Chapter 1

I decided to wait until New Year’s Day to post this, so you could get your party on first and then read through it while you’re recovering, maybe. Nice, long chapter to hunker down with…

A few notes and caveats: this is a kid talking, so the tense changes and whatnot are intentional. As are the “bird walks.” That’s a phrase I heard someone use during a lecture to describe how she often wandered off topic. So I stole it. And Colton does it. A lot.

I’m never finished with anything I write, but this chapter needs to go up so I can move on to the next. Hope you enjoy the read!

So I slam Danny down face first on the desk, bring his arm way up his back and sort of fall on top of him to keep the other kids away.

They were ready to tear him apart, the rest of the kids in Miss Taylor’s class. I had to really hunker down to keep my balance, they were yanking on me so hard.

And even as I’m trying to save his goddamned life, the fool keeps trying to kick me in my junk and hissing, “You’re dead! You hear me? You’re fuckin’ dead!”

Which of course just makes Lakesha, this big black girl who sort of instigated the whole thing, get all up in his face yelling, “He dead? Mutha fukka who down, yo?”

And Danny, who just never knows when to shut the fuck up, hisses, “Shut up! Dumb black bitch!

But I shoved his face back down and told her, “Just go check on the teacher, wouldja? See if she’s still down.”

And for once, Lakesha actually did what somebody asked her to do. She didn’t give me any lip at all, she just went running to check on the teacher he’d just popped in the jaw. I think mostly because that’s where the real action was by that time. There were all kinds of people crowded around her by then. News travels fast at DeGrazia. Bad news, especially.

So I eased up on Danny’s arm a little bit and said, “What the fuck, man?”

And he starts kicking and struggling again and yells, “She come up behind me!”

And man, that made all the other kids standing around us start screaming and trying to get at him again, until I barked, “Hey! I got this! Go find security or somethin’ for Chrissake!”

That gave them something else to live for, I guess, because most of them went rushing away as soon as I said it. One girl managed to slap him upside the head real hard, though, on her way past. Left her hand print on his cheek, she hit him so hard.

And I said, “You’re lucky I got here first, dumb ass.”

So Danny starts huffing and puffing like a damned locomotive, and screams, “I didn’t know it was her!

“That’s not gonna cut it with the cops, pal.”

So he gives me, “I didn’t know it was her,” for the second time. And starts sort of sniveling then. Which made me feel kind of bad.

I mean, he was a scrawny little hatchet-faced sucker, Danny. Biggest things on him were his Adam’s apple, ears and feet. And mouth, I guess, too. Which was always getting him into trouble.

In teacher “code,” he was what they call a “FLK.” “Funny Looking Kid.” And I know how bad that sounds, but it’s almost a term of endearment with teachers.

Means there’s just something odd about a kid, physically or some other way you can’t always even put your finger on. They keep an eye on those kids. Sort of dote on them a lot, knowing the other kids are going to harass the shit out of them every chance they get.

And kids messed with Danny all day long. Which is why I tried not to hurt him too bad when I grabbed him.

He gave them plenty of reason to mess with him, though, Danny. For instance, as if he wasn’t already weird enough, last summer he went and tattooed some damned swastikas on his knuckles and all kinds of White Power slogans up his arms. Awful, scratchy looking tats that looked like he’d done them himself, maybe.

I wouldn’t put it past him. He’s probably sort of a cutter or something anyway. His arms are all scratched up all the time. But the scratches are kind of straight, you know? Like you’d make with a razor or X-Acto or something. I could easily see him doing that.

But mostly, I think he was just trying to fit in with the tough white kids at our school so maybe they’d protect him. There were only a few of us white kids, period, at DeGrazia. But Danny tried to hang with the Aryan brothers who would fuck you up if you messed with them. Except they wound up fucking him up, more than anyone else.

He embarrassed them. I mean, they were trying to be all badass, trying to represent. Cause let’s face it, being a minority really does suck. Especially when you’re usually the people that run shit. And when you’re also surrounded by people who are just loving being able to fuck with you for a change.

But every time it was about to go down and the white swarms were circling the brown swarms out on the soccer field like little tornadoes gathering up speed and power for the Big Race War, Daniel would blurt out something so ridiculous that all the brown kids would just bust a gut and start clowning on the white kids real hard.

And then they’d kick Danny’s ass, the white kids. For turning the whole thing into some kind of Marx Brothers movie.

