Glaciers shaped the lower peninsula of Michigan like a mitten by during the Ice Age, gouging out the five Great Lakes around it. People out in the country still find weird geologist nerds stopping in front of their lawns in order to look at big rocks that were carried hundreds, maybe thousands (!) of miles in ice. Jackson, Michigan, if the mitten is the right hand facing up, is where the Life Line curves down and ends almost at the wrist, between the two meaty sections at the bottom. Though Native Americans had been around for thousands of years, Jackson was ‘founded’ in 1829 by Horace Blackman, who named it after President Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, but if you go to the corner of Second and Franklin, just south of downtown, there’s a small park with a plaque titled “Under The Oaks” describing the founding the Republican Party on July 6, 1854. The population hub of Detroit and the communist city-state of Ann Arbor represent the liberal parts of Michigan. The rest of the state, including Jackson, is the generally conservative part, though Michiganders are a weird mix: They can overwhelmingly elect a democratic governor, but will at the same time overwhelming vote to ban gay marriage. Most of the people belonging to the Democratic Party do so in order to protect their union jobs. And look how well that’s worked.
Jackson became known as a small parts city, with smaller factories supplying the bigger ones in Detroit, though as more and more jobs go south, to other states, and other countries, the less small parts are needed. And there’s never been anything to replace those jobs, except rich people from Ann Arbor and Detroit who became willing to make the commute in order to get cheaper houses. When the feds eased restrictions on drilling on government land out in places like Utah and Wyoming, job recruiters came all the way to Jackson to find people who wouldn’t mind the harsh winters in places like Casper. And they got takers.
Economically and geographically, Jackson is right in the middle of the Rust Belt, which stretches from Minnesota to Pennsylvania, and was coined for the decline in iron and steel production in the 70s, but grew to include the decline in all the manufacturing industries, like cars. Starting with the Industrial Revolution, and Henry Ford’s new factory system, and especially after the first World War, many African-Americans moved up for all the new jobs assembling cars on the assembly lines of Detroit and surrounding cities. This was not without some conflict. With too many people for too few jobs, as is usually the case, the poor whites blame the poor blacks, instead of the rich white guys running the car companies, or the rich white politicians ‘running’ the system. White people abandoned city centers for the suburbs (“white flight”) and, starting in the 60s, Detroit and other cities in the state have had their share of race riots. Yes, even into the 21st century, though you won’t hear about it on the news anymore.
Jackson is about two thirds white, one third black, and only a sprinkling of latinos filtering up in search of well-paying dishwashing jobs. There are a few Asians, from Asian countries proper, plus the Indian sub continent and the Middle East, all safely belonging to the upper middle class. For the most part, these different groups get along, now, though of course they all stay in our respective cultures: At school: black kids at one table, white kids at another. On the bus: black kids in their seats (yes, usually in the back) and white kids in theirs. In restaurants, white folks at their tables, black folks at theirs. Only at Jackson Community College is it different: white kids in all the college-prep transfer classes, poor whites in developmental and trade classes, and blacks hardly anywhere.
Michigan was logged completely back in the day, when everyone thought the trees of North America would last forever. Most of the trees you see there now are 2nd or 3rd generation. Along with, and after, logging, came farming, and you can still see fields and fields of corn around Jackson, though less and less than even a few decades ago. Summers in Jackson are hot and humid, with flies and mosquitoes. When you’ve been gone for awhile, you forget how lush the area is: cornstalks tall and green, trees bending out over the roads, forming green tunnels. Thunderstorms lasting days, the thunder soothing though, you can fall asleep to it.
Fall is the best time in Jackson. Leaves turning, sometimes amazingly, red, yellow, orange. Nights cool, all the bugs gone, and it feels good to put on a jacket and go for a walk, looking at the stars, brighter with the drier air. We know what’s coming, so we enjoy the sun and the outdoors as much as we can, unless we’re inside watching college football. The first snow nice, pleasant, beautiful, especially since the sun still comes out afterwards and keeps everything brighter than it’s been in a while. If we’re lucky, the big snow doesn’t come until December, though sometimes it can come as early as October.
