Chapter One: red-white-and-blue bombs
When Mr. Candesa agreed to hire me, he thought I was a twelve-year-old boy. I came recommended by the soccer coach in the church league, which was all boys except for me, so I suppose his mistake was understandable.
Mr. Candesa was a history teacher at the Catholic high school. He was real skinny with a weak voice, but his eyes were set so deep and dark that somehow he still managed to be intimidating. You just knew not to piss him off. His wife was a balloon of a lady who sunned in a tent dress on a pool float built for two, but no one ever teased him about her. Or made a joke about Vietnam. Or about ice cream.
"Taylor," he said matter-of-factly, as he checked me over the first day I showed up for the job. I was wearing a baseball cap, and my short hair just peeked at the edges.
He took a sly look first at my chest, then at my crotch, hoping a small bulge in either place might betray my identity. It didn't. He looked up at my face, still confused; I'd been called Mount Taylor long enough to know that girls weren't meant to be as tall as I was. Finally, embarrassed, he focused on the Skoal logo on my forehead. "You a boy, son?"
"No, sir." When I was six and had the chicken pox, I told my mom my dick itched, but she'd since informed me and my brother J.J. of our differences.
"You were supposed to be a boy," he said.
"That's what my dad says, too."
"Oh." I could tell he thought that explained a few things. Like why I was a soccer player. Why I was the reason Mark Brocada got his front teeth knocked out. Why I wanted to work on an ice-cream truck for the summer. "Get in," he said, gesturing to the candy-colored truck waiting in front of his house, so clean it hurt my eyes to look at it.
That summer Mr. Candesa and I sold red-white-and-blue bombs more than anything else. Mickey Mouse ears we sold the least. And after just three days I was hearing "Camptown Races" even when the truck was sitting in front of the Candesas' house, closed for the night.
Every day I'd meet him at noon in front of his house, which had a lawn and so many flowers planted that I wished I didn't have to live in an apartment. He was always five minutes late, carrying a vanilla-colored bag he'd filled with history books. Once we hit the road, it was my job to explain the ice cream, take the money, and sweat a lot, while Mr. Candesa read his books in the front seat. He was "struggling through his dissertation," he told me.
Our first stop was always Maplewood, this big pool they had in his neighborhood. It was so nice that to be let in, you had to show them a little tag that proved you were from around there. Little squirts would run out to the parking lot as soon as they heard our truck's song, change spilling through their small hands. Next came a few mothers declaring that they were going to treat themselves just this once. And then came Priscilla Banks and her giggly friends, smelling like tan shoulders and coconut oil, pointing to the pictures of ice cream while eager twerps, mostly from my summer soccer team, bought the girls whatever they desired. Then the fancy girls would leave and the boys would talk to me.
"Why are you selling ice cream?" our goalie Jacob wanted to know.
"I still make soccer practice," I said.
"I'm not talking about that. Don't you get sick of hearing that song all day?"
"Camptown Races," I said.
"My dad says it's not legal to work until you're sixteen."
"Maybe your dad's a numskull like you," I said, then turned to a little kid who showed up every day with no money and treated him like a real customer, asking him if he'd like some ice cream, just so I wouldn't have to talk to Jacob anymore.
At the end of the first week, Mr. Candesa asked me if my dad ever took me swimming. I explained that my dad was a plumber who worked too much to take me to the pool, but that was a lie. I think Mr. Candesa felt sorry for me, because the next week he got me a pool tag. After that, a couple times a week when we were at the pool, Mr. Candesa would lift his head from his papers and books, usually on our second stop there later in the afternoon. "Twenty minutes," he'd say, and I'd take off my T-shirt and shorts and run out to the pool in my orange one-piece that I wore to work every day just in case. I'd drop my towel on one of the pool chairs, then me and the guys would do cannonballs off the diving board while Mr. Candesa tanned in a lounge chair and flirted with the lifeguards until it was time to go back to our route, which was exactly the same, every day. And I liked that at first, driving in a pattern, knowing every turn.
Really I worked because my family was broke, and I still wanted things. Expensive things. Like a new baseball glove. My mom bought me a stained blue glove at a garage sale, which explained my punching Mark Brocada, because he always teased me about it. I also wanted a new pair of jeans, since mine were way too short. And I wanted to get away from the divorce. My parents told me once that they would never divorce, since we were Catholic, but they talked and screamed about divorce all the time.