So he didn’t have anybody, Danny. And now he was about to be in the worst trouble of his life, probably. Although, he was kind of used to trouble by then. It followed him around. Or he chased after it, more like.

So I let up a little and said, “You gonna calm down now or what?”

He looked sort of pitiful when he craned his pencil neck to look up at me. Like a puppy used to being whipped. Which, again, is pretty much exactly what he was.

And I would’ve let him up but all these security guards and a couple of cops came rushing in and shoved me out of the way. Man, they were pissed — veins bulging. Eyes popping. He’d hit a teacher. On their watch. I felt for that skinny little son of a bitch. I did. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help myself.

And then the head security guy, Bobby, this black guy that had to be about 11 feet tall and damned near as wide gave me a pat on the back and said, “Not just another pretty face, huh?”

Shut up, man,” I told him. But he just gave me that smarmy smile.

Bobby’s kind of cool, actually. The kids’ll actually go to him for help. Or help him if he asks — that’s rare, believe me. At our school, especially. Any kind of cooperation with the “law” is usually strictly “verboten” for DeGrazia kids. It’s that kind of population. I’ll explain later.

But Bobby would speak up for you. He had genuine love for us. And he loved to mess with us, too. Like, he was always telling people I looked like “Johnny Depp back when he was hot shit.”

Because he knew the girls would jump in and argue about which singer or actor or model I really looked like. Somebody from our time, not some “old” dude.

He also likes to tease me because he hears about me all day long. From girls who know we talk sometimes. Wanting to find out who I’m with, who I like, all that kind of shit.

I’m sort of good looking, okay? Some chick stopped me in the mall once, wanting me to call her office about doing some modeling or something. Couldn’t have been less interested, me. But that shit happens to me a lot, actually. People notice me. Since I was a little kid, I’ve got the double takes. The little smiles from the girls passing by.

And just so you know, it gets on my nerves that all anybody cares about when they meet me is how I look. You don’t earn “looks.” It’s just the luck of the draw, right? Stupid that it means so much. Like me for how I am, how I treat you or if I do something worth being liked for. Not just cause I scored some good genes.

Anyway, to change the subject, I said, “You call an ambulance?”

“Front office did,” Bobby said. “What the hell happened?

I looked over toward the crowd around Miss Taylor’s desk. Couldn’t see her, there were so many people. I thought they should move back and let her breathe.

But I just said, “Him and Lakesha were yelling back and forth like always. And then when Danny sorta leapt up out of his seat, Miss Taylor ran over’n’, POW! Down she went.”

Bobby shook his head and said, “Oh, Lord, now his whole fam’ly’ll be down there raisin’ hell. You gon’ have to come down there, too.”

“Yeah, I know. My PO’s gonna have a fit.”

“But you were lookin’ out for your teacher.”

“I’m gonna call her even so. So she hears my side first.”

There was a big racket then, all of a sudden. Danny screaming bloody murder out in the hallway somewhere. Calling the cops and guards all kinds of crazy names — “Effin’ wetback bastard,” was one I heard.

And Bobby said, “Called somebody a prairie nigger last week — big old Indian girl. She hit him so hard he flew up in the air. That’s where he got that big old lump in the back of his head. Hittin’ the concrete.”

Prairie nigger?”

“Yeah, that’s one you don’t hear every day, right?” Bobby said, sort of laughing. “But I bet them rednecks he lives with have some kinda name for everything. Lemme git on down there’n’ get the damned paperwork goin’. Peace!”

I was going to go see about Miss Taylor when Mrs. Williams came in yelling, “I wanna see some butts in seats up in here! Let’s go!”

She’s one of those Old School black teachers who comes in wearing a Sunday “go to meeting” suit and killer heels everyday still. Her husband’s a preacher at a church not far from school and she believes God wants women to dress like that.

I’m serious. I heard her tell one of the girls that a woman’s role in life was to be “pleasing in appearance to honor her husband.” I’m not sure how wearing a suit and dominatrix heels even in the Arizona summertime accomplishes that.

But she’s got a stare the Devil Himself wouldn’t fuck with. And when she dropped this huge atlas on the floor, horizontally and from ‘way high up so that it sounded like a gun going off, all the kids started running and shoving each other out of the way. Cause where they live, you hear that sound, you run like hell and ask questions later.

And Lakesha said, “Damn, Miss! Thought somebody was shootin’ up in here!”

