it was a little bit too cold for him at night. He tried sitting in front of the TV like he used to do, but that seemed to be the place he wanted to be least of all now. Every time he went back into his old room he saw more of Lars’s belongings spread out in it, and it felt less like home. He even found that he didn’t care about the stuff in the room that used to be his. He thought, Lars can have it if he wants it. For some reason, every time he passed the front door, he also noticed the plaque of rules on the wall beside it. He found himself drawn to it, reading more of it every time he passed. Sometimes he found himself standing in front of it, reading it slowly, like poetry, as if he felt more comfortable there than anywhere else in the house. Finally, one day, he wandered into the laundry room. He sat on the two steps that spanned the wall that connected it to the house. The sun drifted in through the leaves of the old oak tree and the big greenhouse windows. The washer sloshed quietly and the dryer hummed. It was warm in this room. It smelled like dryer sheets. Seth sat for a long time in that room. He stared for hours through the expansive windows at nothing specifically except the outdoors. When he got hungry he ate something from the kitchen. When he had to work at the grocery store he caught his bus, 46
worked, and came home, usually sitting back down in the laundry room and looking out the windows again. When night came, he spread towels or sweaters from the dryer onto the floor. He gazed at the stars through the dirty windows. If he ever got cold, he simply turned on the dryer. Sometimes he would put the towels or sweaters back into the dryer, pulling them out when they were warm so that he could wrap himself in them and go to sleep. People asked him why he was in there as they did their laundry. He didn’t say much. He smiled at them and sat quietly, looking out the window. They eventually got comfortable with it and forgot about him. One evening when it started to get dark and the windows were starting to work more like mirrors, Seth looked around the laundry room like something was missing. He walked out, came back with the plaque of rules and leaned it against the wall in the corner of the counter. He pulled a couple towels from the dryer and fell asleep on them. The next day Lars came in to do laundry. Seth looked up at him, and his peaceful smile faded when he saw who it was. He swallowed and looked back out the window. Lars carried plastic bags that overflowed with black dress socks and old colorful boxers. Lars’s voice was strong and confident as he started his laundry. “Is this where you been sleepin’, Little Man?” Seth’s eyes dropped to the floor. Lars looked around the room and continued, “Have you lost all pride, brother?!” Seth’s eyes stayed on the floor but his face suddenly looked like he had been punched in the gut. He still didn’t answer. Lars turned to him and said, “I mean, you didn’t even put up a fight when I moved into your room! It was a test to help you grow, Little Man. I’m sorry you didn’t realize it and you just let me walk all over you. But this is what I meant when I said you have to be a bigger man! You even told me yourself; we each get the room we deserve. You gotta respect yourself and don’t let anybody in this world prove they’re better than you are.” 47
Seth chewed on his nails vigorously. He looked at the far corner of the floor. “I don’t know about you,” Lars continued as he loaded the dryer, “but I mean to get the best room in this house . . . and you should too . . . like the rest of us . . . that’s just how things work in this world. . . . But instead you’re satisfied here in the worst.” Lars thought for a moment. “It’s like your religion; you have to work to earn heaven. This laundry room is kinda like hell!” Seth swallowed again. Lars realized Seth was hurt and wasn’t going to defend himself. He softened a little and said, “Aww, no offense, Little Man. I mean, I’m just trying to help ya.” Seth didn’t respond. Lars relented and put the rest of his laundry into the washer in silence. After Lars came back and folded his things he picked them up, and said, “Well, brother, I don’t know if you believe me— about what I said being for your own good, I mean . . . I guess you just gotta do what you gotta do. And I gotta do what I gotta do. I guess we’ll just see whose philosophy on life gets them further.” Lars waited but got no response. He tucked his laundry under his arm so he could lean down and pat Seth on the shoulder. Seth flinched. “Woah, Little Man.” It surprised Lars. A moment later he said, “You know I just wanna help you, right? I mean, no offense or anything.” Eventually Seth nodded to make Lars feel he could go. Lars accidentally dropped a pair of boxers on the floor as he left. The next morning, Miss Muffin came in and did her laundry. Though she talked continuously through both the washer and dryer cycles she stopped one time to ask him, “Why do you keep staring at that pair of boxers, Buddy? Are they yours?” Seth replied, lost in discouraged thought, “They are the bigger man’s.” 48
“They’re too big for you?” She looked confused. She hobbled over and plucked them up. She turned around and hooked them on a nail above the dryer. “There. He can’t miss ’em if they’re hanging up there—just waiting to be found by the man that is big enough to fill them.” She looked at Seth with a mischievous smile and winked. “Ehhhh?” Seth didn’t respond. He stared at the floor. Miss Muffin resumed talking and didn’t stop until she finished folding her laundry. Then she went to watch TV and look for hidden cameras. Seth looked at the boxers. They were off-white, covered in red broken hearts. The sun illuminated them like a shining flag flying over the laundry room. Seth looked over at the plaque in the corner. He shielded his eyes from the glaring boxers and tried to read the rules. The plaque seemed dull and far away. The landlord’s subtle, ancient plaque of rules was just too easily drowned out in the loudness of the bigger man’s broken-hearted boxers. Eventually Seth sighed and gave up. He looked out the window and noticed someone standing outside the door.
The Duckling (Seth chooses his quest) The next moment, a week after Seth had risen from the bathtub, a knock came at the back door. It was the hobo in the green hat and overalls. He stood close to the door, looking down at something in his hands. Seth glanced back at the wooden plaque falling down on the counter, but the shining boxers distracted him. The bright, clean boxers made Seth conscious of the hobo’s 49
dirty clothes and yellowing beard. Then Seth looked at his fairly clean floor and cringed. Maybe the hobo was too dirty to let in. Seth sighed at his dilemma. When he looked back at the hobo, the hobo had noticed the plaque, and was looking at it through the window. This was enough to make Seth shield his eyes from the glaring boxers and try to read the plaque one more time. He squinted and read the first two rules: respect the landlord, and take care of each other. He looked at the hobo, who was looking down at whatever it was in his own hands again. The hobo shifted his footing to look closer but slipped off the tiny porch and almost toppled into the bushes. Seth sighed again, glanced at rule number two that said to help each other, walked over, and opened the door. The hobo held something small and soft in his large, cupped hands. He held it out to Seth and looked at him with big blue eyes. Seth looked down and saw the fuzzy yellow-and-black ball move. A small beak appeared and disappeared into the ball again. It was a duckling. Seth hesitantly cupped his own hands and the hobo set the duckling inside them. The hobo mumbled something too quiet to understand. Seth looked up at him with questioning eyes. The hobo smiled, which lifted his curled mustache over his cheeks, and limped away toward the alley. Seth closed the door and sat down on the steps. He held the duck close to his body. The duck began to shiver. It quacked quietly about twice a second. Seth held it closer against his body. The duck continued shivering. By two in the afternoon, a few hours later, Seth had tried many things to keep the duck warm. He had tried to rub it quickly. He had tried to breathe on it. He had even held it in his armpit for a bit. Nothing was warm enough. The duck got weaker and its heavy head bobbed more often. Every time the duck looked like it was falling asleep, the quacks got quieter and the head dropped lower. But then it would pull its head back up as if it was afraid to fall asleep. It still had not opened its eyes. It simply sat on its feet and tried to tuck its head into the soft fur ball of its shivering body. 50
It was time for Seth to go to work and he didn’t know what to do. He set the duckling down on the rumbling dryer so that he could put on his work shirt. The duck became quiet and its head dropped low until its beak tapped against the metal lid, startling it into quacking again. Seth picked up the duck and knelt to his hands and knees. He crawled underneath the table and set the duck next to the dryer tube. It was warm. The duck was quiet. Its head bobbed and lowered until its beak tapped the ground, waking it, and it continued its weak quacking. Seth pushed the duckling tenderly into the gap between the tube and the wall, propping the duck’s head against the tube. Its head stayed there. The duck quickly fell asleep. When Seth came home from work he crawled underneath the table with the duck and watched it sleep. Leanne came into the laundry room once and saw him under the table. He peeked out and put his finger up to his lips to let her know to be quiet. She leaned over and gave him an exaggerated, overly kind, “Okay.” When Seth looked away, Leanne gave him an odd look, grabbed her laundry and left. When the duck finally woke up, it opened its eyes, lifted and balanced its head, and began quacking. It wouldn’t stop. Seth said, “What do you need?” The duck kept quacking. He thought, If I were a duckling what would I need? Seth brought it a bowl of water. It drank and continued quacking. When a large cockroach scurried by, the duck pecked at it. Its beak bounced off of the cockroach’s back and scared it away. After Seth hit his head on the under structure of the counter, nursed it for a while, and regained his bearings, he started looking for smaller bugs. He brought ants and worms, but the duckling only knew to peck at them. It didn’t seem to know how to get them into his mouth. It kept quacking. The quacking lasted the whole night. The next morning an early knock woke Seth. He got up from under the counter and saw the hobo at the door. Opening the door he said, “I can’t get him to eat anything!” The hobo stood patiently at the door. Seth looked back hesitantly into the house and then stepped aside. “You can come in.” 51
The hobo shuffled in. He mumbled something and Seth asked, “What?” The hobo repeated himself but Seth still could not understand. The hobo looked around. Seth pointed under the counter. The hobo bent down and crawled on his hands and knees under the counter. He emerged with the duckling in one of his big hands and part of an earthworm Seth had been trying to feed it in the other hand. The hobo sat down on the steps and held the duckling against his thick layers of clothing. His large hand totally encompassed the bird, leaving only the tip of its beak coming through his fingers. The hobo pinched the worm into two pieces as if he had done it many times before and held one half up to the little quacking beak. The beak pecked at it a couple times. On the third peck the hobo pinched the sides of his beak, catching it when it was open. With his other fingers he pushed the worm inside. The beak closed and, for a moment, the duckling stopped quacking. The hobo handed the duckling to Seth who picked up the other half of the worm and imitated the hobo, though not as well. The hobo mumbled as they fed the duck. It sounded like the hobo was teaching him something but Seth couldn’t understand anything he said. Eventually the duck was fed. After about an hour the hobo grunted and stood up. He moved toward the door until he saw the boxers on the nail above the dryer. A concerned look came over his face as he looked back at Seth. He walked over to the boxers, took them down, folded them, and placed them neatly in the far corner of the counter. He picked up the plaque of rules from the counter, brushed off the dust, examined it, and handed it to Seth. After mumbling something he looked at the empty hook on the wall above the dryer. He looked back at him with a serious look and then shuffled out the door. The duck grew stronger and, within a couple of days, it could walk and was able to catch hapless insects that walked in front of it. Other tenants that came in saw Seth’s new pet and marveled at how cute it was. Several of them were humored by the fact 52
that this duck looked extra pigeon-toed. Seth always looked at his duckling with pride as they spoke. When Seth had to go to work, the duckling tried to follow him, but it wasn’t quite big enough to get up the steps. Tears almost came to Seth’s eyes when he saw how much the duckling wanted to follow him. Seth told everybody in the house to be careful not to step on it when they went into the laundry room. He told them, with a very proud smile, “He thinks I’m his dad.” One day when Seth came home from work, he saw Barrie lying in the middle of the laundry room floor, facing the dryer. Her mouth was working on something between her paws. Seth panicked and shouted, “No, Barrie! No!” Barrie jumped to her feet and looked back at Seth. The duck escaped and hobbled toward the dryer, its feathers matted and wet. Barrie stood, frozen, looking at Seth. “Oh, you were just washing him.” Seth sighed in relief. “Sorry, Barrie.” Barrie looked back down at the duck, pounced on it before it could get away and continued licking it. The duck willingly bore it. From then on Barrie slept in the laundry room with Seth, and the duck slept tucked against Barrie. One day Seth watched the duck follow Barrie as she trotted up the steps into the kitchen. The duck clumsily hopped up the steps behind her, quacking the whole way. It followed Barrie into the other room, leaving Seth alone. His brimming eyes wandered over to Lars’s pair of boxers folded on the counter. He sighed. “Even my duckling is moving up in the house and leaving me behind.” Seth took a warm towel from the dryer and had a good hard cry into it. His tears subsided. He wiped his face, and let out a quivering sigh. He felt like his tears were from a lot more pain than just the duck leaving him. But it felt good. He laid his face in the soft towel and let himself cry some more. When he finished crying, he opened his eyes and saw the plaque, which was lying on the steps beside him. 53
He read it again, just like he had read it a hundred times before. One. Respect the Landlord. Two. Care for each other. His first thought came from a deep spot, growing from under the shallow house of cards he had built his life on. It had been awakened by the duckling. “What else is worth anything?” Something dawned on him. He pulled out his notebook and flipped to the poem he had written that night in the bathtub. He read: Life is not Worth the living when No one cares He looked at the doorway through which the duck had left him. He noticed little, wet, pigeon-toed footprints on the floor leading from the duck’s water bowl to the steps because it was trying to swim when it saw Barrie leave. Seth blinked hard. His frown eventually leveled out. His eyes were red and tired but a sincere, deep smile crept onto his face. He flipped to the next blank page, pulled out his pen, and wrote: Life is worth Living when you care For someone Seth put his pen and pad back in his pocket. He picked up the boxers and delivered them to Lars’s room. When he came back, Seth looked at the plaque sitting on the steps. He picked it up and hung it on the nail above the dryer. It was at the perfect height, where everyone would see it when they poured out their dirty laundry. Seth could see it from wherever he was in the laundry room. He had just read rule number two again, “Care for each other,” when Miss Muffin rambled in.
Glimpse of the Landlord (Helping Miss Muffin) When Miss Muffin came into the laundry room that day with an armful of laundry, she told Seth, “I always knew there were cameras in my bedroom.” Seth took a deep breath, soberly gathered his strength and thought, Alright, I can do this. He looked up at her, straightened himself up and finally asked, “There are cameras in your bedroom?” Miss Muffin swung the oxygen bottle bag back onto her shoulder, dropped a sock, bent over to pick it up, lost the rest of her laundry onto the floor, and said, “The new guy told me. I always knew it. All the videos are going to be on the World Wide Web or something. He said the only solution was to move out of my room.” Seth’s anger simmered. Miss Muffin continued to explain who was watching her and how they were trying to take away the jackpot that Publishers Clearing House had waiting for her . . . if they could only find her. She constantly stooped to put socks and turtle necks and bras back into her arms, but each time she bent down to pick one up, her oxygen bag swung forward and she moved her arm to stop it, causing her to drop more clothing. Seth helped put her clothes into the washing machine. He stood there with her, trying hard to listen attentively. He didn’t 55
say anything until it was time for him to leave for work, partly because Miss Muffin didn’t stop talking. He was supposed to leave a little after three o’clock and it was already three. He tied on his grocery store apron and tried to tell her several times that he had to leave. She did not stop talking while he told her this. He looked uncomfortably around for help but eventually apologized and just walked out the back door. She stood in the door frame, continuing her story with increasing volume as he rounded the house and disappeared from sight. As he walked he took a deep breath and repeated the second rule: “Care for each other,” as if trying to convince himself he should continue doing it. Over the next few days he tried to listen to her explain her urgent and frantic problems and help look for hidden cameras when she asked him for assistance. After the first long day of helping her, Seth dragged himself into his room and slumped over on the steps. He glanced up at the plaque on the wall and read the rule that said to care for each other. “Pfff.” He shook his head. Then he noticed the next rules that said to keep the house clean. A yawn overtook him as he got up and straightened the plaque on the wall. He slept unusually well that night. Seth was surprised at how much dirt had accumulated in the corners and crevices of the house. On the second day of searching with Miss Muffin he brought a little rag from the laundry room and began to scrub the window frame where he was searching for cameras. It was a slow and laborious chore, and he was frustrated at how little progress he was making. That evening he looked at the plaque on the wall, read the rule about cleaning the inside of the house, shook his head and sighed again. “Pfffff.” The next moment he was asleep, sitting on the step. He slept better that night than the night before. After scrubbing at the same window frame for the third day in a row, he broke through the grime. As he scrubbed the black 56
grime away, revealing the wood grain below, he started to see all the intricate, uniquely carved designs climbing up the narrow board. He turned to tell the others in the room but only found Miss Muffin’s flat behind facing him. She was bent over, scouring through her ball of keys trying to find an appropriate metal shape to unscrew a vent in the floor. Barrie and the duck sat behind her looking at her backside bobbing in the air. “Miss Muffin!” he shouted. “Look at this!” She did not turn. “Miss Muffin!” A quiet but certain fart came from her bottom. She stood up, pulling up her light blue mommy jeans, and turned to the dog. “I can’t quite get to this one. That must be where they hid the main microphone. I know it, in fact.” Barrie’s nose twitched. She trotted away through the kitchen and out through the doggy door. The pigeon-toed duck waddled behind her, quacking on every other step. “I thought I heard something, buddy. Did I hear something?” Seth stared blankly at her. A scowl grew on Miss Muffin’s face and she sniffed. “Barrie! Bad dog!” she turned to Seth, “Did you give her some of the beans from lunch?” Seth shook his head. Miss Muffin said, “Oh well.” and started to examine a crooked, store-bought picture on the wall. “This must be hiding a microphone, too. I’m sure of it, in fact.” He continued to clean. Miss Muffin searched for monitoring devices until she had to go get new batteries for her hearing aids at the VA. She spent 45 minutes wandering through the house loading new oxygen bottles into her bag, getting her things together, and mumbling about bus times. At 1:30 p.m. she waddled out the door. The window frame Seth had been working on was not entirely clean, but it was cleaner. Seth dragged himself into his laundry room and sat down on the steps. He sighed deeply and slumped down, leaning on 57
his elbow. Dirt on the trim along the floor caught his curiosity, so he crawled down to examine it. He found a sock and wiped the dirt with it. He found nothing special where he scrubbed, but after each foot or so he leaned back to examine his work and was pleased. At bed time Seth found a comforter in the dryer. He wrapped it around himself and fell asleep on the floor. At midnight, after Nayeli had cooked a full meal and consumed it, she came in for her comforter. Seth sniffed the air and wrinkled his nose as she pulled the blanket from under him. She cradled her right arm, holding a bag of frozen vegetables awkwardly against that hand like it had been burned. She hadn’t bothered to take off her fake eyelashes or her pasty makeup and didn’t make an effort to speak English. Impatient, she quietly said, “Por favor, Seth. Por favor.” Seth rolled onto the cement floor and Nayeli took the blanket away. Out of habit he glanced up at the plaque of rules. The moonlight was casting exaggerated shadows and Seth noticed a few bumps on the dark perimeter of the plaque that he hadn’t noticed before. Seth got up, leaned over the dryer and plucked it from the wall, examining it. Beautiful, intricately carved designs climbed around the edge of the plaque under a thick layer of grime, similar to the window. He caught his breath and ran his fingers over it. Seth sat down, bent over the plaque and began to pick away at the tar-like grime until chips of it peeled off. When he finished one side, he lifted it in the moonlight. Just like the window frame, it was unique and intricate. Each part was different from the rest. Vines and flowers crawled up the border around insects, surrounded by sun rays and water ripples. Seth carried it out to the window frame he had been cleaning. He turned on the light and gasped at the similarities in the carvings. He whispered, “The landlord did all of this.” Seth set the plaque down carefully on the sill and began peeling the grime from the rest of the window. 58
He finished as the sun rose, falling asleep in the sill, the sun warming his peaceful face.
Bad Haircut (Seth crosses the line) Seth woke up in the early afternoon. He rose from the window sill and remembered his discovery. He smiled and examined it closely as he ran his fingers over the carved designs, starting at the bottom and moving upward. The carvings depicted round seeds in the ground at the bottom. Then their long curvy stems climbed the sides and became fields of flowers which spread over a long mountain spanning the horizontal top of the window frame. A carving of a sun shone over the mountain in the middle of the top section. And right in front of the sun was the carving of a beautiful, distant city. Seth turned to find someone—anyone—that he could share this with. Barrie trotted through the room and the duck’s quacks could be heard following from the kitchen. Seth exclaimed, “Look, Barrie! It’s beautiful! The landlord did this for us!” Barrie stopped, opened her mouth, and panted. Then she trotted out of the room and went upstairs. The duck waddled through, his beak aimed resolutely on following Barrie. Seth reached down and grasped the duck in his hands. The duck did not squirm but never ceased quacking at the same rhythm. Seth embraced his almost full grown, full-fledged body. 59
The duck bore it. Seth set it on the ground and it continued on its pigeon-toed path to follow Barrie. Seth looked at the window again and saw the plaque balancing on the sill, where he had set it last night. He stopped at the third rule and recited, “Keep exterior of house clean and trim.” Seth looked out through the window and saw the overgrown front yard. He walked outside and kicked the tall wall of weeds. Something moved in the grass a few feet in. Seth jumped back. They had seen rabbits, as well as snakes that some of them swore hunted the rabbits in those weeds. Seth went around the house to the pile of crap on the cellar, pushed some things around, and came back with a hoe. Hesitantly he swung the head at the stalks of the weeds. The green wall shuddered slightly. He hit it harder. One of the stalks creased but stayed basically in the same spot. Something moved through the weeds and thumped against the fence on the opposite side of the yard. Seth jumped back again. He went into the house and came back with two pairs of scissors and began to cut. Barely three square feet had been cleared an hour later when Lars walked out onto the porch with a beer and cigarette in his hand. “Hey, Little Man! Whatcha doing?” Startled, Seth jumped to his feet. He lifted his head from his work and looked at Lars with a question on his face. “Are you cutting our grass? Ha! Are you retarded, man?!” He lowered his voice and inserted, “No offense.” Then, raising his voice to public volume again, he said, “They make gaspowered machines to do that! Hey John, come out here!” “I couldn’t find one,” Seth replied, but Lars was looking back into the house waiting for John and didn’t hear him. Seth tried to smile at them as John and Leanne ambled out onto the porch. John stood a little bit behind Lars, his finger holding his place in a book. Leanne stood at the door. She secretively put lipstick on when Lars wasn’t looking. John sat down and Leanne leaned against the house as they talked and watched Seth, laboriously and methodically, cut at the weeds. 60
“Could I ask you a question, Lars?” John closed his book on his lap. “Of course, man.” “Like I told you, I’m a manager at the McDonald’s over there in Park City. I basically have 15 to 20 employees, depending on the season. But my question is, how can I help them become a really good team? I mean, right now they just fight over hours and whose fault—” Lars interrupted him. “It’s a good thing you asked me. I’ve spent years mastering that. This is what you have to do.” Lars pushed himself up in his chair with his left arm and set down his beer. “Work everyone to the bone for about three weeks. Keep them from their families, their homework, whatever. But that will weed out the ones that aren’t willing to sacrifice for the team. Then you keep the hours high, and the workforce low, forcing the remaining 8 or 10 to depend on each other to get everything done. That will build your team. I’ve seen it many times. It’s harsh but it’s the only way to really gel a team.” John adjusted in his chair. “Really?” He was apprehensive. “I don’t think I could do that to them. I try to work more than any of them just to set an example.” “Yeah, that has its benefits too, but look at all the really successful models: boot camp, high school football, many others. But it’s up to you, brother!” Lars threw his hand up in the air then reached for his beer. “Hey, Seth,” Lars called out, “Did you put some sunscreen on your solar panel?” Seth looked up at Lars. Lars patted the top of his head. Seth patted his own head and felt the bald spot. He suddenly understood and looked back down at the yard, ashamed. Lars laughed and looked at John and Leanne. They returned the laugh. Leanne stood behind and between John’s and Lars’s chairs. She filed her nails. Lars drank beer from his left hand and smoked a cigarette from that same hand’s fingers. John spat into a bottle, trying to hide it from Leanne. But she saw it. “John, I can’t believe you’re doing that right in front of me.” 61
He raised an eyebrow and looked up at her. Lars looked at him and held out his cigarette for him to take. “Go ahead; I have more.” John waved him off, trying to look grateful. Lars shrugged as if to say, “It’s your own fault now if she criticizes you.” Leanne said, “Why don’t you smoke like Lars or something? Something a little more sanitary and . . . less disgusting.” John looked up at her with both eyebrows raised, questioning her adamant defense of Lars, instead of him, her husband. She looked up at the street. She smacked her lipsticked lips and said, “I see a storm coming in.” She moved on before her husband could rebut. Lars and John looked up. Lars threw his head back and laughed. Miss Muffin was rounding the fence, waddling quickly towards the house in a determined way. Her oxygen bottles swung around her side. Her red Christmas-sweater vest sparkled in the sunlight. Her maroon turtleneck was dark under her armpits and around her neck. “Oh my god. Help me, God! Oh my god!” She chanted in her raspy voice, “Oh my god. Oh my god.” She breathed frantically and waddled down the sidewalk. “What am I gonna do?” A rabbit darted across her path. She kicked it across the sidewalk without missing a step. It scrambled into the weeds before she would have stepped on it. She continued down the sidewalk, shaking her head. “Oh my god! They’re onto me. They’re gonna find me. Oh my god. What do I do?” Seth walked up to her and waved. “What’s wrong?” Miss Muffin noticed Seth and hugged him. The perspiration from her face rubbed onto him. “I don’t know what I’m gonna do, Buddy. They’re going to find me. They were following me. They’re gonna find us out.” She looked up at the three on the deck, “They’re gonna find all of us out! Oh my g-a-a-a-a-w-ww-d!” she shook her hands in the air. Seth asked, “Who’s gonna find us?” She looked around as if for a place to hide. “It’s the government or something. One of them had black on. Another one was a kid with a bandana; he was looking at me at the bus 62
stop. They were in on it together I bet—in fact I’m sure of it.” She held Seth’s arms at his sides. “What are we gonna do?” “Why do they want to find us?” Seth asked. “What?!” “Why do they want to find us?” Seth repeated. “What?! Oh, they want to find us to . . .” she struggled to find the correct words. “To give us what we have coming to us, you know!” She winked as if to tell him something dreadful in code that the watching cameras could not see. “What does that mean?” Seth asked, trying to understand. “What!?” She responded. “Oh, you know. What we all deserve! It’s all going to catch up to us. They know what we do and what we don’t do that we’re supposed to do!” She noticed the two pairs of scissors in Seth’s hands. She gave him a paranoid look and let go. “How can we help, Miss Muffin?” Seth insisted. “Do what you’re supposed to be doing. You know that! They’ll probably still catch us with all those cameras everywhere, though, and make us pay!” “I don’t understand. What sort of things do we need to do?” Seth reached up to touch her arm but the scissors almost poked her in the face. Miss Muffin jerked her head away from the scissors and looked at Seth’s face in bewilderment. “What?! Oh, what do you mean, what sort of things? I just told you already to do the things we need to do.” She turned from Seth with a hopeless, exasperated look and climbed the stairs. Lars leaned back and held his hand up like a mime, boxing himself out of the situation. John looked up at her with a worried look on his face as she passed. She grabbed his arm, which splashed his spitter on his leg. He cursed and looked down at the wet spot. “Yeah.” She nodded without noticing what she had done. “That’s right. It’s bad. It’s really, really bad. You can’t believe how bad it is. I don’t think Buddy is quite . . . uh . . . bright enough to understand how bad it is.” She gestured at Seth. “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.” She was hyperventilating. 63
Lars laughed and looked at Leanne, who smiled back with big red lips and white teeth. Miss Muffin heard Lars laugh and threw her hands up in emphasis. “Don’t you understand?! They’re going to find us! They know everything we do. It’s all going to be on the Wide World Web soon for everyone to see.” “Whatever, Miss Armageddon,” Lars said, “As long as I get my five minutes of fame on the ’Net I’ll be happy!” He smiled up at Leanne, who smiled back. Miss Muffin pulled out her mini-megaphone and put it to her mouth. Suddenly her voice blared in Lars’s face. “You’re in trouble, mister! You and your cigarettes and your beer, your ugly school bus tattoo and your broken arm! It’s all going to be out on the web. Even your sweet old momma’s gonna see it.” Lars dropped his beer bottle and knocked the megaphone away from his face. It caught her oxygen tube and plucked it from her nose. Lars showed his teeth and pointed at her. “Not my mother, you old senile witch.” Miss Muffin withdrew the megaphone and stood up straight. She spoke slowly and sternly, “When they come for us, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” She turned and started toward the front door. The megaphone fell from her hand and bounced on the loose boards. She slowly collapsed to the deck. Lars smiled nervously. “Wow, that woman really knows how to get herself worked up. I think she could use a little break on the floor there. She’ll be okay. I’ve seen it before. She’ll be fine.” He smiled strongly at John and Leanne and shrugged them out of the responsibility. Seth moved toward her. “Are you sure you want to do that, Little Man? I said she’ll be okay.” Seth looked at Miss Muffin lying on the floor. “Didn’t you hear what she said about you? She said you’re DUMB.” It was like he had been stabbed. That word always really hurt. But Seth gazed at Miss Muffin from the sidewalk. The rough peeling boards stretched the thin, ashen skin of her face so that she was almost unrecognizable. Seth looked at Lars and at the unmoving John and Leanne. Without even thinking, he recited 64
to himself, just like he had hundreds of times over the last few days, “Take care of each other.” It was engraining itself in him. He climbed the steps, lay down beside her and carefully placed the oxygen tube back into her nose. When she woke up, Seth’s big, flat, pocked face one foot away from hers startled her into motion. She gathered her things and got up. She looked at the crate of oxygen bottles absently, then turned and looked at the yard with a distant look in her eyes. “Oh, did someone give the front yard a bad haircut?” she said absently and went into the house. Her oxygen bottles banged the doorframe as she went in.
