A summer fog rolled through the drive-in like a huge gray tumbleweed and for
a few minutes I couldn't see the screen or the big yellow Buick parked next to
us or even Tommy, who was stretched out like a sheik on the hood of Quincy's
car, drinking a can of Coors. I was standing next to Tommy, shaking my foot to
hear the pebble in my shoe. It was the year I was trying to harden myself,
become tough, and the pebble was a sharp reminder to walk with my toes turned
inward. I'd read somewhere that pigeon-toed hitters have better balance in the
Being tough meant staying silent through the fog. I wanted to reach out to
make sure Tommy was still beside me, but instead I listened to the pebble and
waited. It was only fog, for shit's sake. Just the same, I felt grounded when I
heard Tommy's beer can crunch and hit the gravel in front of me. Quincy wasn't
letting me drink because I was twelve, and though Tommy was just two years
older, he lived in a house with both parents and always had pocket money and had
to be home at six each night for dinner. When he talked to you he looked past
you like you weren't really there. His dad was a pilot in the Navy, an officer.
In a small, poor town like ours-a service town for the nearby base-all that
stuff held sway with folks. Tommy wouldn't have taken pigeon toes if he could
have them for nothing.
Quincy, who had been lying back against the windshield next to Tommy, said,
"This is some fog." Then he laughed at something-I don't know what-but
the sound seemed to come from the fog itself. "A weird night," Quincy
said. "I like it."
Quincy was in the Navy, too. He lived on base. Tommy and I had just met him
that afternoon. He was maybe the tallest person I'd ever seen. Without a doubt
"It is weird," I said. "I like it too."
Then, as quick as it came in, the fog skipped on through, and there was Tommy
again and Quincy and the yellow Buick, full up with boys from the high school.
Tommy was grinning at the screen. Cheech and Chong were driving a van made of
marijuana. Sometime during the fog it had caught fire. Smoke billowed through
Quincy looked past Tommy and gave me a nod.
"Maybe you two should butt-fuck," Tommy said.
The Buick rocked with laughter.
"What's your problem?" Quincy asked Tommy.
"No problem," Tommy said. "I'll take another one of those
Quincy stared blankly at Tommy, then at me. He watched the movie for another
minute or so then got down off the car and got Tommy a beer from the trunk. When
he came back he said, "You guys ever smoke any of that wacky tobacco?"
Tommy lied. "Sure," he said.
I said I hadn't, lying in spirit if not in fact. The truth was, I grew up in
rooms and cars full of grown-ups smoking pot. I'd seen my mother smoke it from
glass tubes, brass pipes, even from another woman's mouth. More than once I'd
felt a little hungry, just like they say.
"Well, you shouldn't," Quincy said. "Beer's one thing."
"My dad used to let us have a little beer," I said. "After we
played baseball in my backyard."
"That was cool," Tommy said. "We always stuck him with Henson.
We kicked their asses. Henson can't catch shit."
"Or hit," I said.
"Yeah," Tommy said. Then he smiled, kindly and sincerely.
"Neither could your dad," he said.
"Yeah," I said.
Though I called him my dad, he was actually my stepdad, and anyway he was
dead. He hanged himself in the house we'd rented on Tommy's street, where we'd
lived for seven months. After my dad was gone, my mom and I moved to an
apartment we could afford. It was outside of town near the wrecking yard. Mom's
new boyfriend, Stan, stayed with us most nights. Stan was a Marine.
"I don't know what the big deal about beer is," Quincy said.
"It don't taste good." He held his can away from the car and emptied
more than a little of it onto the ground. Then he threw it.
Tommy and I both laughed. Quincy threw like a little girl, all wrist and
"You got both ovaries behind that one," Tommy said.
Quincy got down off the car and grabbed Tommy by the shirt.
"Listen-" he started, but Tommy held him up with just a look.
"Hands off, big guy," Tommy said. Then he leaned close to Quincy,
like they were fast friends again. "Hey," he said. "There's pussy
in the next movie."
Quincy looked doubtful, but he let Tommy go. "What do you know about
pussy?" he said.
"What it tastes like," Tommy said.
Quincy laughed. "Like magazine paper?"
"Shit," Tommy said. "I get all I want. I should strap a
mattress on my back to save time."
"Or on your front," I said.