To which Mrs. Williams just said, “Cuss at me one more time,” with that stare behind it.

And I was surprised to see Lakesha frown all up and go, “I ain’t cussin’ at you,” like she forgot who she was talking to.

But Miss Williams put her hands on her hips and Lakesha rolled her eyes but sat down anyway. And this one other security guard, Tommy, a white dude with one of those serious Army crew cuts, walked over to her and said, “Come cuss at the cops now. Let’s roll!”

Which started Lakesha whining, “I din’ even do nothin’!”

“You was arguin’ wit’ ‘im,” this guy Jamal said. He was sitting right behind her, or trying to. His legs were so long he had to stretch them out and on either side of the seat she was sitting in to fit behind that desk. Mad baller, Jamal. Colleges were after him and everything. But he couldn’t read a comic book, this guy. So he wasn’t going anywhere, probably. Really sad, right?

Lakesha kicked his right foot with hers and said, “You hear him call me a go-rilla while you was listenin’ so hard?”

“Well, he call it like he see it,” Jamal said, winking at this other guy next to him.

And the rest of the class started laughing their asses off. And when Lakesha got all puffed up like always, Tommy was right there to grab her because he knew her MO by then.

She’s sort of like a black Danny. I mean, she’s big and dark and loud and none of the other black girls want to hang with her and all the black boys make fun of her “tree stump legs” and things like that.

You wouldn’t think her own people would be so mean to her, but sometimes I think we’re all meaner to our own if they’re different in some way. Different in a way that makes us uncomfortable, I mean. Physically or otherwise.

But anyway, she goes off all the time just like Danny. And also, she looks for kids like Danny to pick on to make herself feel better. That’s another stupid thing we all do. Instead of being kinder to people who get messed with same as we do, we mess with them trying to fit in with the people who make us feel like shit every chance they get. I know why, but it’s still stupid.

So Jamal goes, “Good thang ‘e carried her fat ass outta here! Cause I’ll slap the black off that bitch.”

And Miss Williams stared at him and said, “Oh, we gon’ have to talk, you and me, this Sunday. You’n’ me and your Mama.”

Jamal snorted, but he didn’t talk back. She knew them like family, all the kids. Even the ones that weren’t black. She grew up right in the same neighborhood. Saw them all the time after school and on weekends. And had done a lot of solids for people, too. Her and her husband and their church had, actually.

So the kids knew the meanness was her way of preparing them for the world outside the neighborhood. The world where people thought they were a bunch of thugs headed straight from high school to prison. Or, in the case of the girls, pregnancy and welfare. Which really was pretty much what happened. I hate to say it, but it’s true.

That’s another thing she didn’t shy away from saying out loud, Williams. That the “world has already written your obit.” That’s truly how they looked at us DeGrazia kids. Of all colors, white included. Like we were all going to be dead soon and not worth investing in.

But we sort of brought it on ourselves, I have to be honest. Especially those of us who lived nearby — I didn’t, but I got lumped in with the others, too. And I mean, if you heard about a shooting or something else crazy happening in Tucson, it was usually there or near there.

In fact, I was surprised the police had shown up that fast that day, because even the cops were scared of that neighborhood. And would say so, out loud, too.

So she was just being real. And I liked her for it. But I disobeyed her order to put my butt in a seat. I wanted to finally go see about Ms. Taylor myself.

Because she was a little bitty thing. Smaller than a lot of the girls in her class, even. And really delicate looking — pretty, too. Big blue anime eyes and really fine features. Fine like some artist had sculpted them. She could’ve been a model or something instead of a teacher. Easily.

Only she liked teaching. In fact, she was the one teacher almost all the kids really liked. The only one other than Williams who really liked us. I mean really liked and cared about us.

Oh, we can tell. Don’t think we can’t. Half the day, I sat there in classes where teachers were just sort of tolerating us. Or doing their “job,” not really paying attention to whether we were learning or not.

And then there were the ones who didn’t even try anymore. Either real old ones who’d given up or real young ones who were just trying to make it to the end of the year so they’d have a big enough nest egg to quit and look for anything else they could find.

It’s tough now, being a teacher. I’ll give them that. Even if they did try, a lot of us wouldn’t. Schools like they are right now aren’t right for the kids of today. And I don’t know when or if they’ll catch on to that, the people who run things. It would take a total overhaul, even if they did. And I don’t know what that would look like. So I know the older folks don’t.

