Animal is leaning against his man-eating, souped-up old black Caddie and ogling my daddy’s new burgundy Galaxie convertible. He’s got his Marlboros rolled up in his shirt sleeve so his arm looks muscled with Popeye biceps.
“So come mere,” he calls to me, slurry-worded. It’s a soft yell like he doesn’t want me to think he’s making any effort.
At first I pretend I don’t know he’s there. I just keep leafing through my Seventeen magazine, baking on the sunny bricks of our stoop. Then I yawn and stretch, lift my sunglasses. I don’t want to look hard up.
“Yeah, you,” he says. “Glamour girl. Come mere.”
I walk slowly over the grass, as slow as I can without stopping. The grass mashes fresh and green against the soles of my feet, so fresh I think my toes can smell how May-green and clean it is. As I stroll, I count the white painted stones bordering the driveway to keep my calm: one, two, three. I drop my magazine onto the lawn, casual as you please, as I slouch along toward Animal. “So look what the cat drug in,” I say to my long-legged self twinned in the funhouse mirrors of his sunglasses.
He grins. “Your daddy’s got goood taste,” he says. “Nice wheels.”
“Yeah.” I push my glasses back like a headband on the crown of my head and glance at the car. “For a dropout, you’re pretty smart,” I sass him. “At least about cars.” And he is, too. The Galaxie’s a peach. My dad fell in love with it at first sight across a crowded showroom just the way I felt the first time I saw Animal working on his car in the J.M. Fields’ parking lot. But I never expected Animal to show up at my house. I wonder if he’s here to check me out or the car.
I cross the street. The gravel crunches the soles of my feet, the tar hot but not gooey yet like it’ll get in July. I rub the deep red sheen of the hood. The metal’s sun-warmed, and I can catch a whiff of car wax. “Real cherry,” I say and glance over my shoulder at Animal, “not a scratch on it.”
He stares at me with his blinkered eyes, so I can’t tell what he’s thinking. But I do know what he’s thinking. All the girls in school say he loops the loop on a one-track mind. Must be one thrill of a roller-coaster ride, your stomach suspended in the air while you plummet, then soar to rejoin it. Animal’s pure danger. He’s chewing something—a match or a toothpick—in the corner of his mouth like he’s James Dean.
“You want to play chicken?” he asks.
“What’s chicken?” I stand up, check out my reflection in the burnished fender of the car before I turn and saunter toward Animal.
“I’ll show you.” He shambles along in those pointy boots that make him look two inches taller and thinner than he is, and he twists off my daddy’s gas cap. Then he takes the thing out of his mouth. It’s a stick match after all, and he zips it up the fly of his Levis, flicks it at the Galaxie gas tank’s open mouth. The match disappears in the tank with a little hiss.
“Oh, shucks,” Animal says, “it went out.”
“Jesus, Animal. You asshole. My dad catches you, he’ll…” I look back at the picture window, hoping Dad isn’t there watching and hoping he is, too. But the window is as sun-blind as Animal’s mirror glasses. “I don’t think you’d better do that.”
Animal grins his jackal grin. His silver eyes wink sunlight like distress signals. “Chicken?” he asks. “Watch this, honey.” He removes another stick match from his breast pocket, flicks it lit on his thumbnail and tosses it in the fill tank in one arcing motion. This match, too, fizzles as it hits the gas.
“Shit,” I say. I know I should run screaming to the house, get Dad, call the police, but I can’t move. It’s as if Animal and me were two poles, pulling a high-wire taut, and we’re sending his dare back and forth on the tightrope between us like a one-legged bear with a parasol. But I’m not sure what the dare is, who’s daring who, calling whose bluff.
“Chicken?” Animal asks. “Chicken?” And he pulls another match slowly from his breast pocket, scrapes this one into flame on his front tooth.