Quincy turned to me, surprised. "Y'all talk like little itty-bitty
children," he said. "You ain't seen shit and don't know shit, but you
talk and talk and talk. Ain't got a damn thing to say."
"What about you?" Tommy asked Quincy. "You getting any?"
"Man," Quincy said, "I live in a barracks with over three
hundred guys. What am I gonna get?"
Tommy and I had been in the arcade earlier that afternoon when Quincy asked
us where the drive-in movie was. Tommy thought about directing him to bumfuck; I
could tell from how he looked at me before answering, but then he told him the
right way, and Quincy asked if we wanted to go with him. He said he'd buy beer,
even pay for the movie. He asked how old we were and were we from here
originally. It was his last night before shipping out for the Philippines, he
said. A nine-month cruise. He said he was from Mississippi. "That was a
slave state," I said. Tommy looked at me like I was stupid and embarrassing
to have around, but Quincy slapped me on the shoulder. "I know," he
said. "But it ain't no more." He gave us the rest of his quarters,
almost five dollars in all, and said he'd be back for us later. When he was
gone, Tommy said he was queer, you could tell from the way he walked, all floppy
and bent over from grabbing his ankles. He said Quincy would probably try to
cornhole us at the movies. I said we shouldn't go then, but Tommy said it would
be okay, if he went for our rigs we could tell the theater manager and get him
arrested. He said maybe we'd do that anyway. I said I didn't want to go, but
Tommy pretended not to hear.
Quincy hadn't tried anything with us, though, and wasn't going to. Tommy knew
it. He kept picking at Quincy, trying to draw him out.
"Are the barracks metal?" I asked Quincy.
"Yeah. Like in Gomer Pyle?"
"Naw," Quincy said. "It's more like a big indoor apartment
building. You get one room and one head, and you have to share it."
"You get head?" Tommy laughed. "Do you have to give it,
"It's not metal?" I asked again.
"Nope," Quincy said. "Sorry. Concrete. Most military buildings
"Metal ones would be neat in the rain," I said.
Quincy agreed that they would.
I was teaching myself mental discipline that summer, too. When the first
movie ended, a cartoon hot dog danced across the screen and laid itself down in
a bun. Then a paper cup, a real one, filled itself as if by magic with
Coca-Cola, shivering and fizzing through the tinny speaker hanging on the
window. In my pocket I still had the two dollars my mom had left me for dinner.
A hamburger with fries and a root beer cost $1.99 at the Snow Queen drive-in
restaurant near our apartment. I took my dinners there. Werner, the old Swiss
who owned the place, didn't charge me tax. Some days I arrived home from school
to find that my mom had left me an extra dollar, which meant she'd made decent
tips the night before. On those days I had either the Snow Queen Big Bargain
(BBQ beef, large fries, large root beer), at $2.99, or funneled the extra money
into the KISS pinball machine. I waited right up until I placed the order before
deciding which. During school, I tried not to think too much about whether or
not the extra dollar would be there. Once in a while I caught myself though, and
if I realized that somewhere in my head the decision was made-pinball over more
and better food, or vice versa-I condemned myself that night to the opposite
The screen was blank while the second movie was being geared up. Though it
was August, a chill had come down through the haze of tractor dust that hovered
all summer over the flat San Joaquin Valley. I rubbed down the goose pimples on
my legs. I was freezing, but glad I'd worn shorts instead of pants. I was
teaching myself to adapt to circumstance.
"You hungry?" Quincy asked me.
"I am," he said. "This here is blackmail. They show us that ad
then make us sit through a blank screen so we'll go buy an overpriced hot
"Not everybody on base goes without pussy," Tommy said. He turned
to me. "Ask him if he knows Stan."
"Who's Stan?" Quincy said.
"His mom's boyfriend," Tommy said. "He's a jarhead."
Though I'd tried to keep it a secret, Tommy knew about Stan. One morning, he
rode his bike across town to our new apartment without calling first like I'd
asked. Stan answered the door wrapped in a bed sheet. He called me from my room
and went back to chomping spears of pineapple and watching cartoons on the
couch. A pall of pot smoke filled the room. My mom opened her bedroom door and
peeked out. Tommy's stare shifted from Stan's water bong to my mom's black,
swollen eye, then to the head-sized hole in the wall beneath a store-bought
cross-stitch that read Home Is Where You Hang Your Hat.
Stan moved the pipe behind the leg of the coffee table. He grinned up at us.