That’s where all the discipline issues come from. Kids used to sort of just sit there all docile, waiting for the bell to ring, I guess. But now, it’s open warfare in some classes. I’m talking chairs flying and kids walking on desks and shit. It’s nuts.

But you can’t tell some kid who’s making all kinds of money out slinging dope and shit after school to sit down and read Huckleberry Finn, right? Even if the kid in it is really kind of like us, in a way. He really is. Down to how he talks.

This is the kind of thing Miss Taylor would tell you. And you’d believe it, coming from her. She just made you want to believe it. Because she believed in you so much. So hard. You can feel her just willing you to open up and give it a try. And you don’t want to break her heart, so you do it. That’s the kind of teacher she is.

So when she dropped like a rock and laid there not moving a muscle all the girls screamed and ran over to protect her. And all the boys would’ve beat Danny to a pulp if I hadn’t done a Superman dive across my desk to throw his dumb ass down first.

I just exploded. I can’t stand even the thought of some guy hitting a woman because I used to see it at home. So he chose the wrong class to make that mistake in for sure, for two reasons.

It was hard to get to her with all those people crowded around, but I’m real tall, so I could see her sitting at her desk looking a little bit dazed but mostly like herself again.

The school nurse had wiped the blood off her face and given her one of those ice pack things to keep on her cheek. You could see it was going to turn a real ugly color where he’d hit her. But her nose was okay. I’d been scared that he might’ve broken her little perfect, pointy nose, but the bruise was under her eye.

Somebody shoved up next to me as I was standing there trying to decide whether to get up closer or just stay there where I was. It was this one teacher who had to be about 80-years-old. Miss Levine was her name.

I didn’t even have to look to know who it was because she has this musky smell. Combination of some kind of loud perfume and different body odors mixed together. I bet everybody in that school could identify her the same way.

She looked up at me and said, “You’re the one who got hold of him,” in that wobbly voice of hers. Her whole body trembles.

I said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“What’s your name again?”

I didn’t know what the “again” was about, but I said, “Colton. Colton James.”

She said, “One of my sophomores,” like she remembered me.

But I said, “No, ma’am. I mean, I was supposed to be in your class, but you had that big operation, so…”

She squinted like she was trying to place me anyway. And then she said, “That face, I would remember,” in this sort of playful way.

Not flirty or anything, just in that teasing way that old women will do sometimes. But that’s what I mean. Even women her age say things like that to me. It’s ridiculous.

And then she said, “Well, we owe you a debt of gratitude, dear. And I will say so, if asked.”

That’s when I noticed she had sort of milky eyes, Levine, like she was going blind or something, too. I couldn’t figure out why she was still teaching. Maybe she didn’t have any savings or something. After that big operation and all.

But it seemed like a lot of teachers were too broke to retire. There was a sub that was all bent over like a question mark. She could barely walk, that one. But when a kid asked her why she was still working she told us that after she retired, she’d discovered she couldn’t live on whatever little pension she had without working at least part time. And the schools needed subs so bad they actually took her on.

Anyway, I said, “Thanks,” to be polite to Levine. I didn’t think I’d get into any real trouble, but the offer was nice.

And Levine said, “He should never have been in a regular classroom! It’s this inclusion nonsense. There’ll be a lot more of this, mark my words. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen!”

I’d heard that a thousand times. All the teachers blamed everything on kids like Danny now. Having so many of them in their classes. All except Miss Taylor. Which is why she had so many.

So I pushed up a little closer to the desk trying to get away from her and closer to Miss Taylor for a better look.

And when she saw me, she went, “You can fly!

And she smiled, too, when she said it. Which probably hurt. But she didn’t wince or anything. And everybody sort of looked around, trying to see who she was talking to.

So I shrugged and said, “I guess so.”

“Are you all right?”

“Me?”

“Quite a struggle!”

She talked like they write in the books we read in her class. Very “proper,” as my family would put it. Masterpiece Theater lingo. Just without the British accent.

I said, “Yeah, well…I just…I wanted to see how you were doing.”

She nodded and shrugged and said, “No real harm done. Thanks to you.”

I loved how spunky she was. But then like I said, the kids never messed with her the way they did with a lot of other teachers. Even before they knew how good she’d be.

Normally they tore down the younger ones bit by bit, the way a cat toys with whatever little animal it’s hunted down. Picking pieces off until it finally dies.

It was partly the prettiness that made them cut her some slack from jump. That part I understood personally. But she was also sort of different from the other younger teachers we generally got.