Radioactive Paint (Miss Muffin decides to move) Over the next few days Seth helped Miss Muffin search for cameras, call Publishers Clearing House, and figure out her bus schedule so she could stop missing appointments at the VA hospital. Seth hoped that, if he only helped her out enough, she would understand that someone cared for her and the stressful confusion in her brain would subside. Their conversations were long and one-sided. Seth tried really hard to understand the scattered stories but usually left with a confused look. She kept on talking about her son named Soul Star that she knew had gotten to town and was looking for her. “I know he is, in fact. He’ll find me soon.” These days exhausted Seth and he slept while people did their laundry right next to him. Something about the sunshine and the warm dryer in his room recharged him. He read the plaque every time he walked into the room, every time he lay down to sleep and every time he got up. 65
He cleaned off the other window frame in the TV room and found another breathtaking design beneath the grime. He also discovered the mural on the wall wrapping around the stairwell. It depicted a beautiful city on a hillside. He worked on cleaning it for almost a week when he wasn’t helping Miss Muffin. He found that when he went to work at the grocery store these days, he gained joy in doing his tasks more thoroughly and patiently than before. It helped him clear his mind. And though it seemed he worked slower, he often finished all the tasks in his day before his coworkers did, who rushed. Seth spoke less than he used to. He listened a lot. He learned about many of Miss Muffin’s needs. He also became aware that something was haunting Nayeli and that something heavy always lingered just under the surface of John and Leanne’s interactions. He found out that when Miss Muffin held the duck she was calmer. She didn’t talk as much when she was petting it. The duck kept quacking but bore her obsessively petting arms patiently. One afternoon, Seth was enjoying enchiladas at the kitchen table when Miss Muffin plodded in, dragging her bag of oxygen bottles across the floor. She sat down at the table in the chair across from Seth. Her head fell as she let out a deepthroated, scratchy sigh. “I need to move out.” Seth looked up at her. “The walls are lined with radioactive paint,” she said. “They did experiments on people in my room. It’s slowly mutating me into something different,” she said, eyeing Seth’s plate of food. “That’s why I’ve been having such bad luck lately. It’ll be the death of me if I don’t leave.” Seth finished chewing and asked, “How do you know?” “Well, the paint is peeling in there. It wouldn’t peel if it was real paint; he told me that. And I can see strange silver stuff underneath.” “Who told you that? Where will you go to?” 66
“I don’t know. But I just know I gotta get out. It’s all bugged in there. They know everything I do and say and think and now I know they are trying to radiate me—trying to change me. And it does not feel good. I’ve been feeling really sick lately. And that leather-jacket-guy also told me that’s what radioactive paint does and that I need to move out or I’ll just get sicker.” Seth squeezed his fork in his hand and clenched his jaw. “So . . .” Miss Muffin kept looking at his plate. “I need someone to maybe help me move my stuff out.” She reached for his plate as if enchanted by it. She plucked away a bean and ate it. Seth saw her lost gaze and handed her the fork. He looked down at the plate one last time before sliding it over to her. She consumed the beans vigorously, sighed in satisfaction and said to herself, “I love beans.” Then she moved onto the rest of the enchilada. Seth spent the next 10 minutes trying to convince her that there was no need to move out of her room. And that it was better than living on the street. While he spoke, Lars walked into the kitchen. Lars opened the refrigerator and poured himself a glass of Sprite. “Are you moving out, Miss Muffin? Did I hear you need a place to move to?” Miss Muffin froze in fear. Lars continued talking, “Do you want my room?” He walked over and stooped down, trying to look like he cared. “You can have my room. I bet it’s a pretty safe room and everything.” Miss Muffin and Seth didn’t move until Lars finished his Sprite and put the cup in the sink. He patted Seth on the shoulder as he left and said, “What’s up, Little Man?” Seth closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. He spoke as Miss Muffin started to eat again. “Are you sure you need to move out?” Miss Muffin looked up at him and nodded emphatically. Seth saw the resolution on her face and decided it was hopeless to try to convince her otherwise. She fully believed Lars. The suggestion was too horrible for her not to believe. 67
He shook his head at how Lars had beaten them again and muttered in defeat, “At least my old room is better than the streets. I can help you move.”
Snake Crushing (Helping Miss Muffin move) Miss Muffin waddled very slowly to her room. “Well,” she said. “Maybe you can stay outside my room and I can bring stuff out to you.” “Um,” Seth hesitated, “Okay, um, sure.” They stopped at her door and Miss Muffin pulled out her ball of keys. After three and a half minutes of trying keys, she plugged the right one in and unlocked the door. She slipped inside as she said, “Wait here.” Miss Muffin closed the door behind her. She reached out, set a magazine rack outside her door and closed it behind her again. It held six magazines that looked a decade old. Then she did the same thing with a bent coat rack. Then a lamp. Then a popcorn maker and a stack of plastic dishes. Seth took the magazine rack and the lamp and pushed the door open into his old room. He stood in the doorway and looked around the room. He looked at the bed. Lars’s pictures were already off of the wall. Lars’s things were already gone. Seth shook his head sadly. Lars was moving up in the house. He was the only one. 68
His eyes darted from pile to pile of his old things still in his former room. He said to himself, “I can’t believe I wanted to keep all this junk.” He sighed deeply and shook his head. “Pfff.” He set Miss Muffin’s magazine rack and lamp down outside the door and went to carry some of his old things out to the front porch. Armful by armful he took out the things that used to be his: a broken plastic chair, an old ceramic baseball player head with pens in it, a couple of nearly empty dog-eared spiral notebooks, an old collapsible windshield sun guard, and more. He took them to the front porch. He looked at the trash cans by the road and set the objects down on the porch for the time being. Lars rocked in a chair, drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. He watched Seth with an entertained smirk. He belched, patted his stomach and smacked his lips, satisfied. Nayeli pinned wet laundry to a clothesline she had tied to the lattice work on the other half of the porch. Her laundry flapped sporadically in the strong afternoon wind. As she reached up to hang a little blouse, she felt her shirt lift and she reached to cover her bare belly with her hand. She noticed the small pinch of fat and cursed under her breath in Spanish. On Seth’s second trip back inside, she slipped in behind him, hanging her head low. She pinched her belly disdainfully. She headed into the bathroom. On the fifth trip Seth set down a bike pump, a metal flag pole mount, and an old fish bowl with aqua-colored sand in the bottom. Lars asked, “Whatcha doin’, Little Man?” Seth brushed his hands off on his sides, tried to rub a food stain from his shirt, and glanced up at Lars. Quietly he said, “Just cleaning out some old junk.” Lars looked at the pile and teased him, “What? You don’t want those great treasures?” Seth glanced up to answer again, but the hobo hobbling up the sidewalk distracted them. The hobo looked up at Lars sheepishly and nodded his hello from under his haphazard white beard and green hat. Seth waved at him and smiled. The hobo smiled at Seth and shyly nodded at the pile in a way that said he would help him 69
take the garbage out to the trash cans. He stepped onto the porch and reached for something in the pile. Lars called him out on it, louder than was necessary and emphasized it with a random, rhyming name: “What’s up, Chuck?!” Nayeli froze just behind the screen door. She did not see the hobo. She looked at Lars through the screen, suddenly wearing hateful eyes. Lars heard her stop and glanced back at her. “Woah, what’s wrong, Nayeli?” She stuck her chin up and said, “I know what ees UPCHUCK. I’m not stoopeed, you know. Don’t talk behind my back.” She stomped angrily back into the house, throwing her hair from side to side to cover her face. Seth and Lars looked at each other in confusion. “Hey! What are you doing?!” Lars yelled at the hobo, who was taking an old rusty scooter from Seth’s pile. The hobo turned and looked at Lars sheepishly again and mumbled. “What?! What’d you say?” Lars yelled. The hobo mumbled some more, pointed to the scooter and pointed out to the trash cans. “What are you saying, Mumble Bum? I can’t hear a word you’re saying.” The hobo continued to mumble, trying to explain himself. Lars looked at him, confused, impatient, and skeptical. Miss Muffin pushed the screen door open. Her oxygen bottles made a loud bang as they hit the doorframe. She threw her hands in the air when she saw Seth’s pile. “Hey! What are you doing, Buddy!? You can’t get rid of this stuff! It’s valuable, you know!” Seth stepped back as she burrowed past him to reach into the pile. “This stuff isn’t worth anything, Miss Muffin.” “No, no, no! This stuff is great! What if we need it in the future?” She blundered back through the screen door with a half-rolled Ozzy Osborne poster in one hand and the fish bowl in the other. 70
Lars threw his head back and laughed. “Well, you better come talk to the Mumble Bum, Miss Muffin. He’s taking all of your great stuff for himself!” The hobo was halfway down the walkway with the scooter in one hand and broken pieces to a Battleship game in the other. A rabbit bounded across the path in front of him. A snake followed the rabbit just as the Mumble Bum reached it. The mumble bum lifted his big artificial-sole-enhanced foot and stomped on the snake’s head, which had almost reached the grass on the other side. He dropped the scooter, almost dropped the Battleship pieces and all but totally lost his balance. The snake’s body instantly writhed and came to a gnarled freeze under the large heel of the hobo. It would never again eat a yard bunny. Lars threw his head back again and laughed loudly. Seth stood wide-eyed looking at the Mumble Bum, as Lars called him, his mouth gaping, brimming with saliva and his hands hanging at his sides. John walked into view on the street, coming toward the house with a haggard shuffle. He looked up at the hobo with a tired look on his face and hesitated. He looked at the scooter in the grass and the Mumble Bum trying to regain his balance like a drunken man. John scooted past him, picking up the dropped scooter. “Is this yours, Seth?” John called to him. Seth stood silently, still with his mouth halfway open. Lars caught John’s attention and motioned him to get the Mumble Bum off of the property. John glanced back at the Mumble Bum who was still regaining his balance and said, “Why don’t you move along, man. Sorry.” The Mumble Bum eventually caught his balance, hung his head and shuffled away, dropping the pieces of the Battleship game in the trash cans as he passed. Lars spoke to John as he approached the porch. “You look pooped, man.” John shook his head and gasped. “It was so windy today. I was doing the human billboard thing for the store and I got blown all over the place.” 71
“What?! Why are you doing that stuff, brother? You should get some 16-year-old pimple faced kid to do that.” He pointed at Seth’s pimply face, which was watching where the Mumble Bum had gone. “No offense, Little Man.” Seth turned with a questioning, lost gaze. Miss Muffin busted out of the house and filled her arms full from Seth’s pile and bustled back into the house. Lars said to John, “Get a beer, man, and come sit out here with us. It’s quite a show.” Seth stayed out there long enough to watch John settle into a seat and Miss Muffin come out for another load. Then he sighed and went back into his old room. He watched her rummage through the piles of old things. She pushed past him to get another load from the porch. He looked around the room at the dismal mess and shook his head sadly. Then he maneuvered his way between the piles and reached the window, where he pushed the crooked blinds up to let more light in. A memory froze him for a moment and then shook his bony shoulders. He remembered how he had wondered if the string of these blinds could hang a person. He took a deep breath and then tucked the string into the blinds so that nothing but light could pour into this room for Miss Muffin.
Roaches and Fireflies (In Miss Muffin’s room) Miss Muffin talked continuously as she went in and out of her new room with armloads of stuff. She gave them clumsily to Seth, who emptied them into neat piles in his old room. He rearranged things in order to fit it all in. He set old golf clubs back up straight, leaned a mirror more tightly against the wall, and straightened a pile of ancient encyclopedias. Night was falling and Miss Muffin hadn’t come out of her old room for a while—though she did not stop talking through the door to Seth. She talked about the people at the bus stop and what they said to her and how the nurses at the VA were withholding information from her. Sometimes she addressed someone named Mr. Biscuit with a quick, “How are you?” or “Now where did I put that envelope, Mr. Biscuit?” Finally she went silent and cracked the door. She looked both ways down the hall and then looked at Seth. “Um, I can’t move this dresser.” “Do you want me to help?” “No, no. I don’t want you to come in and see everything. You never know who you can trust.” She looked both ways down the hallway again and then disappeared into her room. She talked distractedly. Something heavy jolted slightly across the floor inside. She popped her head out again and looked up and down Seth’s body. “Hmmmm.” 73
“Can you take the drawers out of the dresser?” Seth was proud of his sudden brilliance. “Huh-uh.” She shook her head. “I lost the key.” She sighed and looked at the ground. She stepped out and stood in front of Seth as she closed the door behind her. She adjusted her oxygen bottle and looked at the ground. “Maybe I can trust you. You’ve acted like a good friend lately. Answer me honestly. Are you one of them?” She looked intensely up into his eyes. “One of who? No, I don’t think so.” “Hmmmm.” She looked back and forth down the hall. She looked at the corners of the ceiling and scowled. “My back isn’t what it used to be . . . I wish my son were here.” “Where is your son, do you think?” he tried to make the air lighter. “Oh, he just got into town. He’s looking for me now. Driving all the little streets just looking for this house. He probably has the address because he’s really smart; I know he has it, in fact.” Seth tried to have hope in what she was saying. “What does he look like?” “Oh, yeah. Umm. You really want to see him? No one around here has really asked about him before.” She lifted a locket hanging from a chain around her neck. A very faded picture was clamped into the locket; the corners sticking out of the oval were worn almost completely round. “This is Soul Star. He’d be a little bit younger than you. He was going to be an Eagle Scout because he was really good at making friends and was really smart. He was always out with his friends. I barely saw him after he was 16.” She was quiet for a moment. She bit her lip and swallowed. “Anyway, he’ll find me one of these days. Do you want to see a picture of my husband?” She looked up at him. Seth nodded. She hesitated but then opened the door for him. He walked in slowly. She closed the door behind them. Seth looked at her room. It looked much like his old room, with random objects stacked into piles, but her items were mostly older. Lots of newspapers and tall stacks of magazines 74
lay scattered through the room. The paint was peeling in one corner, revealing wallpaper underneath. The wallpaper had an ornate, silver, damask-like pattern on it. A large dresser with a mirror took up most of the wall opposite the door. Seth found himself staring at his own flat, bony body in the mirror attached to the dresser. The mirror went almost to the ceiling. He rubbed at a faded ketchup stain on his oversized white polo shirt and then turned to Miss Muffin. There was a tear in the back of her sweater that he hadn’t noticed before. She was leaning over her bed picking something off of her night stand. Dirt and oil smudges covered her wide, flat buttocks. She farted barely audibly and stood up quickly. She turned around and held out two pictures in frames for Seth to see. “That’s my husband.” Seth looked at one of the pictures in her hands. It displayed a young, happy Miss Muffin in a tan military uniform trying to hold in a laugh while steeling a glance up at the man at her side. The man stood overly straight, smiling at the camera in an exaggerated, open mouthed smile, his mockery of formal military photography. “My husband and I were in the military, stationed in Germany.” She turned to Seth. “He was my commander and I seduced him. We got kicked out so we ran away. We tried to survive over there in Germany but we didn’t know any German.” She handed the other picture to him. It showed the same man dressed in Hawaiian swim trunks and sandals holding a baby over a cliff where people were cliff diving. One of the man’s legs was in the air, pretending he was losing balance. “We did all sorts of stuff. We begged on the streets for a while, pretending we had Polish accents.” A nostalgic smile came over her face. “We crashed a scooter over a mountain road once—don’t worry, it wasn’t our scooter.” She smiled again to herself. “And that is Soul Star.” She pointed at the photograph with the baby. “We had him over there but we came back to the states to raise him. The health care over there is terrible if you’re an American that doesn’t speak German living on the 75
streets.” She caught just enough breath to keep talking. “He was a little bit sick. That is why he was so skinny. He just grew slower. But he always had lots of friends. I visited his classroom one time here in Kansas to tell his teacher her homework assignments were ridiculous. They loved me because they laughed and laughed. But then my son didn’t really come home very much after that. Probably because he had a car. I tried to be friends with his teacher but she was always too busy to talk with me.” She swallowed a lump in her throat and glanced away from the photo, busying herself with the oxygen hose in her nose. “Lare left me one day—his name was Larry—my husband. We liked talking a lot, but he just started looking out the window when we talked, like he wanted to be outside or something. He just started looking out the window all the time until one day—just one day he got this look on his face, like he was already gone in a way. Then he picked his keys up off of the counter and drove away. I think he just went crazy. I don’t know why else he would have left.” Seth held the pictures like mint condition baseball cards, looking at her with compassion. Miss Muffin turned back to the picture and gained momentum again. “Then Soul Star—my son, I mean—left that summer and I haven’t seen him since. He was a good looking, smart kid though, so he’s done well for himself. I’m sure, in fact.” She went back to rummaging through things on her night stand. An old birdcage sat on a pedestal in the corner by the night stand. The bottom was filled with birdseed, frayed ropes and little rusted bells. A dead bird lay on its side in the birdseed. A cockroach crawled out of the birdseed as a different one entered it. “Is that your bird, Miss Muffin?” Seth innocently asked. “Yeah.” She glanced up at the cage and then went back to shuffling books on the night stand. “He keeps me company. My one true friend. I can trust him.” She glanced up at the bird again. Her gaze stayed there and she fell silent. “I think he’s dead,” she said absently. “He can’t be dead.” Miss Muffin took a step to the cage and clumsily, impatiently rattled the door open, which shook the whole 76
birdcage, spilling seed on the floor. She stood back nervously. “C’mon Mr. Biscuit. C’mon, Biscuit. He was always too scared to leave his cage and his toys behind. If he just wasn’t so paranoid that everything was dangerous and out to get him! Mr. Biscuit! Come out! I’ll take care of you.” Her voice rose. “It’s too dirty in your cage. Why didn’t he want to come out here with me?! C’mon Biscuit. I’ll take care of you, Biscuit!” She turned around and pushed past Seth. She pummeled through the piles of magazines, and thrashed through the loose newspapers as if to distract herself. She frantically slid the hanging clothes in the closet back and forth, looking between each one as if her urgent task was to find something very valuable that was lost, even if she didn’t know what it was. When she tugged on the sleeve of a sweater on the shelf above, a stack of clothes crashed down over her. She kicked the pile apart to look in it and moved on to her bed. She jerked the bed pole and the bed skipped away from the wall slightly. The oxygen bottle hit the pole with a clang. She threw back her covers, lifted her thin mattress and threw it back down. Her face was red. Her eyes squinted. She started checking all of her pockets while juggling the oxygen bottle on her shoulder. Her face reddened even more. Seth closed his worried eyes tightly and pushed his fists to his face. He scowled and whispered to himself, “What would I want if I were Miss Muffin?” He struggled in that stance for a few moments and then his eyes lit up. He scooted past her and left the room. Two minutes later he returned and found Miss Muffin repeatedly tugging with all her might on the locked drawers of the gigantic dresser. She stared at herself in the mirror as she jerked violently back and forth. Seth held the duck out to her. Her hands grasped it immediately and began to pet it frantically. Her eyes left her reflection in the mirror and stared at the duck. Her body was still except for her heaving lungs and her hand stroking the duck cradled in her arms. Seth stood beside her. After 10 minutes she was still petting the duck. Her face was slightly more relaxed. Seth was starting to feel relieved. 77
Seth’s eyes drifted down to the feet of the dresser. He grabbed one and tugged on it. It didn’t even shudder. As he rounded the dresser’s corner searching for a better grip, he glanced behind it. “Oh!” He gasped. He was dumbfounded by what he saw. There was a skinny gap between the tall dresser and the wall. Behind the dresser was hidden a bay window. It had a window seat and it peered out into the small side yard. He looked back to check on Miss Muffin. She stared at the duck while she stroked it obsessively and lovingly. She was stable. Seth put his head up to the gap. It barely fit. He slid it through. His thin body easily followed. He climbed onto the orange pad of the reading seat. Dusk was approaching. A bed of fresh yellow lilies outside the window filled his view. Seth pulled his legs up and wrapped his arms around them. A floating flame appeared outside for a second and then went out. And then another one. Lightning bugs. They appeared and disappeared in the little side yard above the glowing lilies as if they all were wooing each other. Seth put his chin on his knees and watched. He whispered, “Wow. If only Miss Muffin had come back here more.” He sat and watched the dance of fireflies above the yellow ocean of lilies. It struck him again and he whispered to himself, “Why didn’t you come back here more, Miss Muffin? There’s nothing to be scared of here.” The sun went down and darkness came. It was getting cool and Seth pulled his arms into his big shirt. He pulled his socks up and looked around him for something to cover himself with. When he couldn’t find anything he folded his legs to his chest and stretched his shirt over them. He heard a click and something started hissing at the bottom of the windows. Within a few minutes Seth could feel heat rising from little heating vents along the windows. There was a radiator below the window seat. Seth leaned over and cupped his hands over the vents. Seth woke up to the rhythmic grunts and deep breathing of John and Leanne coming through the vent in the ceiling. 78
He mumbled, “Woah, it’s ten o’clock already?!” They made these mysterious noises at about 10 p.m. every night. He found himself curled up in the warm seat of the bay window and smiled. He stretched and sighed audibly. “Oh, my dear Soul Star.” Miss Muffin had heard him and responded in a weak voice. “Are you safe? Have you come to save me? My sweet little Soul? Are you there?” The light in the room was still on. Seth slipped out from behind the dresser. Miss Muffin was asleep, sitting on the floor with one arm propped on the bed. The duck was sleeping by the closed door. Seth crept past her and turned off her light. He opened the door carefully but it creaked. “Soul Star? My son? I’m over here! Come here,” Miss Muffin said, talking in her sleep. Seth walked over to her. “Miss Muffin, I’m here. It’s me, Seth. Seth Christian Anders.” “You’re a Christian? That’s great, Son. We can talk about that later. Have you come to rescue me? To take me home?” “No, it’s me, Miss Muffin. It’s Seth. Do you want help getting into bed?” Seth helped her pull back the covers and climb in. “How did you find me? I knew you’d come. Just in the nick of time. Mr. Biscuit died.” Suddenly her eyes opened and she leaned up to look at the bird cage in the dark. “Is Mr. Biscuit dead? Is he really dead, Soul Star? We’ve gotta get out of this room. There are cameras everywhere. I know it, in fact. And the paint . . .” She looked at Seth. Seth didn’t answer. A look of horror slowly crept onto her face as she realized he wasn’t Soul Star. “Miss Muffin,” Seth urged, “it’s okay. No one’s watching us. The paint is just peeling, I think. It’s gonna be okay. You can go to sleep now.” “You’re not Soul Star!” She sat up and scooted to the wall, frightened of him. “Yes, there are cameras! I know it in fact. I know it. Cameras and bad poisonous paint. We need to get out!” “I think it’ll be okay for tonight, Miss Muffin. You can relax.” Seth spoke tenderly. 79
“What?! . . . You’re one of them! I know there are cameras in here. You’re one of them! GET OUT!” She screamed at him. The duck began to quack. “Get out of here! I trusted you! You’re one of them! You’ve seen everything! GET OUT! GETTTT OOOOOUUT!” Seth scrambled through the dark room, accidentally kicking over two separate stacks of magazines. He reached the door and opened it. The duck waddled out. Seth slipped out behind it. “You betrayed me like all the others! You’re one of them!” she yelled as Seth, shaking, closed the door. He stood outside the door with his hands limp at his sides, breathing hard and trembling. The duck waddled away. He could hear Miss Muffin wailing inside. Seth walked quickly to the laundry room and tore through the clothes in the dryer until he found something soft, a sweater. He held it to his face as he crumpled to the floor and sobbed. He was scared. After a couple minutes his sobs calmed to quivering breaths and he opened his eyes. He took a slow, shaky breath. The duck caught his eye, waddling in circles confusedly by the laundry room door. Miss Muffin howled again from her room. Seth groaned and cupped his face and covered his ears in the sweater. As he sniffed he felt a thread of some kind in his mouth. He pulled the sweater away and realized it was some stray tinsel-y threads from Miss Muffin’s Christmas sweater. He set it aside, feeling as if she wouldn’t trust him to hold even her sweater anymore. Seth covered his ears with his hard, dry hands and whined to drown out her new waves of wails. He was exhausted. When the house became quiet and Miss Muffin’s cries subsided, he slowly rolled over and eventually looked up. He couldn’t see the moon. It was behind the house somewhere. The dirty windows rattled in the cold wind. He lay there in silence for almost an hour. Then, just as the moon was peeking out from behind the house he heard the doorknob on the back door turn and click.
Sponge (Cleaning with the Mumble Bum) The wood door dragged across the cement porch as it opened. Seth froze. He looked at the door. The cold air hit him. A large man grunted as he struggled to fit inside. Canned food in plastic bags thumped into the doorframe. The man stopped when he saw Seth staring up at him from the floor. His big white beard shuddered as he chewed on something. He wheezed through his nose. He turned and closed the door, and then continued, carrying plastic bags into the kitchen. Seth heard cupboards opening, the refrigerator open and close, and he heard the Mumble Bum rip open a plastic wrapper and chew what was inside, deeply satisfied. Seth got up and sat on the steps facing the wall of windows. He sniffled sporadically. The sounds in the kitchen stopped and the next moment the big man appeared in the doorway to the kitchen. Seth looked up at him. The big Mumble Bum stepped down the steps and held something small and boxy out to Seth. He mumbled for him to take it. Seth reached up and hesitantly took it. It was a dual surface sponge. The Mumble Bum climbed the steps with his big black boot and disappeared into the kitchen again. Seth turned the sponge over in his hand. He wiped his nose on his shirt, got up and went into the kitchen. The Mumble Bum was removing the burners from the stove. He set them on a paper towel he had laid out beside it and began to scrub the bowls under the burners with a rag. He looked at Seth and mumbled something. “What? I can’t understand you.” Seth wanted to understand. 81
The Mumble Bum repeated himself. “What?” Seth took a step closer to him. The Mumble Bum swallowed, looked at the ground, disappointed at himself, and tried again. “What?!” Seth was getting frustrated. The Mumble Bum reached out his hand as if he wanted to put it on Seth’s shoulder but didn’t know how. Seth looked at the Mumble Bum’s hand reaching out to him. He blinked hard, sniffed, took half of a step closer and tried again. “I’m sorry. Please say that one more time. I’m sorry, I’m not a very good listener.” The Mumble Bum labored to repeat it slowly, though a mumble still seemed the best he could do. “What?! . . . I’m sorry, Mister.” Seth started to hand the sponge back to him, but froze. “Oh! wait.” A bit of understanding and hope suddenly sparked in Seth’s voice. “What did you say? I mean, are you sure about that?” The Mumble Bum nodded emphatically. “Oh!” Seth said. “Under here?” he pointed to the grimy, dark kitchen countertop. The Mumble Bum nodded again. Seth looked down at the tiles and began scrubbing. They scrubbed side by side, like friends, until just before dawn. The Mumble Bum mumbled to him off and on throughout the night. Although Seth didn’t ever understand exactly what he was saying, he felt like he started to understand the tone of his voice. Maybe like Barrie understands people’s voices, Seth thought. But Seth recognized the Mumble Bum’s tone because if Seth had had a friend he could call tonight, and had no tongue, he would have sounded about the same. The feeling that Seth now shared with the Mumble Bum was the deep pain of trying to help people but being misunderstood and rejected by them. To Seth, it was like hearing a song on the radio in an old car that’s so rickety it’s hard to understand the words, but after a few muffled notes, you know the song. Seth hummed the tones he heard from the Mumble Bum every few moments as an affirmation of what he was hearing, and it sounded like a child 82
imitating his father, or an amateur singer hesitantly harmonizing with a master. Just before the sun rose, Seth stumbled into the laundry room. He glanced at and recited the plaque as he threw a pile of clothes from the dryer onto the floor. His big flat face hit the pillow of socks and a smile of realization suddenly spread across his cheeks. He mumbled to himself in exhausted delight, “I think I was understanding his words at the end.” The next moment he was fast asleep. His sleep was interrupted a few hours later when Nayeli came into the laundry room squealing with joy. It was light outside. Seth felt her arms wrap around his curled-up body. She planted a big, warm, wet kiss on his cheek. “Seth, I loave you.” She got up, bouncing with excitement and went back into the kitchen. Seth smiled, a little bit confused, but fell quickly back to his much needed sleep.