“Jesus, Animal, you’re crazy,” I say. But I can’t take my eyes off him as he flicks this match expertly like the others, although this time I don’t hear the hiss, and the next thing I know, a great whoosh, a sound, a push, rushes over me as Animal comes roaring, knocking me away from the car, thumping me down onto my lawn with the green grass. And Animal falls heavily over me, screaming, “Holy mother of God.” And an earth-moving fireball explodes in the air, a fire geyser, a spray of sparks. “They always went out before,” Animal says. “They always went out before.”
I curl under his chest. The danger’s raining down all around us, and Animal’s arms and legs are opened over me like an umbrella.
The pumps at the gas station are old, red-shouldered with round faces. The numbers click into place as the gas gushes into the tank of Daddy’s new Galaxie. Animal’s hands, with their grease-pit grime, are smudging up the new red vinyl leatherette on the passenger side of the car, the car the insurance money bought. He leans into the car, smelling of oil and gasoline, smelling flammable. “So you want to play chicken again?” he asks me.
I shake my head. I want him to go away before my dad comes back from the cigarette machine in the station. “You are really gone goose.” I make like I’m going to roll the window up, but he presses the heel of his hand against the edge of glass.
“You look mighty cute in those short shorts,” he says and presses his index finger into the crease in my thigh where the tan line ends, revealing a white ribbon of skin when I sit and my shorts hitch up into my crotch. “Mighty cute,” he repeats.
I think I should slap his hand away, but his fingertip presses in like the cigarette lighter in the dash. His fingertip’s hot, and round, and small. It burns with a purpose that wisps my doubt into smoke, so I let it press. I hear the clunk as the automatic gas nozzle cuts off.
Animal doesn’t have his sunglasses on today, so I can look into his eyes for a minute. They’re a rich, fudgy brown. He grins, all teeth, at me, and as I pull my eyes away from his, I can feel the pressure of his index finger on my thigh gradually withdraw. It leaves a smeary egg-shaped thumbprint on my leg. I rub it into my skin with my thumb.
“Come mon,” he says. “What do you think? You want to watch Animal play chicken.”
I toss my hair. I know I’m flirting, but I can’t help myself. He looks so cute in his army-green jumpsuit with his name embroidered over his heart, not Animal, but his real name, Leo. “Haven’t you detonated your share of late model cars this year?” I ask, smart-mouthed. I flip down the visor mirror and primp a little for his benefit.
His grimy hands rest on the red leatherette interior again, just two inches away from my shoulder which tingles, bare, in my sleeveless poor-boy jersey. It’s crazy, but, dirty as they are with that grease and oil that looks permanently applied, his hands still make my stomach somersault. The dirt packs under his nails, into the creases between his fingers. Animal’s been working at the station since the fireball; it’s a term of his probation, so he can pay the fine and Daddy and the insurance company and who knows who else, probably Caesar and God, too.
All day, his hands blacken with car dirt and sometimes he’ll have little jags of grease zagging his face like black lightning. It looks so cool, it makes my toes curl. But when he goes out, his nails are sharp and clean again as quarter moons, his skin, its even polished brown. They must have some industrial strength soap in the service station, something atomic to blast it off. I grin at his hands like I’m understudying to be the village idiot. “Chicken? Chicken Little, the sky is falling,” I say. “You’re putting me on. You’re not going to play chicken again?”
“This is a different kind of chicken, April. This is more like racing. We go out to that stretch the other side of the throughway, about nine o’clock. Friday night. You come mon, mmm? Play chicken?”
That’s Animal—rebel without a pause. “I don’t know. Won’t that violate your probation?”
“Only if they catch me,” he says with a crooked, small smile, “and they won’t. So you come?”
I see my dad coming out of the station, glaring at Animal. I shake my head.
“Chicken?” Animal asks, and he pulls a chamois out of his pocket and starts rubbing off his smeary fingerprints. Then he slops a sopping squeegee onto the windshield, smears the suds around, so all I see is water and Animal over me running down the windshield in wavery lines, but I hear him say, “Good afternoon, Mr. MacKendry,” and make a motion like tipping a cap he isn’t wearing.