But then January comes and there’s no excuse, nor escaping: it’s full on Winter, the feet of snow, eyeball-freezing wind, and the vanishing of the sun until April. You get up in the dark, work inside somewhere all day, and come back in the dark. Not that there’s sky to see: just grey clouds all the time, something to do with being surrounded by Great Lakes. Winter in Colorado, for example, is nice because there is sun in the daytime, and with the high altitude, the temperature can get up in the 40s. In Michigan, when it gets in the 40s, teenagers wears shorts. There’s also no social life in Jackson in Winter. Many would argue there’s no social life in Jackson period, but in Winter it’s hard to feel attractive when bundled up in five layers, head tucked down. Better just to just stay in, rent movies and eat Doritos, with a partner if you’re lucky. If not, that’s what internet porn was invented for.
Then Spring. The sun comes out. The snow melts. The lake ice melts. The sandhill cranes come back. The tulips in Ella Sharp Park bloom. Little buds appear on trees, then actual leaves. And grass, the Great American lawn becomes visible and men can finally mow their lawns.
I found her in the woods behind the subdivision by my house, between the dirt road and the lake, lying on her back in the weeds. Black dress. One of her black leather shoes missing. Short brown hair like my sister Jenna. Her eyes still open. Her lower lip cut with dried blood.
I knew her. My old babysitter’s sister. I couldn’t remember her name. I knelt down and touched her. Her blouse wet from the dew. The ribs underneath. I touched her bare leg. Cold. Smooth. I pressed down on the skin. Her eyes staring out away from me. I picked a piece of leaf from her hair and traced my finger down her cheek. Cold.
I stood up and looked around. Nothing, no one. Just trees. The road, the lake. I bent down and lifted her skirt and looked.
I dropped her skirt and stood up, looking. Then I ran away.
My mom was back from Ann Arbor, sitting on a couch grading papers, listening to cuban jazz and drinking tea. She looked at me as I came in and tilted her head. —Danny, what’s wrong?
—Dead? What do you mean? Who?
—Jennifer’s sister. In the woods out back by the lake. She’s dead. I saw her.
She put down her tea and got up. —Jennifer? Jennifer Streeter? Her sister? Danny are you sure? This isn’t playing?
I shook my head. —No. She’s there.
—Can you show me?
She called to Jenna that we would be right back and took me in our car out on the dirt road. I told her when to stop and we got out. She held my hand and I led her through the trees to the girl. When she saw the body she said, —Oh my god.
She ran over to it. covered her mouth with one hand, and started to cry. Then she turned around and took me back to the car.
We drove home and she called the police. She put more water on the stove for tea and stood there holding her hands over the teapot. By the time the tea was ready a police car drove into the driveway with its lights flashing.
My mom talked to them, then went with them to show the body. She was gone a while. I turned on the tv. Jenna came out and sat next to him. —What’s going on?
—I found Jennifer’s sister in the woods. She’s dead.
Her eyes got wide. —Dead? Where?
—By the lake.
—You saw her?
—What was she like?
—Like...she was sleeping, except her eyes were open and she didn’t move.
—What did she look like?
The police car pulled back into the driveway and my mom got out with an officer. They came inside and my mom took Jenna back to her room. The officer came and sat next to me. —Hello Danny, my name’s Kyle. I’m with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department. Can I talk to you for a minute?
I kept staring at the tv. —Ok.
—Do you mind if I turn off the tv?
The officer got up and turned it off and sat back down. He took out a notebook. —Danny, first we want to thank you for what you did. It was very brave.
I didn’t say anything.
—Did you see anything else there? Any people?
—No. Just her.
—I thought so. I had to ask. Did you touch the body at all?
I shook my head. —No.
—And she’s your babysitter’s sister?
I nodded. —Yeah.
—Did you know her? Did she every babysit you?
I shook his head again. —No. I’ve just seen her.
The officer nodded slowly. —How exactly did you find her?
—I was walking in the woods. I was going out to the lake and I saw her color. It was different. So I went over and it was her.
—How close did you get?
—Just...so I saw her eyes and then I knew she was dead.
—How do you feel right now?
—Did somebody kill her?
—We don’t know. But we will.
He put his hand on my head. —Listen, Danny. If you like, you can talk to somebody about this. A therapist. It’s ok to be sad. Sometimes people like to talk about being sad and it helps.
I stared at the floor. —I’m ok.