Eating a Hair (Nayeli cooks for Seth) Seth woke up to the sound of food frying and someone whistling. He sniffed the air and got up quickly, glancing back only at the plaque. He climbed the two steps into the kitchen. He stood in the doorway and looked at Nayeli. She buzzed around the kitchen with a smile and whistled a quick, upbeat tune. Her frayed, faded red cap sat at the back of her head and her hair was tucked under it. Dark eyeliner framed her eyes, but otherwise her natural caramel-colored skin had no makeup. When she saw Seth she let go of the pan on the stove and raised her palms at her sides as if she were showing off the kitchen. She smiled and said, “Ees not dirty no more.” She 83
beamed at Seth and said, “No more dirty,” before she turned back to her stove. Seth looked around. The stove top was white instead of the usual grimy yellow, and the dark, spotless burners hovered above their shiny bowls. The countertop glistened with brilliant bright blue and white tiles. Seth looked around, surprised. Sunlight sparkled in each of the tiles. An embarrassed smile broke across his face. He looked down at his hands and started picking dirt from under his fingernails, unable to hide his smile. Nayeli walked over, kissed him on the cheek, and gave him a huge, long hug. Seth almost panicked when he couldn’t breathe because his face was smashed so deeply into her chest. But after she released him, the cloud of her sweet perfume replaced it with a pleasant daze. She pulled out a chair at the table and gestured for him to sit down. Seth sat. She bowed like a fancy waitress and went back to whistling and cooking. She moved quickly and efficiently around the kitchen. Nayeli took her sweatshirt off, put her cap back on, and pulled her long black ponytail through the hole in the back. Her T-shirt was dark from sweat on her lower back and she wiped her forehead. She kept whistling. Five minutes later, she set a plate of tamales and freshly cut cantaloupe with the rinds removed in front of him. She set a tall glass of orange juice next to the plate. Then she sat down opposite him and leaned forward proudly to watch him eat. Seth looked down, took the fork, and tried to stab into the tough corn husk wrapped around one of the tamales. After his second unsuccessful attempt to pierce the tamale’s wrapping Nayeli reached over and quickly unwrapped both of them. She continued watching him with a big smile. Seth cut apart the tamale and tried to dish it into his mouth. The first piece fell into his lap. He picked it up and put it in his mouth. “MMMMMmmmmmMMMMM.” He chewed slowly and smiled. Nayeli beamed. She got up and came back with a paper towel. She set it on his lap under the table and sat back down across from him. “You . . . uuhhhhh . . . you like eet?” she asked. 84
Seth paused for a moment, trying to understand her thick accent. When he realized what she had said, he nodded emphatically. He took another bite. “Eat . . . thees . . . ” She struggled for the word but resorted to gesturing to the cantaloupe as if she was going to pick it up for him. Seth shook his head. “I don’t like that fruit,” he said, spitting crumbs. Nayeli pouted her bottom lip and looked purposefully sad. Seth saw this and looked down at the cantaloupe. He swallowed and set his fork down. He reached for the cantaloupe, grasped it in his fist and hesitantly pushed half of it into his mouth. As he forced himself to chew he tried to smile. He felt a string of something on his chin and reached with his other hand to lift it into his mouth. He saw that it was not cheese or even a string of the corn husk, but a long, thick, glossy back strand of hair stretching from his mouth to one of the tamales. “Oh! Pues!” She saw it and reached for it, but Seth smiled and waved her off, pretending he hadn’t noticed anything wrong. He tried to show her a big smile to tell her how delicious it all was. He chewed, which brought with the hair a wet piece of the tamale. Eventually he had eaten the hair along with the clump of wet tamale on the end. Nayeli picked nervously at a couple of scabs on her hand as she watched. Seth gave her an enthusiastic smile and thumbs up while he ate, making sure she knew he was grateful. Lars walked into the room in his white wife beater, jeans, and unclasped black boots flopping on his feet. His pants were rolled up far enough to reveal black dress socks stretched halfway up his calves. He glanced at Nayeli as he went to the refrigerator. “Como estas? Es una . . . uh . . . Buena dias?” His voice was colorful and he tried to seem tender. Her smile disappeared and she sunk back underneath the bill of her hat. He reached into his pocket with his able arm and pulled out his keys. He gave the clump of keys with the bottle opener to the working fingers of his lame arm, which clasped onto a belt loop, the bottle opener ready to use. 85
She kept looking at Seth’s plate, scooting closer to the table, and sat on her hands. Lars opened a bottle of beer and walked over to the table. He touched Seth on the shoulder with the hand that held his beer and said, “Hey, Little Man.” He looked at Nayeli and spoke loudly, thinking she would understand English better that way, “Hey, Darling, it’s really important to me to get along with the people around me. I’m just trying to be nice.” He bowed his head slightly, walked through the house, and sat on the front porch. When Lars was out of earshot Nayeli muttered, “He always make funny of me. He talk behind my face, and say I fat. He no really want be friends.” Nayeli spent the rest of the morning cooking and whistling around her clean kitchen. She kept watching the porch and seeing who was out there. She was making lunch for her housemates. If Seth could clean the whole kitchen for her, she could at least try to share what she could give to them.
Are You Expensive? (Nayeli tries to make friends) “There’s one coming for ya, Little Man! Watch out!” Lars threw his head back and laughed. Seth jumped back from the weeds he was trimming in the yard. Leanne reached over and touched Lars on the shoulder as she laughed. Lars rocked a little in his chair. Leanne, next to 86
him, rocked a little more. John, next to her, rocked forward, looked at Leanne’s hand on Lars, and rocked back. He let out a delayed, half-hearted laugh. Seth smiled at them hesitantly, his face glistening in the sun. He wiped his forehead with his oversized, dirty, blue polo shirt. Then he focused back on the job before him. He examined the tops of the dry weeds for movement, and then leaned down to continue cutting. He had found an electric knife in the kitchen which he used to cut the weeds now and the extension cord stretched into the house. Another noise came from the weeds and Seth looked toward it, freezing. Laughter poured from the deck again. Seth didn’t smile this time. The movement in the weeds was a little too close. Nayeli emerged from the house with two plates in her hands. They were full of food. She stood beside her housemates awkwardly until John noticed. “Woah, Nayeli!” (He made it sound as much like “Whoah, Nelly” as he could as if he had been waiting to use that one. He looked at the others to see if they got it.) Lars and Leanne turned. “Wow!” Lars exclaimed. “Que . . . buena . . . comida! Are you gonna eat all that?” “NooOOO.” She glared at him, but got over it and continued speaking. “Ees for you . . . guys . . . uh . . . Ustedes.” She held the plates out awkwardly to them. Lars pushed himself up in the chair and took one of the plates. He passed it with an overly chivalrous bow to Leanne and reached to take the other plate. “Gracias, girl!” he said to Nayeli. John turned away from them and pulled his empty Coke bottle out from under his shirt. He scooped his chewing tobacco from his lip into it, replaced the cap and returned it to underneath his shirt. Nayeli went back into the house and emerged with two more plates. She walked one over to John and then looked at Seth with the other in her hand. Seth was focused on his task and did not see her. 87
She turned back to the house and saw Miss Muffin’s bag of oxygen and her sparkling sweater vest sticking out from around the corner of the house. She was hiding from them. Nayeli looked around and then set the plate on the deck by the corner where Miss Muffin hid. “I weesh—uh—where ees Señora Muffin. Ni modo. Oh well.” And she walked over to the railing by the steps, acting as if she didn’t know where Miss Muffin was hiding. Nayeli sat down on the railing uncomfortably. She looked at the yard and then looked at the faces of the people on the deck with a hesitant smile. “Aren’t you going to have any?” Lars smiled at Nayeli. She looked at him questioningly until she realized what he said. “Oh, no, no . . .” Struggling for the words, she pinched her tummy nervously and got frustrated because she couldn’t think of what to say. She looked out to the yard, Seth being the easiest thing on which to put her eyes. They ate. Nayeli didn’t know where to look. John took a deep breath, looked at his wife from the corner of his eye and said to her, “I like that shirt, Hun. It’s cute.” Leanne looked down at her pink, elastic-hemmed shoulder sleeves and the frilly elastic collar where it crossed her chest. She pulled it up a little and said a distant thanks. Nayeli looked at Leanne’s shirt and then at Leanne’s matching pink and gray tennis shoes. Leanne addressed Lars, “I couldn’t find the shirt I wanted to wear. A really cute tank top, perfect for this nice day. Our walk-in closet has terrible light.” This caught Lars’s attention. “Oh, yeah??? . . . I forgot your room has a walk-in closet.” “Yeah, you know. It’s not real big or anything though.” Leanne spoke, her pride hidden in a matter-of-fact tone. Nayeli broke in, her eyes big. “Beeg closet?” “Yeah, Hun.” Leanne looked back down to her plate and scooped another forkful. “It’s not like huge, though. My clothes barely fit in there.” Nayeli then examined every article of clothing that Leanne was wearing. Leanne continued eating, carefree and confident. 88
After a minute, Nayeli disappeared into the house and reappeared a few minutes later in a billowy white, sleeveless shirt with see-through doily material around sections of the waist. She also now wore tan platform sandals that matched her belt. She crossed her legs, looked at her sandals, looked at Leanne’s shoes and then back to her own again. Then she smiled, satisfied that hers were cuter, and busied herself by picking invisible lint off her shirt. Miss Muffin set her plate down on the deck behind them. They all turned to look. She had eaten only the large pile of beans. They could hear her sigh while chewing a large mouthful behind the corner. Leanne turned back around in her chair and said, “Mmmm. This is good.” She pushed a piece of rice from her lip into her mouth with her finger and turned halfway to John. She paused to properly swallow before she spoke, “This has got to be better than that crap you put down your throat every day at work.” John tried to smile sincerely and said, “You know I try not to eat it, Babe.” “Well, try is a lot different than do.” Leanne looked at his thick torso underneath his shirt and manufactured a laugh to remove her liability from the insult. She scooped another bite as she turned to Lars and Nayeli. John moved his spit bottle to the side so it wouldn’t contribute to the size of his waistline any more. Lars spoke to Nayeli, now noticing her beautiful white shirt, “Que es tu trabajo, hunny? What is your job?” Nayeli stuttered for words that wouldn’t come. She brushed her stomach as if to sand it down thinner and to help her think. “You know,” he urged her. “I mean, what do you do?” Lars’s smile was disappearing. Leanne, knowing Nayeli’s shameful profession, sensed the awkward situation and spoke up, “You should go into cooking, Dear. You should be a chef.” Nayeli looked at Leanne, desperate for more help. “John works in a restaurant.” Leanne pointed with her fork at John, almost stabbing him. She looked at Lars who had just noticed and fixated upon a small bandage on Nayeli’s hand. 89
“And Lars has a great job in food . . . um . . . he owns a delivery service or something. Right, Lars?” Lars stared at Nayeli’s hand. Leanne put down her fork and touched Lars on the arm. “Right, Lars? You work in food, right?” He came to and looked up at Nayeli’s face as she moved her bandaged hand behind her. “Yeah,” he said. “Frozen foods, actually. I do the marketing and sourcing. I orchestrate all the deliveries.” Nayeli looked impressed. “You are . . .” she patted her butt where a wallet could have been. “You are . . . expenseeve?” She caught herself, shook her head and tried to think of the right word. She corrected herself, “Rich? You are rich?” Lars didn’t hear her correct herself and he laughed deeply. “I don’t know, Nayeli. Are you expensive?” He asked unwittingly, threw his head back and laughed again. Lars was the only one laughing. Seth looked up from the yard. Nayeli assumed Lars really did know her profession and thought he was making fun of her again. She bit her lip and looked out at the yard as she cracked her knuckles and kneaded her injured hand. Her eyes met Seth’s, but she quickly averted them and looked at the street beyond the yard. She fought tears of rage and eventually escaped into the house, away from eyes that she assumed were condemning her.
Burnt Index Finger (Nayeli sells a cell phone case) Seth walked into the house carrying the electric knife. He saw Miss Muffin asleep on the couch. Music from “Sesame Street” came from the TV, even though it showed a nature program and a lizard eating her young. He walked quietly, following his extension cord. When he walked into the kitchen he caught his breath at what he saw. Nayeli held the side of her hand to one of the red hot stove elements. When she heard Seth she quickly pulled it away. Turning away, she busied herself at the counter, cradling her hand. “Hi, Nayeli,” Seth said, wanting to quietly announce and apologize for his presence. He stood and watched her for a moment. “Nayeli?” She shook her head and gestured him to move on. Seth looked at the extension cord falling out of the outlet right next to her. He needed to plug it in if he wanted his electric slicer to work. He hesitated and then walked into the laundry room. Thirty minutes later she knocked on his doorframe. He turned from the window he was scrubbing. “Seth,” she said. Seth could see her hand wrapped in paper towels and a pack of frozen vegetables. She saw him looking at it and she put it further behind her back. “You like mobile phone case?” She held out a black canvas cell phone case to go on a belt-loop. He looked at it. She held it out to him and her hand trembled. He took it, opened the clasp, and turned it over. “I don’t have a cell phone,” he said. “Really cheap. Five dollars,” she said, almost frantically. 91
Seth handed it back to her and looked at her, concerned. “Sorry. I don’t get paid until tomorrow,” he said. She looked at his hands hanging at his sides and at the pockets of his loose Arizona-brand jeans. One of his pockets was hanging out empty like the tongue of a dead animal. “Okay, sorey. Sorey,” she mumbled. “No, it’s okay,” Seth called after her as she escaped back into the kitchen. He watched her walk into the TV room. She disappeared from view as she walked toward Miss Muffin on the couch. A moment passed and he heard Nayeli yell over the TV, “Five dollars! . . . FIVE DOLLARS!” Seth glanced at the plaque, as if for encouragement from a friend, and walked to the TV room doorway where he saw Miss Muffin adjusting her hearing aid. Then she sat up, still looking sleepy. Her eyes focused on the cell phone case. She pulled her oxygen bottle to her, rocked out of the couch and stood. Her body shuffled around and she pulled the cushions out of the couch. She scooped up piles of coins from the loins of the sofa, counted them, and gave Nayeli five dollars of it in exchange for the cell phone case. She tossed the rest back into the cushion-less couch and lumbered to her room. Nayeli dove into the cushion-less couch and gathered up the rest of the change. She filled her pockets and picked the rest up in her cupped hands. She stopped off at the rent money drop box and looked into the small opening before going upstairs. An hour or so later, Seth was scrubbing his windows in the laundry room again when he heard her clopping platform sandals go into the kitchen. He heard her bustling around, preparing herself a plate of food. Seth went in and sat at the table, ready if she needed a smile or to talk. She did not notice him. Her plate was piled with more food than it was made for. She ate it ferociously. Seth tried to look occupied by scrubbing the clean table top with his shirt, but he got distracted by trying to scrub the dirt off of his shirt. He had all but forgotten about her when she set her fork down on her empty plate a few minutes later. He looked at her, waiting for her to look at him and greet his smile. He wanted to help. But she didn’t notice him and 92
instead closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let out an indulgent sigh. Then she pinched her stomach, scowled at the thin layer of fat between her fingers and unwrapped the paper towels bandaging her other hand. She clopped out of the room without noticing him, wiping her index finger clean with the paper towel, and heading toward the bathroom.
Dog on Crack (Nayeli uncovered) “I wonder who she’s talking to,” John said to Lars and Leanne as they rocked on the porch. Miss Muffin’s low voice could be heard in the darkness around the side of the house by the cellar. Lars took a drink from his Corona, holding his cigarette away from the bottle. “I don’t know, but he must be pretty patient.” Lars winked playfully at them. “Maybe it’s the landlord.” John spoke up, amused at his own suggestion. “Yeah, right, John. Don’t you wish,” Leanne sighed, exasperated. “It’s the Mumble Bum. I saw him go back there.” She clapped her second Corona down on the deck. “You’re always talking about the landlord.”
John looked at her, hurt. He was trying his best to love this woman. But he didn’t know what else to do. He was losing his patience. She noticed the spitter in his hand and scoffed. “I’ve told you before, why don’t you smoke or something less disgusting. That’s so . . . disgusting.” She looked at Lars, who averted his eyes by looking at the yard in the night. John knew that his wife was yet again trying to prove that the new guy was better than him. His jaws clenched. He squeezed the plastic spitter bottle. A fart sound came from Miss Muffin’s direction. Her voice sounded confused for a moment and then she continued talking. Lars broke the tension between John and Leanne by saying, “That makes four in the last half hour.” He glanced up to try and draw a smile from John, sensing his pain. “She loved those beans today.” A sound in the street caught their attention and they stopped rocking. They looked up and saw a woman stumbling quickly toward the yard, searching intensely in her big purse. Golden tights on her long legs glinted from the streetlight. Her gray hoodie didn’t match the rest of her scanty, scintillating outfit. She pushed some red high heels aside in her deep purse and dug around until she pulled out a small, folded paper pouch. She looked at it and grasped it tightly, looking relieved. Then she plucked off her fake eyelashes and dropped them into the purse. She clopped down the walkway in tan, platform sandals, oblivious to the people and the pests in the yard. She wiped off her glossy red lipstick with the back of her hand just before she reached the steps. “Nayeli?” Lars asked, surprised and disappointed. He suddenly understood how she made her living. She looked up at them and froze. Pulling her baggy gray hood over her head, she tugged on the drawstrings (completely hiding her face in shadow) and rushed into the house. “Looks like she earned enough for her fix,” Leanne said. “She was seriously jones-ing this afternoon. Did you see her?” She looked up at Lars with a smirk. “Her hands were totally shaking.” Lars turned to Leanne, dumbfounded at his new realization. 94
“The men must start early on Friday nights,” Leanne continued. “A couple tricks and she’s got enough for her fix. Home by 9:30 p.m.” John inserted apathetically, “At least she gets the job done.” Leanne turned to him, her eyes big like she had heard a blasphemy. “That reminds me, John,” Leanne lashed back, “You had all day to wash the sheets. I asked you like four times to wash them. You had ALL FREAKIN’ DAY!” Leanne avoided directly looking at him but turned enough to show him the disdain on her face. “So did you, Leanne! I don’t even understand why you think we need to wash our sheets!” Leanne looked at Lars, anger boiling. Lars stared at the ground where Nayeli had just walked, trying to stay out of the argument. “JOHN! You know why couples have to wash the sheets!” Leanne shouted at him. “Why, Leanne?” John’s voice got suddenly calm, seeing his checkmate move. He spoke slowly. “Because they can make babies and you can’t?” Her face turned red, even in the gray night. “It’s not my fault, you asshole!” she screamed, shaking her fist at him. John sat back apathetically in his chair, looking at her without emotion. He held his spitter in plain view and spat into it, still looking at her. “Well, it doesn’t help that you won’t let me cross onto your side of the bed,” he said, again slowly and deliberately. Her eyes boiled with tears. She glanced at Lars, selfconscious that he had heard everything. Leanne’s sob pulled Lars from his lost stare. He mustered his charm and turned to look at them. He spoke calmly and tried to make it sound like he cared. “Hey guys. I’ve been in your shoes before. I don’t doubt that you two love each other. Life just gets between two people sometimes.” Leanne softened and turned to Lars. He nodded at her and continued. “I know something that might help.” John leaned forward and looked at him. Lars adjusted in his chair, glanced down at his lame arm and said, “A long, long time ago I had a girlfriend that worked in a fertility clinic over 95
on Kellogg and umm, Rock Road, I think. Well anyway, she told me time and time again that for whatever reason, couples went into that clinic yelling at each other, and walked out hand in hand. A lot of love gets made in a fertility clinic. And I don’t just mean sex.” Another fart issued from Miss Muffin. It was loud enough to silence her. They heard her excuse herself from her conversation and she waddled around the house to the porch. The others stopped rocking as she passed them. She entered through the front door, hoping to stay unnoticed. A few minutes later they heard the powerful flush from the upstairs toilet. The walls shook and the sound of rushing water filled the house. By habit, they all lifted their feet. Something collided several times against the upstairs walls. Nayeli screamed. Lars jumped up, threw the screen door open, and darted inside. Barrie barreled down the first set of stairs, slammed into the wall at the landing, and continued her frantic descent. “Barrie!” Lars shouted at the dog. He saw something white on her snout as she stampeded past him. Barrie ran into the wall by the shower-curtained bathroom. This dazed Barrie until she saw a mouse scurrying across the TV room. She bolted toward it at a furious pace. Then Nayeli came pounding down the stairs in bare feet. Lars just saw the glimmering golden tights and her gray sweatshirt as she crashed past him. “Barrie!” She chased him around frantically, swinging at the dog with a red high-heeled boot and screaming, “Barrie!” Barrie seized a mouse in his jaws, saw another, and lunged for it. (Lars noticed the white spot on her nose again and on her chops. It was a white powder.) Barrie missed the second mouse but when the sharp red boot swung a few inches from her head, she looked up at it and darted out through the doggy door. There was a moment of settling. Then Nayeli walked past Lars on her way to her room. Her head hung low and her hair covered her face. She tore at the scabs on one hand with the fingernails of the other, whining to herself. 96
Lars watched her go and sighed. He walked into the kitchen and saw Seth standing in the doorway to the laundry room with his window-washing rag in his hand, in a daze at what had just happened. Lars made a cup of tea and took two fudgesicles from the freezer. He carried them upstairs. Seth heard his footsteps stop at Nayeli’s door, and then heard a knock. Her door creaked open and closed a moment later.
Purple Hand (Nayeli sleeps on couch) Seth lay on his back in the laundry room, looking up through the windows at the 9 a.m. sky. He heard Nayeli’s door open and close, and someone coming down the stairs. He hopped up and went to the TV room to see. He was surprised to find Nayeli fast asleep on the couch. Her mouth was open on the filthy cushions and her feet were bare. Her golden tights were still tight and her hoodie was drawn small around her face. He got closer and noticed a drawstring from her hood was wrapped around her wrist several times so tightly that skin was bulging and her scabbed hand was dark purple. Seth’s eyes got big and he nudged her shoulder urgently. “Nayeli,” he whispered. “Nayeli! Your hand is blue.” She roused slightly, lifted her mouth from the cushion, and reached to open her hood with both hands. Her purple hand 97
hit her face limply. She pulled her hood open with her other hand and looked at the limp one. She unwrapped the drawstring slowly and looked apathetically at the wall behind Seth. Then Lars emerged from the hallway and looked around the corner. He saw Nayeli and walked over to her. She looked at him groggily. “I was just trying to be nice. Here’s your piggy.” He tucked a stuffed pig against her stomach and walked out of the house. She pulled her pig against her stomach tighter and closed her eyes again. Seth watched Lars walk out and anger crawled across his face. He growled under his breath, “Did you put up your pictures in her room already?” He looked back down at Nayeli. She had pulled the drawstrings tight again. Her hand was waking up, but she was falling back asleep. Seth went into the laundry room and started the dryer on a load that was already dry. As he stood and waited he found himself shaking his head. “Pfffff.” He hit the dryer with his fist. “Trying to be nice!? Yeah right . . . Pfffff! Bigger man. You think you’re a bigger man for taking her room too? Pfff.” He looked up and saw the plaque. He read the plaque like he had a thousand times before . . . but after getting halfway through rule number three something stopped him and he went back and read rule number two slowly. 2) Take care of each other A black dress sock on the counter caught his eye. It belonged to Lars. He considered something for a moment and then growled, “He doesn’t deserve to have his sock washed.” He leaned into the dryer and thrust it with his hips to make it move as he punched it lightly. This shook the wall of windows, knocking the plaque from its hook. It fell, bounced off the window frame and landed flatly on its face on the dryer. Seth gasped and picked it up quickly with his hand that wasn’t clenched. He examined it for damage and found his eyes drawn to the rule again, like looking at a brother with whom he was angry. 98
His face was still bitter but he paused, breathed in deeply, and then looked down at his fist. He swallowed and closed his eyes in shame. A moment later he forced his eyes open and then forced his hand open. He grimaced as if he were opening his own heart with a scalpel. He looked over to the sock. Why was it so hard to simply wash this sock? Seth walked over and struggled to make himself pick it up. He smelled the sock and grimaced as he jerked it away from his face. His jaws clenched. After a few minutes of arguing internally he was exhausted. A frustrated sigh escaped and he looked up through the clean windows to the green yard and the grand oak tree. His eyes drifted into his room over the clean counter and over the quietly humming dryer filling the room with warm air. He looked at the sturdy grid of windows protecting his room, and his eyes landed on the beautifully carved trim around the plaque. He took a deep breath, replaced the plaque on its hook, and closed his eyes. His jaws relaxed and he sighed. He opened his eyes and quietly said, “I don’t deserve all this stuff, either.” He placed the sock into the washer and crawled under the counter. Thirty seconds later he found the sock’s match behind the wobbling dryer. He put it into the washer, added soap, and began a nearly empty cycle to wash two of Lars’s socks. Then Seth opened the dryer and found a warm sweatshirt and a large pair of pants. He took them to the living room and draped them over Nayeli, making sure her bare feet and hands were covered with the warm clothes. He looked at her for a moment, concerned. He brushed a fuzz ball off of her hood and went back to his room.