My dad ignores him, slams into the car, punches in the lighter and gropes his breast pocket for his Kools. He leans out the window and hollers at Animal, “Get the lead out, Mac. Some of us have appointments to keep—in this decade.”
Animal withdraws the nozzle slowly from the tank and points it at me like a gun. “Reach,” he says and grins.
I mirror his grin, feeling pent-up and powerful. An internal combustion engine.
“Smart-ass,” my dad mutters, stamping down on the accelerator harder than he needs to, peeling out of the pump bay.
I squirm, trying to catch a backwards glimpse of Animal. If this were a cartoon, he would be spinning like a pinwheel in the tailwind.
This is Animal’s chicken sport: two cars on a two-lane highway idle until they spot the headlights of an oncoming car. Then they peel out, really gunning it, going hell-for-leather, passing each other, taunting each other until the oncoming car’s bearing down on one or the other. Horns scream. It looks like a head-on until the daredevil car—hit-or-miss its rival car—cuts back into its own lane or swerves across the path of the oncoming car onto the opposite shoulder. Some friend of Animal’s named Bobby has got a stopwatch, and they’re trying to trim the danger zone to three seconds.
Dad let me take the Galaxie. I told him we were going to Kay’s Drugs for shakes. Sharla and I are sitting up high on the back of the backseat watching the show. “I think we should go home,” Sharla says. She’s twisting the fat green Day-Glo yarn that’s come untied from her pigtail. “I mean it’s one thing if they want to commit vehicular suicide, but involving innocent drivers. I mean, I’m sure there’s a law against that sort of thing.”
“Don’t be such a crybaby,” I snap, but I can’t be too mean because Sharla’s my ticket out of the house. She’s the only girlfriend my dad thinks is nice enough for me to be out with, and, even so, I’ve got a 10:30 curfew. It’s a miracle how parents always like best the kid in school the other kids like least. Sharla’s the baby chick in the high school pecking order. The other kids are always snickering about how she wears knee socks with her go-go boots, and does that goofy shimmy in the line dance at the Friday night school dances. When the boys make cracks about her nappy hair and those wormy yarns she wears, she says, “Chuck you, Farley” or “Who gives a G.D.” and, of course, that just makes everybody laugh harder. If Sharla made a date with destiny, it’d be to meet the nerd of paradise, Mr. High-water pants himself, white socks, zit city, and probably four-eyes, too.
“I think we should really go home,” Sharla says. “This looks like trouble waiting to happen.”
“Oh, grow up,” I say. Animal’s up next, and I can see he’s the local hero. The other guys hand him beers. He’s shooting one now. I hear the punch of the can opener in the side of the can, the hiss of the flip top. He downs the whole can straight up, and then some of the guys cheer him, slap his back.
“Why can’t they just drink beers like normal people?” Sharla asks.
“Don’t you know anything?” I sneer. “Shooting makes you drunker faster.”
“Drinking and driving don’t mix,” Sharla says. She tugs her hair yarn into a tight knot.
I slap the pleated canvas of the convertible. A driver’s manual with pigtails. “Just shut up, Sharla.”
When Animal lopes over to my dad’s Galaxie, his eyes are watery, his breath, beery. He cups his palm on my knee. “You girls enjoying the road show?” he asks.
Sharla stares at her lap. But I cross my legs like a pageant queen where I’m sitting up on the folded canvas. Just down the road, the man in the pickup truck is still hollering about the near miss. “You hoodlums. You’re going to kill somebody. I’m calling the cops.” Then he zips off in a spray of gravel, leaning on his horn. Animal doesn’t even flinch.
“You stick around, honey,” he says, squeezing my knee. “I’ll show you how a pro drives.”
“That guy’s going to call the po-lice,” Sharla says tight through her teeth. “I think we should go home now.”