"Helps my hangover," he said.
My mom tightened her robe at her throat and narrowed her eyes at me.
"Who cares what the little prick thinks?" she said. Then she closed
Quincy looked around Tommy to me. "So Stan ain't the baseball-playing
dad?" he asked.
I shook my head.
"His dad's deceased," Tommy said. He wanted to let fly with his
theory about Stan and my mom killing my dad and making it look like suicide. I
saw it in his eyes, the slow burn of the story heating up.
Quincy stared ahead at the empty screen. "It was my mom left me,"
he said. "She died when I was just little. Know what of?"
"No," I said.
"Want me to tell you?"
"A cold," Quincy said.
"You can't die from a cold," Tommy said.
"Sure you can," Quincy said. "If you don't do nothing about
it. It turned into ammonia and she damn sure did die."
"Pneumonia," I said.
"Pneumonia. I think it's pronounced with an n ."
"That don't sound right," Quincy said. "But okay. Maybe I been
saying it one way too long. Anyway, she had a real bad cough that wouldn't go
away. It got louder and louder until one night my daddy told her, 'Shut up,
you're just pining for attention.' She didn't cough no more after that. But then
"How could she do that?" I asked. "Not cough?"
Quincy shrugged. "She knew Daddy."
Nobody said anything for a while. Quincy peeled dry skin from his lips. I
kept an eye on Tommy, watched the torture of self-restraint wear him down. He
kept quiet though, his eyes on the screen. I was proud right then to have him
for a friend. It was pure luck, of course-the fluke of my dad's job, living it
up for even a little while in the house on Tommy's street-but being around Tommy
changed everything. I took on his confidence, his swagger. I'd never be the
fawn-like little puss I was before.
"My dad hung himself," I said.
Quincy nodded. "Hm."
"He found out about Stan," Tommy said.
Then to me, Quincy said, "Why didn't he just whup him and her
"I don't know," I said. "He didn't really fight or
Quincy nodded. He clasped his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. A
parade of expressions flashed across his face like he was telling himself a
story. It struck me that he had a girl's face-small, sharp features like a doll.
His nose was long and thin, flat at the tip, and his eyebrows were so slight
they might have been penciled on. He looked like the wax angel my mom wrapped in
tube socks and somehow managed to keep whole, Christmas after Christmas. As I
stood watching Quincy, I tried to imagine him at sea with hundreds of men like
Stan. I couldn't. The picture just wouldn't come.
Quincy opened his eyes and said, "That don't mean there was something
wrong with him. Meanness ain't like smarts. You can't study up on it or
Tommy pressed his beer into my chest when Quincy wasn't looking. I didn't
really want it, but it was a nod to our friendship, like me breaking the silence
about my dad, so I took a big drink.
Quincy was right. It tasted bitter and stale. My eyes watered. I gave it
Quincy sat forward on the hood. "After my mom died," he said,
"my daddy got real mean, and quicker than stink, too. He was always
sort of snappy, but her dying made him mad. After a while, my little brother ran
away and I joined up the service. Daddy got in his last knocks at me when he
found out I went with the Navy and not the Marines. That's what he'd done."
Quincy looked at Tommy. He started laughing. "He was a jarhead, too."
"Jarhead," I repeated. The word felt funny in my mouth, and I said
it again. "Jarhead." Then Quincy caught on, and soon we were saying
the word over and over. Jarheads. Jarheads. Jarheads. It was a funny
sound when you could forget what it meant, and it got funnier every time we said
it. I bet we said it a hundred times, laughing.
Finally Tommy jumped down from the car. He filled his cheeks with beer and
spit it in a steady stream on Quincy's car. "My dad's a Marine," he
said. I thought that was pretty dumb because Tommy was the one who'd started it
by calling Stan a jarhead, but Quincy must not have remembered. He just looked
at Tommy and kept on laughing. "That don't surprise me one bit," he
When the second movie was over, the first one started up again. We weren't
having fun anymore-Tommy had grown quiet-so after a while Quincy said, "I'm
done with this. You boys ready to boogie?"
"I've got to leak first," Tommy said. He nodded for me to follow. I
waved him off, but he took me by the back of my neck and walked me away from the
"He's not going to try anything," I said.
"So?" Tommy said. He let loose of me but kept walking.
"So where are we going?"
"Just come on," he said.