When I told Mr. Candesa once about my parents fighting, he told me that he never fought with his wife. That he knew since the first day he saw her that she was The One. It was all in her smile, how it drew you in, sucked you in. "You got a nice smile, you know that?" he said, really looking at me for the first time. "In fact -- you know what? -- you might actually be pretty." He looked some more. "Yeah," he said, "you are." For that entire day he just kept looking at me and chuckling to himself, until finally all his laughing had worn out the compliment.
"You're a loner, aren't you?" Mr. Candesa said gruffly one day. He was driving the truck while I stared at his thick bare feet pushing the pedals.
"I got a brother."
"I mean friends," he said.
"I have friends."
We pulled up to a light and stopped. He turned and looked me straight in the eye. "Those boys aren't your friends."
"We play soccer together." They were the closest things to friends I had.
The light turned green and I was relieved when his attention returned to the road. "You got to learn sooner than later that boys aren't your friends. Ever. Especially at your age. Especially since you're pretty."
I just sat quietly. A little girl wearing nothing but flip-flops was running after our truck, but he didn't see her and I didn't say anything. He shifted in his seat and cricked his neck uncomfortably. "You know what urges are?"
I nodded weakly. I could define an urge. Like the urge I had to smack him upside the head so he'd stop talking about weird stuff.
"OK," he continued. "An urge is what those boys have towards you and you don't know it."
par"They don't like me that way," I said dumbly, thinking about the curvy girls in tiny bikinis who smelled like vacation.
"You go ahead and think what you want to," he said, in a way that meant he didn't mean that at all. "But even if they don't like you that way, even if you're like a boy, you're a girl. And a twelve-year-old boy plus any girl equals urge, you see?"
By the last week of the summer I'd made close to three hundred dollars. I didn't tell my brother J.J. because lately he'd developed a tendency to steal things. And I didn't tell my parents because my money wasn't going to become part of the family fund. I was sure of that. I hid it in a maxi pad box in my top drawer, underneath my underwear. I decided at the beginning of the summer that I wasn't going to spend any of it until August 8, my thirteenth birthday.
The morning of August 8, before work, I went to Target and I bought a Spalding glove, a pair of Lee jeans, eight bags of Fritos, a pocketknife, a sleeping bag, and a bikini. I hadn't planned on the bikini, but it stared at me from the row of mishung suits. It was red-and-white striped with a blue band around the edges. Another girl had returned it to the rack. "You're too heavy for that," her mother kept telling her, as the girl whined that she just had to have it. Before I could think, I took it right off the rack and walked to the dressing room to try it on. It didn't look right. The saleslady knocked, asking if I needed anything, probably thinking I was lifting the suit. So I opened the door while I still had it on, with my underwear tucked in as best I could. "My," she said, "don't you look nice in that one. What I wouldn't do for a muscular little body like yours. And those long legs." She shut the door again, shaking her head to herself.
I looked in the mirror one last time. Really quick, since I hated mirrors. And all I could think was How do I stand in this thing? I tried to put my hands straight at my sides, then on my hips. Then I tried to put one hip out a little to the side, and make a serious face. And then I caught my own eyes in the mirror and just felt dumb.
Still, I decided to buy it, the saleslady's words echoing in my head.
Work on my birthday started out the same, since Mr. Candesa didn't know it was my birthday. He came out carrying the vanilla bag filled with books, his wife draped in a cantaloupe dress smiling and waving good-bye as we pulled out. We went to Maplewood and sold out of red-white-and-blue bombs, and everyone started complaining because nobody liked the chocolate-banana ones. It was especially hot that day, and humid, one of those days where everybody is irritated at everybody else for everything. Which was why I was so surprised when, after Priscilla walked away with her yogurt stick, Mr. Candesa said, "Twenty minutes."
I pulled off my shirt and shorts while Mr. Candesa stared at me. "Whoa," he said, and looked away. "New suit, huh?"
"It's my birthday," I told him.
"Well, then," he said. "Forty-five minutes."