Animal glances at Sharla and shrugs. His brown hair looks almost black in the dusky light. He tilts back on his boots, then slinks away to his idling car.
“Shit, Sharla, don’t ever embarrass me like that again. Animal knows what he’s doing. He’s been driving for three years now. He’s old enough to drink legal. Try to act like you’re not still in junior high.”
Sharla pouts, but I ignore her, because Animal’s in his car now, waiting. When the eyeball beams of the next car peep over the hill, he rips off to a start, laying rubber. But then it’s panic. A wail cuts through everything, and an unearthly blue light spirals over the road, making the hills, the people, the trees jump out of the darkness, then disappear. People are running everywhere, but the strobing light freeze-frames them as if time itself were one second off.
I freeze. “Cops,” someone hollers. Then everything jitters, harum-scarum. Brakes squeal. Sharla’s trying to crawl under the front seat. Then Animal’s arms are pulling me out of the car, dragging me down into the ditch. Brambles are biting my legs as we scramble into the woods. “Come mon,” he keeps saying, pulling my arm. It’s black and scratchy. I’m laughing and panting; then suddenly the sky empties again, and we’re doubled up under the silvery light of the moon.
When my chest stops hammering, I ask him, “Where are we?” But I can already see. We’re in a little cemetery. The stones hump up like shoulders in the moonlight. Animal’s pulling me down behind a white monument shaped like a rocket ship. Behind us, we hear thrashing in the woods. A finger of light pokes around in the darkness. Animal pulls my head down. “Hush,” he says. He pins me down beneath his shoulder, covers my face with his arm. I smell his yeasty smell and the earth and the grass and the shivery white light of the moon. I feel Animal’s arm muscles chink tight as a tow chain, slowly unkink as the thrashing moves off, and then it’s very still for a while. His chest stops thudding, slowing, easing, then it quickens again, harder, and he asks me in a low voice, “You ready to play chicken?”
“I got a 10:30 curfew,” I start to say, but he kisses the words back into my throat.
“Chicken?” he asks. His lips circle mine, and he nudges his tongue between my teeth.
When I can talk again, I answer, “No,” and relax into the green, soft smell of him, this night, this air.
“Chicken?’ he asks again, and his hand slides under my jersey, noses around the elastic ridge of my bra.
“No,” I say, but it might be a question—no? And I think of his smudge prints on Daddy’s red vinyl interior.
Snap, I feel the bra release, spill me into his hands. The loosed hook recoils, bites back into my armpit. His hand slides under the flappy cotton tent of my bra cup, pinches my nipple until it feels small and hard as a cherry pit.
“Chicken?” he asks.
But the “yes” I want to say lodges in my throat as his mouth clamps down on mine, his tongue slithers over my lips.
Then his hand starts to slide. I don’t want to even guess where it’s heading. I hear the snap on my shorts pop.
“Chicken?” he asks.
“Hell, yes,” I say and sit upright, pushing him off me. And I’m running I don’t care where like a headless chicken. My eyes see bleary like a rainy windshield. I’m crashing into the woods. My bra straps slide down from my sleeve holes, cut into my arms. My bra’s pointing out like two beaks beneath my jigging breasts like I’m some midway freak, Geeka, the Four-breasted Chicken Woman.
I hack my way through the bushes, Animal thrashing somewhere behind me, calling my name. The darkness goes bleary. Then I realize my face is wet, I’m crying. My legs feel red and raw as bloodshot eyes. I break out into the light and try to crawl up the bank. But I keep sinking back into the ditch. I can’t hang onto anything. Finally, my body scrambles up. Sand in my sneakers. Grit in my thighs. Raised red scratches crosshatch my legs. My thighs look like a road map. I scuff my way up to the shoulder. But the Galaxie’s gone. Just gone.
There’s no car at all. I sit on the shoulder and cry like I’ve never cried before. There’s no bottom to it. When Animal comes up on me, I’m blubbering, “My father’s going to kill me, kill me.”
