Saturday, March 10, 2012

This Town Smells Like Popcorn

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Marv’s Market. She’s eating Red Vines, four at a time. He’s crunching his way through a bag of roasted almonds. He knows apes need lots and lots of nuts to survive. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids, she’s 12 and he’s nine, sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December afternoon.

A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab and barely reaches the kids’ noses before being carried away by the wind. An empty 7-Eleven cup falls to the street and rolls under the truck.

“Get in,” the driver tells them. She’s pushing 40, but looks like she already left that age far behind. She’s wearing western chaps over blue jeans held up by a heavy leather belt with a turquoise and silver buckle.  Her cowboy boots are cracked and her western shirt with snaps is wrinkled and stained. The top two snaps of her shirt are unfastened – On purpose? By accident? – revealing an undersized bra and sun wrinkled skin. A tan cowboy hat and cigarette dangling from her cracked lips complete the picture.

“Are you still mad Aunt Dorothy?” Marla asks while getting to her feet. Dorothy shakes her head and then turns to blow smoke out the window. Marla motions for Eagle to come along, but he sits firm, still popping nuts into his mouth. “Come on Eagle,” she urges.
“I’m not gonna,” Eagle says crossing his arms and clutching his almonds to his chest.
“Why aren’t you gonna?”
“Tarzan told me not to get back in the truck.”
Marla turns to Dorothy, “He’s not going to get in, I’m afraid. Nothing’s going to change his mind when he’s like this.”
Dorothy sets the parking brake and reaches behind the seat. She pulls a plastic spear out and starts rolling it between her hands. “Tell him Tarzan came by the house today … and left this.”
Marla turns to Eagle, but he’s already spotted the spear and is scrambling to his feet. “I didn’t know you know Tarzan, Aunt Dorothy,” Eagle says.
“Oh yes. We had lunch today. Did you know his favorite food is hamburgers? He ate three.”
Eagle dives into the cab ahead of Marla and grabs the spear out of Dorothy’s hands. He gleams like a boy on Christmas morning and starts stabbing the dashboard. Marla plops into the seat beside him and reaches for the door handle. She pulls, but her hand slips and she almost tumbles out of the truck. She braces herself with one hand, grabs the handle again, and pulls it shut with a grunt.
Dorothy releases the brake and shifts into first gear. She pops the clutch and the truck lurches forward with a jolt, leaving a puff of black exhaust in its wake.
“Do you two have anything to say?” Dorothy asks.
Eagle doesn’t look up. He just keeps thrusting the spear into the dashboard. Marla looks out the window and says, “Sorry.”
“Sorry what?”
“Sorry for being such a brat, Aunt Dorothy.” Marla throws an elbow into Eagle’s shoulder.
“Owww!” Eagle yelps and turns toward Marla, furious. He threatens her with his spear and snarls like a wild thing. She stands her ground and glares back at him. It becomes a stare down between two wild cats. After a minute of tension, Eagle and then Marla begin to smile and as the tension dissipates he blinks first, losing the contest. He lowers his spear and toying with it in his lap says “Sorry, Aaaaaunt Doroooooothy.”
Cigarette between her fingers, Dorothy reaches down and pushes a cassette into a tape player crookedly bolted beneath the dashboard. Some ash falls to the floorboard to join a mound already there. Music starts playing as she absentmindedly places the cigarette back into the corner of her mouth. The singer is Anne Murray:
“Every now and then I cry/Every night you keep stayin' on my mind/All my friends say I'll survive/It just takes time—“
Eagle blows a raspberry and hits eject with his spear. He looks over at Dorothy as if challenging her to a duel.
Dorothy knows better than accept his challenge. She just reaches down and pushes the tape back in. As she does, more ash shakes loose and falls to the floorboard. Marla notices and frowns.
“That’s gross, Aunt Dorothy,” Marla says.
Anne Murray continues:
—A million miracles could never stop the pain/Or put all the pieces together again/No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart—“
“I hate your music,” Eagle says as he pokes the tape free again with his spear. He turns in his seat to face Dorothy.