I nodded, happily, and headed out to the pool, my Yosemite Sam towel wrapped around my hips. I looked over to where Mr. Candesa was perching himself on a lawn chair. I decided I was going to sun myself. I walked by the deep end, found my own lounger, and spread open my towel.
I felt thirsty and treated myself to a lemonade at the refreshment stand. On my way back I heard Jacob say, "Look at Mount Taylor." I pretended not to hear. There was a group of about eight guys, mostly ones I knew, and they were staring at me. First they were talking to themselves, then all their jabber focused on Jacob. He got out of the pool and walked over to me.
"Wanna play catch?" he asked, while all the other guys looked on.
"Buy me a pretzel, and I'll think about it," I said, doing my best imitation of the flirty girls I saw every day at the truck. I'd never done anything like this before. But I figured it was my turn.
He looked all over me and then took off walking, while I heard "sucker" yelled from the pool. When he returned with a pretzel, I took just one bite before I was bored. From my lounger, I watched them doing cannonballs off the diving board for a few minutes, measuring who had the highest splash. But I got tired of watching. So I walked over to the diving board to get in line, trying my best to ignore the stares. "Whose splash is highest so far?" I yelled to them as they hung near the ladder at the side of the deep end. They pointed at Jacob who got out of the pool to gesture how high his splash had been. It was pretty high, but I'd done higher. Slowly I walked about two-thirds down the length of the diving board. I breathed in and took two long and careful steps followed by a double bounce at the end of the board. I knew that the lifeguard would blow her whistle if she saw the double bounce, but I didn't care. I was flying off the board. I was so high that I could feel my stomach sink a little in the air as I formed myself into a ball. I landed with a huge splash. I remember smiling underwater, feeling the liquid glide over my teeth. And then coming up and shaking my head as I resurfaced. And then looking over at the guys to make sure I'd beat Jacob's splash. And then realizing that they were all laughing at me. My stomach sank again, this time in panic, as I looked down. My top was gone.
I dove back underwater and saw my stringy top drifting down toward the drain. I was almost out of air by then but knew I had enough left to grab it and go. Then a blur passed in front of me. Jacob grabbed the top, carrying it in slow motion to the surface. For that moment I was completely still. I just relaxed and drifted down, feeling myself move back and forth, pulled into the slow rock of the water. And then I ran out of air. I shot up to the surface, gulping it in, trying my best to keep my shoulders below the water.
The lifeguard was too engrossed in her conversation with Mr. Candesa to notice that Jacob was waving my top at me from the side of the pool, expecting me to lunge forward and try to grab it from him.
"Give it back," I shouted.
"Come and get it," he said as the guys looked on and laughed. He gave the top a little wave, taunting me.
I swam closer, still treading water, low enough so I could keep my chest hidden, close enough so I could see him throw my top into the rusty blue trash can.
And then I don't remember deciding what I was going to do next. I just did it.
I climbed out of the pool as fast as I could and I ran. I ran past all the boys pointing and laughing at my pale, nubbed chest. I ran past the mothers who were frowning at me, confused and concerned, yet still doing nothing -- just walking in a quick circle, trying to find someone else they could tell to help me. But it was too late. By then I'd run through the gate. And into the ice-cream truck. I threw on my T-shirt, which I'd left in the back, and that's when I noticed the keys, dangling out of the ignition.
I thought for a minute. I thought about waiting for Mr. Candesa, finishing our route. Maybe crying later, once I got home, but not before.
And then I just stopped thinking and turned the key. I pushed on the gas as hard as I could, like I'd seen Mr. Candesa do. It made an awful, scraping sound, but it started anyway. "Camptown Races" blared. I shifted the gears and pushed the gas, but somehow I was still surprised when the truck started to move, that my pushing on the pedals was actually making this big thing go wherever I wanted it to go.
By the time I made it to the driveway, I was laughing to myself. The kind of laugh that you see in the movies done by the bad guys. Only I wasn't a bad guy. I knew that. I was someone who was going to drive somewhere far away. Maybe I'd drive to Montana. I'd heard that there are the fewest people there of any state -- that there's only land for miles. The streets were so empty that day, I knew I could do it and never be traced. Never be found. I had eighty-seven bucks in my bag, and I was going to drive and drive and drive away.