Whistling (Nayeli’s confession) Seth surveyed the pile of old objects on top of the cellar door. He pulled a hoe off the top and set it neatly on the ground against the house. After straining to reach and grab an old grass catcher for a lawnmower he set it neatly on its end beside the hoe. He dragged a window screen, broken bicycle parts, a soggy mattress, and a kiddy pool off of the door. A pile of similar items remained, still reaching higher than his head. He continued methodically removing the articles and placing them neatly against the house. Nayeli appeared from around the back. She walked sheepishly up to him. “Hi, Seth. Gracias—uh tank you por help me . . . dees morning.” She crossed her arms with a large gesture to show it had made her warm. Seth turned to her, smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” “Want help?” She reached out as he lifted a plastic chair from the pile. She took it and easily maneuvered it against the house. They worked on the pile together for 45 minutes until the top of the cellar was clear. Several times, Nayeli tried to tell Seth something but she never got further than, “I want question you . . . Last night . . . you know . . . umm, pues.” She wasn’t able to tell Seth in English what she wanted to say, so they continued clearing the cellar door in awkward silence. Seth handed her a bike inner tube, the last thing on the cellar. They lifted the latch and opened the drooping, metal 100
doors. It was stacked full to the brim with more stuff. They shared a woeful glance and then continued working, Nayeli handing things to Seth this time. She began to whistle. After one verse of her whistling, Seth absently began singing the lyrics to the “Reading Rainbow” theme song that she was whistling. It was a familiar tune that played a couple times a day on their TV. They continued to clear the cellar until five minutes later, when Nayeli realized that Seth was singing the song that she was whistling. She stopped, turned around and smiled largely at him. She added volume and vibrato to her whistle. Seth took joy in singing, standing with his hands at his sides looking at her. Eventually he closed his eyes to focus on the music. They began the main verse again and he did his best to make his small voice beautiful. Once he realized he had achieved it, a smile crept across his face and he tilted his head up. As they finished the verse, Nayeli’s whistle got quieter. Seth’s innocent voice finished the last words melodically . . . “So take a look; it’s in a booooooook . . . it’s Readiiiiing Rainboooowwwwwww.” He faced the sky, eyes closed, basking in the sunshine. He heard Nayeli’s now-relaxed, content voice say with only a slight accent, “That was really beautiful. Wow. I haven’t done something like that since I lived with my sister. Her kids and I sang like that.” Seth opened his eyes, amazed at her clear English. She was smiling. “Hmmm. Are you . . . um . . . hungry, Seth? Can I make you something to eat? Or how about some lemonade?” They turned to go around the back of the house and discovered that they could not squeeze around the pile of junk that now filled in the space between the house and the fence. They laughed awkwardly and walked around to the front door. Seth sat at the table as she made him lemonade and talked. She rarely had a problem now, saying what she wanted to say comfortably in English. “I’m sorry for my acting last night. I was not a very good person.” She looked at Seth. He listened with wide, caring eyes. She continued, “Me entiendes? I mean, can you understand me?” 101
Seth nodded emphatically, happy that the language barrier had seemed to diminish. “Do you know what happened last night?” she asked. Seth nodded, not wanting to quell her free-flowing words. She leaned over the counter facing his direction and examined her hurting hand as she spoke. “Sometimes I do . . . um . . . business that’s . . . ummm . . . dirty . . . with men.” She looked at him. “Do you understand?” It didn’t occur to him what business this would be, but he wanted to keep the momentum of words going, so he nodded emphatically again. “Okay.” She nodded like she thought he understood the deeper meaning of what she was trying to say. “And sometimes—I think you’ve seen it—I bring dirty stuff home.” Seth glanced into the laundry room at the basket of her dirty clothes and nodded in realization. She looked up and saw him nodding. “Okay. So you do know.” She brushed the back of her hand over her nostril as if reminded to make sure nothing was on her hand or her nose. “And I . . .” She looked up at him. “Is it okay to talk to you about this?” Seth nodded firmly again. “Well, you see, I don’t really have anybody else to talk to. I can’t go to my sister’s house no more because she doesn’t want me to be around her kids. She say I’m too dirty. And you seem muy amable . . . umm . . . very nice.” She continued. “Last night I really needed some of that dirty stuff . . . and the dog ate it and I was really, really mean.” She looked up at him. “I’m sorey.” Seth tried to look like he understood what she meant so she would keep talking. “I’m sorey to Barrie too . . . but something else happened last night—I feel like I can tell you—becuss you put those things on me to warm me this morning. You’re so nice and you already know what I do.” She looked up at him in gratitude. “Lars came up to my room last night—the guy with the bad arm.” She clarified as if she wasn’t sure of his name. “He brought me tea and some popsicles. I guess he knows about that bad stuff too. It was exactly what I needed. But . . .” She 102
swallowed again. A tear dropped unexpectedly from her eye to her bandaged hand, which she cradled with the other. She continued, “He was being really nice. But I knew that he had money becuss . . .” She looked up to Seth for help with words. She gestured toward the door where Lars had gone out. “He has a company . . . pues. Algo de una compania o algo.” She shook her head. “And I really wanted more of the dirty stuff so I tried to do a dirty thing to him.” She spread her palm on the counter. Another tear fell to the counter. “I am so stupeed. I can’t stop. But he . . .” She sniffed. “He was muy amable—so nice. He stop me . . . and won’t let me do it. He said he just want help me. But I tried again becuss I really wanted the money so I could buy the bad stuff. He said he would stay in my room but not with me.” She glanced up to see if he understood. “He was going to sleep on the floor. But after I say that, I no want be in same room as him . . . becuss I knew I am not good enough for room with him. Me dío verguenza. I come down here and sleep on couch.” Another tear fell. She covered her face with her hands. “I sorey.” She went over to Seth and acted like she wanted to hug him but didn’t know how. He sat still. His face showed that he was several steps behind, just struggling to understand. “I sorey,” she said. She went into the living room and sat in front of the TV, trying to hold her tears in. Seth sat at the table with a worried look on his face, not knowing how to help her. Finally he looked at Nayeli’s basket of dirty clothes and went into the laundry room. He moved Lars’s socks into the dryer and started to wash Nayeli’s stuff.
Condom Balloon (Nayeli wants Seth’s money) Almost as soon as Seth got home from a tiring day at work, wanting to lay down on a warm towel for a nap, Nayeli came into the laundry room with another full hamper. “Seth! You’re home! I thought I hear you come in!” She set her laundry basket down on the counter and sat next to it. “I meesed you!” Seth sat up and put his chin on his hand to listen, trying to fight off sleep. “I’ve been thinking. I think I have too many clothes.” She picked up some of them from the basket and dropped them back in. “It ees so nice in here in your room. And you are soooo happy and nice. The sun is in here—through the windows—and it is warm and you can see the tree and the grass. I like that. You don’t have any clothes but you have all the clothes.” She smiled, proud of this idea. Seth caught himself before his heavy, sleepy head fell off of his hand. He repeated what he remembered her saying last to show her he was listening, “You like to see the trees and the grass?” “Sí, sí. Yes, I like it very much. I have a lot of things in my room, but they all make me think of what I do . . . You do understand what I do, right?” She looked nervously at Seth. He nodded with exaggeration, mostly to shake the sleepiness away. He wasn’t sure what she did.
“Okay. I feel like you are the only one that listens to me, Seth. You are a nice, nice man. Muy amable. I’m very glad for your help.” She stood up and shook his hand. She sat back down with a wide, proud smile on her face. She noticed that her hand was trembling but she sat on it and continued. “But Seth, you see, I buy lots of clothing. And it’s because I want to look beautiful. I want men to look at me and like me . . . becuss that’s what I do. I looked in my room today and saw many clothing.” Seth stood up so that he wouldn’t drift off to sleep again. Nayeli looked at him inquisitively. She stood up too, ready to go somewhere if he was going to lead. Seth saw this and looked both ways, wondering what to do. He saw the plaque. Then he looked past it and saw the corner of the lily garden growing around the edge of the house. His eyes got big and he looked at her with an idea. “I wanna show you something,” Seth said. He walked through the kitchen, the TV room, and by the front door, and she followed. He happened to see the rent money drop box as they passed and that reminded him of his cashed paycheck in his pocket. The last rule popped into his head: Pay what you can pay for rent. Seth pulled out the stack of $20 bills and counted them as he opened Miss Muffin’s old door for Nayeli to go in. She looked down at his stack of money and slowed her pace. She glanced at it sideways again as she entered the room. Her walk became different. She crossed her legs at each step and swung out her hips. She looked back at Seth with pouty lips. Seth went into the room and let the door swing almost closed. The room was tidy and clean. Miss Muffin had everything moved into the other room except the large dresser. The contents of Lars’s duffel bag were spread around the bed. Seth put the money back in his pocket and looked up at her with an innocent smile. He pointed to the dresser and said, “Look behind there.” She got a mischievous look on her face, walked slowly over to it and peeked behind it. “Ooh, you want to go back here with me?” Her voice was slow and sexy. Her hand was shaking on the dresser. 105
“Yeah, I really want you to see it back there. You said you like to see trees and flowers and stuff.” Her busty body squeezed slowly through the narrow gap. Then the beautiful ocean of yellow blooms around her in the dusky light caught her breath. “Wow!” She whispered. “Thees ees niiiiiice.” But with some effort she directed her attention back to the task at hand. She leaned her back against the window frame and waited for Seth. He stayed at the opening, gazing out the window into the beautiful bed of flowers. “Do you have protection, Baby?” she whispered to him. Seth looked at her, confused. He looked around the room and looked cockeyed at the peeling painted walls, and the silver wallpaper underneath. “No!” He gasped. “Is it true? Do we need some?” She laughed and said, “I have some up the stairs.” She squeezed out of the gap and rustled his hair as she walked by. “Here, I want show you something.” She noticed her hand was shaking again. She swallowed hard before she called back to him, seductively, “Come to my room with me, baby.” She winked at him and left. Seth stood in the middle of the room with his hands at his sides, his pocket stuffed with cash, and his grocery store apron still tied around him. He let out a nervous groan. Something very adult was moving inside of him and its surging strength scared him. It was weird that the grown up in him wanted this thing so strongly even while the kid in him despised it horribly. And for a moment, even though he didn’t realize it, he understood Nayeli. Seth recited the rules in his head as was his default when he didn’t know what to do. They still seemed like home to him when he felt lost. Eventually he felt the strong feelings getting quieter, like a monster creeping back into a closet. He stood there for a while wondering what he should do until the pile of cash in his pocket distracted him. He pulled it out. He knew Nayeli was waiting for him so he walked upstairs slowly, hesitantly, letting his mind be distracted by counting the money. He knocked on Nayeli’s door. Lars leaned back in a chair in the reading nook at the end of the hall and looked at him. He 106
saw the money and shook his head in disdain. Seth didn’t know why. Nayeli opened the door and Seth went in as he put the money in his pocket. The room had nice spots and dirty spots. A rolling clothes rack tightly filled with bright garments stood in the middle of the room like a grazing horse. A little table sat under her only window and three different purses slumped next to each other on it. Clothes were draped over a nearby chair. Shoes lined one whole wall. Two folded blankets and a pillow sat stacked in a place that had been cleared on the floor. That must have been where Lars slept. Her bed was large with luxurious crimson pillows and covers. Seth looked around the room as Nayeli climbed onto the bed. “You have a lot of nice clothes.” He glanced at the purses and looked out the window. He looked at her and smiled. Her injured hand tossed her hair in little circles. “As far as money, pay whatever you can pay.” She patted the pillow next to her. “Just pay what it’s worth to you, Beeg Guy.” Seth looked at her and exchanged a knowing smile. “You’re right. We just pay what we can pay. I didn’t think you paid attention to the rules.” “Oh, Hunny. I don’t like to think of them as rules.” Seth walked over to the side of the bed and looked at her. Then he looked down at the nightstand. On it stood an old tarnished lamp, little folded white papers, a dirty lighter, a razorblade, and three girly teen novellas. The night stand, papers and the sharp edge of the razor blade were glazed with a white dust. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Do you do origami?!” He picked up one of the little creased white papers. “And this razorblade is for cutting it? I know the paper has to be square. I’ve always wanted to learn origami.” She scrambled over to the bed stand, opened the drawer, and scooped the papers and razorblade into it. She started to close the drawer when Seth stopped her. “Oh. What are these? You have balloons in your nightstand?” He was excited as he pulled an open condom out 107
of the drawer and sealed it against his mouth. He blew it up like a balloon, his smile reaching from cheek to cheek. Nayeli looked at him, dumbfounded. She realized he had no idea what was going on. She sat back on her bed and crossed her arms. She let him finish playing with the condom. She looked down at her trembling hands and sighed. “Seth? Why did you invite me to that room down the stairs?” Seth put the deflated condom down and picked up a red lighter in the drawer. He smiled kindly. “I wanted to show you the flowers and the lightning bugs. I thought you would like it.” “Really? That is it, the only reason? Why were you counting your money?” He looked at her, confused. “I got paid today. I wanted to see how much I had.” He picked up one of the novellas. “Oh! I love these books! Choose Your Own Adventure!” She turned away from him and dabbed her eyes with both hands. “You just wanted to help me today? That’s all?” “Mmmmm, hmmmm,” he said. He started to flip through the book, as if he wanted to go somewhere other than where he sensed the conversation was going. “I love these stories because I can choose my own adventure.” She didn’t respond. He put the book down and he was distracted by other things in the fascinating drawer. “Seth? I am tired and will go to bed now.” Seth looked at her with concern, feeling a little hurt. “Um . . . Okay, you’re probably pretty tired. I’ll go downstairs.” “Thank you, Seth.” Seth walked to the door. He opened it and stepped out. Nayeli whispered, “Gracias, Seth.” She dropped her head to her pillow. Seth closed the door behind him and stood for a moment, his sad eyes looking at the floor. He heard movement from the reading nook down the hall. Lars leaned back in his chair so that he could see Seth. He spoke dryly. “You little dog.” Seth swallowed, turned around slowly, and walked down the stairs. He was sad, unsure why they both hated him. He stumbled purposelessly down the hall. He wanted to find a 108
warm sweater or blanket, crawl under the counter and just go to sleep for forever. Seth felt the money in his pocket again and slowly pulled out the stack of bills. He counted them again. $121. He stopped at the end of the hall and looked at the rent drop box. He took a deep, heavy breath and recited to himself, “Pay what you can pay.” He looked over at the dirty walls and at the rumbling water heater tucked into the wall beside him. He looked at the toilet and the footed bathtub beyond the shower curtain. Nayeli could be heard whining softly upstairs. He took a deep, shaky breath. As he breathed out, a look of deep compassion came across his face. He looked over and saw one of the windows with the carved trim in the living room. His look turned pensive. He heard Miss Muffin pass several spurts of gas through the thin wooden door that used to be his. A smile sparked on his face for a moment. Her door opened and she waddled up the stairs, oblivious of Seth. Barrie apparently heard Miss Muffin climbing the stairs and dashed by Seth to follow her, wheezing the whole way. Seth watched the pigeon-toed duck waddle by, following Barrie, honking at every other step. He realized how much his little duck had grown. He watched them all disappear up the steps. A look of deep gratitude filled Seth’s face. He was sad about what had been taken away, but grateful for all he had been given. He remembered what Nayeli had taught him and whispered to himself, “Pay what it’s worth to you.” He took the whole stack of money and stuffed it into the slot in the rent box. He heard the bills slide down and hit the empty bottom. Then he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He walked to the couch and sat on the back of it so he could lift his feet off the ground. The roar of rushing water filled the walls and shook the house. When the commotion died down, Miss Muffin waddled back to her room and closed the door, talking to herself the whole time. Half an hour later Nayeli opened her door upstairs. She carried two purses stuffed with clothes and an extra pair of 109
shoes. She descended the stairs and went into Miss Muffin’s old room. Squeezing behind the dresser into the bay window she rested her head on one of her purses as she watched the lightning bugs sparkle above the dimming ocean of yellow. When Lars heard Nayeli go into Miss Muffin’s old room he walked up to her old door upstairs with the plastic flower tucked into the spyglass and pushed his way in. A moment later he stepped out and tossed her stuffed piggy down the stairs. He spoke under his breath, “I was just trying to be nice and you did that with him. I don’t even feel guilty about this.” He wheeled the rack of clothes into the hall and shut the door behind him.
Hand Shake (Nayeli considers her hand) Twenty-five minutes later the washer buzzed and startled Seth, making him jump like it always did. A moment later Nayeli walked into the room. She was surprised to see her laundry basket empty. Seth was trying to tie his work apron around his back and he stopped to smile at her. “Hi, Nayeli,” he said quietly. Her eyes were bloodshot from crying. She opened the washer, saw her clothes, and hugged Seth. “Oh, Seth. You are muy muy muy amable.” 110
Maybe she didn’t hate him, he thought. Then she reached into the washer and pulled out a small white T-shirt. Upon looking closer, it was light blue now. She winced but said nothing. She took a deep breath and set it aside. She reached in for the next item. She opened the humming dryer and the sight of only two tumbling socks confused her. She set them on the counter. Then she carefully placed each of her wet articles into the dryer as she spoke. “Thank you so, so much. Eres muy amable. Muy nice, Seth.” She finished putting her laundry into the dryer, sat down on the counter and said, “I’m sorry I was tired before.” And she started right in with him as if the incident upstairs only made her trust him more. “And so what I was saying with Lars, the guy with the bad arm, was . . .” She saw Seth tying his shoes. “Oh! Are you going to work?” “I work 1:30 to 5:30 today and 9 to noon on Friday.” “Oh.” Nayeli was disappointed. “You can’t talk no more?” “Um.” Seth looked at his little watch, spent a moment calculating the position of the hands, and replied, “Um, it’s 1:15 right now. I have to be there at 1:30 or maybe 1:25.” “Ok, so you can talk for a little time!” She happily continued her conversation from before. “And I saw last night in my room that Lars could use his sick arm. His arm no works but his hand yes works. He was very good use it. He uses his good arm to put other arm in place where he need it and uses his hand very good. But after he got the tea ready for me, he start clean my room.” Seth leaned closer and watched her use her left hand to lift her right arm to show him how Lars did it. Her right hand grabbed the bottle of laundry detergent and together her hands lifted it. She set it back down. She looked at the bottle of detergent and lost herself in thought. She continued, quieter now. “And I thought to myself, he has bad arm, but see how he work so hard and use it so good.” Then she became quiet and looked at her own hand, with a delicate scab and big blister. “My hand works good . . . and I use it for do bad things . . . You know . . . you saw my hand . . . and the stove yesterday.” Her voice drifted off again. 111
Seth, assuming that she was done talking, interrupted her thoughts and said, “Okay, I gotta catch the bus to work now. Bye-bye, Nayeli.” He smiled and awkwardly shook her hand, forgetting it was injured. He walked out the back door. Nayeli looked at her hand and a peaceful smile crept across her face, as if it was beginning to be used for better things already.
Brick Dropped on Head (A girl climbs a tree) Seth hummed as he cleaned the laundry room. He saw a stray sock under the counter and scooted down to grab it. He recognized it and stopped humming. He folded the black dress sock nicely as he bit his lip. He set it in the corner of the counter. A dried splatter of paint on the window caught his attention, and he reached to scratch it off. As he looked through the window he noticed something. A girl wandered suspiciously back and forth in the alley. She hadn’t noticed Seth yet and was looking at their house as if she wanted to come inside. She looked about 12, had straight, stiff black hair and appeared to be half black and half white. Her torso was bent in an S-shape to her right in a strange, permanent way. Then something caught her eye in the neighbor’s yard. Something at the base of the big tree in the center. She glanced back at the landlord’s house and then climbed over the chain link fence into the neighbor’s yard. She snuck toward a cat that was attending to her kittens at the roots of the tree. When she glanced at their house again, it occurred to Seth that she was planning on bringing them the cat and asking them if they lost a cat. Though the girl was sneaky about her approach, the cat was still spooked and darted to the house, carrying one of her kittens in her mouth. The other kitten bounded behind, following her. 113
The girl stopped and looked around nervously. A car drove by at the end of the alley and she dropped to her knees, ducking from view. She realized how pathetic she looked and glanced to see if anyone had seen her. Then a stubborn and resolute look petrified her face which said, No stupid cat will make me look like a fool. She saw a brick back at the corner of the yard and grabbed it quickly. After stuffing it into her purse she climbed the tree, surprisingly quickly. Soon she was 10 feet in the air. Laying on a branch, she pulled the brick out of her purse. She would stun the cat or injure it slightly. Drop the brick on its tail, maybe. With an injured cat in her arms they would have to let her in. She waited. Seth leaned further toward the window, putting his full weight on the counter with his hands. After a few minutes the cat took its kittens back to her nest in the roots of the tree. It must not have seen that the girl was in the tree. The girl held the brick above the momma cat and calculated where it would fall. She dropped the brick. Seth’s knees somehow hit the edge of the counter and his hands slipped out from under him. His forehead scraped along the window frame and his gaping mouth hit the back splash of the counter. When he came to a stop he was sprawled on the counter, his feet in the air. He felt his forehead where it had scraped the wooden window frame. When he touched his lip, he saw blood and groaned. He wiggled his loosened front tooth and groaned again. He looked up in time to see the girl carrying the cat by the tail toward their yard. Her face was troubled but resolute, like taking out a bag of the most putrid trash she had ever smelled—a stench so bad that it was about to make her cry. She glanced up to see if anyone was watching. Seth ducked, hitting his mouth on the back splash again. He whined and grabbed his mouth. When he looked up at the little girl she was taking a picture of the cat with her phone. Her hand trembled. The cat convulsed with seizures in the grass where she had tossed it a few feet into their yard. 114
Then the girl looked up to see if anyone had seen. When she concluded that no one had, she hopped the fence with her strangely crooked body and landed in the alley. She brushed off her clothes, adjusted her purse and walked away, looking up at the trees and trying her best to whistle as if she hadn’t a care in the world. But now she had one, a heavy one for a little girl. She had killed an innocent animal. Seth stared at the cat through the windows. After 10 minutes he went into the yard, stood over the cat, and watched its hip twitch, less and less often. Its head was twisted too far sideways, one glazed eye looking at the sky. Its jaw was bent out in the wrong way, showing its tongue a little. The brick had landed on the back of its head. The two kittens crawled through the chain link fence and found their mother. They sniffed and climbed on her, meowing. One of them began to nurse. Barrie busted out of the doggy door and ran to Seth. The kittens darted back through the fence. The duck could be heard, quacking behind the doggy door. Barrie cautiously sniffed the dying cat, licked the mangled face once, and looked up at Seth. Seth’s horrified gaze took in the cat for a long time.
Camera Phone (Meeting Neko) Lars leaned on the armrest and rocked slowly on the porch as he listened to John. John was getting animated. “It’s so annoying! She like draws these lines through our room to show which side is hers and 115
which side is mine.” He drew lines in the air with a beer in his hand. “If I drop a sock or something on her side, she says something like she’s carrying all the weight of the relationship.” Lars looked at him and nodded. “I hear ya, brother.” “I don’t know, man. It’s like we’re in this constant competition—trying to prove that the other one is making this relationship fail.” Lars took a drink of his beer and leaned back. John sighed and resumed rocking. Lars said, “Have you looked into that fertility clinic yet?” “I think I drove by it the other day. Like in the strip mall on the north side of Kellogg?” “No, just east of the strip mall. In a building by itself.” “I don’t know, man. As much as we’ve suffered and fought about not being able to have a baby, I’m sorta doubting it would be good to bring a kid into this.” “Hey,” Lars said, “I told you. The fertility clinic, for some reason, makes a lot more than babies.” “Right, right.” John recalled what Lars said before. “It makes love. Maybe I’ll check into it again.” John acquiesced, folding the label he had pulled from his perspiring beer bottle. “Who’s this?” Lars’s eyes were on the street. John looked up. A girl, about 12 years old, limped toward them. Her back was bent severely in an S-shape to one side. She was half black and half white. Her colorful skate shoes slapped the pavement. The cuffs of her tight black jeans were rolled up and creased above the ankles. She wore a tight, faded Ramones shirt on her bent torso. She adjusted the colorful purse under her arm and hopped once to adjust the backpack on her crooked back. She walked to the porch steps and stopped. Her tone was ornery. “Um . . . complaint.” She put one hand on her far hip and held up an index finger from the other hand in between her eyes and theirs as if teaching a lesson in behavior. The hand she held between them also grasped a cell phone. “Your dog gone medieval on my kitty.” Both John and Lars tried to hide their entertained smiles. Lars recovered first. “What are you talking about, little lady?” He leaned forward. 116
The girl flipped her phone open with one hand and showed them her screen. They both leaned in and squinted. Then they both got up and looked closer. Their looks turned to horror. “Our dog did that?” Lars asked. “Yessir. He done sent my little Gypsy to the big litter box in the sky.” She turned away from them dramatically, partly because she wasn’t certain she could hide her guilt. “He was walking on the fence, minding his own furry bid’ness, and your dog jump up and bit him dead. You can go see for yo-sefs. He ain’t movin.” “Where do you live, young lady?” John asked. She pointed down the street. “And why were you and your cat around our backyard?” Lars asked. “Not saying there was anything wrong with it. I’m just curious.” She thought for a split second and responded, “My cat got out and I come lookin for ’em and seen the whole thing. You guys is lucky if I don’t sue you.” John glanced at Lars, who was staring at the girl. The sound of a doorbell came from the girl’s phone as it vibrated in her hand. She turned it around and began typing a message. Miss Muffin, hearing the doorbell sound, scrambled from behind the corner where she had been secretly listening to Lars and John, and lumbered across the porch to the front door. She opened it and looked inside. Her scratchy voice asked, “Who’s there?” They all looked at Miss Muffin. Lars asked the girl, “Do you want to come inside? It’s the least we can do. We can go out back and see about your cat if you want.” The girl finished typing on her phone, looked up and asked dryly, “What the McLovin are all those phone books for?” Lars and John glanced back at the wall of phone books covering the front of the house. “Everybody in this house gets phone books every year and we just don’t know what to do with them,” John said. 117
She raised an eyebrow and looked down at her phone again. “Whatev dudes. This place is wig.” She put the phone into her pocket and walked into the house in front of them. Miss Muffin closed the screen door softly behind them, tucked herself flat against the front of the house, and strained to listen through the screen. The girl set her backpack down on the couch and looked around. “So this what it look like in here.” John and Lars stood watching her. Her phone made the doorbell sound again and she pulled it from her pocket to type another message. Again they heard a, “Who’s there?” from outside, followed by Miss Muffin covering her mouth with both hands, regretting to have blown her cover again. “Barrie!” John called into the air. “Barrie. Come here, girl.” He looked at Lars, who shrugged. John addressed the girl, “Here, let’s go to the back yard and we can have a look.” The girl stayed seated on the couch. “This a kinda nice house,” she said, still engrossed in her phone. “What’s your name, young lady?” Lars asked, smirking at her precocious attitude. “On the street they calls me Neko.” “What does your family call you?” “I ain’t got no family. My momma’s in the big house—” She looked up to see if she needed to clarify. Her bulging lip quivered for a moment but she regained control of it enough to say, “She in the slammer.” “Your dad? Where’s your dad?” Lars asked. “The old guy said my donor, he live here.” They both looked at her, confused. “My donor. You know, my Pops. My daddy, dogs.” They both nodded in understanding, and then suddenly nodded bigger and slower, realizing what it meant. John asked, “The old guy said your dad lives here?” John looked at Lars, whose face was suddenly white. John continued. “Well, I don’t think your dad lives here. Us and Seth are the only men who live here and I’d be surprised if Seth is your dad.” He saw a hurt look on her face so he added, “But I guess he might be.” 118
“What did you say your name is, young lady?” Lars cleared a knot from his throat. “Your full name?” “My band I was in—they called me Neko but the Feds know me as Sheneq.” She typed something on her phone. A moment later, John broke the awkward silence. “Maybe Seth knows something about this. Seth! Hey Seth, are you home?!” Seth walked out with his head low, biting his nails furiously. “Hey, Seth. Hey—” John interrupted himself when he saw the nibbling wreck Seth was in. “You okay, Buddy?” Seth glanced up at John. Then he saw the girl on the couch and froze. His face grew hateful. “This girl said that Barrie killed her cat in the backyard,” John said. “Did you see anything?” Seth muttered under his breath, “No. You think I would care what she says?” Seth went back to biting his nails and shuffled back to his room. “Woah, what’s wrong with him?” John whispered to Lars. Lars was holding the hand on his lame arm up to his mouth with his other hand and was biting its nails while he stared absently at the girl’s bright marker designs she had drawn on her shoes. John turned to the girl and said, “So do you want to go to the backyard with me . . . um, Neko?” She shook her head and typed on her phone. “Umm, well, could I ask who you’re texting?” John asked, resisting an entertained smile. “My friends.” “You must have a lot of friends. You text awfully well.” He watched to see if she would catch his sarcasm. She stopped typing for a moment. “My friend,” she said. “Your friend,” John repeated. “Uhh, well, okay.” He lifted his hands in a shrug. He glanced at Lars, who was still chewing his fingernails, deep in nervous thought. “Is there anything I can get for you while you’re here, at least?” She looked up at the kitchen doorway, thinking. “No,” she replied and went back to texting. 119
They heard Miss Muffin scramble back around the corner out on the deck, and then Leanne came in. “What are you guys doing?” Then she saw Neko. “Oh, hi, Darling. What are you doing here? Girl Scout cookies or something?” Neko looked up at her and dryly said, “Your dog capped my kitty.” Neko saw slight skepticism on Leanne’s face and her lip quivered again. “He dead,” she blurted out forcefully and went back to texting. Leanne looked at Lars and John, shocked. “What’s she talking about?” Lars glanced at her. He tucked his lame hand back into his belt loop and chewed on the pieces of fingernail in his mouth, now staring blankly at the ground. “An my pops is probably that toothpick guy that just walked in here.” Leanne contorted her face and looked at John. “Seth?” John shrugged but then nodded at her. “She just said some old guy said her dad lives here. And it’s not me!” Leanne turned to Neko. “Who was the old guy, Hunny?” “He said he was the land-king or sumpthin,” She talked as she typed. “Old guy. Big white fro.” “The landlord, Hunny?” Leanne avoided John’s burning gaze. “Yeah, that’s it. The landlord. He said I could live here and he got me this phone and he gave me his number,” Neko replied, her face still in her telephone. “So do you know Seth?” Leanne asked. “The guy that you think might be your dad? Do you know any of the people in this house?” “I know him.” She pointed at Lars, whose absent gaze was broken by her pointing finger. “He gives us ice cream sometimes. From his truck thingy.” Lars shrugged off the claim. He looked at Leanne and nervously said, “Sometimes I give neighborhood kids some of the leftovers—I mean the dessert leftovers from my truck.” “Awww. That’s so nice.” Leanne smiled at him, impressed. She looked back at Neko. “Alright, Hunny, what do you need?” She knelt down beside the couch. 120
Neko looked into her face for a moment. She paused an extra moment when she saw a beautiful lock of Leanne’s red hair escape from her pony tail and fall in front of her eye. Neko brushed her hand over her black frizzy hair and looked back to her cell phone. “Maybe someone could gets me a blanket for tonight?” she asked, trying to sound like she didn’t care. A moment passed and she added more politely, “Please.” Leanne was quiet for a moment. “Are you asking to sleep here, in our house tonight?” Neko looked at Leanne and got up. “I don’t have to sleep inside your house then. I’ve had worse. Gaww! You don’t have to treat me like some charity case.” She walked over to the window and touched her phone to the metal window divider and watched her screen. She tilted the phone in different directions while touching the window divider and frowning at her still-low cell reception. Leanne looked at Lars and then John. They all shrugged.