"It's his last night here," I said.
Tommy stopped and faced me. He pressed his forehead hard against mine and
pushed me backward. "Then go spend it with him," he said. He turned
around and walked off.
I called after him. "Where are you going?" He said nothing, just
continued on toward the concession. I didn't know if he'd try to make trouble
for Quincy or not, but I knew enough about him to be nervous.
I went back to the car and sat in the passenger seat. Quincy was still lying
on the hood. He looked at me through the windshield. "Where's your
buddy?" he said.
"He found some friends," I said. "He's going back to town with
them." When Quincy didn't jump down right away, I said, "Let's leave.
I have to go home."
Quincy got in the car and started the motor. He pumped the accelerator a few
times and the engine roared. He adjusted his rearview and looked around, for
Tommy I imagined. "Friends, huh?" he said.
"What does that make you?" Quincy asked.
When we got to my apartment, the wristwatch hanging from Quincy's rearview
mirror said it was almost two. My mom wouldn't be home for a while yet. The
Elbow Room would just now be closing, and she'd have to clean up before she
"Which one's yours?" Quincy asked.
I pointed to our apartment. The light was on in the kitchen window. I had
turned it on before I left.
"Are you a pilot?" I asked Quincy, though I knew he wasn't.
"Not hardly," Quincy said. "I'm about as far under a pilot as
I can be. When a pilot takes a crap, I salute the flies."
Quincy rolled down his window. "Listen to this," he said. He pushed
a cassette tape into the player and mashed on buttons until he found the song he
wanted. The music was slow at first, but it picked up-you could tell it was
building toward something. Quincy sang along with it. He swayed from side to
side like a stalk of cotton in the wind. I listened closely, trying to make
myself feel what he felt. I couldn't do it.
When the song ended, Quincy's hands were trembling on the wheel. His breaths
came in quick, shallow puffs, like he'd run a race. I pressed my cheek to the
car window; it would have been wrong to look at him. The glass was cool, and
when I blew my warm breath onto it the word fag revealed itself in the
brief steam. Tommy had put it there.
"Stan's going to be drunk," I said. "He's going to pick a
fight with me for coming in this late."
Quincy didn't say anything for a minute, then said, "Who's he to be
picking fights?" I shrugged.
Quincy snapped the radio off. "Where's his car?" he said.
"Let's take a dump on the engine."
I scanned the parking lot for Stan's Super Sport. It wasn't there. He was
likely at the Elbow Room waiting for my mom to get off work and getting drunk.
It was also likely that when they came back to the apartment I wouldn't see them
at all. They'd hole up in her room until the next afternoon when she would hurry
off to work again. My mom was like that with men-binge, then purge, then binge
I pointed to a black Ford with a smashed bumper. "That's his," I
Quincy got out of the car. When I didn't, he got back in and said, "You
"Yeah," I said. And I was. But I was thinking about it being
Quincy's last night before shipping out, how he spent it with two kids he didn't
even know. My little self-improvement exercises seemed so childish. The pebble
in my shoe.
I smeared the word fag off the window with my hand. "He beat her
up last night," I said. But that didn't sound strong enough, so I said,
"Us. He beat up both of us."
It was a lie, but when I saw Quincy deflate it felt true somehow. He said,
"You want me to . . . you know, do something?" I told him I didn't,
and he seemed relieved.
A burst of shouting erupted from somewhere, and some kids I'd seen around the
apartment complex ran through the parking lot. They were chasing a dog, a squat
black mutt with brown ears. There was an arrow through the dog's hind leg.
"Well," Quincy said, "the night's already weird." He
turned the music up and started the car.
"Clear on your side?" he asked. I nodded that it was, and he eased
the car out of the lot.
We drove for a long time. Quincy played both sides of several tapes and sang
along with them. "You're a good singer," I said, but Quincy just
laughed. Finally we turned onto a canal bank and parked alongside a stand of
towering eucalyptus trees. It was a bright night. It seemed I could see the
Sierras sprouting up out of the horizon. Quincy got out and took something from
the trunk, then walked off into the woods. It gave me a sick feeling in my
stomach to see him disappear like that.
"Come on," he shouted.
I blew on the glass again, then once more. Though there was no trace of the
word, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
"You coming?" Quincy called out.