Not suburban or college girlish like the ones they usually destroyed. Hippieish. Real long blond hair down to her butt, Teva sandals, dangly “ethnic” earrings. And she wore those blouses and skirts from India all the time. Jeans.

There weren’t a whole lot of hippies in that neighborhood. A few hipsters, maybe. A handful. So she threw them off their game. I mean, she walked in the first day like she owned the joint.

Met us at the door, smiling all proud. Of us, not herself. Learned our names in one day and would call us by them in the hallway or out in the parking lot and all. Loved to tease us, too. Like old friends she’d known and loved her whole life. Not all corny like a lot of the other teachers, either. She said stuff that was actually funny. And very observant, too.

Got to where a lot of the girls would go to her room at lunch time to sit and talk. And braid her hair. They loved that hair, boy. We never knew what kind of crazy style her hair’d be in by the end of the day.

Sometimes it was nice, though. How they’d fixed it. You could feel the love that went into all that work. I think it was their way of paying her back for loving them. So she always left it however they’d fixed it. Crazy woman.

BTW, her first name was Wyatt, right? Another reason to like her. Or another reason I did. I’d expected her to be a dude when I saw her name on my schedule, but it turned out to be this really good-looking woman, instead. You don’t get many pleasant surprises at DeGrazia. So she was special to me in a lot of ways.

“I’ve submitted a narrative online,” she told me. “So LeeAnn knows exactly what happened.”

LeeAnn’s my PO. And I was stunned that Taylor had even thought of her. I had some sort of special file that the court system required teachers to use to keep track of my attendance and “incidents” and whatnot. And she’d actually stopped to do that, in the middle of all the crazy.

So I said, “Thanks. I’m gonna call her, too, though.”

“That’s probably the prudent thing to do. Would you like a copy for your records?”

I didn’t get to answer because the principal and the vice principal started pushing through looking all frantic. And the bell rang, too, which for me meant it was the end of the day. I was only taking three classes I still needed to graduate with enough credits. I’d taken all the required ones already. So I got out close to noon, which was pretty sweet.

And as I was grabbing my stuff off my desk, this cop ambles over and says, “Gonna need you to come on down to the office for a minute, tough guy.”

I said, “Thought so.”

And he smirked and said, “Yeah, well, they’re gonna say you broke his back or somethin’, his parents. So they can sue somebody.”

“They sue me they’ll be real disappointed.”

“Oh, it won’t be you. It’ll be the whole damned district they go after. They’re pros, them people. Workin’ all kinda scams.”

I nodded and said, “See you in a few” and loped on out of the room. I tried to look back at Taylor, but there was an even bigger crowd by then. Teachers on their prep period or whatever that’s called, that time they have to get a few grades recorded and all that.

This was sort of what they’d been waiting for, see. For one of “those kids” to go off on somebody. She’d taken one for the team. I could see the gleam in their eyes.

Maybe they’d sue, like Danny’s folks. Or get their union people after the district or something. The drama alone would keep them high for weeks. Kinda sad, but at least they’d be kind of lively for a while. Not walking around like the living dead as usual.

No kidding. Our teachers look like zombies shuffling in from the parking lot all glassy eyed every morning. Clutching their Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts coffee like their lives depended on it. You don’t even want to say “Good morning” to them or anything, because they look so miserable.

I took my time getting to the office because I felt bad for Danny. I was trying to figure out whether saying he’d hit her before he knew what he was doing would really make a difference. I was going to tell them that, regardless, I just wasn’t sure it would matter.

Because a teacher’d hit the floor. It’s like how when a cop gets killed, all the other cops go ape shit ’til they get their pound of flesh. It’d be like that for Danny, too. He was a goner.

And then they’d kick his ass in Juvie. Or wherever he wound up. He’d be a friggin’ punching bag in a place like that. And somebody’s bitch, pretty quick, too, probably. Which would break his little skinny ass once and for all probably. He couldn’t cope with that. No way.

I felt so bad all of a sudden that I stopped to talk to a couple of girls just for laughs. They gave me some lip, trying to get me to stop — it was second lunch, by then. And they’d wandered away from the crowd to sit on the concrete base of this big mural thing in one of the courtyards.

It was painted by some kids back in the 70s, I think to try and prove that the district was down with Mexican history or something. Big old Aztec warrior, done sort of street style — you know what I mean. Something you’d normally see on the side of a building. There’s one in the cafeteria and one in the gym, too. Not warriors, just the same kind of street thing.

