Amanda Irene Rush is a runner-up in our 2020 Great American Fiction Contest. See all of the winners.
Joey is nine years old when his mother goes nuts and his sister goes bad and he has to live with his grandmother who gets mad if he eats cheese in the living room. His grandmother gets mad about a lot of things these days. This morning is no different.
“I’ll be late again,” she says, glancing at the clock as she cranks the wheel into River Trails. “You’d think your grandfather could drive you once in a while.” She gives Joey his lunch money and leans across his lap to open the door. “I’ll be here between four and four forty-five,” she says. “Don’t make me wait.”
Joey has just enough time to get his feet on the ground and push the door closed before the car is moving again. He watches it turn onto Slater Road without stopping at the stop sign.
He still has two hours before the bus comes so he heads for Todd’s. Todd is his best friend who lives in the back of the trailer park. The same park he and his mother and his sister lived in before his mother started talking to herself and the electric was shut off. Joey knew there was something up when he brought home a form the school wanted his mother to sign and instead of signing it, she stared at it for a long time and then crumpled it up. His grandmother doesn’t want the school to know there’s a problem in the family, so every morning for the past month he’s been going to Todd’s house after his grandmother drops him off.
Joey doesn’t mind. Todd’s mother leaves for work early, leaving them free to eat Sugar Smacks and Cookie Crisp out of the box while they watch movies on the new cable channel — HBO. Even Joey’s grandparents don’t have HBO. Some days he and Todd cut school and play in the woods near the bus stop, or else sneak into the orange grove behind the woods. Joey worries about getting caught and being sent to Crowl Detention like his sister. “A couple months in there ought to make any kid want to go to school again,” his grandmother has said. Todd tells him not to be such a chicken fart. “It ain’t like we never go.”
This time of morning the air is cool and the park is quiet. He can hear the swish-swish sound his corduroys make as he walks. He sees Tinky the Chihuahua sitting in the big front window of the single-wide where the lady who always gives apples for Halloween lives. The dog starts to yelp like someone’s stepping on his tail and even from the road Joey can see its tiny body shaking. On the other side of the street is his old trailer. The bedroom he shared with his sister — until they could get a house, his mother used to say whenever his sister complained that she was too old to share a room with a boy — has a broken window, and weeds are already sprouting up in the cracked driveway. The trailer looks like it’s been empty for years. Some kids in the park have been saying it’s haunted. Joey shakes the coins in his pocket as he passes.
His grandmother gives him 45 cents every day for lunch — the reduced rate he’s always had. “Don’t tell anybody you live with us now,” his grandmother has said. “I’m not paying a dollar twenty-five for that tripe they serve.” His grandparents could probably afford it. They live in a condominium — with matching dishes and furniture — in Cape Coral, a city downriver along the Caloosahatchee. There aren’t any trailer parks in Cape Coral.
Todd’s mom is on her way out when Joey gets there. She’s shouting at Todd from outside the door that he had better have a clean shirt on when she gets home or he’s going to get it. She gets into her car and waves to Joey as she backs out of the driveway. Inside, he finds Todd sitting in front of the television watching a Donald Duck cartoon with his hand inside a box of Sugar Smacks. He sits down on the floor next to Todd and holds out his hand. Todd’s is already good and sticky.
“Those chipmunks are stealing that duck’s nuts,” Todd says laughing.
When Joey’s mother came back from the hospital a couple weeks ago, Joey thought she was cured and expected they would be moving out of his grandparents’ second-story condo and back into their double-wide in River Trails. What he didn’t expect was that his mother would sit in the big recliner in his grandparents’ living room staring at him for hours while he tried to ignore her, first by concentrating on the TV, and then on solving a Rubik’s Cube, and finally on a book he had gotten from the library, a Choose Your Own Adventure story. He had met his end three times already when his mother’s attention finally became unbearable.
“What are you looking at?” Joey cried.
His mother smiled with one side of her mouth. Then she spoke in a voice that reminded Joey of that movie he and Todd watched about the people who grow humans in their backyard and eat their brains. “If you ever grow up, I’ll kill you.”