Bed of Phone Books (Nayeli meets Neko) Neko tried to get comfortable under a blanket on the porch. She had moved the phone books into a horseshoe shape around her and was trying to use her backpack as a pillow. The guilty look on her face seemed to be as uncomfortable as the warped wooden boards against her side. “Quack.” Neko froze. She slowly moved toward the doorway of her little phonebook igloo until she saw the duck waiting just outside of it. 121
“Quack.” “Whatchoo want, stupid duck. Getcher pansy little feathers outta here ’fore I kick you out.” The duck stood patiently at the door as if waiting for permission to come in. “Quack.” “Beat it, flappy.” She swung a foot out of the doorway and grazed the duck before her knee dislodged one of the loadbearing phone books. They started a slow topple and Neko jumped to her feet in time to catch the third or the fourth phonebook from falling. However, one of the books landed partly on the duck, which let out a small duck cry but did not move. “Oh!” Neko cringed and froze to see if the duck was alright. The duck stood back up and the book settled flat on the ground. Neko glanced into the windows of the dark house, saw no movement and so continued talking to the duck. “You betta flee the scene ducky, or I’m gonna cap you in da head like I did that kitty cat. Can’t ya see I ain’t fit for pets.” Neko’s lip quivered again. She was angry at something. When she didn’t know how to deal with what was happening inside of her any more, she kicked at the duck and landed her big shoe directly into the duck’s soft chest. The duck flapped and came to a stop a foot back. It quacked and waited for her. She had kicked it and it had still not left her. * * * Nayeli walked from her new room toward the kitchen with a cup in her shaky hand. She filled it with ice from the freezer and walked through the living room back toward her room. A doorbell sounded out on the deck as she crunched down on a mouthful of ice. She stopped, turned and opened the screen door. The sound of a rustling blanket and a little bony elbow thumping the deck pulled her outside. 122
The phone books were stacked in a circle as high as her waist. She looked inside and saw someone moving under a blanket. “Hola? Hello?” She said. The moving stopped. A little girl pulled back the blanket and looked up at her. She held the duck in her arms, and the duck looked content. “Who are you?” Neko asked. “I’m Nayeli. Who are you?” Nayeli challenged playfully, raising her eyebrows. “Nice to meet you. I live out here on the deck.” “Sí? Segura? Are you sure?” Nayeli asked, a spark in her eye. “Don’t be speaking Spanish to me now, like I’s supposed to understand it or sumfin’. We speak American here.” Neko sat up and looked at her, showing she was not intimidated. “Well, I think you don’t speak American either,” Nayeli said with a smile. “English. Whatev!” Neko set her phone down and crossed her arms. “Now, really, little one, why are you here?” “Why are you here?” “Because I live here.” Nayeli leaned an elbow onto the phone books. “Well, then, Miss Meh-hico, so do I. The land-king guy said I was supposed to live here.” Nayeli wondered at this but let it go. “Hmm, and I see you found a friend already.” Neko looked down at the duck and said, “Well, the troof, Ms. Señorita, he done come up to me.” “Wow, you must be muy especial.” She smiled. She looked out at the sky. “Well, it maybe will be cold tonight. Maybe you like sleep in my room tonight where ees warm? My room is little bit cute—more cuter than these phone books.” She smiled. The girl’s demeanor turned soft for a moment. “You ain’t trippin? Sleep in your room wich you?” Neko considered it for a moment. “You aint gonna be spoutin’ Spanish and all that because I won’t put up wit it, okay?” 123
“Well, we’ll see.” Nayeli winked at her. “I can do whatever I want in my room—even talk to cute little girls in Spanish.” “Hmm,” Neko tried to hide her excitement with toughness. “But I’m bringing the duck with me!” “Okay. But don’t let him caca on your bed!” They both laughed. Neko climbed to her feet, picking up her blanket and her backpack. The duck flapped to the ground and quacked as it walked out through the gap in the phone books. Neko stood up straight, which wasn’t straight at all. She looked at Nayeli’s reaction to see if she still wanted to be her friend despite her deformity. Nayeli touched her belly and straightened her back nervously, but recovered quickly as if she had seen nothing wrong. “It has been a long time since I have a sleep-over party. I used to had some with my nieces. This will be fun. Follow me.” They headed for Nayeli’s room as she whispered to Neko about all the silly people in the house. The duck wandered back and forth on the deck, pecking at splinters and leaves on the wood, but followed Neko when it saw her going into the house. Neko was adamant that she protect the duck, so it had to come with her. They went into Nayeli’s room. The door shut behind them and soon giggling could be heard, not stopping until they were asleep.
Wooden Head (Seth has a breakdown) Seth folded and stacked clothes furiously. He chattered to himself things like, “They expect me to do all their laundry,” and “She walks right in here and gets to be friends with Nayeli—they don’t even know what type of person she is.” The pile of clothes got higher and higher. He stacked shirt on top of pants on top of underwear on top of socks. When the pile completely covered the plaque, he stopped, stepped back, put his hands on his sides, and took a deep breath. He turned around and jumped when he saw the Mumble Bum standing at the back door. The Mumble Bum smiled at him from under his frizzy beard. Seth half-heartedly returned the smile and walked into the kitchen where he rummaged through the refrigerator and then through the cupboards. He couldn’t find anything he wanted. He was still full from eating three bowls of Cheerios, a handful of gummy worms, and two cinnamon raisin granola bars he had found an hour before. He walked back into the laundry room. The Mumble Bum waved at him sheepishly from the porch. Seth waved halfheartedly back. Then he looked at the pile of clothes on the dryer, turned around, and walked into the TV room. He sat down and dug into the couch cushions until he found the 125
remote. He pressed on the exposed batteries to make sure they weren’t falling out and then turned on the TV. He mumbled to himself, “This stupid TV doesn’t work at all.” And, “This stupid house is stupid.” Neko walked in and saw him. She sat down on the other end of the couch with her feet up on the cushion. Seth tensed up and looked at her feet from the corner of his eye. He mashed a button and flipped through the few fuzzy channels. “So,” she tried to speak as properly as she could, “What are you like, Pops?” Seth turned his head halfway to her, his eyes still aimed closer to her feet than anything else. He paused . . . and then he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said mockingly. “I mean, whaddya like to do?” Neko tried again. Seth rolled his eyes, let out a big exasperated sigh, and shrugged again. “Jeez. Sorrrrr-y,” she said. “I just wanted to get to know ya . . . To tell ya the troof, I’m a little disappointed myself.” Seth kept mashing the channel buttons. Finally he got up and said, “I have to go do something in my room.” He threw the remote onto the couch where he had been sitting and walked to his room like a storm cloud rolling through the house. When he saw the Mumble Bum still standing outside the door whittling on a stick Seth averted his eyes and sat on the steps by the washer. He hunched down, trying to hide from the Mumble Bum behind the counter. When he couldn’t get low enough, he scooted to where the door frame obstructed their view of each other. Seth rubbed at the stain on his T-shirt and then chewed on his nails. He alternated back and forth doing these things. Then he heard the Mumble Bum pushing his way through the bushes outside. Seth only looked up when he sensed the Mumble Bum stop directly across from him. Seth glanced up. The Mumble Bum held a piece of whittled wood up next to his face. It was an exaggerated, cartoony face carved from an old stick. The Mumble Bum tried to match the same goofy smile with his own large, hairy face. 126
Seth tried not to smile because he wanted to be mad. He picked at a place on his face, hiding his mouth with his hand. The next time he looked up he saw the Mumble Bum pull a cell phone out of his pocket. He unfolded it slowly and squinted at the words on the screen. Then he pressed his fat thumbs into the keys and stuck his tongue out of his mouth in concentration. The Mumble Bum got frustrated after trying to type on the phone for five minutes. He looked back in at Seth, who was smiling, enjoying the hobo’s frustration. The Mumble Bum’s bushy eyebrows raised and he smiled, entertained at his own predicament. Seth looked over to where the plaque of rules would be if it weren’t hidden behind the stack of clothes. Then he looked at the Mumble Bum, who shrugged at his own silliness. Seth fought to hide his smile. Then he took a deep breath and composed himself. He forced himself to get up. He tried to look tough and independent as he opened the door and let the Mumble Bum come in. The Mumble Bum stood silently by the door as Seth sat back down. He looked at Seth and let his hand that was holding the phone fall to his side. Seth looked up at him and then at the phone. “Do you want some help with the text message?” Seth asked. The Mumble Bum nodded. Seth walked over and took his phone from him. A text message was started. It said: “Wht dijd sthe [email protected]!?” Seth smiled slightly and asked, “Are you trying to say, ‘What did she do?’” The Mumble Bum nodded. Seth found the right keys and corrected the text message. He looked to see who it was going to. It said “Sthemiqr.” Seth smiled again and asked, “Who’s Sh-them-eequer?” The Mumble Bum told Seth but Seth could not understand, even after repeating it three times. Finally Seth shrugged and said, “That’s okay.” Seth handed the phone back to him.
Seth turned and looked at the pile of clothes, hiding the plaque. He bit at his index fingernail and repeated to himself, “What did she do?” Seth lowered his tone and looked at the door to the kitchen. He could hear the scratchy noises from the TV. “Did you see, a new girl came?” The Mumble Bum nodded. Seth started to say something several times in different ways but couldn’t get it out. He looked back at the doorway and listened for the TV sound. “I don’t like her.” The words came out bitterly, and Seth seemed ashamed to hear himself say it. He looked up at the Mumble Bum. The Mumble Bum held up the goofy carved face and smiled. Seth gave an obligatory grin. The Mumble Bum looked a little bit saddened and lowered the carving. He looked down at the steps and they both sat down. Seth took the carved piece of wood from him and turned it over in his hands. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t say that. I just think she’s really, really mean.” Seth seemed relieved to say it. He stood up and looked out at the yard. He clenched the wooden carved face in his hand. The Mumble Bum said something and had to repeat himself only twice before Seth understood him. “What did she do? Umm . . . I don’t know.” He bit his fingernails, looked at the wooden face, and then picked at his own face. He paced back and forth and mumbled to himself, “What did she do? Why is she mean? What did she do? Why do I think she’s mean?” He spoke out loud, seeming to forget they could be overheard. “I don’t know. She didn’t do anything. I just don’t like her.” The Mumble Bum got up and looked out into the yard. Then he looked at Seth with his glistening blue eyes and pointed to a patch of black fur lying in the yard. Seth glanced at where he pointed and then immediately turned around. “I don’t know what she did. I don’t know anything. She’s just really really really really really really really . . .” 128
The Mumble Bum waited until Seth quieted down, like a broken record slowly losing power. He pulled a couple pieces of licorice out of his pocket and handed one to Seth. He chomped down on it quickly, chewing vigorously. He sat down on the steps and put his head in his hand, while holding the wooden face away from him with his other. When he finished chewing, he breathed in deeply. He was quiet. The Mumble Bum reached to put a hand on his shoulder. Seth flinched and pulled away. They exchanged a glance. Seth was surprised at his own reaction. The Mumble Bum looked at him with sad and caring eyes. The Mumble Bum reached again. Seth closed his eyes and resisted flinching. The big warm hand rested on his shoulder blades at the base of his neck. Seth suddenly began to sob. He pounded the wooden carved face on the cement floor. After a few minutes of crying, he was lying on his side on the steps and the big warm hand still rested on his back. Seth spoke in sloppy wet language, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I don’t know why I’m crying. I don’t remember what happened.” “Try.” The Mumble Bum was clear enough for Seth to understand. Seth took a quivering breath. “I never saw her before, except one time when I saw her out in the alley—out there.” Seth gestured toward the back of the neighbor’s yard. “And she just walked by and didn’t do anything . . . except . . . climbed over the fence . . . and she didn’t do anything but I saw a cat in our yard and it’s kind of an ugly cat and doesn’t seem very alive. It’s kinda dead I think now . . . there were some really cute kittens. I think their momma died, I think. But the girl just took a picture of her, probably because she was just really sad.” The Mumble Bum waited. Seth itched his arms and bit at his fingernails and then interrupted his own thoughts: “I’m hungry. I want a burrito.” He got up and went to the door, but then immediately turned around and said, “But she wasn’t sad at all. Like she was happy that the cat was dead. I think she might have wanted to kill the cat. To kill it, to kill it . . . to kill it, to kill it . . .” 129
The Mumble Bum handed over another piece of licorice, this stopping the broken record. Seth took it in his fist, pushed it into his mouth and chewed vigorously again. He sat back down. “I don’t understand; why do people kill things? Why did she want to? I didn’t mean to kill it. He wouldn’t let that squirrel get away. He just kept hitting it and hitting it. I could hear it screaming from behind the garage. He just kept hitting it and hitting it with that stick.” Seth gasped for breath. “It couldn’t get away because its back feet couldn’t move. And he tried to make me throw the rock at it and I did and I made it fall. And then he hit it over and over. He wouldn’t stop until the squirrel crawled through the fence. It can’t be my fault. It can’t be my fault. I saw it after it died and it was dead. I didn’t kill it. I didn’t kill it. I hate it. I hate him. I hate Todd White. He was a bully. He was so mean to me. He tried to make me kill things. He tried to make me kill ants and a frog. But I wouldn’t do it. But with the squirrel I only threw the rock. I didn’t even think I would hit it. But I hit it and it fell and then its legs couldn’t move and stupid Todd White hit it over and over with a stick until it crawled away and died. He just hit it over and over and over. It lasted for forever. He wouldn’t stop hitting it.” Seth was bawling, his tears falling to the floor. He took deep breaths between sobs. The Mumble Bum whispered something several times. Seth eventually understood him as he said it in the way Seth would have said it: “It’s not for forever.” After each time he said it he paused and added, “The pain is done.” Seth breathed in, nodded at the words, and breathed out. Pieces of licorice fell out of his mouth and onto his pants. He picked them up quickly and put them back into his mouth. He scrubbed at the red mark it left on his jeans and looked at the Mumble Bum as he breathed out. He was amazed and scared of the story that had come out of him. The Mumble Bum whispered again and Seth understood it. “The hurt is not for forever. The pain is finished.” Seth sniffed and wiped his nose and eyes on his shirt. “I hadn’t thought about that for a long time . . . Actually, I think I saw her kill the cat right out there. I think it’s out there still.” 130
He began to bite his nails furiously again and scratch at the wooden face. He stood up and looked outside. Barrie trotted back and forth across the yard and the two kittens followed her, reaching up and biting at her, trying to nurse every chance they could get. Barrie was trying to care for them but looked exasperated. The Mumble Bum mumbled something. Seth had to ask him to repeat it three times. He almost gave up until the Mumble Bum whispered it and Seth understood. “What!? Why should I tell Lars?” Seth heard his own words and contorted his face in confusion. The Mumble Bum looked hurt that his statement could seem so absurd. “Um . . . but why?” Seth asked, trying to sound more patient. The Mumble Bum looked at the floor and was silent. “He’s the last person I want to talk to.” The Mumble Bum glanced up at Seth, who was scraping and picking away at the wooden face with nervous fingers, almost vengefully. The Mumble Bum nodded.
Skirt Rebellion (Lars tells John about his past) John and Lars watched Miss Muffin talking to the Mumble Bum at the end of the yard by the road. The Mumble Bum listened patiently. 131
Lars talked with John as they rocked. “How did your appointment go?” Lars was slow and spoke quietly. It took a lot of effort for him to make conversation today. “It was not good, man,” John said. “They talked to us about all of our options and it just enflamed old arguments. I’m afraid it might be her fault that we can’t have kids. She was pretty active when she was younger and she got pretty sick for a while because of it, I think. But she won’t admit to it. She says it’s my fault because I don’t make love to her. But whenever I try to she says she doesn’t feel good or that I don’t really love her.” Lars looked halfway in his direction. “I hope this isn’t rude, but what is the sound we hear every night around 10? I just always assumed you two were cramming for the pregnancy test every night.” John smirked but then looked at Lars in confusion. “No, man. Before bed we just do some exercises with the free weights, and sit-ups and stuff, which seems to turn into a competition too; who can exercise better. Ha! I guess that could sound a little bit like we were doing it—cramming, I mean.” John smiled, but sobered up again, “But the truth is we don’t even touch each other anymore.” “You have an exercise machine or something up there?” Lars tried not to seem too interested in this. “Well there is a little one, just a bench, and some free weights—oh and a pullup bar, but I don’t use that hardly at all.” “Huh. Sounds like a pretty good setup—at least for something in this house.” Lars nodded, trying to sound disinterested. They heard Nayeli’s voice from inside. “What you think of this one, Hunny?” They turned around and saw Nayeli walk into the TV room carrying an outfit for Neko. Lars watched Nayeli hold a blouse and skirt up for Neko. Neko looked up from her phone long enough to nod at the blouse and shake her head at the skirt. Nayeli asked her to stand up. Neko removed the duck from her lap and let Nayeli help put the blouse on over her T-shirt. Nayeli cooed and said how beautiful it looked. 132
“Wait, I think I know something what would look good with that,” Nayeli said, going back upstairs to where the clothes rack stood in the hall. Lars watched her long hair flow behind her like waves as she pranced out of sight. Then his eyes went back to Neko. Neko smoothed the blouse over her crooked body and looked at herself. She smiled. Upstairs Nayeli filed through her clothes rack carefully, noting which of her clothes would be decent for a little girl. She started rearranging them, putting work clothes at the back, hidden behind the rest. Lars cleared his throat and looked at his lame hand in his lap. “Are you okay today, man?” John asked. “I don’t know, Brother.” Lars breathed deeply as he contemplated bringing something up. “Do you remember how that Neko chick said her dad lives here?” “Yeah, I thought that was crazy. How could her father live here? It’s just you and Seth and me.” “Well, I think I need to tell you a story. I don’t want to keep secrets from someone like you, Brother. Can you keep a secret?” John nodded, with a scared look on his face, and set down his spitter. “Well, the reason I know about this pregnancy clinic thing is because a lo-o-o-ong time ago, like when we were teenagers, I had that girlfriend that worked at that place I told you about. She told me all the stories of people that went in there and came out in love. Well, we made some love in there ourselves sometimes after everyone was gone.” Lars glanced at Neko and shifted in his chair. “Well, it turns out she got pregnant and when her parents found out about it and the people at the pregnancy center found out what happened there, some messed-up stuff went down and they basically kicked me out of her life. They totally took every part of my life away from me that had something to do with her. It was messed up, man. I haven’t talked to her since. And honestly I never knew what happened to the baby. But we had decided on names for the baby. If it was a boy we were going to name it Tristan (my choice). If it was a girl, we 133
would name it . . .” He gestured to the people on the other side of the wall. “Neko?” John whispered. “Sheneq.” Lars said. “Now, all that should be cool and I always thought I would take the responsibility of raising a child that I fathered and all, but it’s a lot harder to take than I thought. I only slept four or five hours last night.” “Wow.” John shook his head. “Was your girlfriend . . . um, African-American?” “She was half black.” “Wow, so you might really be her father,” John whispered. Lars grimaced at the thought of it. “I’ve just been living on my own for so long.” Nayeli bounced into the TV room carrying a different skirt and a belt. Lars turned to watch her. His eyes lingered on her curvaceous hips as if to distract himself with something pretty. Neko stood up and looked at the clothes as Nayeli walked in. She picked up her phone, typed something into it quickly and then put it into her pocket. She looked at the skirt and slowly nodded. Nayeli said, “You want try on in a room?” Neko shook her head slowly and took the skirt from her. She put it on over her pants and smiled. “I like it like this.” Nayeli paused, hesitated, and then answered. “Um, okay. It look good. Different and good. You look very pretty.” Neko looked pleased at herself and her cute rebellion and smiled at Nayeli. Nayeli noticed how proud Neko looked and added, like a big sister, “Now remember, they just are clothes.” Neko pulled out her phone and sat down again. Nayeli looked at her own hand and noticed it was shaking. She turned around and caught Lars looking at her through the window. He looked away. Nayeli looked down at herself. She reigned in her hair with her hand and adjusted her shirt. She put her hands on her stomach, sucked it in and glanced secretly at Lars as she went into the kitchen. She 134
came out, downplaying that she had a fudgesicle, and went into her room. Barrie trotted through the living room, down the hall, and up the stairs. The two kittens stumbled over each other, trying to follow. When Barrie got to the stairs and realized they couldn’t climb up, she descended and, after some manipulating, fit both of their heads partially into her mouth and carried their squirming bodies up the stairs. John and Lars turned around and continued to rock slowly. “Wow, so she really might be your daughter. How’re you gonna know for sure?” “I don’t know. I guess I could find out who her mom is.” “What do you think about the cat thing? Do you think she’s lying? Have you gone out to see if there is really a cat there?” “No, not yet. I’m a little bit scared to though. Not because it’s a dead cat, but because if she did what I think she did, that’s just a little too much like something I would do—when I was a kid, I mean. Maybe not with a dead cat, I guess, but it seems like she was finding a way to weasel her way in here.”
Strange Little Man (Seth confronts Lars) Seth waded carefully through the choir of lilies on the side of the house and then shuffled around the front of the deck with his head low. Lars and John saw him as he rounded the porch. He stopped on the first step and looked up at Lars. “Um, can I talk to you?” Lars smiled widely, putting on his charm again. “Of course you can talk to me, Little Man. I’m always here for ya.” “I mean . . . um . . . “ He looked at John’s feet. “I mean alone if that’s okay.” Seth picked at a spot on his face. Lars looked over at John. John said, “That’s okay, I’ve got some stuff I need to do anyway.” And he got up, punched Lars lightly on the shoulder and said, “Thanks for listening to me, man.” Lars looked up at him and nodded, “You got it, Brother.” Lars turned to Seth and said, “Sit down, Little Man.” “Um . . .” Seth moved toward the rocking chair but didn’t sit. “I don’t really know how to do this. This is really hard for me.” “Why, Little Man?” Lars asked. “Mr. Lars, to be honest I don’t even want to talk to you.” Lars laughed, smiling at Seth’s expense, though no one was around to notice. “Well . . . why is that, Little Man?” “It’s because . . .” He struggled to say it. “I don’t want to be mean, but . . . and I’m sorry for thinking this, but . . . I just don’t like what you’re doing, taking everybody’s room. Mine. Miss Muffin’s. And now Nayeli’s.” 136
Lars looked around to make sure no one heard this. He suddenly was self-conscious. He looked out at the yard and ran his good hand through his hair, checking for dandruff on his shoulders. “Hmmm. I see.” Seth continued, “But I feel like I need to. I don’t know why I need to tell you this, but . . .” Seth struggled but then blurted it out: “I saw Neko kill a cat and put it in our yard and take a picture of it.” “Really?” Lars looked back at Seth. “Wow.” Lars paused and glanced inside at Neko. “And why did you feel the need to tell me that?” “Maybe just so someone knows that’s what she did. I don’t know. I’m sorry.” Seth turned to leave. “Yeah, that’s interesting, Little Man.” Seth started walking away. “Thanks,” Lars mumbled. Seth looked at Lars’s feet and said, “You’re welcome.” He descended the steps. “You’ve got some guts . . . for such a strange little man.” Lars watched him walk away around the house. Lars glanced into the house at Neko and said under his breath, “Just a little too much like something I would’ve done.”
Neighbor Lady (Neko finds her dad) Lars walked into the TV room and sat down on the couch with Neko, who looked up, pulling her feet closer to her on the cushion. She adjusted the sleeping duck on her lap and flipped the channel. “So when did your mom go to jail, Neko?” Lars asked. Neko waited until she had found a satisfactory station (though it was just as fuzzy as the others) and then responded, “Hmm, like a week ago.” She tried not to sound bothered by it. “She got caught dealing.” Lars nodded sadly, “What’s her name?” “Sincerity.” Neko responded absently. Lars flinched. His tone became tougher and yet also softer somehow. “So, where have you lived since she was taken away?” Neko looked at him. “Why all the questions, Mr. Dragonface?” “Oh, you actually knew what my tattoo was?” “Of course I did. Do you think I’m blind?” She picked up her phone and typed. Lars was secretly amused and a little bit proud. She removed the duck from her lap, got up, looked at her phone, and held it out in the air. “Reception in this house sucks beans.” She leaned down, picked the duck up before it got away, and walked into Seth’s laundry room. Lars followed her. Seth was folding somebody’s laundry while reciting the rules on the plaque over and over. Neko walked right to the washer and dryer and touched her phone to them. “Hmm. I can’t tell if it helps.” Seth looked down at her and stepped aside, acting repelled. 138
“It’s okay, dad,” she said to Seth. Seth looked at Lars, surprised and confused. Her phone’s doorbell ringer went off and she smiled. “Ah, there we go.” “And why do you think Seth is your dad?” Lars asked. She looked up at Seth for some help with the answer, but he just looked down at her, terrified. “Because the land-king guy said he was here and that other man and that lady thought he was the only one it could be.” Neko tried sounding sure of herself. “I don’t think Leanne or John were certain of it. They thought Seth was the only one that might have had kids because they thought the rest of us didn’t. Seth, do you have any kids that you know of?” Seth shook his head emphatically. “Aww, c’mon now, guys.” Neko gave a belabored look, like someone had peed on a toilet seat. Then she struggled to hide the hurt that crawled onto her face. She swallowed and said, “Whatevs. I don’t need a dad to survive, dudes.” Lars breathed in deeply and tried to figure out how to start. Neko saw this and got ready to listen. There was a firm knock on the front door. They all turned around and walked to the entryway. Nayeli came out of her room, and John came down from upstairs. A round woman in a light blue blouse and big glasses looked in through the screen door. John opened it and said, “Hello. How can we help you, ma’am?” The big woman crossed her arms across her chest. “I live next door and I came over to get to the bottom of something. I happened to notice my cat was no longer in my yard. And I looked over into your’n and I seen what looks to be my cat. I’m afraid to say it, but I think something in your yard killed her. She was just a wild cat that I fed every day, but I pretty much thought of her as my own. Do ya’ll know anything about this?” Her face was hard. Neko stepped forward and flipped open her phone. She showed the woman the picture and said, “Their dog killed it. I seen it.” 139
Barrie trotted down the stairs, carrying the two kittens by their heads. Barrie let go of them as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She monitored them as they followed her. The messy animals walked toward the people standing around the front door. Then the duck came down the stairs, quacking at each step, following Barrie. Neko saw that her phone was trying to receive a message and she leapt around Nayeli to touch it to the metal rent-dropbox. She stepped on the toes of one of the kittens, who screamed. Barrie panicked and nipped at Neko’s ankle. Neko shouted in pain, mostly so everyone knew she had been wronged, and toppled onto the floor like a soccer player, her bent back adding to the startling scene. Nayeli squatted to help her. The animals escaped into the TV room. The woman raised her eyebrows and said, “Hmmmm. I think it’s time you exterminated your violent animal. I had no idea such a dog lived next door. I’ll give you, say . . . one week, and if animal control ain’t exterminated the dog, I’ll tell ’em everything I seen.” She turned but continued talking to them. “I got pictures too and I bet y’all that the mark on that girl’s leg will still be there in a week. I’m sorry to do this, but I gotta watch out for my animals as well as my precious children.” She went down the steps, hesitantly walked between the forests of weeds on either side of the sidewalk, and disappeared around the fence. Lars turned to Neko, pointed his finger at her, raised his voice and said, “Neko! I know what you did. You’re grounded for a week or until you can convince her Barrie didn’t do it! Now, go to your room!” A smile crawled across her face and her eyes got moist. She struggled to her feet. “It’s YOU! You’s my donor.” She wrapped her arms around him like a daughter does to her father, and bawled from joy. Lars awkwardly hugged her back and gave the others a hesitant smile. They all looked at him, wide-eyed and jaws dropped.