Animal’s hands drop onto my shoulder, hold me. That makes me cry more. He stares at my face. His looks like it’s dissolving. I don’t know if it’s my tears or his face trying to latch onto an expression. He hugs me into his jacket. The shudders in my chest shake me with longer distances between them. Animal hushes me, raises me, wipes my face with his bandanna, a little spittle. He slides the bra straps back up my arm, helps me hook the back. Then he just holds me, calls me “little girl” and “baby” until a car cruises up, black and shark-like, almost silent. It fins out of the darkness, headlights out. A voice leans into the night, “That you, Animal?”
“It’s cool. It’s Bobby,” he says to me. We crawl into Animal’s car, Bobby driving by the pale green dashboard light. Bobby doesn’t say anything except, “Jeez, Animal, jailbait. They could get you for statutory.” But Animal doesn’t answer him, and I lean into his shoulder. It’s spooky quiet in the car with its stingy light. It’s magic. I tilt my face up to Animal so he can kiss me. He pecks my cheek.
They drop me off a block from my house.
I’m grounded for two months. Sharla drove the car home on her learner’s permit after dark. “It’s against the law,” my dad keeps repeating as if repetition will make the law more urgent like driving after dark was premeditated murder.
Sharla and I whisper on the phone. She didn’t tell Daddy about Animal, although I think my dad suspects. Animal didn’t get caught violating his probation, because Bobby squealed off in his car. The cop didn’t even get the license number. Sharla’s grounded, too, but it isn’t like she had much of a social life anyway—not like me with Animal now we’ve got something going. I just wish I could see him again.
I feel caged at night. My thoughts keep reaching out to him. I bet he’s wondering about me, wondering when I’ll get out of the Big House again. When I toss sleepless on the verge of nodding off, I play chicken with my dreams, letting go, imagining I let him pop the snap on the waistband, let him curl those dark dirty fingers beneath the elastic of my underpants. I imagine he’s thinking of me, too, when my daddy pulls into the gas station in the Galaxie with its red interior, its bleach-white sidewall tires. I know he must be worried about me, but he wouldn’t dare to call me.
When Daddy explained to me that he and Mom were getting the divorce, I asked him, “Don’t you love her?” He said, “It’s like being right-handed and wearing pants with the pocket on the left side. We just don’t fit anymore.” That’s how I feel about Animal now, like I’m reaching for him, wanting to slip inside. But he’s just not there. I write his name, Leo, all over the cover of my loose-leaf notebook, Leo in cursive, embroidered over the heart.
My dad told me he calls Animal “J.D.” now, right to his face, says, “Check the oil, J.D.” He told me this proudly at dinner, but I just mashed my fork into the potato buds and pretended I didn’t give one hot damn.
My dad must have talked to Sharla’s parents about our punishment, because we get ungrounded the same day. Neither of us is allowed to drive, and our curfew will be 9:30 now. Indefinitely—which means they’ll be tracking our every misstep until we’re eligible for social security.
Still, on the day we’re paroled, I manage to talk Sharla into walking over the bridge with me to Jumpin’ Jack’s in Scotia. She balks at hitchhiking though.
The bridge is long, and the cars roar by with guys yelling gross-outs out the windows over the flash-by blare of their radios. Sharla’s complaining the whole way, “I don’t know why you want to go to Jumpin’ Jack’s; that’s where all the greasers and hoods hang out.” Duh.
Yadada, yadada, her voice goes on until it starts to hurt like the blister puckering up between my thonged toes. It’s hot. The sun is a late August, mean bloody sun of a bitch, and now Sharla’s whining, “Let’s turn back. We can eat at Mc Donald’s. I don’t feel so good. I think I’m getting the curse. I got cramps.”
My shirt glues to the small of my back with sweat. “Oh, shut up, Sharla, you chickenshit.”