When I got to the first red light, a perm-haired lady in a Cadillac pulled up next to me and stared. The kind of stare that lets you know someone's sizing you up and you're failing. I stared right back at her, then rolled my eyes.
Five minutes later I'd made it to Highway 6, this big flat country road with nobody ever on it. "Camptown Races" was still screaming, and every now and then some little kid would run out of his house, hoping I'd stop. But I didn't. I was too busy thinking about how it'd feel to throw a brick right through Jacob's window. And that's when I felt it. A jolt as the truck hit something.
And then the screaming started.
I don't think I'd ever heard a sound so bad. It was just yelping and yelping and yelping, louder than barking, louder than "Camptown Races" even. I pulled the truck over as best I could and saw the mess I'd made. The sickly little mutt dog was on her side, barely moving, except her mouth. She yelped for about a minute more and then she stopped. I had her head in my lap by then, and I swear I saw everything, the whole world, pass right through her.
And then I couldn't move. Everything just felt so still once the yelping stopped. The silence seemed more like a sound. A beautiful sound. Like thick, quiet air, taking over everything. Even me. And around me there was not a car, not a person in sight.
I know it sounds dumb, but I didn't know what to do. I wanted to get help, but she was dead already. I wanted to drive away, but I couldn't just yet.
I decided I'd bury Betsy. I'd named her by then. She was pretty heavy, so I had to pull her to the edge of the ditch. Then I pushed her as hard as I could, and she slid down into the water.
And that's when the man showed up.
"You look awful young to be out here by yourself." He was one of those men who always dressed like he was on his way to church. He was wearing a button-down and slacks and was clutching the keys to the brownish Pontiac that he'd parked behind the truck. He had this smile frozen on his face, like people get when they're trying to coax an animal into a cage, making sure they don't move too fast and upset the beast. He looked me over with a quick glance. I was covered with blood. I just nodded and lied.
"My dad. He just hit a dog."
"Your dad, huh? Well, then, can you tell me where your dad is?"
I told him about what happened. About how my dad and I were talking about my birthday party and all of a sudden this stray dog came out of nowhere. "She was so fast, she just looked like this big streak." And about how my dad tried so hard not to hit her that he nearly swerved the truck right into the ditch. And about how I got so scared I cried. And about how my dad went to get help and left me with the truck, since it wouldn't start. "I think all her guts and stuff messed up the engine."
The man looked at me sideways, then walked slowly around to the side of the truck. He wiped the sweat off his brow, and I noticed that he had huge circles of sweat under his arms too. "Why don't I try to start it, then," he said. I could tell by the way he said this that he knew I was lying. He just wanted proof before calling someone. I was wondering who he'd call first. The cops? My mom? My dad?
He leaned into the truck and gently turned the key. And it started on the first try. He stuck his head out the truck's window and told me it appeared to be working just fine. "I think you'd better come over here," he said.
But I was already gone.
I'd run down the dirt slope towards the edge of the water in the ditch, thinking I'd just lie low so he couldn't see me. But then I saw the old sewer hole that had been carved in the side of the ditch, above where the water was, and I went for it.
By the time I'd crawled inside the hole, my whole body felt like something different. I could feel the rush of the blood going through me. Everywhere. The sewer's ridged metal was smelly and made my hands rusty touching it, but I didn't care. I just sat there for what seemed like forever, still as I could be.
About two hours later, I heard Mr. Candesa come to reclaim his truck. I heard the cops asking him if he wanted to file a complaint. A couple hours after that I even thought I heard my mom, but when I peeked I saw that it was only Mrs. Candesa.
When the sun had gone down -- all the way down -- I grabbed a dead tree branch, pulled out my new pocketknife, and started scraping off the edges of the wood. I made a cross for the dog, tying two pieces of the branch together by breaking off some of my shoelace. And I carved her name in it. While I did this, I thought about my birthday. About days in general. About how you can wake up one day and be one thing, and by the time the day is done, you're something else altogether. Or maybe I'd been this way the whole time, the kind of kid who could get away, but that was the first time I knew it. I put the cross right where I'd hit Betsy, and I began walking along the side of the road, listening to my feet crunch the grass with every step, wondering how long it'd take me to get to Montana.
Copyright © 2002 by Angie Day