—Are you sure? I talked with our mom and she said it would be up to you.
—How old are you and your sister?
—I’m eleven, she’s ten. We’re in the same grade though.
—Ok, well...I just need to take some notes real quick and then I’ll leave you alone. Ok?
After he wrote something, he stood up. —Thank you Danny. Do you want the tv back on?
My mom came back out and offered the officer some tea but he said no. They went outside to the car. I went over to the window and listened.
—Will he be ok?
—I think so. I just wanted to be sure he didn’t look too closely. Then I would be worried. Just...be around him. If he looks bad give that therapist a call. She’s good. But, I think it’ll be ok.
—Ok, thank you. Is there....
—Any danger? Shouldn’t be, for your family. This was...sexually related.
—Sexually related. The poor girl....
When she came back in I was watching tv again. She sat down and asked how I was, stroking my forehead.
—I’m ok Mom.
—Are you sure baby?
—I’m ok. I’m sad is all.
—She seemed nice.
She kissed him. —You’re very sweet. How about we go out to eat tonight? Do you want pizza?
—Ok. Can we go to Sir Pizza?
—Wherever you want baby.
That night I was still awake when Jenna opened my bedroom door and whispered my name. She came in and got under the covers with me. I stared at the ceiling while she looked at me in the dark.
—Will you tell me about her now?
—Like what she was wearing.
I was quiet for a second. —A dress. She only had one shoe.
—Did you touch her?
—Yeah. She was cold.
I touched Jenna. —And harder. Not like you.
—Was she still pretty?
—Did somebody kill her?
She rubbed her eyes. —That’s sad.
I kept staring at the ceiling. —I looked up her skirt.
She stopped crying. —You did? What was it like?
I didn’t say anything.
—What was it like?
—There was blood. I think he killed her there.
—I don’t know.
—Did you tell?
—Not about that.
She snuggled up to me and rested her head on my shoulder. —I wish they could have left her alone. Are you sad?
I touched her arm. —Yes.
—Why don’t you cry?
I closed his eyes. —I don’t know.
I stayed up in bed looking at my clock until eleven o’clock, then went out to the living room to watch the news on television. They talked about her.
Our top story tonight, police recovered the body of eighteen year old Wendy Streeter, reported missing yesterday. The police say they have detained an acquaintance of hers. Relatives report that the two people were intimate, and police have said it is a quote crime of passion unquote. Funeral services will be held on Wednesday at St. John’s Church. In other news, another Michigan soldier has been killed in a car bomb explosion in Baghdad....
I turned the television off and went back to my room, but stopped when I saw there was still a light on in my mom’s room. I hesitated, then knocked softly. —Mom?
—Danny? Come in...
I opened the door. She was reading in bed, one large candle lit on the bedstand next to her futon. She put her book down and looked at me. —What is it baby?
—Mom, what’s passion?
She sat up and motioned me to sit on the bed. —What do you mean?
I sat down. —What does it mean?
—Well...it’s love. It’s strong love. Extreme love.
I stared at the floor.
—So when someone is passionate about something that’s all they think about. Like, someone can have a passion for playing music. They’re passionate.
I nodded. —Oh. But...can you be passionate about a person?
—Um, yes. Usually it’s about doing something, but yes.
—But if you’re passionate about someone, why would you kill them?
—What? Baby, is this about that girl?
—Yes. They said it was a crime of passion.
—Oh. Oh. Jeezus. The poor girl.
—Was it her boyfriend?
—I guess so. If they said that, then probably. I guess...maybe he...I guess he was jealous. That’s usually what it means.
—Jealous of what?
—Of...another man. Maybe she was with another man and her boyfriend found out and...killed her.
—Baby I don’t know. People are...fucked up. Just fucked up. It’s not right to do that.
—But...he loved her?
—Well...maybe. In a way. But not in a good way
—How do you know when you love someone in a good way?
—When you don’t want to hurt them.
—But....ok. But...why was she with another man?
She sighed. —Baby...sometimes that happens. I’m not saying it’s right but...sometimes you get attracted to another man. Or woman. Then...it’s a big mess.
—Did she love the other man?
She shook her head. —I don’t know. Only she knows.
—But did she love her boyfriend?
—Maybe. Maybe she used to and then didn’t. Maybe she never did.