And she pouts, but at least she shuts up. I wish I could ditch her. She looks like such a baby in her Lady Bug flower print short set with that damn Peter Pan collar, that orange mini-purse banging its chain against her hip. I could slap her, but instead I rub a pasty Yardley Slicker over my mouth and smack my lips nastily at her.
“Your dad would kill you if he saw you with that lipstick on,” Sharla says. “That white stuff makes you look slutty or dead.”
“So go French-kiss a corpse,” I say and purse my lips at her.
She mutters something, but I ignore her and just follow my feet slapping over the hot sidewalk. I can bear anything, Sharla’s whining, the blister between my toes, the dull flap of my flip-flops, the car exhaust, this endless bridge, I can bear it all just thinking of Animal’s strong arms around me, his voice calling me his little girl.
As we near Jumpin’ Jack’s, I can smell the fry oil, the green, mossy smell of the river. The music from the loudspeakers rattles louder than the cars as we near, and I feel lucky because “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is cranking out. It’s got to be a good sign.
My toes kick the stones in the dusty parking lot. Sharla collapses on one of the picnic table benches. She arranges her elbows carefully. The table’s gummy with ketchup, spilt Cokes, and humpy with wads of A.B.C. Juicy Fruit. My fingers trace some initials carved in the wood: j.w. + t.d. tlf. I don’t even know Animal’s last name. I think it’s Italian. Santoro or Sabatini.
I don’t look for him right away. I don’t want to look too desperate. Bodies are lolling on car hoods. People are laughing. “Summer in the City” rattles the loudspeakers. Waitresses flit among the cars. My eyes are jumpy, but I try to keep cool and still.
When the waitress in her red and white aproned minidress pauses for our order, Sharla orders a vanilla Coke. I order a cherry Coke, but, sipping it, I can barely taste it. I only feel it, icy cool and syrupy slipping into my stomach. Only after I sip my Coke do I let myself glance around the lot; only then do I spot Animal’s car. When I see Animal, it feels like all the Coke’s fizzed up into the back of my throat.
“You okay?” Sharla asks.
I can’t answer her. She looks over my shoulder and spots Animal, then says, “Well, there’s Junior Jailbird himself.”
“Oh shut up, Sharla.” I know I shouldn’t talk to her that way, but it’s tough not to be cruel when you know you can get away with it. Sharla’s desperate. I’m her only friend.
“I forgot,” Sharla says, “you think he’s a regular pillar of the community. The community dump, maybe.” She snorts at her own lame joke.
“Gee, Sharla, why don’t you try out for Laugh In?” I’m so unsteady, I can’t hold my straw, so I toy with the wrinkled snakeskin of the straw wrapper, thinking how Sharla has no flair, no appreciation for danger. Shit, in seventh-grade Health class, she passed out when they ran the annual film on menstruation, and it was animated, a damn cartoon. Disney butterflies and color charts. I stare into my Coke cup. “Is he coming over here?” I ask.
“No,” Sharla says. And I can tell she’s miffed, because she reties her yarn bow so tight and crisp, I think her pigtail might strangle.
“Is he looking over here?” I swirl my straw in the Coke.
“No,” she says.
“Well, what’s he doing?” I ask.
Sharla sighs, then answers, “He’s just hanging out with his J.D. friends.”
I’m embarrassed to be here with Sharla. When Animal sees me, he’ll notice her in her school girl clothes. She must look like a baby to Animal, an infant, a newborn. He’ll probably point at her and laugh like the boys at school do.
The air feels greasy. The backs of my thighs stick, peel from the bench as I lift them and pivot on my short shorts so I can see him. I stare. I can feel my jaw slack like a flycatcher. I can’t help it. This fat blonde is hanging all over Animal. Her skin’s puckering up in little diamonds through her textured stockings. Her skirt’s so tight and short, it looks like a tube, and her stocking tops hang beneath the hem in scallops. Her hair’s white-blonde and fuzzy like cotton candy. She looks used up and old. She’s got to be at least twenty, maybe twenty-one.