I followed his crunching footsteps through the trees. After a short walk
through the dark we reached the lip of a moonlit swale where lush, dewy grass
angled downward and flattened out onto a square field. The ground was thick with
grass-real grass, like in a backyard, not field grass or crab grass or Johnson
grass. The banks were tree-lined and contained the blue moonlight like water in
a swimming pool. It was beautiful. There were golf balls everywhere.
I slid down the grassy slope on my backside. The smell of the field rushed
through me, and when I stood up, cool grass sifted into my underwear. Quincy
sidestepped down the bank after me. He had something in his hand. It looked like
a cardboard tube from Christmas wrap.
"Toss me one," he said. He hoisted the tube to his shoulder in the
pose of a batter.
"What is that?" I asked.
"Jack handle," Quincy said. "It's real light, though. I think
it's for girls." Though I said nothing, Quincy quickly added, "It was
with the car when I bought it."
I picked up a golf ball and threw it. Quincy swung the jack handle. He
missed, but what a swing-all arms and elbows and bared teeth. I imagined I felt
the wind from it.
"Throw another," he said.
I threw another.
Again Quincy whiffed. "Goddamn it!" he said. He slammed the handle
into the ground.
"Didn't you play sports or anything when you were a kid?" I asked
"Naw. We lived in the woods. Mostly we just worked and shot stuff. Kids
in town played the sports."
"What did you shoot?" I asked.
"Birds and squirrels and fish. Mostly birds."
"It doesn't seem like you'd shoot things," I said. "Animals, I
"I don't know."
"Tell me. Why not?"
"I don't know. I guess because you wouldn't let me have a beer."
"That don't mean I can't be a killer, too," Quincy said.
"Okay," I said. "Sorry."
"You think I ain't?"
"Yeah," I said. "You are."
"Well, I can be," Quincy said. "Don't you worry about
"I won't," I said.
Quincy flipped the bat to me. It was light-aluminum, maybe. I swung it
almost without effort. "Pitch one to me," I said. I took up my new
pigeon-toed stance and held the bat high. Quincy tossed over a golf ball, and
when I swung, the ball exploded off the jack handle and sailed high into the
eucalyptus. Something like electricity ran through me.
"Shitfire," Quincy said. He threw another one, and again I spanked
it into the night. He pitched ball after ball, and each one I ripped into the
trees like Reggie Jackson.
"I'm killing it," I said.
"You are," Quincy said. "I'm seeing it."
Quincy got tired of pitching before I got tired of hitting. He threw a ball
straight up and watched it arc and fall back to the ground. He looked up at the
sky. "Your daddy, was he in the Navy? Is that how you all ended up
"No," I said. "He was a cook. He got a job at the high school.
The Kings County Regional Occupational Program. That's what it was called. He
taught kids how to cook and do restaurant stuff, except after a year the program
was cut. They figured people could get jobs at Denny's without my dad's
"I like Denny's," Quincy said.
"That's where my dad met my mom. She had this boyfriend we lived with,
Douglas. He got drunk and smashed her in the face while she was working. My dad
saw the whole thing from the kitchen."
"What did he do?" Quincy asked.
I was ashamed to say, but it seemed like Quincy of all people would
understand. "Nothing," I said.
"Her nose was broken," I said. "She had to quit her job
because of missing so much work from it. Douglas paid all the rent and bills and
stuff for a while."
"Your daddy didn't do nothing, huh?"
"He talked to her on the phone a lot when Douglas was at work. Finally
he moved with us here to get her away from him. He got that job and we rented a
house by Tommy."
"That sounds real nice," Quincy said.
"Yeah," I said. "I never lived in a house before."
"What did you live in?"
Quincy grinned. "Were they metal?"
"No," I said. "Our house was green, though."
I gave Quincy back the jack handle and pitched another ball to him.
"Watch it all the way in," I said. He took the same wild swing and
when he missed again he threw the handle and kicked a golf ball halfway up the
bank. I shagged the jack handle and brought it back to him. "Like
this," I said. I positioned the handle in his hands. I pushed my hand into
his back to straighten his stance. "Feet together," I said. He moved
one foot, but not enough, so I kicked his boot toward the other one until he was
squared up. "Right shoulder up more," I said. "And don't swing
for the moon." He just stared at me, his face a blank. I pushed up on his
shoulder until he was upright instead of leaning back. "Flatten your swing
plane," I said. I stood like a batter and demonstrated. "Level,"
"Level," Quincy repeated.
