short stories ~ literary fiction ~ social commentary
copyright © 1999 - 2013
I was a stranger in a strange land, poverty coming on us overnight changing addresses and schools. I’d met Virginia by happenstance three weeks before. She was a bona fide card-carrying hippy with literal rose-colored glasses, straight chestnut hair chasing her waist, nipples teasing her tee shirt and me.
My hair dangled on my back. My jeans, made to look faded by rubbing cigarette ashes on the thighs and my Ike jacket, get out my face where the name should be, fooled Virginia into thinking we were ilk.
“Wow, you’re here!” She was pleased to see me in her school.
“You’ll love it here! Everyone’s so nice!”
Rose-colored glasses, remember.
Casually, as if asking about New and Improved Tide, she asked generally about African Americans.
I shrugged, wondering if she understood my nametag.
Like a bobble head, she nodded. “Don’t you think that’s something you should get over?”
With the soft tie-dye cotton of her tee shirt a slimmer membrane than the cornea, I would have agreed to anything.
Minutes before lunch, I found myself suspended against the lockers outside English class, angry faces like an animated Whitman Sampler pushed shouts at me. The walnut face holding me leached so close, I knew we’d be having pizza for lunch. He sneered like some throwback to a time we didn’t walk upright.
“I hears you prejudice! I wants you ta knows we’s here!”
I knew I was in for a serious ass-kicking no matter what. I thought if I sunk my pen into his eye, he’d scream, lunge back, maybe squirt something on the floor, stunning the crowd, giving me time to make the door. I really didn’t want to hurt the guy over some stupid misunderstanding.
A lanky kid, limbs too long for his body, lumbered into the fray, his caramel hair in a shag-cut longer than mine. “Peace, dudes and dudettes! Didn’t that King dude say we can’t drive out hate with hate? Come on.” He broke me free. “This dude’s my good bud! He don’t hate no one!”
Bobby understood the value of a lie.
Everyone liked Bobby, yet he had few actual friends. He was a pleaser and a peacemaker. He sold great pot close to cost, seriously undercutting the for-profit dealers. “I don’t care about the money.”
We quickly became best friends, though he was three years older.
With his eyes rolled and finger dancing in the air, he planned. “Yeah, I’ll have enough money by next summer and we can get a couple motorcycles, nothing fancy, and go find the real America. This sure ain’t it.”
Once he told me: “You can be my best man, man. Imagine: we’d be wearing like tux shirts and jackets and cut-off jeans.”
“And bare feet.”
“Yeah, and favors’ll be joints, man! What a party that’ll be! Promise me!”
“And you’ll be my kids’ godfather.”
I would have, yes.
We dreamed, like children dream. Bobby had college planned on paper, paid for selling pot.
A few weeks before graduation, Bobby came by on a Friday night with a car. “Let’s go down the shore for the weekend!”
I was approached on the boardwalk. “You got an extra cigarette?”
“No, only twenty.” I offer the pack forward.
She reached for the cigarette and froze, her gaze over my shoulder. The electricity would have killed a lesser man.
Her voice, a breathless whisper. “Introduce me to your friend.”
I watched them on the beach, Bobby waving his arms to the sky, her watching up at him as if witnessing God. He dropped to his knees, watching up at her as the ocean’s fingers touched them gently, her mouth moving. I didn’t need to hear what they said.
The sun blazed orange over the water, chasing the stars away as they kissed, holding onto each other as if John’s End Time were upon us.
Sometimes there’re perfect moments in life, you know.
I was only fifteen and Bobby claimed I knew nothing about it so I got a stern warning. Bobby, being eighteen, wasn’t so lucky. He had a choice of enlisting in the army or facing a judge, who’d likely give him five years plus on the stolen vehicle charge.
“The guy told me I can be a mail clerk for three years, get out and work for the post office. Not a problem. Don’t matter I don’t graduate. I get the GED in boot. And, for once my dad’s proud of me.”
Stacy came up from Maryland. We saw Bobby off in Philadelphia. They laughed making plans, dreaming like children dream. I hugged Bobby into embarrassment, infusing his soul with mine.
My best friend.
We knew. Then, on corner of Filbert and 10th in the City of Brotherly Love, we knew, Stacy hanging onto me, soaking my shirt, bellowing.
I’d only met Bobby’s father once. Bobby didn’t like him and by proxy I didn’t, either. That summer, I took to wearing the black armband, symbolizing my opposition to America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. While walking in the local mall, a strong hand grabbed me by the arm, the other pulling at my armband.
“Robert’s fighting for your freedom and you disrespect him like this!”
The armband came free. His hand pounded my face with stinging slaps. I went to my knees, he held fast, a lifetime of disappointment piling down on me.
He dropped, apologizing. I pushed him off, nodding. “Get outta here before you get arrested.”
He hurried off. I coughed blood onto the floor, and then vomited.
I just now got back from the cemetery. God, how the years roll up. I don’t know, the holiday brings him back. His face in the bus window, smiling, waving as if he’s going on a trip to the zoo instead of off to his death. I don’t have details, no one does. I bet he died helping someone. That’s the kinda guy Bobby was.
Fighting for our freedom.
He stole his uncle’s car.
Bobby wouldn’t be offended by the six inch American flag on the grave, but I sure was. I do understand it’s not my place to be offended.
A man chasing a cane, bent over, frail, came up behind me. Clearing his throat, he hobbled forward and snatched the flag, tossing it away.
He turned, looking up at me, begging a challenge.
A thousand miles of pain written in his eyes, he didn’t remember me.