By Lisa Piazza
I like to think she studies me. Like I’m the SATs. The APs. The ACTs, or whatever. I see her pick a pencil (sharp at the ready) eager to eliminate the obvious. Bubble me in like I’m the easiest answer. Trouble is I’m not a, b, or c. I’m no letter at all – else I’d be all q’s and u’s because you can’t do the q w/out the u like I can’t be me without you. That’s a line from the poem I slipped in Sibley’s bag yesterday just before the thing went missing.
I didn’t steal it.
But no one listens to a kid like me.
P.E. got me trolling the cones, paying for no one’s crime, muggin’ Cap’n Kirby while he sits, smug as a 4.0, watching us zig and zag like ants torn from a trail. He sets these courses up to test how fast or far we will go. His skin red from the sun, he booms commands from under the same straw hat he ‘guards in. Only here we are on land and he lets us flail and collapse, tugging on my blond ‘tail to get me up again.
“See. I told you the pain ain’t worth the gain.”
“What gain, Cap’n?” I ask and he sends me through two more times for the privilege of calling him Cap’n. He hates the tag so I say it again and run three extra laps. Time I’m back fifth period is on and I still haven’t gotten any food. Kirby won’t write me a pass so I skip altogether and head for the cafeteria where the lunch ladies might toss me a foil.
When they come for your future it’s a form in triplicate.
The lady sees me and sighs.
“All gone today.” She shrugs. “You gotta get yourself here sooner.” She’s wide with a wide smile, grinning all the time though she’s only dealing food at the h.s. No one shows her any love so I try my best.
“Here.” She tosses me an apple bruised on one side.
“Take this, too,” she says, passing through a carton of milk, smashed in and leaky on the bottom. District gives the same size milk whether a kid is six or sixteen. Guess we’re still children when it saves them money.
“I’m all out of chocolate.” The lunch lady smiles, palms up.
“It’s alright. Thanks.” I wave with my free hand.
“You so polite. Why they got you in trouble? Out there running those cones all lunch.”
“You see that?”
“You should be in class learning.”
“Oh, you know.”
“I can tell you’re smart.”
“That’s what they say.”
“Get on to class then.”
“No eating in the rooms.”
“One hurdle after another, huh? You don’t need Coach Kirby’s course for that. Go on, anyway.” She points toward the academic building and I make like I’ma go there. It’s easier to pretend sometimes than explain it over again. Pretend. Again. I can use that rhyme. Near-rhyme, Ms. K will say. Anyway, I make a note. My brain is good that way. I bead up words, stringing them on a line to carry from day to day til I get them down. Not so easy as paper and pen when you got all eyes on you, checking.
I don’t want the purse.
But who would know?
“Wait a minute,” the lunch lady calls. “Look here! There is one left. Your lucky day, I guess.” She tosses me a warm sandwich wrapped in foil. “They got the chicken ones today. Not too bad.”
I started here with the ankle cuff but I don’t have it now. A kid like me gets in then out of trouble easy. They see the white T, the 501s, the hair: long dirty blonde, pulled back. Wire glasses most days less I lose ‘em. I thread me a rhyme to show the judge I’ma thinking kid. They like that. Late cuz a court date had him get me off early. A flow about going to school, the importance of it and all, which I half believe cuz you know my moms would like that even if I can’t tell her, means something. Anyway, they got me at Gran’s now. I keep quiet, help her when I can. Keep my buds in. Read. Too much, probably, for my own good. Ideas, you know.
Fifth period is over time I get there. I head to sixth where I sit next to Sibley. We got fourth and sixth together and if I borrow a pen in fourth she always says, “Keep it ‘til sixth” and I make a point of hanging on to the thing so I can give it back and borrow it again the next day.
“Hey,” I say.
“Hi.” The afternoon sun on her glossy skin is like we’re in an orange soda ad – all sweet and syrupy good.
I make like to steal her heart, true. But I didn’t steal her purse.
Anyway, she has another one now. Sitting in front of her on the desk.
“New purse?” I ask.
I look for a front pocket. Easy access. To stick in another poem I get my nerve up. This time leave it alone.
When they come for your future it’s a form in triplicate. Slithering across the table. Tempting you for a signature.
“Still have your pen,” I say. “From yesterday.”
“Where were you fourth, Jarrett?”
“Oh.” She looks down at her fingers. Clean and neat with pink polish. Not pink, really. Lilac, maybe. She likes lilac. Ratatat. Shellac. Get back. She likes li-li-li-lilac. “Keep it.” She says.
“It’s not one of my good ones, anyway.”
“All your good pens gone?” She’s always digging around in her purse looking for the good pens. She got pens she loans and pens she keeps. She doesn’t give away her good ones. I know the ones she loves have black ink and felt tips and write smooth across the page between the lines like silk between your fingers. Like everything else she owns they got the scent of citrus buds that used to bloom on my street ‘fore I moved here. ‘Fore my moms tired out, my sister ditched. ‘Fore I got the cuff and freed myself to Gran’s.