That night, on the screened-in porch that overlooked the dock where the boats were kept, Joey slept underneath the thing his grandmother called a davenport. His mother was staying in the spare bedroom. He imagined her coming for him with a knife and figured he could make a quick escape by busting out the screen. He didn’t think the drop down would hurt him too bad. He had fallen out of plenty of trees. And if he should roll and fall into the canal, well, that was okay, too. He knew how to swim. Lying there, going over the plan, he wished he had thought of grabbing the knife himself.
The next day Todd told him he looked like the guy in the zombie movie who thought he had been turned into a zombie but was really okay in the end. Joey broke down and told Todd everything and to his shame had even cried a little.
Todd was good enough to ignore this weakness, but said, so quietly it was almost to himself, “Shit, my mom threatens to kill me every day.”
It’s true. Todd’s mom is a tough lady. She doesn’t even look like a lady. She’s built like most kids’ dads. She even has a bald spot on the top of her head. Joey’s had to duck for cover many times when she started throwing shoes and magazines and frying pans at Todd. Like the time Todd poured an entire bottle of onion powder in the crock of soup she fixed for supper. Or the time he let the dog eat a pair of her pantyhose to see if they would really come out its butt.
It’s nearing the end of the school year and the weather’s getting hot. By the time the bus drops Joey off and he has to walk the quarter mile through the park, past the laundromat and the pool, to the front entrance, where he waits for his grandmother on the bench near the security guard shack — which as far as he knows has never had a guard — he’s dripping sweat and has a throbbing headache from the strong stink of blacktop.
Joey hates these long waits after school, sitting alone on the metal bench with no shade. He wishes he could have Todd hang out with him so they could play dungeons in the shack, but his grandmother hates Todd. She calls him that Todd and refers to his mom as that woman, although she’s never met her.
One afternoon, Joey notices a pop machine has gone up at the laundromat by the pool. The machine has the normal stuff: Coke, Tab, Sprite, and something he’s never heard of — Mello Yello. The button for it is bright yellow and the letters are colored in orange and green swirls. He digs into his pocket. He has two pennies he found during recess buried in the dirt underneath a palm tree. The can cost 50 cents. It might as well cost 50 million cents.
The next morning when his grandmother drops him off Joey asks her if he can have 50 cents.
“I already gave you your lunch money,” she says.
He tells her he wants to buy a book on planets for a project he has to do for school. “My teacher said I need the money today so she can order it for me.”
His grandmother gives him the look he’s seen her give his mother when she used to ask for seconds at the dinner table.
“I would get it from the library,” he says, “but I need to cut some pictures out of it and I can’t mess up a library book.” He says this with his head down, trying to sound like the kid in his class who always gets the teacher to let him go to the bathroom in the middle of their weekly spelling bees.
His grandmother sits there for a while longer, just staring out the window. Joey wonders if she even heard him and is about to say it all again when she finally says, “I don’t even know if I have any change.” She digs through her purse and his heart leaps at the thought that he might get a dollar bill. She finds some change in her change purse and hands him two quarters.
“Since it’s for school,” she says. He thanks her as he closes the door behind him.
Later that day after the bus drops him off, Joey runs all the way to the laundromat. He’s relieved to see the machine is still there. Breathless, he takes the quarters out of his pocket and slides the first one in. It drops and clanks as it hits its mark. He drops the second one in but it doesn’t clink. He bites his lip and pushes the big plastic button. Nothing happens. He presses it again, harder. Then again. He slides the metal bar up and down and sticks his fingers up in the change return.
He kicks the machine a few times. “What the heck?!” he yells.
The pool man hears him and tells him to quit kicking the machine.
“It ate my money,” Joey hollers.
“T.S., kid.” The pool man laughs.
At dinner Joey picks at the skinless chicken and mashed potatoes and wonders how he’s going to get 50 more cents out of his grandmother. It’s no use asking his grandfather, because he never talks anymore. At dinner each night, his grandfather sits at the head of the table staring at his plate, taking a bite of something now and then, but mostly just pushing his food around.