“Eagle, you do that one more time and—“
Eagle interrupts her with another raspberry and threatens her with his spear. She raises her hand as if to slap him and still more ash falls to the floorboard.
“I said that’s gross!” Marla shouts.
She pops open the glove box. It is like a rolling junk drawer. Bottles of Advil and Tums roll and slide about. There’s a hairbrush filled with hair strands. A used up and dried up stick of deodorant missing its cap falls out. Marla catches it and tosses it back in. There are two heavily read paperbacks – a Zane Grey and a Barbara Cartland. There is a hastily and very improperly folded road map torn across most of its creases.
And, of course, well within reach is a carton of Marlboro Lights with two packs remaining. Marla grabs the two packs and, staring defiantly at Dorothy, holds them out the window.
Dorothy starts the tape again and it becomes a bit wobbly from being started and stopped. Anne Murray sounds sick and tired:
No I don't think time is gonna heal this broken heart/No I don't see how it can while we are—“
Eagle hits eject. Dorothy slaps him across his right ear and he immediately curls up in a ball and starts wailing. Marla tosses the cigarette packs out the window. Dorothy slams on the brakes.
“Out! Go pick’em up!” Dorothy orders.
Marla looks at her in disbelief. Eagle wails even louder.
Marla opens the door and slides to the ground. She walks along the side of the road kicking at weeds and turning her head away from passing cars, embarrassed. She spots one of the packs and gives it a kick into the ditch.
Dorothy honks the horn, holding it in to fully express her anger. Marla retrieves the pack and finds the other perched atop a thistle bush. She starts to slowly walk backwards toward the truck. Dorothy honks again and Marla runs.
“Here’s your stupid cigarettes,” she says climbing into the cab. She tosses them at Dorothy and one of them hits Eagle on the nose. He turns to Marla and slaps her. Marla slaps his other ear and he slides as far away from her as he can and leans his head against Dorothy, his crying now a muffled whimper.
They drive for a while in silence, Dorothy staring straight ahead, Marla staring out the window, and Eagle rolling the spear around in his lap. They are entering a town again and Marla watches as a gas station and a general store roll by. This town smells like popcorn.
Finally, Eagle breaks the silence. “Tarzan told me not to get in the car with you. He says you’re a mean lady.”
“I wish you’d shut up about Tarzan,” Dorothy says without looking at him.
Marla says, “I’m glad Mark didn’t marry you. You would’ve made a terrible mom.”
Dorothy grips the steering wheel tightly, fiercely. Eagle stops mumbling and looks at Dorothy, then at Marla, and back to Dorothy again. Marla smiles cruelly. Dorothy pulls off the road and stops the truck.
“Get out… Both of you… Get out,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door open with a creak and slides out to the ground. Eagle slowly follows her and once he’s beside her he cautiously looks about ready to defend her with his spear.
“Shut the door,” Dorothy says.
Marla pushes the door, but it doesn’t shut because the seatbelt is dangling in its way. She tosses the belt onto the seat and tries again. This time it shuts and immediately the truck pulls away, its spinning tires kicking up gravel. There’s another puff of black exhaust.
Driving away, Dorothy pushes the tape back in and it crankily starts playing:
“—still apart/And when you hear this song/I hope that you will see/That time won't heal a broken-hearted me/Every day is—“
The music stops. Dorothy reaches down to remove the tape and it unspools, part of it still stuck inside the machine. She gives it a tug and the tape breaks. She wraps the tattered tape around the cassette.
“Goddamn him!” she yells as she heaves the cassette out the window.
She tears open a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights and pops one in her mouth. She pulls a Bic from her shirt pocket, lights the cigarette, and drops the lighter back into her pocket. She takes a long draw. She takes the cigarette from her mouth and grips the steering wheel with that hand. Some ash falls to the floorboard. A single tear breaks loose from her eye and travels down her cheek, its course following one wrinkle and then another, and then another.