You want a scene here where her boyfriend comes up? Pulls me by the collar I don’t have and asks “What’re you talking to this twerp for” but her boyfriend doesn’t have Mrs. Franklin sixth and he wouldn’t bother with me. I have an invisibility field, see? Comes up just when you want to ask: did you see anything, Jarrett?
Who hit/who sold/who cut/who stole?
Wasn’t me, wasn’t me, wasn’t me.
You want a scene but I only got a sentence. A subject. No verb. Boy. Girl. Side by side at a table; the sun on her shoulder, his hand round a pen; Mrs. Franklin at the overhead calculating the difference, multiplying factors, deriving an answer (un)equal to x.
When they come for your future it’s a form in triplicate. Slithering across the table. Tempting you for a signature. I sign because there ain’t no choice. I coulda done the homework, coulda shown for the test. But nothing they give you here adds up to anything you need to know. ‘Stead, twenty credits down gets you shipped to the continuation school no matter you got a bagged lunch your moms packed or a dad born in a tie. No matter you know more than you say. More than you score.
I got the exit papers behind my back today, tracking down teachers for signatures. All they got to do is sign. Seems easy enough for an admin to do that, but they send us around to these folks eye-to-eye on our own. Shame-faced screw-ups standing in front of the class. One finger up or two. No quick adieu.
I got everyone ‘cept Ms. K, who was at a meeting during 4th and stuck us with Cap’n Kirby instead. I’m heading back to her classroom when I catch Sibley in the hall, about to cut sixth. Catch her, I mean, like a rare fish – rainbow trout or something fancy like that – sparkling in a stream of grey scales. No friends around she waves and I walk over like I’m tracing someone else’s steps.
Sibley’s golden but it’s not all light. Eighth grade her dad fell off his bike coming down Skyline and got swept under a car. I heard from someone who knew someone who knew. Once I tried to say I’m sorry but she got that look like she couldn’t hear me nothin at all; couldn’t see or speak. I get that look when my moms comes up. I got that look right now.
Today she has the new purse over her shoulder and I know it’s one of the last chances I got with her before they transfer me out. I’m not leavin’ over the purse, still it doesn’t help my cause, so I go for it before thinking and say:
“I have to show you something.”
“Okay,” she agrees.
There are some the things you know without knowing: that Sibley will follow me out of school, up the block to my Gran’s house, through the dark living room – blinds pulled, clean floor – Gran upstairs with a game show on. That she will startle when Gran calls out “Jarrett?” as I pull the key out of the lock and close the front door. That she will giggle when we keep walking out the sliding glass door to the paved patio and on through to the back gate that leads to the crisscross of canal trails running behind this neighborhood. Every house on this block leads out to paved routes along the water. Saturdays you got your families of four on bikes, helmets strapped and bells jingling, a baby buckled to the back of some nervous mother. But not today. Today it is quiet and still. Hot in the afternoon sun. A work day. A school day. A lurk in the lost day.
A duck drifts.
A crawdad squats.
The water peters out where the marshes start –early drought, little trickle, gone soon..
Tall grass, the golden kind, clumps on the side and it’s not pretty but it’s sorta calm. A tiny rustle of wind seeps a sound like shhhhhh shhhhhh shhhhhhhh.
Keeeeeeeeeeeeep it secret, it says.
When they come for your future it’s your own hands get dirty.
“I haven’t been back here in forever,” Sibley says.
We pass a clump of the licorice weeds. I break off a sprig to chew and pass one to her. She sticks the tip in her mouth and lets the rest hang out the side, mulling the piece over and over.
Mostly she is silent. But then she says thanks. And maybe she says tastes like childhood. Or maybe she says my dad always brought me here on the back of his bike. He had a blue and gold trailer that hooked on. Maybe she says I really miss him.
I can’t hear her cuz my mind is thrillin on the two of us alone, so close out here together.
Maybe she looks down. Maybe she looks up.
Maybe she says I hate it here.
Maybe she says I love it.
Maybe she says nothing.
Midway to the hole we stop. Sibley slowing first – afraid I will reveal something gory: gouged eyes, a bloody limb, the neighbor’s lost tabby (matted fur, bird in mouth) both dead – or not.
I know what her friends think of me.
“We’re really close,” I say, but it’s hard to be reassuring with my own voice shaking. I didn’t steal the bag, just the poem inside, which was mine to begin with. Lost my nerve, grabbed it all. Now I gotta take the fall.Show it to her now and she’ll know. Show it to her never – that’s forever. Gotta press it into her palm like a prayer. Recite it as she reads. Let the words speak, heart beat.
When we get to the spot I marked with a mossy rock I crouch and dig with my hands to retrieve her fake leather purse – gone since Thursday. Dirty but otherwise untouched. Her crystal eyes darken past memory. I half think I have uncovered my own heart – beating there in double-time. Alive and decomposing at the same time.
I lift the purse out and hand it to her.
“You had it?” She asks
“I didn’t steal it. I mean, I didn’t take anything out.”