Digging Holes (Burying the cat) John stood at the threshold of the kitchen and laundry room, looking through the greenhouse windows into the dusky yard. Leanne read a book at the table while Nayeli cooked. “They really do look like they could be father and daughter,” John said, “I mean, look at the way they’re both standing with their hands on their hips. Well, I guess Lars just has one hand and she sort of has one hip but they look like a match.” Leanne looked out the windows at them. “Are they having Barrie dig them a hole?” She smirked. “That’s kinda funny.” Nayeli peeked through the doorway with flour on her hands. “What Seth doing?” “I guess he’s just helping,” John said. “Looks like he found the shovel—though of course Barrie isn’t using it.” He smirked. A moment later he added, “Oops. Maybe they should have used the shovel. Barrie just decided to start over in a different place. Those kittens just won’t leave her alone.” John laughed. “And all of them are just watching poor Barrie do all the work.” After watching for a minute Leanne said, “So what does that mean, if she really is his daughter? I mean will they live in the same room or something?” John turned half-way back to Leanne, and Nayeli’s ears perked up. Everyone always seemed very concerned with who would get which room, like it was a baseball draft or an entrance exam. John replied, “I don’t know. Lars’s room, uh . . .” He looked at Nayeli who had paused her cooking. “I mean, your 141
room, Nayeli . . . uh, it isn’t really big enough for a man and a little girl.” Nayeli hesitated but shrugged it off. She focused back on her cooking as she mumbled, “He can have. I no need that room no more.” John hesitated and started again. “Uh, I think the only room big enough for two people is ours.” John looked back at Leanne, suggesting something with his eyes. Leanne gave him a stern look and shook her head subtly. * * * Lars looked back at the house and saw John in the doorway talking to Leanne. He smiled to himself. He put his hand on Neko’s shoulder. He glanced up to make sure they had seen it. He held the plastic bag out to Neko and said, “Do you want to do the honors, Neko?” She hesitated, put her phone in her pocket and said, “Um, maybe we should each say something to the cat before we bury him.” “Her.” Lars corrected. “Bury her.” She nodded. “Her.” She held the bag out to Seth and said, “You start, Toothpick Man.” Seth hesitantly stepped forward and looked at the bulge in the bottom of the black garbage bag. “I just want to say to you, Little Cat, that I am sorry you had to die.” He paused, stopped himself from picking at something on his face. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and concentrated. “I am thankful that the pain is done. The pain is . . . uh . . . it ended. It’s not for forever. Um, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, amen.” He motioned the cross on his body with his hand and stepped back. “Your turn, Dad,” Neko said as she held the bag out to him. He took it from her and started to speak. Barrie ran around the yard once to lose the kittens and restarted the hole in a place five feet behind them. “Barrie!” Lars yelled. “You’re not doing your job, dog!” He groaned and they all turned around. 142
The kittens caught up to Barrie and stuck their heads in her new hole as she dug. “I guess I’d just like to say,” Lars began, “I’m sorry, Cat, that you had to be a learning lesson for my new daughter, but I thank you for giving your life so my daughter could learn from this, and become a better young woman . . .” then he added, “for forever,” subtly making fun of Seth to earn points with Neko. He glanced at her but she had not caught it. Neko reached out and hooked her hand in the crook of his elbow. He handed the bag back to her. She took it, looked at the shallow hole Barrie was digging and started, “I thank you that I found my real dad despite my trespasses in hurting you, Little Cat. I thank you that I learned a lesson that I shouldn’t hurt things to make people want to love me. And I thank you that I have found my daddy that loves me even when I don’t deserve it and disciplines me when I do deserve it. In the name of God Almighty, amen.” Lars looked up at the house and saw John, Leanne, and now Nayeli watching them. He looked at Seth and said, “Hey Little Man, I’ll get this from here. Why don’t you give me the shovel.” Lars took the shovel from Seth and started digging, confident that they were still watching from the house. “Watch out, Barrie!”
Bags of Boxers (Lars asks for help) At 8:30 a.m. the little digital watch alarm went off in John and Leanne’s room and the melee of thuds and knocks began. Two sets of bare heels landed on the floor and ran across the 143
room. Clothes and hangers hit the floor. Drawers slid open and cupboards slammed. One minute later, the alarm stopped and the commotion slowly died down. The rest of the residents, however, now started to move. Ten minutes later Lars walked into Seth’s room with two grocery bags of laundry. “Hey, Little Man. Thanks for your help yesterday.” Lars emptied the grocery bags next to the tipped-over plastic laundry basket in which Seth laid his head. Seth opened one eye and looked through the holes in the laundry basket at the pile of black socks and colorful boxers. He lifted his head from the nest of clean socks he had made in the basket. His body shifted on the mattress of T-shirts strewn on the floor. One of his sleepy eyes lifted with tremendous effort and found Lars’s kneecaps. “I was thinking about what you told me the other day about it looking like I was taking other peoples’ rooms when they decided to move out.” Lars looked outside and ran his hand through his hair, checking for dandruff on his shoulders. He saw some and plucked the fabric of his shirt to fling it off. Then he looked back to Seth. “I really don’t want it to look like that, and I want you to help me change my ways. I want to show people I’m a really good dad.” Seth sat up groggily and opened his eyes. He tried to smile as he squinted in the bright morning light. “Yeah,” was all he could squeeze out. “So I have a proposition for you,” Lars said. “You see, I have to work every day and no one is here to take care of Neko—at least during the summer when she’s out of school.” “Yeah?” “So I was just wondering if . . .” Lars glanced out at the yard, “I mean if I didn’t find someone to help watch her when I’m gone I’d be a bad dad, right? So I was wondering if when you’re here you can just kinda keep an eye on her; make sure she doesn’t get into trouble or need to go to the hospital or something.” Seth hesitated, but said, “How do I know you’re really trying to change, and you’re not just trying to use me?”
“Oh you don’t have to worry there. Every night when I get home I’ll be able to take care of her and give her 100 percent of my time. You’ll see.” There was a pause, and Seth stared up at Lars as his eyes adjusted. “So what exactly would I need to do?” Seth asked. “Oh, not too much. When she gets up she might want some cereal and maybe you could just help her get her breakfast or something. Oh, and if she’s not up by like 9 or 9:30, you can just sort of nudge her as you walk by and make sure she gets out of bed. And when you get your lunch maybe you could like just make a little more so she can have some. Stuff like that. It shouldn’t be more than a few minutes of your time each day.” Lars leaned down and patted Seth on his thin shoulder. “Does that sound good, Little Man? You wanna help me be a better dad?” Seth looked up at him and lifted his eyebrows. “Righteous. Thanks, Little Man. You’re gonna save her life and mine. I’ve gotta go to work. See ya about 6 tonight. Thanks again!” Lars left the room and walked out of the house. “Pfff.” Seth shook his head. Seth looked at his watch. It said 9 a.m. He looked up at the plaque and recited it automatically, without much heart. Standing up, he looked out at the new dirt mound in the yard and his eyes drifted to the goofy carved wooden face that the Mumble Bum had left on the window sill. He smiled subtly, nodded, stretched and said, “Yeah, I guess I can do this.”
Texting the Landlord (Seth takes care of Neko) Seth woke Neko up in Nayeli’s room at 9:31 a.m. and told her he was making breakfast if she wanted some. A few minutes later she showed up in the kitchen and ate three bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. She waited for Seth to prepare it for her each time. Seth told her that he was going to be cleaning out the cellar more today if she wanted to help. Later that morning, Neko talked to Seth as he cleaned out the cellar. She typed on her phone though he could have used some help with the big objects. The pile he placed against the house grew larger and filled more tightly the area between the house and the fence. “Why you cleaning this place out?” “Because it’s in the rules on the plaque that the Landlord made for us,” “He made a list of rules for all o’ y’all to obey?” Seth nodded as he picked up an old TV in both of his arms. He set it down beside her. She sat down on it and thanked him. “Why he write rules down for y’all?” “So we know what he wants, I think.” “Well cain’t you just acks him?” “None of us have ever seen him.” Seth stopped and put his hands on his knees to rest. “Really? I conversate wit ‘im all the time! You guys didn’t get to meet him when all ya’s moved in?” Seth shook his head. 146
“Look, what do you want to acks him? I’ll text him.” She picked up her phone. “Well, what type of stuff does he tell you? Does he tell you what he wants you to do and what he doesn’t want you to do?” “Um, sometimes . . . he usually just ackses me how it’s going and stuff but a lot o’ the time he just keeps telling me . . .” she paused to swallow a lump in her throat and cleared her throat to hide it. “. . . that, um, stuff like basically I’ma be okay.” Seth turned away from her, noticing that she didn’t want him to see her fighting off tears. “You can acks him sumfin’ if you want.” She regained composure and lifted her phone, ready to type. “Oh, um . . . ask him . . .” Seth was suddenly nervous. “Umm . . . ask him why we’ve never met him, I guess—please.” “Oh, that’s an easy one,” she said. “I bet you’ve met him.” “Wouldn’t we know it, though?” “Maybe. Maybe not.” “Well, what’s he like?” “He’s a dad. But all his kids died. And his wife died. So he tries to help people out who need it. But sometimes, I think, people ain’t really understandin’ that he’s trying to be nice to ’em.” “I mean, what does he look like?” “You know, he’s a really old guy. Pretty quiet and stuff. He gots gray hair. He kinda gots the same . . . um . . . problem like me.” She gestured to her crooked body. “Really? Well, why doesn’t he come around here more often, then?” “Umm, I guess I’ll acks him.” She sent a message. Seth grabbed an old hose on its spool from the cellar and set it beside the TV. Her phone sounded and she read to him. “He says it’s because you peoples don’t want him there.” “What?! We don’t want him here?” She shrugged. “I guess not. Too bad for you guys I guess. Any other questions?” Seth thought for a minute. “I don’t think so. Not right now at least.” Seth kept working and several times Neko heard him questioning under his breath, “We don’t want him here?” 147
“So,” Neko started. “Watchoo know ’bout my dad?” Seth stopped, an ancient picture frame filling his arms. “Um, about Lars? Well, he’s . . . ummm . . .” He set the broken picture frame down next to the hose spool. “Well, he told me he wants to be a really good dad.” “I wonder if he really loves me. For my whole life I wondered if I had a pops that really loved me.” “I think . . . um . . .” Seth struggled to pick his words, and spoke in a humble, little voice. “I think he probably does, but he wants to get better at it.” Neko was silent for a moment. “I had a couple other dads that weren’t my real dad. I think they just wanted to be wit my mom, though. They didn’t really love me.” “Well, I don’t think he’s using you to get to your mom,” Seth said. “To tell ya the troof,” Neko said as she looked at her phone, “I didn’t like any ya when I met all y’all. I mean, look atchooyou were the meanest of all—and you look like a toothpick with a potato on the top. But when I met my dad I thought he was kinda a jerk. I mean, just the way he talk and walk around like a three-ring circus or a wannabe burnout rockstar or sumfin’. And whatever’s wrong wit his arm wigs me out. I just not sure I like him much.” Seth opened his mouth several times to say something, but didn’t. Finally he said, “I think you should give him a chance. I think he’s going to try really hard this time to be a good person—to be a good dad for you.” “It still don’t mean I gotta like him though, does it? Like that stupid tattoo of a dragon, or whatever, is so Neverending Story super-dorkish.” Seth set down a folded-up, dirty tarp. After a few moments of thinking he said, “Um, I think you should try to like him if you want him to like you.” She seemed to be thinking about that when she got another text message and she looked at her phone. She interrupted Seth’s thoughts, “Oh, and he says he here more than we think.” “Hmm,” Seth thought for a moment. “Can you ask him why it seems like even though we work so hard at following his rules, things just seem to get harder?” 148
She typed on her phone and pressed send. Seth sat down and looked at her strange combination of the lacy skirt over her ripped jeans. He looked at her black leather bracelet with little square metal spikes. Several spikes were missing and she had colored in the vacant squares with red and green markers. The doorbell on her phone sounded again and she looked at it. She read it and then said, “Watchoo acks, again?” Seth said, “Why do things just seem to get harder here, even when we follow the rules?” She replied, “Hmm. All he says is ‘Patience.’ What a weirdo. Sometimes I just don’t understand him. This whole place is just wack. I don’t get any o’ ya. None of you are even that cool.” Seth rolled his eyes, but caught himself and took a deep breath. He got up and went back to work.
Scissors and Knives (John notices Seth) John rocked slowly on the deck and watched Lars try to teach Neko how to cut the weeds with his pocket knife. Seth trailed behind them cutting grass with the scissors, not knowing if he should continue to be there and support the duo or if Lars had completely taken over. Leanne sauntered onto the porch and saw them. “What are they doing?” John chuckled. “He’s trying to be a good father and teach her how to cut grass, but the best thing they could find was his pocket knife.” 149
“Out of all that junk in the cellar they couldn’t find a lawn mower or a weed eater?” John laughed. “I guess not. Kinda fun watching Lars try to be a dad.” “What?! It looks like he’s doing fine, John.” Leanne watched. “What’s Seth doing?” “I don’t know.” John responded with a smirk. “He was out here first with Neko trying to cut it with scissors and I guess Lars got home and thought he had a better way to do it.” Lars knelt in the grass. He looked up at Neko with intensity as he described the correct angle with which to slide the serrated blade across the thick weed stalk. “Where did Neko sleep last night?” Leanne asked John, a dry tone to her voice. “Uh, I don’t know.” Just then Nayeli burst through the door with two armloads of cute work clothes to bring to Neko. She looked up at Nayeli and smiled, while Lars asked his daughter to keep her attention on the grass cutting. Several more times Neko looked up at the deck, and each time Nayeli was ready, holding new outfits for her. The first time she held a pair of cutoff overalls and a tiny T-shirt. Another time she held cute white tennis shoes and a bandanna. She displayed them in her hands like a saleswoman. Neko would smile each time, but Lars would diplomatically wave at Nayeli, making it clear that he wanted Neko to focus on the grass cutting. Nayeli eventually relented. She sat against the house on a window sill and sighed. “He is a very good father.” “Mmmm,” Leanne nodded. “Did Neko sleep in your new room last night, Nayeli?” “Last night, sí. But her backpack no ees in my room no more.” Both John and Leanne understood which room it had probably moved to. “Lars’s room, uh—I mean your old room, Nayeli—just isn’t really big enough for a man and a little girl,” Leanne said. “I guess one of them could sleep on the floor but I mean, is that proper, even if she is his daughter?” 150
John looked up at Leanne. “We do have that curtain in our room. That would give them a little privacy if we wanted to give—” Leanne scolded him with her eyes. She didn’t want Nayeli to know they needed a curtain or that he was suggesting they give up their room. John turned around and sighed in frustration. Lars snuck a look up at them when he heard John’s suggestion cut short. He had been straining to listen to their conversation about the rooms but looked back down at his work with Neko before they could see him. He doubled his efforts to look like a good father. Eventually Leanne and Nayeli went back into the house. As the sun went down, Neko asked Lars if she could go get a glass of water, and said that she wasn’t supposed to put this much stress on her back. She handed the knife to him and limped inside. He called after her. “I’ll see if I can get a big enough space cleared so that we can have a real fireworks show for the fourth of July this weekend!” “Sounds peachy, Dad! Thanks.” Lars turned to Seth. “She gives up too easily, but that’s okay. How did it go today? Sorry for interrupting your lesson.” “No, it’s okay—” Lars interrupted. “I mean, I am her dad and all. That’s why I did it, you know?” Seth nodded. “It’s okay. Yeah, it went alright today. She’s a little bit—” “Good, Little Man. I appreciate your help immensely. I don’t know how I can repay you.” He slapped him on the shoulder and walked onto the deck, heading into the house. John pulled up the other rocking chair and held up the beer he was about to open for himself, signaling Lars should get one and join him. Lars snagged the beer from him as he passed. “Hey, thanks Brother. Wish I had time to sit and chat today.” And he disappeared into the house. John sat there with his hand still in the air from where Lars had plucked the beer, feeling a little used. Much like Lars usually treated Seth. 151
Seth sat alone, looking at the grass. He glanced up at the darkening sky, and then at the vast yard of overgrown weeds ahead of him. He sighed but then remembered something that made him smile. That sparked a fuel inside of him and he hunkered back down knowing he could keep going. It was almost dark when John went into the house and emerged with two beers. He walked down the steps and gave one to Seth. “Hey man, I’d say it’s about time to call it a day. You made some good progress.” Seth looked up at John with exhausted eyes. He looked toward the door of the house and said, “I hope so.” He took the beer and struggled to open it. John noticed him trying to twist the top off and handed him a bottle opener. Seth fumbled with it for a couple minutes but John didn’t want to embarrass him by showing him how. Finally the top came off and Seth pretended like he enjoyed the first sip. John smiled as he recognized the good old Seth he knew. “You’re a nice guy, Seth. Can I ask you, why do you help everyone out so much? I mean, how can you do it? Don’t you get frustrated that nobody really helps you back?” Seth shrugged. He thought and opened his mouth to speak but couldn’t decide on anything to say. He shrugged again. Seth took another drink, settled into the rocking chair, and sighed. A faint smile crossed his face. He actually seemed to enjoy that gulp.
Sheets (John cleans for Leanne) The whole next day while Leanne was at work, John cleaned their room, her side and his. He was cleaning out her closet when she came home. It was the closet she used as a dressing room, kept covered by a 152
curtain. She blew up and screamed at him for moving everything on her side of the room and touching stuff in her closet. He stomped out of the room fuming, barely able to hold his tongue. John walked down the dark staircase, past the faded mural of a city on the wall, down the hard, peeling, putrid hallway, by the two rickety bedroom doors, past the rumbling water heater and scummy bathroom, by the bent front screen door and past the fuzzy, blaring TV. He walked through the kitchen where Nayeli was cooking up a storm and found himself standing in the laundry room with Seth. It was clean and warm. The dryer hummed. Seth was folding pairs of black dress socks and setting them in one of many neat piles. John read the plaque on the wall. Rules for living at 606 Broadway 1) Respect the landlord 2) Take care of each other 3) Keep exterior of house clean and trim 4) Keep interior of house clean and orderly 5) Keep storm shelter clean from debris—inside and out 6) Pay what you can pay for rent “Aren’t those Lars’s socks, Seth?” John asked. Seth looked halfway over at him, hiding tear-filled eyes. He looked at the socks being folded in his hands and nodded. He set the socks in a pile. “He’s not paying you or anything, right?” Seth thought for a minute and made a face as if the thought were absurd and then shook his head, still holding back tears. “Hmmm. I guess you heard our fight up there?” Seth nodded and tried to hide his face while he worked. “Was it you who slammed the door I heard a few minutes ago—while we were fighting? I’m sorry man.” Seth shook his head and pointed out the windows. John looked up and saw the Mumble Bum open the chainlink gate at the back of the yard. He went to his shopping cart and pushed it through the alley, gritting his teeth and squeezing 153
the handle of the cart. “He was in here with you?” John looked at Seth, intrigued. Seth nodded again. “Hmm. He looks pretty upset, too. I guess no one likes to hear us fight.” A minute later John went to the kitchen, said a word or two to Nayeli, and came back with a beer. “Did you see Nayeli?” Seth nodded. “I think she’s back on the rock again.” He looked up at Seth and clarified. “I mean, she’s putting bad stuff in her body again.” Seth nodded, trying to hide his face. “I’m sorry, Buddy. I know how you tried to help her.” Seth kept folding socks. John looked at the six piles of clothes, one for each member in the house minus Seth. He drank his beer while he watched Seth work. After folding the remaining clothes, Seth put on his work apron. He swallowed a lump in his throat. “You can stay in here if you want, John. I have to work at 5:30.” “Ok, Buddy. I guess you better catch your bus.” Seth looked at him sorrowfully. “I’m sorry about the fight.” John waved it off. “Yeah, me too. Have a good time at work.” After Seth left, John sat in the room and looked at the piles of clothes for almost an hour. Then John got up, went upstairs, and stripped the sheets from his and Leanne’s bed. He returned to the laundry room and put them in the washer, even though he thought it was ridiculous to wash them as often as she insisted. When they were done he put them in the dryer. After that he remade their bed and smoothed the covers so that it would look nice when she saw it.
Burning Cellar (Lars does fireworks) “Alright, you guys ready to see the best fireworks show you’ve ever seen?” Lars asked, mainly to Neko. Neko nodded, looking at her phone as she walked. Seth moved in front of Neko to prevent her from bumping into a wall. She dodged him at the last minute but Lars, carrying his big box of fireworks, tripped on Seth’s big white shoes. He caught his balance before he totally lost the box but a mortar tube fell and the plastic corner of the base snapped off. “Watch where you’re going, klutzo! You’re always in the way these days! Give us some space already . . . please!” Neko picked up the tube and examined the base. “It’s broke, dad.” “Just because it’s broke don’t mean it ain’t still good.” He leaned down so she could put it back in the box. She put her hands in her pockets and walked next to him, thinking about what he said. Then Lars smiled and addressed Nayeli, John, and Leanne from behind the box. “Are you guys ready for this?” “Are you sure it’s okay, Lars?” John asked. “Haven’t you heard the tornado warnings all day?” Leanne responded condescendingly. “Yes, John! He said he’s done this type of stuff before. He knows better than you do.” 155
“Yeah,” Lars chimed in. “I wouldn’t take the alarms too seriously. I’ve seen it before. They’re 90 percent precautionary. I’ve heard hundreds of tornado sirens and never actually seen a tornado when I wasn’t storm chasing. I won’t let some overprotective, paranoid, bored firemen ruin the best fireworks show you all have ever seen. C’mon, onto the porch everybody.” Seth, Nayeli, John and Leanne shuffled around the massive stacks of phone books and the pallet of oxygen bottles. They lined up side by side against the front of the house. Miss Muffin was already outside, seated in a rocking chair. She wore sunglasses over her eyes and panties on her head, which were held down by earmuffs with bunnies on the sides. The deck creaked as she rocked. Lars poured the box of fireworks out onto the sidewalk in the middle of the yard. Then he set the box upside down as a platform. “We might not have cleared enough space in the grass,” Lars said to Neko, “so we have to be a little bit careful if we see sparks escape, but as long as we make sure everything shoots straight up, we’ll be just fine.” He walked Neko through the steps of setting up mortars. She watched closely as he showed her how to place the flat bases firmly on the box (the tubes facing straight up) and how to light the mortar balls and drop them in. It was almost dark. They were ready to light the first firework when they heard another tornado siren. The sky was dark with clouds. Lightning flashed in the distance. Miss Muffin adjusted her earmuffs. “Here comes the end, peoples.” She looked amused. The others on the deck looked at her. “And what would you do if there is a tornado, John?” Leanne’s nervous confusion landed on him by default like a loud, nagging school-marm. “Have you even thought about that?” Attempting patience, John said, “I guess we go to the storm cellar.” He looked at Seth. “Is it empty, Seth?” “No, not all of it,” Seth said shamefully. “Nah, don’t worry about it, Big Guy. I’m sure there’s at least enough room for all of us.” 156
“Um, maybe . . .” Seth mumbled off. Fascination for the fireworks had already caught him and held his mouth open, brimming with saliva. They began the fireworks. Lars gave Neko the red lighter, told her to set up the mortars and light one of them. She did, dropped it into the tube hesitantly, and they stepped back. They covered their ears as it shot into the air and exploded in burning colors high above them. Neko squealed with joy and fright, grabbing onto her dad. Leanne took the liberties of the loud fireworks to yell at John. “You see how he’s trying to be such a good dad, John?” Leanne had to scold someone, because somehow she had sounded like her ridiculous nagging mom with her last comment. “You see how he’s so involved?!” John nodded, bearing the insults his wife piled on. Nayeli nodded sadly, missing her time with Neko. “Maybe this one is the big one!” Miss Muffin shouted. Another mortar shot up into the air and exploded above the house. They all marveled and leaned out from under the roof, watching the glowing pieces fall. Lightning struck, followed by thunder a few seconds later. Lars stopped for a moment, looked at the sky and shouted (over the tornado siren) to the people on the deck, “Just a few more. This is exciting, huh? I told you I wouldn’t disappoint.” He looked back down where Neko was already getting ready to light the next one. She set a new mortar tube on the box and pointed to its base with the broken corner. He repeated himself with pride. “Just because it’s broke don’t mean it ain’t still good.” Neko smiled, then steadied the lighter’s flame on the fuse of the mortar until it started to crawl up the fuse. She dropped it in. Lightning struck very close by, and the thunder that immediately followed startled Neko enough to make her crooked body buckle. She lost balance, fell to the ground, and hit the box with her foot. The box shifted and the mortar tube tipped over, aiming at the house. The mortar fired. Everyone screamed and ducked. It hit a pillar on the porch and bounced back into the yard. 157
A moment later it exploded in the grass, throwing burning embers everywhere. Lars saw a flame catch in the grass where the pile of unlit fireworks rested. He jumped for it, but before he could stomp it out he saw another fire on the other side of the walkway. It was also next to unlit fireworks. “Run, everybody!” John saw the fires and shouted, “Go to the storm shelter! Somebody open it!” They scrambled and climbed over the porch railing, landing in the tall weeds. They faced a wall of junk blocking an escape through the backyard. Nayeli was the first to the cellar door, but Seth helped undo the latch and open it. The space was much smaller than most of them had thought. Only the stairs leading down were clear. First Nayeli crawled in. Then Leanne and John. Then Seth climbed in and Lars arrived and smashed himself in. No one else was coming so they started to close the door. The drooping metal doors smashed against Lars’s face. There was room for no more. “Where’s Neko?!” Leanne shouted. As if on cue Neko’s voice cried hysterically. “Lemmie in! Lemmie in! There’s fire everywhere. Lemmie in!” Several more explosions went off in rapid succession. “The other fireworks!” John gasped. Neko screamed and pulled the door open. The rib of metal where Lars was holding it slipped out of his hand as Neko opened the door. She stood before them, her crooked body shaking, speckled with dying embers. Her lacy skirt had burn holes in it. She collapsed into a fetal position and leaned into her dad, getting as far away from the outside as possible. Lars tried to close the door but Neko was in the way. It would not shut. Lars pushed her out of the cellar with his leg and tried to close the door again. She screamed, and threw her body onto her dad’s. The doors still wouldn’t shut. Lars grunted in frustration and tried to push her out again, but she held onto him for her life. Seth heard Neko whimpering and saw that her little body would not fit inside. He quickly wiggled toward the front of the 158
cellar. As he passed her he saw her terrified face and cooed softly, sounding like a nervous dove, on his way to slip out. He tripped up the steps, hit his head on the door, and tumbled the rest of the way out of the cellar. The door shut behind him. Without Seth, the rest of them barely fit. They heard him latch the door from the outside so that it would stay shut. It bulged outward from the packed people. They heard nothing more from Seth. The explosions subsided after one more minute, but the heat kept rising. Lars could feel the metal doors getting hotter against his face. Neko was behind him now and her body pushed him against the hot door. He shifted uncomfortably and pushed his way to the cool cement wall at the side of the cellar, leaving the top of Neko’s crooked torso pressed against the hot door. “Owwww, it’s hot.” She tried to push it away with her hands, but it was too hot. “It’s really hot. Ouch. Ohhh, Ouch. It hurts.” She started to cry helplessly. John, thinking about what Seth had just done, forced his way to the front, accidentally elbowing Lars’s face against the cement wall. He maneuvered his way around Neko and placed his back against the cellar door, separating her from the scalding metal. There was silence for a few moments. Leanne sensed John’s face scowl in the darkness; glistening sweat beaded on his forehead. Tears filled his eyes. “John, Hunny? Are you okay?” Her voice wavered. John winced harder and nodded. Neko tried to look up but her face was smashed between Leanne’s chest and his. “What’s that smell?” Neko asked. “Something’s burning.” Leanne’s voice got more frantic. “John! Johnny! Are you ok, Hunny?” His face winced terribly but his voice came out calmly, “Shhhhhhh. It’s okay, Darling. It’s okay. Shhhhh.” Leanne whined in a muffled hysteria. “Oh, John. Oh, John. What can I do, Hunny? John, Baby, are you okay . . . ?” Lars was silent, eyes closed, his stomach against the cool cement wall. 159
Nayeli began to cry in the back. Then she realized something and whined, “Diós mío! The phone books.” Then a moment later she gasped and said, “The oxygen bottles.” “Where did the toothpick guy go?” Neko garbled. “And what about the old lady?” Her face was smashed into the rough surface of John’s knit shirt. Nobody answered. Only the crackling of fire and the distant tornado siren could be heard. After a moment Nayeli asked, “Can you hear that?” They listened closely. The faint sounds of a rocking chair could be heard on the deck above. They all listened intensely. Neko wriggled her phone from her pocket and typed a brief text message: “Help.” Thirty seconds later the doorbell sounded on her phone. Miss Muffin’s calm voice could be heard through the thin metal doors on the deck above. “Who’s there?” A sob mixed with a laugh escaped from Nayeli. Neko read the text message and sighed.“We’re gonna be okay. He’s coming.”