His grandmother’s purse sits on the table near the front door, where she keeps her clip-on sunglasses and extra golf tees. She never leaves change lying around. The purse is a big, tan bag with zippered compartments of various sizes. Joey doesn’t know which one holds her change purse. It would take him a month to find anything in that bag.
Joey doesn’t figure his mother has any money. She sits across from him with an empty ashtray and a pack of Camels on her dinner plate. She picks up the salt shaker, runs her thumb over the top, and brings the imaginary flame to the tip of her cigarette. Invisible smoke blows in Joey’s face.
“Why aren’t you eating?” his grandmother says.
Joey drops his fork and it clatters on his plate.
“You’ve been eating junk food after school with that Todd, haven’t you?”
He stares at her.
“That Todd is no good,” she says, spooning gravy onto her potatoes. She looks at his grandfather. “Are you hearing this, George?” His grandfather looks at her and nods. “Don’t you think it’s a bad idea for him to be eating junk every day with that Todd?” His grandfather nods again and pushes his potatoes away from his chicken with a fork. “Aren’t you going to say anything to the boy?” His grandfather stares at her blankly. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she says, banging the gravy bowl down. She points the dripping spoon at Joey. “I don’t want you eating junk after school.”
The next morning at Todd’s, Joey asks if he can borrow a nickel.
“What you need a nickel for?”
“My grandmother gave me my lunch money, but I think five cents of it fell out on my way here ’cause I only have 40.” Joey holds out his hand and shows Todd the four shiny dimes.
Todd goes into the living room and motions for him to follow. Lifting a cushion off the couch, he plucks up a nickel, a dime, and three pennies from underneath a dusty pile of Potato Stix and a yellowed subscription card for TV Guide. Todd gives Joey the nickel and puts the other 13 cents in his own pocket.
“Let’s go see if the cat’s got any more of them worms coming out its ass.”
That day Joey skips lunch but he isn’t hungry. Before catching the bus in the morning, he and Todd ate half a box of Cookie Crisp while they watched part of a movie about a kid who gets lost in the woods and is rescued by a grumpy old man with a walking stick.
In the afternoon, the coins clink and clank and the can tumbles out of the machine. Joey holds up the can like Todd once held up a snake he chased out from under a cactus plant in his front yard. The can is icy cold and glistens in the sun. He doesn’t crack it open right away. His plan is to hide behind the security shack and drink it so that his grandmother won’t see him if she pulls into the park just as he’s taking a swig. He squats behind the shack, keeping a look out onto Slater Road. Just as he gets settled and has the can open, the little white car pulls in. He sets the can down carefully just inside the shack where no one will see it. He turns to look at it once more as he’s walking away.
“What were you doing in there?” His grandmother asks when he gets in the car.
“You shouldn’t go in there when it’s this hot unless it’s raining. You’ll get heatstroke.”
The next morning Joey waits until the car is far down the road before he goes into the shack. The can is still there, surrounded now by ants that march in line from inside the can to the patch of grass outside.
Joey and Todd look for more change under the rest of the furniture.
“You should get some new pants if you keep losing stuff,” Todd says.
They eat an entire box of Sugar Smacks while they watch a movie that has the guy who plays Mr. Furley in it. Then they look through Todd’s mom’s underwear drawer.
“It’s as big as a damn flag,” Todd says, holding up a pair. For kicks they both get in it and stumble around the trailer scaring the dog. The dog hops into the bathtub to get away, and Joey and Todd fall over together in a tangle, laughing.
“Suck school,” Todd says, leaving the underwear in a heap on the bathroom floor. “Let’s go to the woods.”
They wait for the bus to leave before they cross the dirt path that leads into the woods. They’ve been warned not to play in the woods because wild boars and giant raccoons live in there.
“Let me find a boar wants to pick a fight,” Todd says, pushing up sleeves he doesn’t have. He never wears anything but T-shirts with ironed-on pictures of monster trucks and cartoon characters like Mighty Mouse and Hong Kong Phooey.