—Why would she be with both of them if she didn’t love either of them?
—Well...people can be attracted to people. You can like someone without loving them. Love comes later?
—And one person can love someone even if the other person doesn’t love them?
She sighed again. —Yes.
—Why do people fall in love?
She smiled. —Nobody knows. But it feels good when both people do.
—It feels passionate?
—Um...yes. You can’t think of anyone else.
—So why is it a crime?
—Oh. Well, when someone loves someone else, passionately, but the other person doesn’t feel the same way...that can hurt. So...I guess he wanted to hurt back.
She touched my shoulder. —But promise you’ll never do that to someone. Never hurt anyone.
—Even if they hurt me?
—No. It doesn’t make things better. With this girl, now her family is hurt.
—But you said that if someone feels passionate they don’t think about anything else.
—So...I don’t want to feel passionate about anyone. Ever.
—Because if they didn’t feel the same way it would hurt.
—Oh baby, come here.
She hugged him. —It’s ok to feel that. If you find a girl and feel that way, it’s ok.
—What if...she doesn’t?
—Then...her loss. And there will be others.
I yawned. —But...
—Baby go to sleep. You’re too young to be worrying about this stuff. Too heavy.
I stood up. —Mom?
—Can I go to the funeral?
—Oh. Sure baby. We’ll go. That’s very... nice of you.
My mom picked me up after lunch from school and we drove to the funeral at St. John’s Church. There were lots of people. It was an open casket, but we sat in back so I couldn’t see her very well. The minister talked and I looked around at the other people. Her family sat in front. Jennifer was between her parents, wearing a black dress. The mother was slouched over, crying the whole time. The father just say there straight with red eyes. The other sister sat next to them in a wheelchair in the aisle, wearing a military uniform.
After the minister finished speaking, everyone stood in line to view the body. I waited in line with my mom’s hands on my shoulders. Jennifer’s mom bent over the coffin and cried until the father and Jennifer helped her away.
When I finally stood next to her, she looked like she had in the grass. Sleeping. Hair brushed, shiny. Hands crossed on her chest. Eyes closed this time. I touched her arm.
My mom grabbed my hand and drew it back, whispering, —Danny no, it’s disrespectful.
I looked up at her as they walked away. —I just wanted to touch her.
—Well....don’t. Come on.
I looked back at her face one more time.
The family stood at the doors to greet people. Jennifer was first. She held out her arms and hugged me. —Oh Danny. I’m so sorry. Thank you.
Her body was warm. Her hair in my face. Apples. —I’m sorry Jennifer.
She looked at me and started to cry, then leaned over to her mother and whispered in her ear. The mother’s eyes got wide and she started to cry again. She leaned down and hugged me. —Oh my boy, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Thank you.
The father held out his hand. —Son, thank you for finding her.
He shook his hand and looked up at him. —I’m...I’m sorry. She seemed like...I could have liked her.
The father closed his eyes hard. Looked at him again. —Thank you son.
When we got to the car I asked my mom if I could skip the rest of the school day. She said yes and dropped me off at home.
I went for a walk back into the woods and took the path over to the lake, back to the spot. The grass was matted down everywhere. Tire tracks. I found where her body had been. Still the outline in the grass. I touched the matted grass where her legs had been and traced up. I traced up to her head and stroked the grass like her hair. Then I cried.
Wednesday night was our night out with our dad. He picked me up from the house and Jenna from her dance class. We went to Pizza Hut, like always. The manager smiled at my dad when we came in. —Hey, got a booth for you in the corner like you like.
My dad smiled. He liked to feel important. We sat in the booth and Anne, our usual, and Dad’s favorite, waitress, came over and smiled. —Hi, the usual? Let’s see, two Pepsis and one water for the thirsty dancer, and a large pan pizza with pepperoni.
She winked at Jenna. —How are you? How’s the dancing?
Jenna smiled, shy. —Fine.
—Ok, I’ll be right back with your drinks.
She turned and walked away with the menus. I watched my dad watch her, then I looked at her. Her pants were black and tight and I could see the lines of her underwear. I looked at my dad who was still watching. Jenna played with her fork. —I like Anne.