And this is where I should hand her the poem hidden in the front pocket – but I
wait. I wait and the moon moves for me, eclipsing the full sun cascading tiny crescents over us. A million mottled shadows. It’s like we are claimed by time.
“The eclipse,” she whispers. “Mr. Tan told us about it in Bio today.”
“Wild,” I say looking up long enough to burn my eyes.
“Don’t look at it directly,” Sibley says. “It really could blind you.”
“I think I’m blind already!” I laugh. “All I see are stars.”
I reach out to touch a moon on her cheek and she flinches.
“About the purse, I mean.”
In the frozen half-light her smile is golden, celestial. Too good to be true.
“No. I mean, it’s not what you think.”
She turns her head and starts walking. She’s got both purses slung over her shoulder now . What does she know? She has to meet Trent before his weigh training starts, that’s what she knows. But I follow as she walks, watching the flecks of dirt drift off from the purse, leaving a dusty trail behind us.
We were here.
Her locker is in Building C, down the hall from Ms. K’s room. When we walk in Ms. K is closing her door, trying to lock it with stacks of files and papers in her arms.
“Need help?” I ask her.
“Thanks Jarrett.” She hands me her keys and I lock the door for her then pass back her tangle of keys. “Did you get your narrative in yet?” She asks. “I’ve got the stack right here but haven’t checked if yours is in the pile.”
“I believe so,” I tell her. She gives me the kind of look teachers give when the lie is not even worth a comment. She likes me because I know language – at least that’s what she said. She likes me because I have a story. Ms. K does too. You know how you just know?
I turn, thinking Sibley is next to me, but she is already at her locker, getting out books and putting the dusty purse away. I realize the poem is still smoldering in there – soon to ignite – catch flame and go. Then I remember the signature I need from Ms K. and grab the paper from my back pocket and unfold it for her.
“What’s this?” She is still holding the files even though she has an empty canvas bag on her shoulder.
“I need your signature.”
“Jarrett?” She looks at me like I knew she would. Sighs like she figured it all along. “Well. You make up your credits and come back, okay?”
“Yeah. That’s the plan,” I tell her. But she has heard it before.
“This isn’t about the purse, is it?” She asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Did you ask?” She makes no secret her feelings for the main office. The administration never does the right thing.
“Did your parents come in?”
“It’s my grandma. And, yeah.”
“That’s right. Do you want me to see what I can do?”
“I’m okay.” I tell her because credits don’t grow on trees, can’t be dug up and transplanted, don’t come with a rhyme scheme less’n you’re on the football team.
When they come for your future it’s a stranding
a plank standing
a tough pull
void n null
one push and you’re
o f f
Sibley is alone at her locker, transferring her good pens from the old purse into the new.
“I gotta get rid of this thing. Smells like dog pee.”
“I’ll get you a new one.”
“It’s okay. I have this one now. I like it better anyway.”
She takes the strap of the dirty purse by one finger and flings it across the hall to the open garbage can. The poem flies out and lands in the center of the hall. But she doesn’t notice.
I go to pick it up.
“Here –“ I hold the paper out for her, unceremoniously. It is nothing. It is everything.
“What’s that?” She says.
She has her hand out, ready, when Cap’n Kirby booms down the hall. Just like him to twist up the afternoon like a sweaty towel and wring it out on me.
“Why’re you still here, Jarrett?” I pull my hand back and pocket the poem . Too late, slow fate.
“On my way, Cap’n.” I say. I’m in enough trouble as it is. Don’t need his heat in front of Sibley.
“Very funny.” He is not amused.
“I’m out,” I say to Sibley and head for the door.
“Wait!” She calls. “Is this yours?” She has a wad of paper in her hand. My future in triplicate and not a single copy for her.
I am close enough to the door I can disappear right here but then she walks toward me and I force the molecules together – sew them up into some kind of me-shaped kid.
“Oh, yeah. Thanks.” I take the paper and fold it back up.
“You didn’t say.”
“I’m gonna come back.” I tell her.
“Now you know where I live, besides.”
I hold the exit papers in one hand and pat my pocket with the other. The poem pulses: now now now. But Cap’n Kirby taps his foot and Sibley turns the other way and that’s that. The light shifts – time sifts – pages flip ‘til I’m at the end.
Halfway to the door she says my name and I turn – make to hold her words like a baby – something soft and forgiving – never knew no better. Or catch up that voice for forever – my own Sibley sound – a secret to press in my palm.
“Be good.” Is all. “Be good.” She says and her words fall flat – like fog over the sun. Hard sounds on a soft heart. Those words drift – directionless between us – separating as they go – dissipating like hot snow. Two sad syllables with the wrong rhyme.
Lisa Piazza runs writing workshops for young people in the San Francisco Bay Area and teaches high school English intermittently (when she is not building block castles or painting in the backyard with her two young daughters). Her work has recently appeared in USF’s Switchback, Literary Mama and Fraglit. She is currently working on a collection of related stories.