If I’d been thinking, though, I would’ve taken a picture of them sitting there. We have some seriously beautiful women. I’m not lying. I swear that’s probably why the population keeps going up over that way. Beautiful brown people, man. So live, you know?

I mean, when the trust fund babies and whatnot from the white neighborhoods come over for games and stuff, they sort of wander over to our side of the field trying to hook up on the sly. Especially the girls.

It’s funny, actually. They look all nervous and shit, like they’re half afraid we’re going to rape them or something. But those eyes, right? Hawkin’ us like mad. They’ve got this little window of opportunity and they are determined to make the most of it. Cracks me the fuck up.

The guys just hang out by the food booths, hoping some hot Latina gives them a “green light” look. That doesn’t happen a lot, by the way. Our girls are kind of loyal to their own. I think they really feel they have an obligation not to give up on their guys the way the rest of the world has. So mostly, they smirk and keep going. It’s the guys who go right for the white bread.

Anyway, the girls I stopped to talk to were prime examples of what I’m talking about. You could take any one of them and put them on the cover of some magazine right now. Just as they were. All thick and real.

And sassy as hell, too. That’s also why I stopped. Because Zoraida gave me, “Oh, you don’t talk to nobody now, huh?”

That’s what some of them do, get all smart with you like that. Especially with me, because I’m such a mystery.

See, I don’t date girls my age. I know that sounds weird, but I just don’t have anything in common with your average teenager. You’ll understand that better soon. I have a good reason. Two reasons. One of which we’ll get into in a minute.

But anyway, I sort of blank out when most girls my age try to talk to me. Guys, too, actually. I sort of listen more to the tone of their voice than whatever the hell they’re saying. I can tell when to go “Uh huh” or “Really?” by the tone.

Every now and then I meet a girl who can hold my attention, but I know I’d just scare the shit out of them if we went out or anything. My life…well, it’s been tough even by DeGrazia standards. And then it just got weird. In a good way, though. You’ll see.

So cute as they were, our little “talk” didn’t last long. It went something like:

“I hear you saved the day today,” Zoraida said, when I walked over and leaned on the mural.

And her girl Nia, this black girl with a head full of those cork screw curls said, “You’re always doing that. Trying to protect that fool.”

I loved the eyes she gave me when she said that. Like she wasn’t really mad at me at all, but meant what she said, even so.

And then their friend — I didn’t know her name — said, “Somebody has to.”

So I said, “There you go.”

And the nameless one smiled all proud. Like she’d won.

So Zoraida said, “You just encouragin’ him to act up like that. Cause he knows you’re gonna step in if somebody goes after ‘im.”

“Probably,” I said.

She gave me a little smile and said, “Yeah, you don’t even hear me, though.”

I said, “I hear you.” Gave her a little smile, trying to look sincere. Or actually, just enjoying the view. God, she’s fine. Front, back…whichever way she comes at you, it’s ridiculous.

No, you don’t,” she said. “You don’t listen to nobody.”

And then Nia said, “Maybe one person.”

And the nameless one goes, “Oh, shit — that’s right! That theater teacher — the intern.”

“You really goin’ with her?” Zoraida asked me.

And I went, “Wow,” because that was a new one. Caught me completely off guard.

But at least they’d finally found someone I might actually have wanted to go with. And she was pretty cute, that intern. Too “sorority girl” for me, but not bad.

So I said, “I wish,” just to give them something to titter and talk about.

But Zoraida did not like that at all. She flashed those eyes at me and said, “Oh, so that’s what you like, huh?”

“What, college girls?”

You know what I mean.”

She meant white. And that was a problem. Cause I respected her men, too. And I felt like me messing with one of their women would cause all kinds of problems. Off campus, no problem. But in a pressure cooker like DeGrazia…you have to be careful.

Guys already didn’t like me because the women liked me so much. That’s the other reason I spoke of earlier. I have to tread carefully. So I steer clear of the girls, period. I joke around and whatnot, but I’ve got this rep now, for being secretive about my love life.

At first, they did the “gay” thing like they do with the singers and actors their girls like. They always try to say they’re gay, too. But then somebody saw me at a local event all hugged up on this woman — went around campus like wildfire, man.