My dad played a video game on his phone. I looked around at the other people. Jenna played with her fork and knife. Anne came back with their drinks. —Here we go, two Pepsis for the boys, and a water for the ballerina. And here’s your straws.
Jenna smiled. —Thank you Anne.
—You’re welcome, ballerina. Your pizza will be right out.
Dad went back to playing his phone. Jenna tore off the tip of the straw cover, turned the straw around, and blew the cover at me. My dad looked at her. —Jenna, stop that.
She looked down at her lap. —Sorry....
I looked around at the people again. The restaurant was busy. I drank some Pepsi.
Eventually the pizza came. Anne cut out the first pieces for us, Jenna first, then me, then my dad. Jenna smiled. —Thank you Anne!
Anne winked and walked away.
We ate. Jenna had two pieces and my dad and I ate the rest. My dad paid with a credit card and we left. My dad gave me the keys and told me to take Jenna out to the car.
—I’ll be there in a second.
I took Jenna’s hand and led her outside to the car.
From the front seat I could see through the restaurant door. My dad was talking to Anne. She nodded at something and looked out the door and saw me. She wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to him. Then he came out to the car.
Jenna touched his shoulder from the back seat. —Daddy, what were you doing?
He looked at her in the rear-view mirror. —Nothing.
—Are we going to the arcade now?
He drove us to the mall and parked. We got out and went inside to Aladdin’s Castle, dark and red and loud with bleeps and buzzes and explosions and bells. My dad got five dollars worth of tokens and gave us each four to start out. I played games and sometimes watched Jenna play and sometimes my dad when I had to ask for more tokens. When the tokens were done, we left and went back to my dad’s apartment. He turned on the tv and we sat down and watched a MASH rerun. Later, he made popcorn with oil and lots of salt. At nine o’clock my dad and Jenna wanted to watch a show that I didn’t like, so I asked my dad if I could watch the tv in his bedroom. I went in and lay on the bed, using the remote to turn the tv on, propping myself up with pillows and watching his show.
During a commercial, I noticed the top drawer to the night stand slightly open. I opened it all the way and inside was a stack of magazines called Penthouse, with beautiful women on the covers. He took the top one out and opened it to the center to a two-page picture of a naked woman lying on a bed smiling. Showing herself and smiling. She had hair between her legs and fancy jewelry and shiny hair, and she smiled like she liked me looking at her. I turned the pages with more pictures of her. I kept turning pages. There were stories and articles, but then more pictures of another naked woman. Then pictures of two women together. In their underwear and then naked. Kissing and touching each other.
I kept looking. Once I heard my dad get up and I put the magazine away quickly, shutting the drawer. When he sat back down, I opened the drawer again and looked at the magazine until I heard my mom knock at the front door. I put the magazine away and turned off the tv and went out. My mom knocked again. I went to the door and opened it. My mom smiled. —Hey baby, ready to go?
She looked at my dad. —Hello Sean. Jenna, ready to go?
Jenna was sitting next to my dad half-asleep. She shook her head. —I don’t want to go.
—Baby, it’s late. You need to get home and go to sleep.
Jenna snuggled up to my dad.
My mom sighed. —Sean, come on.
My dad sighed too. —Alright. Jenna, come on. Time to go.
—Come on. I’ll see you this weekend.
Jenna got up and slouched out. My dad got up and walked over and patted him on the head. —See ya, kiddo.
I turned around and walked to the end of the hall after Jenna. The door was still open enough to heard my parents’ voices. My mom’s got louder. My dad said something and my mom came out slamming the door behind her. She walked past him. —Come on baby....
Driving home, Jenna slept in the back seat. I sat up front and put my face against the window, the glass cool on my cheek.
My mom kept switching radio channels. —Did you have a good time tonight?
I nodded. —Yeah....
That night, in bed, in the dark, I thought about the woman. I held my pillow and imagined it was her, that I was holding her. I rubbed against the fabric like I was rubbing against her and my penis got hard. I turned over on top of the pillow and rubbed, breathing heavy and thinking about her smile and between her legs and then stuff squirted out of my penis. I thought I’d peed myself. I sat up and turned on the light. It wasn’t pee. It was thicker and white. I turned off the light, turned over the pillow, and lay on my back, touching the white stuff still on my stomach, and fell asleep.