Quincy fanned on the first three pitches, but on the fourth the ball clicked
off the jack handle and ripped through the air like it was shot from a gun.
"Hoooweee!" Quincy howled. "How 'bout that!" He flung
the handle away and took off on a long slow trot around imaginary bases. I
dropped down in the grass and cheered him on.
After his lap, Quincy came and sat on the ground next to me. He was winded.
He winked at me. "What do you think?" he said. He put his hand on the
top of my head like I was a jar of mayonnaise. It was a heavy and unnatural
weight, and I quickly ducked away from it. I stood up and began to gather golf
"That didn't mean nothing," Quincy said.
"I know," I said. I picked up the jack handle. "I just feel
like batting some more."
Quincy sat in the grass and said nothing. Then he said, "Why'd you jump
back like that?"
"The hell you didn't," he said. He got up and grabbed the jack
handle away from me. "You don't know nothing," he said.
I stepped back from him. "Leave me alone," I said.
Quincy winced. He covered his face with his hand. "Leave you
alone?" he said. His voice was different now. Sad.
Leave me alone. That wasn't it, exactly. Thank you -maybe that
was right. It seemed like I should know, but I didn't. Like Quincy said-I didn't
know nothing. And it hurt, somewhere down deep. I didn't know how to erase pain.
I hoped it was like mental discipline or pigeon-toes or flexibility, something I
could teach myself.
The rock in my shoe bit sharply into my heel when I moved toward Quincy. I
turned my toes inward, took a few steps, then stopped. The woods were pink with
first light, and Quincy was staring out at them, at the spot where his home run
"Sorry," I said.
Quincy nodded but said nothing, just kept watching something I couldn't see,
maybe whatever pictures came with the music I couldn't hear. Then from the far
end of the field a noise like shuffling leaves broke the quiet. It was a possum,
stumbling like a drunk out of the trees. When it got to the edge of the basin it
didn't stop, but went blindly forward until it lost balance and tumbled end over
end down the grassy embankment. When it hit bottom it lay stunned for a moment
in the grass then struggled to its feet. It stood there, big as a country
mailbox and mint white but for the black tips of its fur, and waited a few
seconds as if clearing its head. Then it headed toward us with alarming speed
"I'm ready to go," I said.
"He's rabid," Quincy said.
I hollered out to shoo him away, but he kept coming. I threw a golf ball and
nearly pegged him. I threw another, and another. "He's sleepwalking,"
"He ain't," Quincy said. "He's a walking bag of poison is what
he is." I kept throwing balls until finally I hit the animal square in the
head. It stopped for a second, stunned, then continued forward. "Wake
up!" I shouted.
"Stay back," Quincy said.
"Let's get out of here," I said.
Quincy looked at me for a long time. "Scared?" he asked.
I felt the stab of the rock in my heel. "No," I said. "I'm
just sick of this place. I'm ready to leave."
"Well I ain't," Quincy said. I turned to walk off but he took me by
the neck, like Tommy had earlier, only with soft hands, and pointed me toward
the possum. It was almost right in front of us now. "You should be
afraid," Quincy said. When the animal got to us, Quincy lifted a boot and
gave him a rap on the nose. He stopped. His eyes were black and vacant. Quincy
let loose of me and I backed away. He reached out with the jack handle and gave
the possum a light whack on the head. "You sick?" he asked it.
"It's gonna die, you know," Quincy said. "It could still do some
damage." He raised the handle a few feet above the possum's head and let it
fall. The animal staggered but remained upright. It moved quickly toward Quincy
and we both jumped back. But then it just stopped, like it was waiting on us to
"Let's just leave," I said again, only this time my voice was
plaintive instead of tough, and when Quincy answered me, his was too.
"I ain't ready to leave," he said. "I can't."
He got into the batter's stance I showed him and swung the jack handle toward
the ground. He meant to stop it before it hit the possum, I know he did, like a
check swing. I could tell because his arms snapped taut right at the end-he
couldn't go through with it. But the momentum of the swing was too much. The
handle hit the possum's head with a sharp crack and Quincy looked up at me like
a little boy who'd snapped off the short end of a wishbone.
The possum teetered for an instant, then fell onto its side. He labored to
stand but could only lie on his side and kick at the air like a windup toy.
Quincy jerked me back by the shirt when I knelt down beside the possum.