It was fun, actually, hearing all the different ways they described the woman I’d been with. Upshot was she was “old enough to be his damned mother or something.” Which was kind of true. It didn’t last, by the way. She got all conflicted. They do that, sometimes. It’s tough, you know? People talk. Their women friends pick at them about it. And then they get all insecure.

So I finally said, “I know what you mean, but it’s not that. And you know it, too.”

She gave me a little smile and said, “I guess…” Sort of teasing me then.

And Nia said, “You need to protect his little sister,” with this interesting look on her face. And they all laughed when she said that, too.

So I said, “Danny’s sister?”

“Yeah! The fugly one.”

They laughed, but I didn’t, of course. In fact, I got sort of mad that they had.

So I just asked, “What’s goin’ on with her?”

“Ask around,” Nia said.

“I’m askin’ you,” I told her.

But even after I really sort of pressured them, all she finally told me was, “I’m surprised you don’t already know. I thought all the guys did.”

I really didn’t. And I was very disappointed in them for laughing at her, so I said, “I guess I’ll ask around then — gotta go to the office,” and gave them a little salute as I took off.

I didn’t have far to go. The English “wing” of our big old school was kind of close to the “Admin” building. We had whole buildings for each subject by then. The major ones, anyway.

So there was a whole building for “humanities” and another one for science and math. The vocational, fine arts and physical education classes were ‘way back in some of the older buildings so far from the rest of the campus that if you had to get from one of them to English or something you were almost always late. And of course, the teachers didn’t give a shit. They’d still mark you tardy.

They did all that construction when there were still a lot of Boomer babies coming in due to some sort of “de-segregation order” that the courts set up. At that time, there used to be these black activist types of people who would stage big marches and sit ins and stuff down at the district offices on board meeting nights. They had a lot of power. And they got some parents to sue the district over the inequality between the schools over our way and the ones over East.

This is back when people still gave a shit about all civil rights. So they won after it went ‘way up in the court system or something. They even got the school declared to be a “magnet,” where anybody could go without having to worry about boundaries.

And to entice some white kids to take the long bus ride over, they added some media courses and these real radio and TV stations that none of the other schools had. They even hired some local radio and TV people to teach there for a while. And people within a certain area near the school could actually tune in. It was a very big deal at first. A “noble experiment.”

But by the time I went back to school for good — long story — the population sort of dipped. White folks just weren’t having a lot of kids anymore, apparently. And then a lot of schools started losing the few white kids they had to “specialty” charters, schools that focused on science and technology and things like that, closer to home.

And the white folks who couldn’t or didn’t want to go that route started to raise a big stink about how their kids were being forced to go all the way across town “in this day and age,” meaning after we had a black president and all that.

So it was their turn to sue. And the white folks won that time. Because the world really had changed by then. They’d taken away all the “ethnic” studies classes and even a lot of the scholarships they used to have for children “of color” because parents thought that was discrimination against white people.

Only, there weren’t a whole lot of schools for their kids to go back to. The population drop meant the district had had to close a lot of neighborhood schools. And of course, the brown people kept on having kids as usual. So their neighborhoods still had lots of schools.

But even those ones weren’t maintained all that well. Like they quit painting the walls and even were slow about repairing the light fixtures, so the halls got all dingy and dark.

And it can’t be dark in a school like ours. I walked up on all kinds of crazy shit everyday in those hallways where the lights didn’t work. Not just teenagers doing what they do, making out and even screwing under the stairs and whatnot, but major drug activity and stuff like that.

Everyone knew where to go to get whatever they were looking for. And where not to go if you didn’t want to get something you weren’t looking for. And the dark halls were where it all went down.

And one of the people deeply involved in all that drug stuff bopped up to me as I was heading for the office. That’s Brian, this one sort of skater kid whose parents grew weed for the dispensaries in town. I’d worked for them a lot as a courier. Or I did before I got arrested.

I couldn’t wait to go back, though, because they paid me really good. And they were really sweet die-hard hippie types like Taylor. Treated me more like a relative than an employee.

I was also sort of interested in the business, because it was the future, that whole industry. And I thought it would be pretty amazing to make a legit living off of selling weed. Brian’s folks were too “counter culture” to think of it as an industry. And AZ had voted down the first attempt to legalize it, so they could be all altruistic for a little while longer.

Their customers were seriously sick, most of them, by the way. They weren’t into it just for the money, those two. They were like weed doctors, almost, those two.