Marla and Eagle are sitting on the curb outside Quick-E Mart. They’re sharing a box of popcorn. Neither one looks worried. They’re just two young kids sitting by the side of the road on a blustery December evening.
A beat up red Chevy pickup pulls up and the driver, reaching across the seat, pops the passenger door open. The hinges protest and the door shuts again. The driver pushes harder and it stays open. The smell of Marlboro Lights drifts out of the cab.
“Get in,” the driver tells them.

Friday, March 2, 2012

A Lollipop

“My turn,” Marla says.
“Okay,” Annie says as she licks a giant spiral lollipop the size of her head. She stops licking for a moment and coughs.
“Come on Annie. You had your turn,” Marla says.

Annie takes one last long, leisurely lick and hands it over. “Here you go.” Marla takes it and immediately starts running her tongue around the circumference. After a few trips around, her tongue follows the spiral all the way to the center.

She hands the lollipop back to Annie as they turn the final corner on their walk home from school. Marla runs her hand through the ivy overgrowing the fence along the sidewalk.

“Mr. Johansson was so funny today,” Annie says between licks. “I love how he says everything twice.”
“Now listen up class… listen up class,” Marla imitates giggling. “This’ll be on the quiz… on the quiz.”
“He’s always looking at the board and then turns around to look at us and says it again like we didn’t hear him,” Annie says.
“The commutative property says that… says that six times three equals three times six… three times six,” Marla spurts out, laughing now.

Laughing too, Annie slurps at some sugary juice running down the stick onto her hand and starts to choke. She starts coughing, sputtering, and laughing at the same time.
Marla whacks her on the back.
“Owww!” Annie says.

The two girls stop at a gate. Annie flips the latch open without looking away from the lollipop, holds the gate open for Marla, and pushes it shut behind them as they head up the front walk. The sounds of someone playing piano scales, gradually faster and faster, can be heard through the open front window.

“Shhhh,” Annie says. “Daddy’s practicing.”

Annie quietly opens the front door and they go inside. When she closes the door, the hinges creak. They freeze and hold their breath. The piano scales keep going up and down. They exhale slowly as Annie finishes closing the door.

As they cross the foyer to the stairs, Marla looks into the parlor and sees Annie’s dad intensely hunched over the keyboard, head down, and eyes closed. He reminds her of Linus from Peanuts.

The girls kick back on Annie’s bed. Marla’s on her stomach alternately kicking her butt with her heels. Annie’s propped up against a stack of stuffed animals with her feet resting on Marla’s back. They are passing the lollipop back and forth, one lick apiece each time.

“God your feet stink!” Marla says.
“I know,” Annie giggles and then coughs. “Marla?”
“What?” Marla asks.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” Annie asks.
“What do you mean?” Marla asks.
“About me flirting with Marc… You still like him?” Annie asks.

Marla is quiet. She stops kicking her butt. Actual music starts drifting up through the floor and they listen.

“Liszt. My dad’s favorite.” Annie says. “Whenever he plays this, I always feel… I don’t know…”
“It’s okay,” Marla interrupts as her feet start kicking again. “I think Marc really likes you a lot.”
“But you went out for a long time,” Annie says starting to lick the lollipop again.
“I was thinking about maybe going with Tom anyway. You can go with Marc if you do one thing,” Marla says.
“What’s that?” Annie asks.
“If you let me have that,” Marla says and starts tickling Annie until she frees the lollipop from her grasp. Annie chases after it for one last quick lick.

Marla gets off the bed with her prize. “I have to go pee,” she says.

Out in the hall, Marla stops and looks into the master bedroom. Annie’s mom is standing by the window, motionless, staring outside.

Marla leaves Annie’s house and Annie remains standing on the front threshold.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Bye,” Marla says walking to the gate.
Marla opens the gate. “Bye.”
“Bye,” Annie says. “Bye,” she says again, starting to giggle as Marla starts down the sidewalk.
“Bye,” Marla giggles back.
At the house next door, Marla turns up the front walk. “Bye,” she says. Annie laughs.
Marla opens her front door and says, “Bye.”
Annie says “Bye” laughing so hard now that she’s crying. They both close their doors. A few moments later, they both open their doors at the same instant and poke their heads out.
“Bye,” Annie says.
“Goodbye,” Marla laughs.

Marla is in bed. A bit of light and an icy breeze flows in through her slightly open bedroom window. She shivers and rolls from side to side. Her blanket is in a ball around her feet.

There is a faint “pop” sound and she opens her eyes. She listens. Her eyes start to close and then it happens again. “Pop … pop.” She opens her eyes again and listens.

Marla wakes up. It’s morning and the blanket is now covering her again up to her shoulders. There are sounds, but not the usual morning sounds of birds chirping. She looks up and her mom is sitting at the foot of her bed. She looks distraught.
“What’s wrong mom?”

Her mom doesn’t answer. She just slides across the bed toward Marla and takes her in her arms.
There is a sound of car doors outside and Marla ducks out of her mom’s arms and goes to the window.
“Marla… don’t…”

Marla looks outside. Annie’s house is surrounded by bright yellow tape and there are police cars and police officers everywhere. Marla sees Annie’s mom sitting in one of the police cars. Then she notices Annie sitting in another. Marla runs from the room, evading her mom as she tries to stop her.

Marla runs down the stairs and out the front door. She reaches the sidewalk and stops. She watches the police car with Annie drive away.

Marla walks down the sidewalk alone carrying a binder and a math book. She turns the corner and runs her hand through the ivy covering the neighbor’s fence. She stops to watch four men with a dolly as they wrestle a piano down the front steps of Annie’s house.

Marla coughs and sniffs twice. “I shouldn’t have licked your lollipop Annie. I think I got your cold.”