"You crazy?" he said. He watched me for a few seconds-I didn't say or
do anything-then lifted his leg and pinned the animal's head to the ground with
his boot. He squatted down and held it by the scruff of the neck. "Go
on," he said.
"Go on what?"
"I don't know. Whatever you was gonna do before I grabbed you, I
I moved a little closer, scared now. The possum didn't seem to notice me. I
bent down next to Quincy and sunk my fingers into its fur. It was coarse and
stiff, not soft the way it looked. And it was thick, too. I stroked up and down
its back and sides, brushing my fingernails against its skin, feeling the rise
and fall of every breath. I felt its tail. It was bony, and the short hair only
rubbed one way, like the lint brush my dad used every morning on his one
teaching suit. My dad wore a suit while teaching kids how to flip eggs in a
frying pan with just a flip of the wrist.
"Hold him tight," I said.
"What are you gonna do?"
"Just hold him," I said.
Quincy tightened his grip on the scruff. I took the possum by the middle and
stood him up. When he was on his feet, I let go. He toppled over and fell free
of Quincy's grasp. We both fell backward and scooted quickly away. My legs were
covered with wet grass.
"He is gonna die," Quincy said.
Quincy picked up the jack handle and gave me a light pop on the arm with it.
He tossed me the keys to his car. "Get it warmed up for me," he said.
"And find that song I like."
I went back to the car but waited for Quincy in the passenger seat. I wasn't
ready to be starting cars yet.
We didn't say much as we drove back to town. Quincy kept the music loud. It
was still foreign to me-nothing I could feel past my ears-but then Quincy sang
again, and that I felt. I kicked off my shoe and tossed the pebble out the
We were still a ways from my apartment when Quincy stopped the car.
"Better get out here," he said. His gaze was distant and wan. He
looked peaceful, like the possum as it marched toward us.
"See you sometime," I said.
"I don't know," Quincy said. "Maybe."
I got out and watched Quincy's big white car float off like a cloud. The Navy
base was to the west about ten miles. Quincy was heading east.
When I opened the door to my apartment, Stan was naked at the refrigerator,
drinking down an RC. "Ain't you been here all night?" he asked.
"I was out," I said.
"What do you care?" I said.
"I don't, really," Stan said. "But I guess since me and your
mom's getting married I got to act like I do. And I guess you better knock off
with that smart-mouthing from now on, too."
"She's not marrying you," I said.
Stan grinned. "You're giving her away," he said. "She
thought that'd be cute."
As Stan drank off the last of his soda, I felt the hollow growing in my
stomach like a ball of fear. It grew and grew until it was all I felt, and I
realized I hadn't eaten the night before. I reached into my pocket and touched
the two dollars my mom had left me for dinner. "I'm not giving anyone
away," I said.
Stan slung his arm around my shoulder and with his dangling hand he grabbed
my nipple through my shirt and gave it a pinch. "Come on now," he
said. "Give us a yes."
Stan was laughing as I ducked away. "Don't be a pussy," he said.
"I'm not a pussy," I said. Then, as if to no one in particular, or
maybe to myself, I said something else, something loud and strong that felt like
music swishing around in my empty innards. I said, "Jarheads."
The inside part of the Snow Queen was dark, and I realized it was still early
morning. I sat on the picnic table for a few minutes and waited. Then I saw
Werner moving around inside so I rapped on the little glass window. When he slid
it open, a blast of cool, greasy air blew my hair back. "Not yet
open," he said. "Two hours more."
"A hamburger," I said. "And small fries and a small root
beer." I held out my two dollars.
Werner looked at me, and his brow did a funny quivering thing. He shut the
window and disappeared into the kitchen. I didn't know if he was going to come
back or not. I sat on the table again and waited. Werner came back after a long
time. He opened the window and handed me a tray loaded down with the
three-dollar Big Bargain. He accepted my two. "You look hungry," he
said. There was a rack of Swiss chocolates in the window. Werner liked that he
was from Switzerland and not from here. He took a triangular Toblerone chocolate
bar from the rack and put it on my tray.
I thanked him. He nodded and slid the window shut. He smiled again through
the glass. Again he nodded. He opened the window. "I forgot
something?" he asked.
I shook my head.
Werner reached his arm through the window and gently pushed me back from the
counter. He was still smiling. "You're welcome already," he said.