And they liked me because I cared about that. Like, I’d hang out with the patients a little bit, after I handed over their orders. Make some small talk while they toked up or nibbled on something.

Now and then one of them would ask me for a favor like getting something down from a high shelf or opening some bottles or jars and leaving them a little bit loose so they could get into them later on.

I knew how to do some basic plumbing and whatnot, too, so I told them that in case they needed it. I didn’t mind losing a little time. And Brian’s folks didn’t care, either. Because people would call and thank them. And they got a rep for being more than just a couple of pot heads making a buck.

Anyway, their son Brian was heading my way smiling his loopy smile, so I slapped five with him and he said, “Had some WWF action today, huh?”

“Something like that.”

He leaned toward me and said, “Listen, I got a buncha Molly, man. Big EDM thing this weekend up in Phoenix.”

I raised both hands and said, “Can’t. Seriously. One trace’n’ it’s over for me.”

He gave me this sort of evil smile then and said, “Believe me, nobody’ll come near you. I promise.”

“I can’t do it, dude. I’m sorry.”

“Look, I’m tryin’a help you, homes! There’s people you can work with. For ‘way more than the fam was paying you. I got the hookup!”

He was always trying to talk like that. It didn’t suit him, though. So I gave him a look and said, “What are you doin’, Brian?”

He laughed and said, “You really interested?”

“No, I’m really thinkin’. Like you should be. They’ve got a good business, your parents. They’re good people.”

“They better get on board, too, dude,” he said. “If they wanna stay in business. This town is really changing. Little mom and pop deals like theirs? That shit’s over. You should talk to them. They’d love your crazy ass. With all the connects you have.”

I just smirked and said, “That’s what’s up, right?”

“What?”

“You talked me up. Told ’em a buncha shit about me.”

“It’s not shit. You’re in with the in crowd, man! They know who you know. Or they’d like to.”

“I gotta bounce, man. You’re ridiculous.”

He slapped me on the back and said, “I’ll hollah at you later, man. This conversation’s not over, okay?”

We did some sort of lame new handshake he’d come up with. I’ve learned how to hesitate a nano second long enough after each move to follow almost any routine. But his was so wack I almost couldn’t keep up.

And just as I was walking off I heard this really loud woman’s voice from somewhere not too far away.

She was yelling, “Don’t you put your hands on me! Buncha useless a-holes!”

So I shade my eyes and see this mountain of flesh waddling into the building. And I’m not being poetic, either. Bish had to be hauling about 400–500 pounds of quivering blubber on those keg legs.

And behind her there was this real skinny little dude with stringy hair and a bunch of tattoos on his arms. Not sickly skinny, that wiry skinny that comes of fighting for survival. And with a woman that size. Only kind of man who could take her on and win.

I smiled a little because I knew their kind real well. In fact, I could’ve been one of their “brother/cousins,” maybe. It wasn’t too far-fetched an idea given our family tree doesn’t really fork much, if you get my drift.

Yep, fifth generation trailer trash, me. Not as proud of it as the rest of the family, but I don’t try to hide it. I tell people we’re Cops material. All my uncles look just like the snaggle toothed dudes they chase through people’s back yards and whatnot in every episode of that stupid show. I’m always expecting to recognize somebody when I watch it. But they haven’t caught any of us yet.

So I headed on over to see what kinda all hell they were going to raise. And sure enough, when I got to the office, she was right up in some cop’s face yelling, “If you’d do your job, you lazy son of a bitch, my son wouldn’t have to defend ‘imself from these jungle bunnies up in here!”

That was another one I hadn’t heard for a while. Jungle bunnies. I’d heard all the different names for the races as a kid. I even got bawled out for “dancing like a jigaboo” once, after I started learning to pop and lock and whatnot.

I love to dance by the way. I’ll dance to a ring tone. And once I got to school and met all these b-boys who could battle with the best of them, I was in heaven. That’s all I did as a kid. I was out all hours with my little crew, coming up with crazy ass moves. We won all our battles, too. That’s how good we were.

But boy, my family gave me hell about that. They gave you hell about anything that didn’t seem quite “white” to them. But I didn’t care. The black and brown kids’ families treated me better than my own, truth be told.

I learned Spanish, even — we all did — from being talked to in it so much. You have to learn. So you can mess with all those fine women better, right? Oh, I’m not going to lie, that was my main incentive at first.

Okay, I’ll quit clowning. Just turn the page and let’s get on with this story. The plot’s about to thicken some.

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