Photo Album (Leanne takes care of John) “Are you doing okay, Hunny?” Leanne asked as she checked the bandages on John’s buttocks. “MmmHmmm,” John hummed. He lay face down on his bed in a bath robe that he wore backwards. His shoulder blades and the upper part of his buttocks were salved and wrapped with hospital bandages. Leanne moved around the room in the twilight. She picked up John’s scorched clothes on the floor, scowled at the smell, and dropped them into the trash. She walked over to the big bay window across the room. “It’s getting light out a little bit.” 160
She looked at the completely charred yard. The fence was scorched but not burned through. She could see where the fire had stopped at the walkway in front of the house. From above she could see the old scorched lawn mower that had been hidden by the overgrown weeds in the middle of the yard. Two police cars were parked at the edge of the yard. The Mumble Bum talked to one of the policemen, who took notes. Miss Muffin stood behind the Mumble Bum, grabbing onto his arm. “I can’t believe that all just happened last night,” Leanne said. “Like, just 10 hours ago.” “I know,” John muffled into the pillow. “I still think it’s funny that the Mumble Bum was the first person to find us and let us out of the cellar.” She looked at the curtain on her closet and wandered toward it. She looked at John, his head facing her direction, one side of his face smashed into the pillow. His eyes were closed. She slid the curtain open pensively and went inside. She glanced at herself in the mirror. “I think I’m gonna put my PJs on.” She looked up at him, seeing if he would open his eyes. She pushed the curtain to make sure it was open enough for him to see her—an unfamiliar action. She hesitated again, but then slowly began to undress. She watched herself in the mirror as she lifted her chin, pulled her shoulders back and brushed her hair tenderly behind her ears. She glanced back at him often. He didn’t open his eyes, respecting what he knew she usually wanted. She slowly put her pajamas on, her eyes lingering on him more and more, now mostly to watch his peaceful face. As she finished buttoning her pajamas, she looked around in the closet. She saw how it was the only part of the room that was not clean yet. John had taken care of the rest and now her closet seemed out of place. She began to pull down clothes, look at them and throw them into one of two piles. An hour later the sun was up. John was snoring into the pillow. The closet was clean and organized. Leanne looked at the garbage bags of clothes, rubbed her eyes and walked back into the closet. Clothes were stacked neatly on shelves or evenly spaced on hangers. 161
She looked back at John, who drooled on the pillow, the billowy bandages blooming from his backside. She walked over and almost touched his arm where his hand hung down beside the bed. The digital watch alarm went off. She followed the sound to the closet, walking to a shelf in the back corner above her head. She reached through the organized stacks and lifted out a jewelry box. It opened easily and she found the watch inside. She turned it off. Holding the box open in her hands, Leanne looked at it for a long time. Then she sat down on the floor and removed a small photo album. Her fingers slowly flipped through the pages and her eyes moved over the pictures. Tears began falling on the plastic page covers. She stood up, walked over to the bed with the album and crumpled down beside John’s limp hand. She grasped one of his fingers and rested her head on his arm, slowly turning the pages again. She felt a wiggle in John’s finger. She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. He was looking down at her and had a reminiscent smile on his face. “Go back to the beginning,” he whispered. She flipped back to the front. In the first picture, John stood over Leanne’s hospital bed holding her hand. She wore a surgical cap and hospital gown. Someone had written “Surgery 1” in the corner of the picture. She squeezed his finger tighter and flipped the page. The next was taken from the hospital bed showing John asleep in a chair beside the bed, his head resting on the sheets by her legs, drooling. Leanne laughed between her tears and pulled John’s hand against her face. She turned the page. There was a picture of her in a bed. It was labeled “Surgery 2.” And the following page was a picture taken by her from her bed. It showed John talking to a nurse at the door, concerned. In his hands were bright orange tulips. In the picture of Surgery 3, John held her hand, trying hard to smile at the camera that he held at arm’s length. Leanne was looking up at John next to her, as if embarrassed to look at the 162
camera. She was pale, and her red hair was oily. Her mascara was smeared from tears. Only Leanne’s oily red hair could be seen of her next to John in the last surgery picture. Her face was tucked into his neck. Both of her hands held one of his. It was even harder for him to smile for the camera. The next picture showed Leanne’s face sleeping in the hospital bed. She was pale but serene. John, taking the picture, was stroking her hair. The next few pictures showed Leanne at home in bed. One of them showed her eating a meal brought to her. She looked healthier in each one. The last picture showed Leanne standing, carrying John on her back. They were both smiling. Leanne looked surprised that she could hold him up. John looked proud of her. The last few plastic pages were empty. Leanne looked up at him. They remembered it all. She pulled his hand awkwardly to her face and kissed his palm. He turned carefully onto his side and stroked her hair. She got up and buried her face into his neck. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I’m so sorry, Hunny.” He wrapped his arm around her and she began to sob. John pulled her closer. “So you found that dang watch.” She laughed amid her sobs, nodding. She reached to put her arm around him and accidentally ripped one of the bandages from his shoulder blade. He groaned, and she yelped at her mistake as she scrambled to put the bandage back on. Her fumbling hands made the damage worse. John told her to hold on while he calmly reached around and fixed it. Her worried eyes peeked out between her fingers that covered her face. John laughed once and pulled her in for a long, tender kiss.
Snotty Apron (Lawyer arrives) Lars rocked on the deck which was now spattered with burn marks. He looked out over the burned yard. John leaned against the house, standing behind Lars. He looked at the paper hat on Lars’s head. Lars turned his head and looked at John’s feet. “So you went back to the fertility clinic?” John smirked and nodded. “Yeah. We were supposed to collect a sperm sample but we failed several times.” “Oh yeah? That sucks.” “No, actually it doesn’t.” John lowered his voice. “It’s funny that when you’re told you can’t actually have sex because you have to collect the sample, suddenly she wants to have sex—a lot—and won’t stop to collect a sample.” Lars looked back and smiled half-heartedly. John remembered something. “Hey have you heard of that new place called New Horizons resort?” He asked. “It’s like right across the street from the clinic.” Lars shook his head and looked back out at the yard. “Well, we tried to collect a sample twice and ‘failed’ both times.” John smiled at his words. “But we told the clinic people that we wanted to try again so we would come back in an hour or so. We walked over to the resort thing. It’s really cool. Apparently some guy in town is setting up a whole system here to help people who need it. It’s got a drug rehab center and all sorts of mental health resources. And it’s just a really great, comfortable apartment complex. Like it has a big swimming pool and workout center and it has this beautiful courtyard 164
with gardens and fountains. It’s big, too. It has apartments where like four or five hundred people could live, I bet. I’m not sure the exact criteria for living there but I think it’s for people who kind of have a hard lot in life, you know?” Lars looked back and nodded. He said under his breath, “Like us.” Leanne walked from the street into view. Her heels clopped on the sidewalk. Her bright yellow summer dress hugged her upper body and the loose bottom hem brushed her ankles. She smiled at John the whole time she walked toward the deck. She ascended the steps. She glanced at Lars’s hat. “What, you drive an ice cream truck or something? Is that your frozen food business?” Lars gave her a surprised look. She pointed at his head. He reached up, felt his hat and tore it off of his head, ashamed. “Serves you right. I’m glad you don’t own some big successful business.” She kissed John. “How ya doin’, Hunny?” “I’m doing alright, baby.” He hugged her and grabbed her butt. She giggled, spanked his hand and went into the house. Neko walked into view, limping up the sidewalk with a bitter look on her face. She walked up the steps, stopped in front of Lars and put a hand on her hip. “I told the lady that I killed her cat, dude.” Lars sat up. “How did she take that?” Neko rolled her eyes. “She just like said, ‘Okay, I won’t call the cops’ or sumfin.” Lars looked at the ground and spoke. “Good job, Neko. I’m proud of you.” “Whatev, Dad.” She pulled out her phone and started walking into the house. “So did you forget to leave your pimpin’ sombrero in your music-box-on-wheels today?” Lars folded his hat up in his hand. He looked up at John’s reaction. John was looking at the hat too. Neko walked into the house. “Wait, Neko,” Lars called after her. “Had she heard anything about Seth? Like, did she know what happened to him?” 165
“Why would she know anything about him? That lady didn’t know Venus from your anus.” “You shouldn’t be so vulgar, Neko.” Lars wondered if he could still tell her things like that and then added, “I just thought maybe she saw him running away from the fire or whatever.” “I don’t know, Dad. I didn’t think to ask a favor after I told her I killed her cat.” She looked at her phone. “I just thought it would be hard to miss a guy running down the street on fire, you know?” Lars tried to smile, but realized it was a bad joke. Neko smiled sarcastically. “Wow, Dad. I didn’t realize I was talking to Mother Teresa. You’re so kind.” “Sorry,” Lars mumbled, “I was just trying to make things happier around here . . .” “It’s okay, guys,” John said. “We all miss him.” A black Lexus pulled up to the edge of the yard. A man in a tie stepped out and looked at the house. He was a tall, fit man with flushed cheeks. He opened a portfolio and looked at some papers. Suddenly he scowled, put his hand over his nose, and looked at the black yard. Then he noticed the three people on the porch and began his approach. He opened his folio and thumbed through papers as he got close. Reaching the porch, he touched his nostrils briefly one last time and stood at the bottom of the stairs. “Hello, folks.” He smiled, showing braces with blue rubber bands that matched his eyes. He was suddenly conscious of his braces, wrapped his lips over his teeth, and looked back down at his papers. Neko came out and glanced up from her phone. John shook the lawyer’s hand as Lars examined the man with a skeptical eye. He then reluctantly shook his hand too. “Can I ask who you are?” Lars indeed asked. “I’m the landlord’s lawyer—well, one of them. He asked me to meet him here to go over some stuff with you guys.” “The landlord is coming?” John said. “What type of stuff?” Lars asked, already defensive.
“Like making sure you have paid rent and followed the rules for the house. Not to make it a negative visit, but basically I’m supposed to evaluate if you can stay in the house.” Leanne stepped out onto the porch. She reached for John’s arm. “Is this everybody that lives here?” He looked at his papers for an answer. Leanne said, “Oh wait, let me get Nayeli.” They heard her go in and call Nayeli. A minute later Nayeli was with them on the porch, her head hidden in her hood. She avoided eye contact. “There was a lady—Miss Muffin—I don’t know where she is,” John said. “Is that the old lady? I believe she’s coming with the landlord. She’s been spending a lot of time with him for the past couple weeks or so, I’ve heard.” “And before the fire there was a guy here named Seth,” John said. “We don’t really know where he is.” “Yes, well, is that the one that was burned so badly by the fire?” “Oh! Is he okay?!” Leanne asked anxiously. I just heard he was very badly burned in the fire. Someone saw him running down the street on fire and called an ambulance. To tell you the truth, miss, I don’t know what happened to him. I’m sorry I don’t know more.” They were all silent. “So, on to business. I’m sorry, but that’s why I’m here, after all. Is this the only damage from the fire?” He gestured to the scorched yard.
“Yep,” John said, “that and a gigantic pile of junk that was on the side of the house partly burned up. Everything else was somehow fairly unaffected.” 167
The lawyer flipped through some papers and jotted some notes. “Okay, now. I have a list of the requirements that needed to be done in order to live in this house. Are you guys familiar with these?” He held out a sheet. “It’s the rule plaque,” John said. “How about I read them?” He began: “Rules for living at 606 Broadway 1) Respect the landlord 2) Take care of each other 3) Keep exterior of house clean and trim 4) Keep interior of house clean and orderly 5) Keep storm shelter clean from debris—inside and out 6) Pay what you can pay for rent” They all fidgeted as he read, glancing around at the front of the house, through the windows, and at each other. The lawyer began again. “I hate to do this, but I need to take a look around and see if the rules have been followed. I guess we’ll see if you respected the landlord by seeing how well you did the other things.” The lawyer glanced up at Neko. “Where did you get all those scrapes, young lady?” “Oh, these?” Neko looked at the big scabs on her elbow and knee. “Well, this guy who claims to be my dad was getting me to light fireworks during a tornado storm.” She looked at Lars, accusingly. “Lightning almost hit me, I fell, and he deserted me. And then I got burned on my face when he wouldn’t let me into the storm closet thing or whatever it is.” “The storm cellar?” The lawyer snuck a judgmental look at Lars, who stared into his own lap while he kneaded his lame hand with the other one. The lawyer scribbled some notes. “On that note, maybe we should start with the second rule: ‘Take care of one another.’” He continued writing. “How about the elderly lady? What did you guys do to help Ms. Margaret Muffin? I understand that she was a veteran with health problems and a history of mental disease. I’m sure you guys did something to accommodate her?” Lars jumped in. “Sure we did. We cooked for her so that she had something to eat.” 168
Leanne snapped at him, “Nayeli cooked for her,” pointing to her. “You didn’t do jack anything for that poor old lady.” “I didn’t see you doing anything for her, either,” Lars snapped back. The lawyer swallowed, avoided eye contact, and wrote in his notes. The rest looked at the floor. Nayeli disappeared into the house. The lawyer looked at the phone books. “What’s the deal with these? It couldn’t have been so hard to put them away— to keep the exterior ‘clean and trim.’” Lars answered. “We started to move them one day but we didn’t know if the garbage would pick them up.” “You mean I moved them to make my own room when I wasn’t invited to sleep inside,” Neko said. Lars gave her a stern look. “Why don’t you just give a little respect and listen right now? I’ll speak for the both of us, alright?” “Yeah, right,” Neko smirked. “Respect my crooked little ass.” “Neko! Go to your room!” “I might listen to my dad if I knew he wasn’t trying to kill me.” Lars looked up at the lawyer, who turned the page and wrote furiously on his pad. Lars spoke in a low voice directly to the lawyer, “I was making decisions to save the most number of people who could contribute most to society. That type of decision isn’t easy!” “Shut up!” Neko screamed. She threw her phone at Lars and missed. It shattered on the sidewalk below. She looked at the pieces of her phone and her face turned red. “I hate you. You my worst dad of all. That stupid retarded toothpick guy was a way better dad than you ever were. And that was just cuz you aksed him to do it for you.” She stomped into the house with her head in her hands. A moment went by. Then the lawyer said, “I think maybe we should take a look inside.”
John and Leanne turned to go in. Lars didn’t get up. He ran his fingers through his hair several times, reached back over his head, and grabbed the back of the chair uncomfortably. Nayeli met them on the way out. She pushed roughly past, still tightly closed into her hoodie. She carried two big purses full of clothes. The tenants watched her walk away down the sidewalk and out of view as the lawyer waited for John and Leanne to guide him into the house. They led him into the living room. The fuzz-screened TV sat on a pile of magazines. The old, fake, half-decorated Christmas tree leaned against the corner of the room. Brown stains smeared the walking path on the carpet in the shape of a trampled amoeba. Layers of brown blotches covered the couch like rampant infections. The lawyer scowled. “Maybe can we start upstairs?” John and Leanne nodded while they looked at the floor, ashamed. The lawyer turned around. They followed him through the downstairs hall and he stopped at each room. He peeked into the bathroom first, recoiling at vomit on the floor by the toilet. He knocked and Miss Muffin’s door (Seth’s old door) swung open. Her room was packed almost to the ceiling with broken things. Cockroaches crawled out of the birdcage. He knocked on the next door and opened it. He sniffed the air. A modified lighter, a scorched spoon, a razor blade, and little pieces of paper sat on the big bureau at the end of the room. Clothes were scattered around the room and the crimson bedspread was bunched at the bottom of the small bed. He led the way upstairs and asked if he could go into the next room. John said, “It’s Lars’s room. Well, it used to be Nayeli’s—the woman that just left—but it’s been Lars’s for a while.” The lawyer glanced in. Lars’s clothes were strewn around his duffel bag on the floor and Nayeli’s clothes were pushed to the edges of the room. The lawyer moved on. He opened the door to the bathroom and raised an eyebrow. 170
Two kittens scratched to get into the bathtub. The lawyer stepped in and slid the shower curtain open. He saw the pug dog sleeping on her side, snoring in the dirty, shallow bath water. When the duck, which sat in the deeper end, saw the lawyer, it started quacking. The lawyer watched, dumbfounded. He wrote down some notes as he shook his head. He opened the toilet, saw a couple dirty tissues floating and reached for the lever. “No!” John and Leanne shouted in unison. He recoiled. Moving on to the next room, John opened the door for him. The lawyer glanced in, and then walked a few feet inside. “I assume this is your bedroom?” John and Leanne nodded. John was still looking shamefully at the floor. The lawyer addressed him, “What’s wrong? Your room is the cleanest in the house by far.” Leanne looked at John, suddenly concerned. Finally John swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke. “There’s one more bedroom in this house.” The lawyer looked at his paperwork and said, “No, this house only has four rooms.” “There is one more.” John led them down the stairs. On the landing in the stairwell the lawyer noticed the mural of a beautiful city on the wall. “Wow.” He stopped and stepped back so he could look it over from top to bottom. He touched it, made a clicking noise with his mouth and said, “Hmmm . . . I know what this is supposed to be.” He turned to John and Leanne. “Have you guys heard of the new shelter, slash, ‘resort?’” He made quotation marks in the air. “It’s going in on the east side, down off of Kellogg? It’s called New Horizons?” John and Leanne looked at each other and nodded enthusiastically. “Well, your landlord happens to be the same guy who built that place. If you didn’t know, he’s quite a man around town. Though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him.” He shook his head. “Sometimes I wish he would just tell people who he is. But I guess then everybody would want to know him for his 171
money.” He shook his head again and continued down the stairs. John led them through the living room, but something caught the lawyer’s attention. He walked over to one of the windows and examined the carving on the frame. “This is amazing!” The lawyer said to himself, “He continually amazes me. I wonder how much time he spent on this stuff. Luckily it didn’t get as dirty and covered up like everything else.” John heard him, shook his head and said, “It was covered up. Someone cleaned it.” “You cleaned it?” The lawyer asked. John shook his head sadly, “I wish it were me.” He beckoned the lawyer to follow him to the last room. They went through the kitchen. “This isn’t too bad. The tiles and stuff in here are still beautiful.” John beckoned them into the laundry room as a response. Neko was sitting on the steps crying into a black apron. Leanne sat down with Neko and wrapped her arm around her. The lawyer watched them and then looked around. Every square inch was clean. For once the washer and dryer were silent, but the room was warm and smelled like fabric softener. The windows were cleaner than any others in the house. The plaque shone above the dryer. Five piles of clothes were neatly stacked on the counter. “You do their laundry too?” the lawyer asked John. He shook his head and pointed at the apron Neko was grasping. Leanne recognized what it was and cooed, “Awwww, Seth.” She held Neko tightly. Neko realized they were looking at Seth’s apron in her hands. She looked at it and at the mucus she had left on it. “Oh, sorry.” She hung it back on the wall and wiped her nose on her ripped jeans. “Was he the—” the lawyer made quotations in the air as he looked at Neko. “’Retarded toothpick guy?’” Neko said, “He wasn’t really that retarded. He was a really nice guy.” John nodded. “He wasn’t retarded. He understood more than all of us.” 172
“So it was Seth who cleaned the carved window frames?” John nodded again. “And the mural. And this laundry room.” “And the kitchen,” Leanne added. “And it was because of him that I cleaned our room,” John said. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t see him doing this stuff.” John pointed at the piles of clothes. Leanne looked questioningly at him. John nodded. “And that’s why I washed the sheets even after you yelled at me. No offense, Babe, but Seth always folded everybody’s laundry even though no one did anything for him. So I thought I could at least still wash our sheets.” He looked back to the lawyer. “He also spent a lot of time trying to cut that overgrown yard. He just didn’t have the right tools.” “Well, it seems like he cut just enough along the edge to keep the fire from jumping to the house, and to those phone books and things.” “Yeah, I guess so,” John said. “He was also the one who cleaned out the storm shelter.” “He cleaned out the storm shelter?” “A lot of it,” John said. “Enough for you guys to fit, I guess?” “Well . . . not all of us.” The lawyer nodded and realized what he meant. “Hmmmm . . . I see.” John nodded. “And that crazy muffin-top lady couldn’t fit either.” Neko wiped her nose on her jeans and sniffed again. “But she didn’t care.” The lawyer looked at her, sitting in an awkward position, wiping her nose with the back of her hand. Then he turned and looked at the plaque on the wall. “It looks like someone cleaned and polished this plaque really well. It’s cleaner than anything else in this house.” He looked at John. John nodded. “Yep, that would have been him too.” Leanne and the lawyer looked at the plaque. Neko reached to wipe her snotty hands off on the hanging apron. John’s eyes rested on the floor. The lawyer spoke. “Well, I guess we have to look over the rules and make sure they were obeyed. I’m sorry. This is the 173
part of the job I hate.” He cleared his throat, checked his sheet, and looked up at the plaque. “Number 1: was the landlord respected?” He thought for a moment, looked at the shimmering, polished plaque and this was enough to convince him. He nodded and looked down to his sheet as he wrote and spoke, “On 606 Broadway the landlord was respected.” He continued talking and writing. “Were people taken care of?” They all looked at Neko, who had pulled the apron down again to wipe her nose. Neko held up the apron and she said, “He took care of me. He made me breakfast and watched TV with me and let me talk to him the whole day when I wanted to.” John added. “He kinda took care of all of us, in a way. Whenever I saw him he was taking care of Miss Muffin or Nayeli or the house or something.” They all nodded. The lawyer looked at his pad and wrote, “People who were in need were taken care of.” He thought for a moment at the next part. “The exterior of the house was being trimmed as well as it could be with the tools.” He spoke as he wrote, “Many things in the interior of the house were cleaned and orderly.” He pointed at John and Leanne with his pen. “Like your room . . .” He swirled his pen around the room. “The laundry room, the mural, the window sills.” His eyebrows jumped on his forehead. “I almost forgot the kitchen. That’s a big one.” He finished writing and started to bite his pen but stopped. He glanced up to see if anyone saw it. “And the storm shelter was cleaned enough to serve its purpose—for the most part.” He looked back down at his sheet. “And the rent?” He looked around. “Where’s the rent box?” John led him to the metal box beside the front door. The lawyer found a manila envelope in his papers and then produced a key. He unlocked the top of the box and folded it down, so it acted like a tray holding its contents. A mess of $20 174
bills slid around in the metal tray. On top of the unfolded bills rested several double-folded stacks more. The lawyer put the envelope under his arm and unfolded a stack. A piece of paper fell out and landed in the metal tray. It was a piece of paper ripped from a pocket sized spiral notebook. It read: Miss Muffin’s So sad and confused Please help us The next folded stack contained another paper, which read: Nayeli She’s hurting herself Please help us The next read: Neko’s mean Why am I so mad Where are you? And the next: I hate Lars He hurts everyone Forgive me And the last said: Jon, Leanne My friends are fighting Please help them They heard Lars talking to someone outside. “You guys came back to this dump? Well, prepare a statement in our defense. The landlord’s lawyer is inside.” 175
They heard the rattling of Miss Muffin’s bag of oxygen bottles.
No Smoking (The landlord comes back) John and the lawyer stepped outside as the lawyer closed the manila envelope. The Mumble Bum and Miss Muffin stood on the porch talking to Lars. The Mumble Bum pulled a cell phone out of his pocket and quickly mashed buttons. He put it back in his pocket. A moment later a tinny version of the doorbell on Neko’s phone sounded from where it lay broken on the ground. They all looked at it, surprised. But Neko heard it from inside and she and Leanne emerged onto the porch. The Lawyer stepped to the Mumble Bum’s side and showed him the notes he’d taken. The Mumble Bum squinted and drew his face near to the paper to read it. Then he looked up at the lawyer, asking with his eyes if the paper work was done. The lawyer nodded and looked down at it. The Mumble Bum mumbled something and the lawyer leaned in close. “Sorry, Sir. Say it again, please.” The lawyer squinted and listened hard. The Mumble Bum repeated himself and held his hand out to indicate someone about Seth’s height. The lawyer understood this gesture and nodded sadly. “The cellar? Yeah, he cleaned it.” 176
The Mumble Bum pointed into the TV room and then to the upper floor as he mumbled again. The lawyer bobbed his head to motion “more or less.” He said, “Well, Seth cleaned it, and John did some of it too.” John inserted, “It was really just Seth.” The Mumble Bum pointed at the paper and mumbled. The lawyer couldn’t understand but said, “Much of the house was cleaned or was being cleaned. The mural and the kitchen and the window frames, which, if I can say so, were amazingly beautiful. The intricacy was unbelievable, Sir.” The Mumble Bum smiled and his cheeks blushed. He pointed back down at places on the paper. The lawyer nodded several times and said, “Yep . . . Yep . . . It was all pretty much taken care of. There was usually at least someone taking care of the ones who needed it.” The lawyer looked back down at where the Mumble Bum pointed at the paper. The Mumble Bum mumbled a question. The lawyer looked closer at where the Mumble Bum was pointing on the paper. The lawyer nodded again and pulled out the manila envelope into which he had put the money from the rent drop box. The Mumble Bum looked inside the envelope for a moment, his eyes moving slowly back and forth, examining its contents. Then he mumbled something. The Lawyer leaned closer, “Sorry, Sir?” The Mumble Bum repeated himself. The lawyer gave a questioning look again. The Mumble Bum tried again. Everybody leaned in but it did not help. Miss Muffin reached into her deep bag and produced her megaphone. She turned it on and handed it to the Mumble Bum. The mumble was louder but still garbled, “izzzufff.” Their faces strained. The Mumble Bum took a deep breath, started again and this time he labored over each word. He spoke slower and more 177
deliberately, “It’s . . . enough.” He folded the envelope and put it under his arm. Leanne squealed with joy and held onto John’s arm as he smiled at her. Neko pretended not to notice and jumped down the stairs to reclaim the pieces of her phone. Lars looked on skeptically, his good elbow leaning on the arm of the rocking chair and his knuckles resting against his lips. Miss Muffin stood looking at the corners of the house for cameras as if the rules and the rent had been the least of her worries. Nayeli was nowhere to be found. The Mumble Bum reached into the pocket on the front of his overalls and pulled out a wrinkled, glossy flyer. He dropped it and struggled to pick it up. Neko, walking back onto the porch, picked it up and examined it. John asked, “What is it, Neko?” Neko looked over the front of the flyer, glanced at the pictures on the inside and finally spoke. “New Horizons Resort.” She handed it nonchalantly to John and walked over to a stack of phone books where she set the pieces of her phone down to examine it. John showed Leanne and they shared a glance. John looked at the Mumble Bum and smiled slightly. The Mumble Bum spoke slowly and deliberately into the megaphone. He struggled to make every word clear. He only had to repeat parts of it a couple times. “I’ve made a new place for all of you to live. . . . The rules were taken care of . . . and enough was paid for rent so you can come to my new place if you want to.” All of them except for Lars smiled. John looked down at the flyer and read it out loud. “New Horizons resort provides a comfortable atmosphere for those who need an opportunity to start life over. The only requirements are for residents to participate in the on-site continuing health programs, which seek to improve physical and mental health. Each resident is encouraged to volunteer in several of the many programs, such as mentoring and visiting with the elderly. New Horizons Resort seeks to promote an understanding, forgiving, and helpful attitude in and for every resident.” 178
“They have a swimming pool and a high dive,” Neko said as she snapped the shell of her phone back together. “I saw it on the front.” John handed the flyer to Lars. Lars took it and looked through it slowly. He saw something, smirked, and read out loud, “No smoking.” He turned it over and looked at the back. The lawyer responded, “They’re going to have great, new programs to help you stop smoking.” Lars looked up skeptically. “I think I’d rather stay here then.” He handed the flyer to the lawyer. “You’d rather stay in this dump? It’s the same price . . . Sir.” The lawyer struggled to say the last word. Neko glanced at the back of Lars’s head. “Dad, there’s a swimming pool.” Lars didn’t answer. “And every room has a most beautiful balcony that looks down at a garden. I seen it on the picture.” Lars still didn’t move. “Why you still being an idiot, Dad?” “This place here is falling apart, man,” John said. “Why do you wanna stay here?” “You guys are moving out?” Lars looked at his knuckles. John looked at Leanne. “Yeah, I think so, man.” “Hmm. Okay.” John protested. “Dude, Lars. It has a whole workout center there. All that our room has is a couple free weights.” “And the closet is really pretty small,” Leanne added. “Nah, that’s cool. I’ll be fine.” Lars sloughed it off and shifted in his chair. “C’mon, Lars,” Leanne said quietly. Lars finished his cigarette, stubbed it out and flicked it into the yard. Before anyone could say anything else, Lars got up and walked to the door. “I’ve worked too hard to give up all this. I’d rather have a whole house to myself than go somewhere that I’m told what I can and can’t do. But that’s just me.”