I was the last one the school bus dropped off, forty-five minutes after leaving school. I never got a key to the house because I’d figured out how to break in, which was to climb up on the shelf of empty flower beds below the front windows, pull off a screen and set it to the side, then push open one of the windows and slid inside. I’d shut the window, going around to the front door, outside, and put the screen back on. Then I’d go back inside and maybe make popcorn and watch cartoons. If I got tired, which was most of the time, I would go in my room and take a nap.
That night, after picking Jenna up from dance class, my mom got a pizza at Little Caesar’s and came home. I was sleeping but heard them come home and came out. We ate and afterwards my mom sat both of us down on the couch and kneeled down in one of her yoga poses, smiling. —I have really important news to tell you guys. But first of all I want you both to know I love you. And, I just found out today that I’m going to Mexico for a year!
We both stared at her.
—I just found out I got a fellowship to study Spanish for a year there. I...wasn’t sure I’d get it. I leave in three weeks, after you guys get out of school. But, I wanted to say, to ask you both, if that’s ok with you? That I go?
Jenna’s eyes started to water. —You’re leaving?
My mom put her hands on Jenna’s knees. —Not for good baby. I’ll be back before you know it. And this way your father can come live here and you can be with him.
—I hate you!
Jenna got up and ran to her room, slamming the door.
My mom closed her eyes and sighed. —Shit.
She looked at me. —Baby, I’m going to go talk to your sister, ok?
—Are you mad?
—Ok, I’ll be right back.
She went to Jenna’s room and knocked. I could hear everything.
—Jenna baby, I’m going to come in.
My mom opened the door and went in, leaving the door open. Jenna was crying.
—Jenna baby, don’t be mad at me. It hurts.
—I hate you! You don’t love me....
—That’s not true baby. Come here, let me hug you.
—I don’t want you to hug me. I don’t like you. You’re always doing things. Why can’t you be a normal mom?
—Baby, what’s a normal mom?
—Someone who stays. I don’t like having you for a mom. All my friends make fun of me.
—Oh baby, why? What kind of friends are those?
—Why are you leaving?
—I’m not leaving forever. It’s only a year. Baby, this is really important to me.
—Can’t you stay here and do it?
—No, not really. Baby, this is exciting for me. I want you to be happy for me.
Jenna sniffling. —Why can’t you stay?
—Honey...there’s nothing here for me in Jackson. I want to learn things from the world. I want to show you that it’s possible to do that. I don’t want you to stay here all your life.
—I like it here....
—Well...this way you’ll get to be with your dad. I know how much you like him. You can see him all the time.
Jenna’s voice got louder. —Why can’t you be normal? You don’t like me. You like Danny but you don’t like me.
—That’s not true. I like you both.
—You don’t like me! You laugh at me!
—No I don’t baby. When did I do that?
—When...when I asked you about boys, you laughed and made fun of me!
—Baby, I don’t remember that, but I’m sorry if I did.
My mom started to cry. —Please baby, don’t say that. I really really really need to go. I don’t like it here. I need to leave. Please, please say it’s ok.
She sniffled again. —Fine. Ok....
My mom came back out to the living room, still crying a little. —Danny baby, are you ok?
She sat and put her arm around me. She always smelled like tea tree oil. —Baby, you know I love you, don’t you?
—Is it ok if I go?
—Yeah. I want you to. I want you to be happy.
She started to cry again. —Thank you baby, that’s sweet. You know, I’m not sure what it will be like, but I thought, maybe, you could come live with me and go to school there. I don’t know yet and I didn’t want to say anything to your sister. I’m not even sure you would want to, but maybe. I’ll see. Would you like that?
—I don’t know.
—I know, it’s scary. I’m scared too. But, that’s why I want to go, a little. I’ve never done something scary. Do you understand?
—I think so.
She hugged me. —I’m going to miss you. Will you miss me?
My eyes started tearing up. I wiped them. —Yes.
—Will you write me letters? I’ll be lonely down there.
I stood up, still rubbing his eyes. —Ok.
—Oh baby, are you ok?
—Yeah mom. I’m just going to bed.
She touched my arm. —Do you want to snuggle?
—Ok my big boy.
I went into my room and closed the door and got in bed in the dark. I hugged his pillow and listened to Jenna and mother cry.