“What a slut,” Sharla mumbles to her fizzy Coke.
The blonde returns my stare with her black, bat-wing eyeliner eyes. “Hey, take a picture,” she hollers. “It’ll last longer.”
And the heads all turn, Animal’s, too. I hear his voice, “Virgin…jailbait…pure cherry.” Someone points. Then they’re laughing.
I stare into my watery Coke. My face flushes, flooded like a thermometer with hot mercury.
“Just ignore them,” Sharla says. And I realize that Sharla’s a professional when it comes to humiliation. She’s got on-the-job experience, so I take her advice, ignore them. But the blonde’s bearing down on us with Bobby in tow.
Bobby leans over Sharla and fingers her collar button. “You little girly-girls need a ride home? A long slow ride home?” The blonde snickers.
“Not with greasers like you,” Sharla says, slapping Bobby’s hand away.
The blonde’s moonface looms white and round above the lip of my Coke cup. “What’s the matter with your friend?” she asks Sharla. “Is da widdle girly-wirly homesick? Maybe she’s just wuv-sick?”
My eyes burn. Sharla stands up, yanks me up beside her, starts leading me away. “Back off, you cheap cosmetic counter whore,” she says. To my amazement, the blonde stumbles back a step.
Inside, by the order window, Sharla calls a cab on the pay phone. I crumple sandpaper napkins into my eyes, watching Sharla’s yarn bows glow in the fluorescent lights as she crackles off our address to the dispatcher. I don’t even raise my eyes to see if Animal is still out there. I’m too embarrassed. I feel like I’ve been caught holding my mother’s hand.
While we wait for the taxi, I try to explain to Sharla. “I thought Animal would come and help me. I mean I thought when Bobby and that girl came over, I thought Animal would… He kissed me.”
Sharla shakes her head so vigorously she looks like one of those dogs with a spring-bobbing head some people stick in the rear windows of their cars. “You don’t get it, do you? Animal is a loser. LOSER. And user. He’s a loser-user.”
I shake my head, but Sharla’s take seems possible. Exploding cars, graveyard gropes, police sirens, and what gets through to me? A little indifference.
The taxi beeps. Jumpin’ Jack’s rolls away. The bridge seems to have shrunk. We’re rolling along through the stockade area, past the State Street arcade, past Proctor’s and The Planter’s Peanut stand, cutting through Central Park and the neat neighborhoods holding up their old shade trees like umbrellas. Sharla orders the driver to stop at Kay’s Drug on Union Street. She pays him, even tips him.
“Come on.” She turns to me, impatient. “Let’s get some ice cream sodas. I’m dying of thirst.”
“Jeez, Sharla,” I say, unable to suppress the admiration in my voice, “where did you learn how to call a cab?”
She squinches the corner of her mouth, tosses her yarn bows. “Experience.” She bangs ahead of me through the drugstore door, her little orange patent vinyl shoulder bag swinging on its chain. It doesn’t look so stupid anymore. We go inside, spin around on a couple of stools until the waitress yells at us to stop. It’s air-conditioned. The sodas foam. And we’ve still got an hour to curfew.
“Thanks, Sharla,” I say and mean it.
Sharla shrugs. It’s safe here. My thoughts feel as definite and white as the three stones anchoring the driveway. I think of my dad sitting in the recliner at home, leafing through Life Magazine. For a moment, I wish I could be like Sharla, steer through life with a driver’s manual in my right hand. But does she obey the rules because they’re in the book, or because she’s decided they’re right? Staring right at the waitress, I give my stool another spin. Safety has its charms, but I think I’ve got a taste for danger’s long, strange arms.
“Hey, kid, stop it,” the waitress hollers.
I grin dizzily. Sharla blows a straw wrapper at me. Chicken, I think, and dodge it.