Ice Cream Truck (Lars becomes the biggest man) John stopped with a box of clothes under his arm, looked back at the emptied room, and said to Lars, “We won’t need this furniture at the resort, so I guess this is the last thing. You now have the best room in the house.” Lars picked up a small photo album resting on the window sill. John said, “Oh yeah, Leanne would kill me if I forgot that. Take a look if you want.” Lars supported the book with his able arm and he held his other wrist while its fingers turned the pages. “Was this because she was so ‘active’?” Lars quoted John’s word from before. “Yeah, I never actually heard it from the doctors but I think so.” John nodded reluctantly. Lars said quietly, “I hope you guys have a baby. A child is a beautiful thing.” John looked up at him. Frustration entered his voice. “I just don’t understand, Lars. Do you want to have Neko or not?” They walked down the stairs in silence. They put the box of clothes in the back of the ice cream truck and got into the front. Lars started up the engine and looked over at John. He sighed. “Remember that girl, the half-black girl I said I dated a long time ago? Neko’s mom?” John nodded. “Well, she worked at the fertility clinic when she was 17. I was 18 and they found out, you know, that she was pregnant and everybody went ballistic. The clinic filed a lawsuit against me saying I had sex with a minor. I got a felony and it ruined 180
my life.” Lars looked over at John and smirked sarcastically regarding his own fate. “Brother,” Lars said, “do you know how hard it is to get a job with a felony? Especially being a sex offender? No one would hire me. That’s the real reason I had to move into the house; I had nowhere else to go.” John smirked. “But you could be an ice cream truck driver around kids all day.” Lars ignored him like he had heard the line many times before. “I tried to get back together with Neko’s mom, partly so I could help raise my daughter, but she didn’t want anything to do with someone who couldn’t get a good job. When I couldn’t get a job and I couldn’t see my daughter I bought this ice cream truck in the hopes that someday I’d be able to see my daughter again.” “But you didn’t recognize her.” “No, I guess not. I just always expected . . . something different.” He vaguely motioned the crooked shape of her body with his hands. “Lars, I don’t want to be critical, but why didn’t you let her into the cellar?” Lars drove in silence for a few moments. He stared out the windshield. “I just expected something different.” A few more moments of silence passed. When he had his thoughts together he continued. “My dad was a really suave guy. He played for the NBA for a few seasons. Like, he was always the life of the party and everybody loved him when he came home.” He paused. “He and my mom got married right out of high school, though. And when dad made the team he traveled a lot. I stayed with mom . . . and she totally admired my dad. I remember her spending hours curling her hair and trying on different dresses for when my dad was coming home. But she cried a lot too.” Lars held the steering wheel with his leg and shifted with his good hand. “But he got phone calls all the time when he was at home. They were from women in different cities. I eventually realized that my mom was trying so hard and crying so much because she was competing with women all over the country 181
for my dad’s heart.” Lars turned a corner and waved off a random kid who begged him to stop. He kept driving. “Even though my dad was sleeping around, my mom admired him so much—she never said anything mean about him. He was just a very cool, fun guy—and he was great to her, at least when he was around.” “But he was sleeping around, man.” Lars squinted, feeling insulted. He swallowed his pride. “I guess I learned that you can’t get the best unless you are the very best, John. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” He switched on the blaring ice cream truck music as they approached a yellow light, flooring it through the intersection. “I think I’m just a little too selfish, like my dad, and I won’t stop until I get what I want, like my mom. I’m sorry you’ve had to see it, man. You’re a good guy. Thanks for still talking to me.” Lars smiled dutifully as if he owed it to John. Neither of them spoke for the rest of the trip.
Just Because It’s Broke (Neko loves her dad) Neko hobbled up the sidewalk. She looked at the front of the house, pocked with burns. She looked at a message on her phone’s cracked screen. Her heavy feet climbed the steps and stood outside the door. She looked at her phone one last time and shoved it into her pocket as she took a deep breath. Her whole body shivered as she breathed out. She wrung her hands and then pushed her stiff hair behind her ears. She turned to walk away, but stopped, looked at her phone one last time, turned back, and opened the door quietly. 182
She shuffled through the TV room, through the kitchen, and stopped in the laundry room. She looked around the empty room and saw the only thing left: Seth’s apron hanging on the wall. She took it off its hook and looked at her dried snot marks. She put it over her head so she could scrub at the marks with her thumb as it draped over her body. She stopped, bit her lip and closed her eyes. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I just gots to say to you, little Toothpick Man, I’s sorry you had to die to save me. I really appreciate it. I still remember one of the last things you said to me and I’s been thinking ’bout it lots. You said, you should try to like him if you want him to like you. . . . I really want a dad that really likes me.” She blinked hard and wiped her eyes on the apron. Then she looked up, saw the plaque of rules and read the first one. “Respect the Landlord.” She glanced at her phone. She read the second: “Take care of each other,” and she breathed in deeply. She heard footsteps upstairs and looked at the ceiling, toward them. After pacing back and forth in the laundry room for a few minutes she said, “Whatev. I can do this.” She walked into the kitchen, took a beer from the refrigerator, and went upstairs. The door to the biggest bedroom in the house was open. Lars lay on his back on the bed in his clothes. Neko walked to the nightstand and set the beer down. It startled Lars to see her and he sat up. “What are you doing here?” “You is still my dad, dude.” She walked over to the closet and glanced in, making herself busy by exploring the room. Lars watched her wander around examining completely normal things. “How is the New Sunrise Resort, or whatever it is?” “It was really awesome.” She looked up and nodded. “It had a hot tub too, and an exercise room. I was tryin’ to use the treadmill every day.” “You’re 12, Neko. You don’t have to be worried about that stuff.” 183
“Whatev, Pops.” She looked up at him and corrected herself. “I mean, okay, I’ll think about that, Dad.” She opened the drawers in his dresser absently. “Hey, that’s my dresser,” Lars protested with a smile. “Whatev— . . . I mean, okay, dad.” She closed the drawers, pulled a fine tip Sharpie from her pocket, and started doodling on the old scratched up dresser. “So, like, are you here for good?” “Yeah. Maybe.” “Where are you gonna sleep?” “I don’t care. Maybe in here wichoo?” She looked up at him. “Is that what real dad’s and daughters do?” “Um . . . no, probably not,” Lars said uncomfortably. “Ok. Whatev, man. I can sleep in that chick’s old room downstairs where I stayed before. That room’s legit and stuff.” They were silent for an awkward couple of minutes. Neko limped into the walk-in closet. “So you mean you aren’t going back to the resort?” “Not if you don’t go wit me.” “I can’t believe I’m saying this Neko, but you have to go back. It seems really good there. I can’t have you missing that opportunity.” She looked up at him. “You don’t want me here?” “I just want what’s best for you. I’m just gonna rot away here. You have your whole life ahead of you. You need to go back.” Neko smiled. Then you’re gonna have to come wit me because I’ve waited my whole life to be wit my dad.” “Listen, Neko. I can’t give up my smoking and my beer. I don’t wanna go to classes that some landlord guy says I need to go to.” “Maybe he just wants what’s best for you.” Neko looked up at him. Lars smirked and paused before speaking. “You’re a smart kid.” Neko walked to the foot of the big bed and pulled off one of the knobs on the bed frame. She fiddled with it and put it 184
back on. “So what happened wit that Mexican lady wit all the fly clothes? She was cool.” “Yeah, she was.” Lars looked down and placed his limp arm in his lap. “Was she like a crack-sniffing prostitute or sumfin?” When Neko didn’t hear an answer she looked up. Lars saw her and nodded. “Seems like she would like the resort, maybe,” Neko said. Lars nodded again. “And, once she gets over that bad stuff, she would make a good mom, I was thinkin’, maybe.” She looked up at Lars to see how he would respond. Lars wrung his decrepit hand with the other while he looked at his lap. “Yeah, maybe,” he said, like he had thought about it before. After a long silence Lars asked, “Why do you still want to be my daughter after what I did to you, Neko? I wouldn’t go back to my dad if he was as messed up and mean as me.” Neko limped toward the door and stopped. She paused a moment, gathering her thoughts and then said, “Just because it’s broke . . . don’t mean it ain’t still good, Dad.” And she limped back down the stairs to her room.
Nayeli’s dream (Lars chooses his own adventure) One night, Nayeli dreamt she was reading a Choose-yourown-adventure book about Lars and Neko. And this is what it said. If you want Lars to enjoy everything he has worked for in the house, be free to do anything he wants, and have a daughter like he has always wanted, finish reading this chapter. If you want Lars to follow someone else’s rules, to move into a house with lots of weird people trying their best, and to work hard to love his daughter well, turn to the next chapter. Neko lived with her dad in the big empty house even through college. Her main struggle was to fight off the feeling that she was unloved, and probably unlovable. She talked to the Landlord a lot and it helped when she pictured him as a type of dad. With his encouragement, she got better at honoring her real dad and serving him. By the time she graduated high school and started going to Wichita State University she was a hard-working, obedient, patient young woman. Living with Lars was hard. Lars watched TV most of the time and Neko did the chores to try and keep the house from falling apart—that is, when she wasn’t doing homework. The most common phrase heard in 186
the house was, “Hey Neko, what’re you doing?” The second most common was, “After that can you get me another beer?” Neko made friends but they rarely wanted to come over to her house because it was dirty and her dad always seemed unhappy. Neko worked her way through high school and college at a store in the mall called Pacific Sunwear. She also did her best to support her dad financially. Lars worked only as much as he needed to in order to buy food, cigarettes, beer, and occasional little presents from the supermarket for Neko. Neko had an accident in the summer after she graduated from college. She was hammering new shingles into the roof, which was falling apart, when she slipped and fell. The door to the cellar was open and it welcomed her this time with its open embrace. Lars found her crooked body at the bottom of the cellar that he had once kicked her out of. Her phone was on the ground 10 feet away displaying a message that she had received that said, “It willb bbe okay.” He buried her in the back yard, under the big tree where their first action together as dad and daughter had been to bury the cat that had brought them together. Lars found his end a few days later, by filling his stomach with beer and a bottle of pain pills he found in Neko’s bathroom. He died in a noisy bathtub from a heavy dose of his own medicine. The End Nayeli woke up, wiped her eyes, and went to work.
Fudgesicle (Finding Nayeli) An old ice cream truck crawled through the city streets at midnight. The repeating music box melody echoed off of the flat store fronts. It finally pulled up to a street corner where three scantily-clad women leaned against a building under a harsh yellow streetlight. They looked at each other and Nayeli stepped forward. She approached the truck. The music stopped. Lars’s face appeared in the service window. Then Neko’s face appeared in the window next to him. Lars said, “Como estás?” Nayeli looked at both of them. “Estoy bien. Más o menos.” Her trembling hand brought a cigarette to her mouth. Lars reached out for it. She handed it to him and he disposed of it somewhere behind the counter. Neko reached forward, offering a fudgesicle to Nayeli who smiled and slowly took it. She looked at Neko and then at Lars and then back to Neko, uncertain of something. Neko nodded and said, “It’s okay, we’re cool now.” Nayeli glanced back at the two other women who were talking about her as they leaned against the sealed-up corner store facade. A far-off un-muffled engine echoed through the maze of brick and concrete. Lars brought out a crumpled, glossy flyer and spread it out on the little counter for her to see. She looked at it. “It’s really nice there,” Neko said. She scanned it and read part of it out loud. “No smoking.” She looked up at Lars. He nodded and shrugged, showing he was going to do his best to quit. 188
An excited look sparked in Neko’s eyes. “There’s a hot tub! And there’s even a pond for the duck. And they have a thrift store in the bottom full of tons of clothes.” “And I heard they need a couple of cooks,” Lars added. Nayeli smiled slightly and smoothed her bare belly with her hands. She glanced back at the women, who were still talking to each other about her. When Nayeli turned back around Lars held her pink, stuffed pig on the little counter in front of her. She picked it up and hugged it against her face. “I think we had some misunderstandings before, Nayeli,” Lars said. “I’m really sorry if I said some things that were mean. But, um . . . I’d like another chance.” Nayeli looked at him skeptically over the pig. She wiped her eyes, sniffed, and glanced at the women again. Her eyes crawled back along the pavement, and up the side of the metal truck until they met his face, landing softer this time. She looked toward the back of the truck and the moment she did Neko’s face disappeared from the window. The back door opened. Nayeli looked tired, quietly pondering, but after a moment she walked around the rear of the ice cream truck without looking back and climbed in.
White Bandages (Seth gets a new job) When Seth opened his eyes in the hospital bed, he saw the Mumble Bum sitting beside him, smiling widely.
“What happened?” He looked down at his body wrapped in gauze. He reached up to his face, felt only minor burns and then touched the prickly, singed hair on his head. The Mumble Bum mumbled something. Seth nodded. “I didn’t know where to run so I ran through the yard to the street. How’d I get here?” The Mumble Bum mumbled again. “You mean the lady with the glasses next door did that? I thought she was kinda mean at first. But I guess mean isn’t the same as bad.” Seth looked over and saw Miss Muffin sleeping in a chair against the wall. She was slumped over her bag of oxygen bottles, breathing deeply and slowly. “Did Miss Muffin’s son ever come?” The Mumble Bum shook his head sadly. He had a thought and mumbled it to Seth. “Yeah, that’s true . . . but you’re sorta like her son and her dad too, because you’re always there for her when no one else is. You’re exactly what she needs, I think. She’ll be okay now if she sticks with you, I bet.” Seth looked down at his perfectly white bandages and hospital gown. He started to scrub at the gown but realized there was no stain to scrub at. As his eyes took in the broad expanse of spotless bandages, a heaviness he had long carried in his face ebbed away. While Seth was still taking in the sea of clean bandages, a middle-aged doctor with dark hair and round glasses walked in. He looked up from his clipboard and saw the Mumble Bum. He stopped in his tracks. His eyes grew big. “Oh, it’s you! Umm, sorry. I’m a really big fan of what you’re doing with the New Horizons Resort. You are going to change this whole city! I’ve been wanting to meet you for a while now. Umm . . . I can’t believe you are right here in front of me.” The Mumble Bum mumbled something. The doctor squinted his confusion. “Sorry? I couldn’t quite understand you, sir.” Seth spoke up. “He said they need doctors for their clinic, if you’d want to work for him.” 190
“Yes! Yes! I would love to help! Great! This is really great.” He set down his clipboard and fumbled around for a pen. Then he thought of something and said, “I might know some others that would want to help too. Should I go get them?” The Mumble Bum nodded. “Okay, yeah. Sorry. I’m just so . . . um, I’m so honored you’re here. I’ll be right back. I’m gonna go find them. Please don’t go away, sir!” The Mumble Bum mumbled something short. The doctor squinted again and said, “Umm . . . uh . . . sorry . . . I mean, sorry. What did you say, again?” Seth replied, “He said, he’ll stay here.” The doctor smiled nervously and left the room. Seth looked at the Mumble Bum. “It’s okay, he just needs more practice listening to you, I think.” A moment later Seth asked, “How are the others?” The Mumble Bum mumbled something. “That’s good, but he’s pretty much better now? . . . That’s good.” The Mumble Bum pulled a crumpled, glossy flyer out of a large stack of messy papers in his overalls and handed it to Seth. “Oh, so this is the new place you’ve been working on for us? You told me about it, I think, when we were cleaning the kitchen that one night.” Seth smiled but it hurt his burnt face so he stopped and looked down at the flyer. The Mumble Bum mumbled. “What do you mean? How am I like a father to them? Oh, like I took care of some of them sometimes?” The Mumble Bum nodded and mumbled. “They got to go there because of me?” Seth marveled. “Cool. It’s kinda like I have a family . . . I’ve always wanted a big family.” Then he said, “Who else is gonna live there? Do you have a lot of people?” The Mumble Bum shook his head quickly enough to make his bushy white beard shudder. “Well, how are ya gonna find more people?” Seth asked. The Mumble Bum mumbled. 191
“Well, what type of question is it?” Seth asked. The Mumble Bum shrugged and Seth understood. “Oh about how to get more people in our family?” Seth smiled and then cringed because his face was so tender. He said, “You can ask it. I’m ready.” The Mumble Bum mumbled the question. An indestructible smile drew creases across Seth’s flat, red face. “Sure. I feel like I already work for you.” He thought for a moment. “But could I keep working at the grocery store too?” The Mumble Bum nodded as if it that were part of the deal. A minute later Seth added, “You know? I think I could work for you for forever.”
Acknowledgements Thank you for investing in this story in a big way: Thanks so much to Joseph E. Miller for his masterful editing. He’d love to edit your book too so contact him at josephemiller.com or @joseph_e_miller. Also, BIG thanks to Ryan Boone. Dr. Dee-bot Stults. Woody Giles (AICP). Shaneka (Neko). Noelle Allen. Jennifer Valentini. Denise my MRI nurse and Ruth. Kate Byars. Chris Jones. Bill Durham. Thank you for filling the pages of this book, even if in small ways, with your selves: Mom (whose body broke to put a roof over our heads), Dad (whose hands supported us), Bonus Mom (who loves us and our mom she never met), Ryan and Nicky (my flesh and blood), Hillary, Lacey, Hudson, Nathan (my new siblings). Gracie the dog and Bella the duck. Aunt Linda. Richard and Maggi, Thomas, Julie. Ron and Susan, Christie, Molly, Zach, Betty. Ann and David, Kirk and Whitney, Mandy and Craig. David, Erin, Kate, and dear cousin Ben who’s fighting against his captors for his life (we miss you, Ben). John and Lisa, Katie, Matt, Thomas. Ned and Kristin, Bobby, David, Peter. Randy&Jennette, Kim&Gordon, Jim&Karen, Pat&Larry. David, Suzanne, Alex, Kirsten. My dear friend Bonnielee who is always scared. Scott (Santa Claus) who had a polio leg, Cork (who introduced me to Bonnielee). Jerrett, Derek, Scott, Kathy, Elizabeth, Jeff, Vince, Salmons, Trey, Zen, Ms. Dorothy, Dana, Rhonda. Brandi, Scott, Brian who lost his mother and God with her, John with the black goatee and his redheaded wife I never met. Shaneka who wrote life into Neko, Tiffany, Kani, Jenae, Nene, Alexis, Jewel, Michael, Emily, Elijah, Miss Patti, Miss Denise who brings order. Sarah, Martha, Cam, Glenn, Melissa, JJ. The wonderful Deebot who corrected ALL of my it’s and its and taught me unfailing grace. The beautiful Raegan who taught me I could love. Bob who cannot leave Kansas. Kevin and his sign walkers. Chris&Heather with Taylor, Tausha, Traven. Chris, I wish you knew you could have talked to me about it and I wish that you had woken up and seen a bright shower curtain. Jeannette, Amber, Josh, Cliff who speaks and thinks better than almost anyone I know, Vic who loves Christ, Kurt, Chad who’s cool 194
and kind, Darren who shares my struggles, Tiffany who reminded me of my value, Dalton who I see so much of myself in and love him anyway, Josh the creative, the Agees (the house-full of little men), JC, Susan and Martin who I look to when I wonder how life should be lived, Libby, Maylon and Mary. Anyssa, Alexis, Tyler with the imagination, Cody, Reggie the creator, Kyle. Paul&Angie, and girls. Brilliant Elizabeth, Andrew who I respect so, Terry who bears the pain, Pedro who ran for House of Representatives and has “FIRE LORD” tattooed on his knuckles. David S who has a much better memory for certain things than I do. Ben&Kristi, Aaron&April, Curtis&Candace, Shane, Ethan who taught me friendship 13 years after he was my friend, Justin, Gabe, Jim. Naomi. Beth, so humble, kind and beautiful. Jenna. Adam, Ben, Aaron, Tia, Melanie, Dan, Sky, Brian, Zach, Morgan who laughed lettuce on me and melted my heart. Louis. Mark who let us play his video games, Helen (my first inspiration to be a writer/illustrator), Grayson. Dana who lives a suspenseful life. Brad who designs beautiful things. Brian who’s changing the world from New York. Brad the student of the laws of physics. Jacquelyn who lives a novel. Cees who is star of his own show. Lambert who succeeded in a bathtub. Blaze who told me about Flintstones vitamins. Thomas who makes light of darkness around a bottle. Erik who threw jellyfish at his best friends at dusk in Sweden. Andres who taught me how to gift characters life. Denise who was my nurse who found me and lifted me. And our friend Ruth that understood what I meant to say in this book. Karin who put me in the back of her book. Mimi and Papa. Kate who has an eye for beauty and helped to bring beauty to this book. Bill who has honesty that can divide bones and marrow in the best way. And so many more are between these lines. I’d love to include your feedback about this book and your name in the next printing. Contact me through www.rawspoon.com.
After the Credits (John holds a sign) John struggled to keep his balance on a street corner outside of his McDonald’s. He wore huge signs draped over his front and back which the wind used to batter him back and forth. Leanne emerged from the door of the McDonald’s licking a soft serve ice cream cone and walked to John’s side, all of her attention on her ice cream. A large ice cream truck pulled up in front of them, its brakes squeaking loudly as it stopped. The faces of Lars and Neko appeared in the service window and Leanne begged John, “Ooooh, please can we get an ice cream sandwich?” John glanced at the ice cream in her hand and then looked at her in a way that said, “Really?” She pouted her lips and begged him with her eyes as she put her hand on her slightly bulging stomach as if it were an excuse. John sighed and pulled out his wallet. “It’s okay, Billboard Boy,” Neko said as she handed them an ice cream sandwich. “This one’s on the house. Just tell all your softy-serve friends they ain’t the only crack in town.” Leanne took it and John, smirking, put his wallet back in his pocket. He pointed at the two silly hats Neko and Lars were wearing. “Hey, It’s all part of being a working stiff,” Neko said. Just then a powerful gust of wind caught John’s boards and shoved him several feet to the side. He almost didn’t catch his balance. Lars laughed. “I guess you’re the one working the streets now. Ha!” He lit up a cigarette. John smirked again and cautiously shuffled back over to them. “Where is Nayeli?” “She has an interview today,” Lars answered. “She’s gonna be a greeter at Chevy’s. We got her resume all spiffed up at one of the workshops. Gonna knock ’em dead.” Lars quieted to a whisper, “I told her to show a little . . . you know,” as he pulled his shirt collar down with his free fingers and winked at him. Neko popped up from organizing their money drawer and noticed Lars smoking. “Hey! Who do ya think ya are, cowboy?!” 196
“Don’t tell the Mexican, ’kay?” He winked at her. Neko rolled her eyes and sighed but then sloughed it off. She was just happy to have a dad, and was secretly proud he was one that could match her aint-nobody-gonna-tell-me-whatto-do attitude. Lars spoke to John, but included Leanne in the secret this time. “I can at least start by not doing it when Nayeli’s around,” he gestured to the cigarette. “She’s been doing so well, you know?” A convertible with a car seat in the back drove around the ice cream truck and distracted Leanne from the group. “Oh yeah,” Lars said, “we have the group session thing tonight, don’t we? What are you thinking about those things? I look forward to them more and more just to hear the cray-cray coming out of Miss Muffin’s mouth.” John laughed just before the wind caught his boards again, twisting him around. It interrupted his laugh with a twinge of fright, jamming the front board into his lip. He gained his composure and rubbed his lip enough to say, “Yeah, that was hilarious about wanting to throw a wedding party for herself. I still can’t tell what the Mumble Bum thinks of her thinking they’re married.” “Maybe he just likes it when people want him.” Lars winked and took a quick drag. “He seems pretty lonely, you know?” “I wouldn’t say lonely,” John replied. “Kind of alone but . . . um . . .” he struggled to say it, “He’s like kind of a softy, you know? He’s the most awkward person I know but that man loves people.” “Yeah,” Lars nodded. “He seems like the type of guy that if he could marry everybody he would.” He smiled and then a moment later asked, “You aren’t really able to understand him any more yet, are ya?” “Yeah, maybe a little—well, I guess not reaaallly. But most of all I feel like I understand . . . like . . . I understand who he is a lot better now—like what type of person he is, I mean.” The wind calmed and the signs rested. Leanne reached between John’s two signs and his eyes got big. 197
“Oops, sorry, baby,” Leanne said. “Just trying to get your wallet. I wanna give them a tip.” John nodded and helped her get his wallet. They all waited awkwardly as Leanne unfolded the wallet, in her own little pregnant world, and pulled out three $1 bills. “Here ya go, Darling.” Neko leaned over and without hesitation took it. She reached down to file it away. “That’s Miss Darling to you, Ma’am.” “Thanks, Miss Darling.” Leanne repeated absently, ready to move on to other things. She tugged on John’s sleeve and whined a little under her breath, “C’mon, it’s time to take your break.” John tried to hold back his smile as he looked up at Lars. “A man’s gotta do who a man’s gotta do,” Lars said. And he winked at him with both eyes. “C’mon, Neko. Let’s get this little popsicle stand on the road.” “You mean, let’s get ‘In the Neko time, ice cream line’ on the road.” “That’s my girl.” He climbed into the driver’s seat, put it in gear and they rumbled off. “See ya tonight!” Lars yelled back. John waved. He said to Leanne. “Alright, Honey. What should we do on my break?” “I was just kinda hoping we could just sit down together for a few minutes before I have to head back to work.” “Oh yeah? Just sit?” “Yeah. And maybe you could tell the baby a story. Or something.” She looked down at the tiny bulge in her tummy and cupped it with her arms, each hand holding ice cream. “Um, okay. I could try to do that, I guess.” He hadn’t really told a lot of stories before. “Which one should I tell?” “Um, maybe you could tell her about how you saved Neko in the fire. That’s a really good one.” John smiled. It felt good to be adored. “Um,” he started to take the signs off as they walked to the door. “Okay. I guess it all started . . .” He thought for a moment and smirked. He opened the door for her and said, “Well, I guess it all started . . . when this funny little man started cleaning all our dirty laundry.” 198
Write and draw stuff on this page.
*Appendix of deeper things/Bookmark/Postcard To learn more about “Absent Landlord,” by Raw Spoon, go to www.rawspoon.com. Cut this paper out and fold it length-wise to be your bookmark with clues to deeper meanings, width-wise to make a postcard. Talk with the author and the characters on Facebook. *18 Is Miss Muffin always being watched? *19 Does not cussing make Leanne a better person? *28 Where does the standard to which they judge each other come from? *30 When was the last time any of them had not enough? *32 Why did someone upset the balance? *34 What should impress Leanne? *45 Is the peace made deeper because of the depths of the previous pain? *46 Why does TV no longer appeal to Seth? *48 How much is “getting further” really getting further? *55 Does Miss Muffin have a treasure waiting for her, somewhere? *56 Is doing what’s hard or easy better for Seth right now? *59 Why would the Landlord sprinkle pictures of a mythical city around them? And what did Seth have to do to glimpse this mythical city? *63 Is Miss Muffin telling the truth about how the end will come? *66 How do Miss Muffin’s surroundings, and ours slowly transform us?
*70 What things are really not worth throwing away? *71 What role is he playing to the house by crushing the serpent’s head? *74 How did he earn her trust? *78 How could the bay window have healed Miss Muffin? *131 Why might we be asked by wise people to do things that seem absurd to us? *134 What is the lesson that Nayeli is trying to teach Neko? *167 What sort of things burn away? *174 What reasons did he give them that made them love him or shun him? *177 Who really paid the price for them to really live? *179 What would they be giving up? What are they getting in return? *183 What did Seth do that made Neko start living like he did? *187 What was Neko probably doing before she died? And was she really ok? *190 How is mean not the same as bad? *190 Who ends up being friends with the friendless? *191 How could the doctor begin to understand him
Riddles of things we might not have caught: Sometimes the roll of death is to give a clean start · Unload your dirty laundry in the light · Kindnesses earns open heart and lock it · She’s the story’s prophet—I know it, in fact. · I think he’s a little Christ, I think · The Lord of the land is not so absent · Seth’s not rubbing off on Neko · One flew into the cuckoo’s cage · Taught from a duck, to help one in a birdcage. 202