Most of the day they play pirates, making each other walk over a pool of mud across a fallen tree trunk that is the plank, and using a long stick they find on the ground as a sword. When they get tired, they sit on the plank and throw rocks and pieces of wood into the thick mud, watching them sink. Later, they go back to the trailer and Todd opens some chicken noodle soup, which they eat cold and salty out of the can — “like soldiers do,” Todd says.
Before Joey leaves to go meet his grandmother, he puts his lunch money in his shoe so she won’t hear it jingle in his pocket.
At school the next day Joey skips lunch again. He goes down to the pop machine after the bus drops him off and digs that day’s lunch money out of his pocket and yesterday’s out of his shoe. Ten more cents and he could have two cans. The thought makes him dizzy. He pushes the metal bar down just for the hell of it and sticks his finger in the return slot. He pulls out a dime. He jumps around and shouts. The pool man is looking over at him and Joey waves to him. He slides the dimes and nickels into the slot, listening to each coin clink and catch, and pushes the button. Nothing happens at first, so he pushes it again. A little red light flashes in the corner telling him to please make another selection. At first, he can only stare dumbly at the light, feeling like he does when he turns the page excitedly in one of the Adventure books only to learn he’s dead.
He slams the bar down to get his money back, thinking maybe the red light is a mistake. Maybe if he puts it in again he’ll get what he’s after. But nothing comes out. The anger in him wells up so fast, as painful and unexpected as a goosing from Todd. He starts cursing then, yelling out things he’s heard Todd’s mom scream at Todd, smashing the buttons with the flat of his hand as he does.
“You asshole!” He yells. “You no-good bastard!” A Coke falls out of the machine and he rips it out of the slot and throws it against the wall of the laundromat. He wants it to explode.
“Hey!” The pool man shouts, dropping his net and coming toward him. Joey runs to the security shack, crying all the way.
A week passes before Joey goes back to the machine. He starts to eat lunch again but still keeps the 50 extra cents in his shoe. There are round impressions on the bottom of his right foot. That afternoon the pool is deserted, the water still. The pool man’s net hangs on the fence, which is latched shut. The machine stands there like nothing ever happened. Joey carefully feeds the coins into the slot and listens closely for the telling clicks and clangs. He pushes the button. The can rolls down and he lifts it out. Remembering what happened before when he waited to drink it, he decides to open it right away. He taps the top of it like he’s seen Todd do to the Pabst cans he filches from his mom’s supply, then he jerks at the tab.
The ring brakes off and hooks onto his finger. He shakes it off and tries to pry his nail underneath the jagged piece of metal that remains. It cuts into his skin underneath his fingernail and blood oozes out onto the top of the can and collects in a thin ring around the rim.
He sits down on the ground and doesn’t cry. With his finger in his mouth he looks at the closed can. He picks up a rock and starts to beat on the top of the can where the other half of the tab remains. After several attempts the little triangle of metal gives in. He goes to take a sip but sees pieces of rock and dirt floating in the clear, yellow liquid. He sets the can gently near the machine and walks to the security shack.
The next morning Joey and Todd watch a movie about some street racer guys while they eat the rest of the Cookie Crisp. The movie runs long and they miss the bus.
Joey suggests they go play pirates, but Todd says, “I’m bored with the woods. Let’s sneak into the orange grove.”
As much as they’ve been warned about the boars and the raccoons, they’ve been warned even more about Farmer Jack who owns the grove behind the woods. Though they’ve never seen it, rumor has it Farmer Jack carries a loaded shotgun to the john and has a pit bull named Cracker he keeps chained behind his house.
“Cracker, my ass,” Todd says, jamming a half-burnt cigarette butt he found on the ground into the corner of his mouth.
They make their way through the woods, carefully crossing over the puddle of mud on the fallen trunk that served as their plank, weaving a path through a thicket of scratchy bushes. They squat down near the edge of the grove and stare up at the trees with the fat yellow fruits.
“Time to do some picking,” Todd says, nudging Joey in the stomach. He follows Todd as they disentangle themselves from the bush.