I got to science class before anyone else and sat in my assigned seat at one of the back tables. Outside, students were still changing classes laughing and yelling. Raquel Vasquez walked in. Dark skin, long black hair, tight white t-shirt and jeans. She looked at me and smiled and went to her seat in front, one row over. I could see her bra under the tight shirt across her back. She got out our science book and started to read.
More kids came in and sat down. Chris, the boy that sat next to me, came in smelling like cigarettes. He started drawing on the table. I got out the science book to read, but he nudged me and leaned over, half-whispering. —Damn, Raquel’s got some big ole titties, don’t she?
I automatically looked up at her. She turned around. I knew she’d heard him, but she looked at me, her face getting red and her eyes watering. She turned back around and slouched over her book. I looked at Chris, who shrugged and kept drawing on the table.
Mr. Messer, our science teacher, came in and slammed the door. He was tall, and big. And ex-marine. —Open your books!
If we hadn’t before, we did then. He told us to read chapter nine and do the questions at the end, then talked about the National Geographic special he saw the night before. I looked at Raquel, but she never looked back, just kept slouching and looking down at her book. Chris nudged him and pointed to what he had drawn on the table: A girl with big breasts and black hair licking her lips.
I glared at him. —Don’t.
Mr. Messer had still been talking. —...and what scientists are now learning is that sharks actually prefer fresh water. Hey, is there a problem back there?
He pointed at me. —Out. Out the door.
Now Raquel was looking at me. Everyone was looking at me. —But—
I stood up. Chris looked down at his book, which was covering the drawing. I closed the door behind me and stood in the hall, looking out the hall window at the bike rack. The door opened and Mr. Messer came out, slamming it behind. —What’s your problem, punk?!
He pushed me on the chest. —You got a problem?!
I barely kept my balance. —No.
—Gabbing with your friend?!
He stepped forward and pushed me again. —No?!
—I didn’t do anything!
—You gonna blame your buddy? Snitch?
I didn’t say anything.
—You’re not tough. I could take you. Think I couldn’t? I was in the marines. I’ve seen punks like you.
He pushed me again. —Are you sorry? Say you’re sorry and you won’t go to the principal’s office.
—I didn’t do anything!
Mr. Messer pointed down the hall. —That’s it. Go.
He slapped me on the face lightly. —Come on, punk.
I backed up. —Ok, I’ll go!
Mr. Messer went back inside and slammed the door again. I stood there and heard him say something and the class laugh. I turned and walked down the hall, looking in open classroom doors.
I passed one of the janitors, an older black man, who winked and smiled. —Busted huh?
I nodded. —Yeah....
—Don’t let him get you down son.
—The Man, son, the Man.
—Who’s the Man?
He exaggerated looking around. —He’s everywhere!
—But, you’re a man.
He nodded slowly, pointing at me. —That’s right son. And you will be too.
I stared at him, unsure what to do, or say. He laughed and patted my shoulder. —Alright son, I’ll be seeing you around.
I walked into the office. The secretary looked at me over her thick glasses, frowning. —Yes?
—I got sent down here.
She sighed. —Oh jeezuz. Alright, have a seat.
I sat in a plastic chair by the door and waited. A girl came in crying. The secretary looked at her. —Yes?
—I have to call my mom. I want to go home.
—What’s wrong honey?
The girl looked around at Danny, then whispered something.
—Oh honey, sorry. Come here in the other room.
The secretary looked at me. Angry.
I sat and waited to long the girl’s mother came and took her away. Finally the principal, Mrs. Singleton, came out, smiling. —Ok, what’s your name?
—Ok Danny, come in.
I followed her in and sat in a chair. She sighed. —Mr. Messer sent you?
I nodded. —Yes.
—What did you do?
I looked down at his feet. —Nothing.
—What did he say you did?
—Talking I guess.
—Did he do anything?
—He sent me out in the hall.
She sighed again. —Ok, well, just wait outside until the bell rings, ok?
I nodded. —Ok.
I got up. —Mrs. Singelton?
—How do you tell a girl she’s beautiful in spanish?
She smiled. —Hermosa. Eres hermosa.
—Eres hermosa. Thank you.
—De nada. Buena suerte con la muchacha.
I went out and sat until the bell, then went to gym class.