They have to go in pretty deep before they find some fruit they can reach on their tiptoes. Joey has just twisted one off when he hears a low growl from behind. Then he hears Todd scream, “Run!”
Joey turns around. Cracker looks bigger and uglier and meaner than he ever imagined. The dog is showing teeth and raising up mangy fur on its back. The fruit falls out of Joey’s hand.
Joey stands like the dead and avoids eye contact, remembering something he read once. He’s hoping Todd might make a noise to distract the beast so he can make a run for it too, but he’s nowhere to be heard.
Realizing that it’s just him and Cracker, Joey slowly moves his right foot as if to step in one direction, planning to then fake the dog out and run in the other. Cracker is as fast as he is ugly, though, and before Joey knows it he’s on his back and the dog is pulling at his right shoe, its long, ragged nails raising dust as it hunkers down.
Joey kicks frantically at the dog’s head with his other foot, hoping it will change shoes, but the dog holds on. He looks around for some kind of weapon — stick, rock, anything. He sees the orange he dropped and remembers the time Todd squeezed one at his eye. He had screamed out and then Todd shot it at his own eye, exclaiming, “Damn, you ain’t fooling!”
Joey stretches for the orange, the dog pulling him in the other direction, and manages to roll the piece of fruit his way. He props himself up on his elbow and clutches the orange in his other hand. Juice runs down his arm.
He looks at the dog. He looks it right in its eyes, which are milky and soft looking. The dog lets go of his shoe and sniffs at the orange. It licks the juice off Joey’s hand with its large, broad tongue. Joey stands up then, hopping a little trying to get his shoe on straight, and sets the piece of fruit down in front of the dog. It lays down on its belly and starts chewing. Behind him, he can hear Farmer Jack running, cussing at Cracker.
The dog has pieces of orange all over its muzzle. Joey pats it on its head, then takes off running. He runs right through the thorn bushes and keeps running without looking back. He reaches the plank and sees Todd on the other side waiting for him.
“Hurry up!” Todd screams.
Halfway across the plank, Joey’s foot slips and he falls into the mud. He starts to sink some, and he hears the mud make sucking sounds as Todd tries to pull him out. Joey’s up to his waist before Todd gets a good grip on his arms. Todd pulls and pulls, the mud gives, and Joey flops himself onto dry land. Joey looks down at his feet. The mud has sucked off his left shoe.
When they reach the bus stop, Joey says so long to Todd. He doesn’t hear any kids around so he figures it’s still early. He walks along unevenly, wondering how he’s going to explain the mud to his grandmother. And not just the mud, but the scratches and the blood and the missing shoe, too. He stops at the laundromat and sits down on the curb. He takes off his remaining shoe. His lunch money is still there. He gets up and stands in front of the machine in his socks. He takes a deep breath and lets the coins fall into the slot. He knows he’s a nickel short, but he pushes the button anyway. The can tumbles down.
“Fucking-A,” he whispers, and reaches for it. He holds the can in a muddy hand and wipes his other hand on his clean sock. Holding his breath, he pulls the tab. It pulls smooth. As he lifts the can to his lips, he can hear the crackling sound of carbonation. He drinks until his eyes water. The second drink he takes, he holds in his mouth before swallowing. The bubbles tingle on his tongue. He takes his socks off and leaves them with his shoe. He walks — barefoot and covered in mud — to the front of the park by way of patches of dirt and grass so as not to burn his feet, sipping on the good coolness in that can. It starts to rain a little so he sits in the security shack.
When his grandmother pulls up, he gets in the car without a word.
“What in hell’s name happened to you?” His grandmother says.
Joey tips the can back and takes a drink. He lets out a small burp. “Todd and I skipped school and I got attacked by a dog and then I fell in some mud.” He stares out the front window and waits for whatever will come — shouting, crying, maybe hitting. He doesn’t know what, and he doesn’t care. The rain has stopped and the sun is shining again. His stomach growls loudly.
“I suppose you didn’t get any lunch, did you?”
He shakes his head.
“And you’ve lost your shoes.”
He looks down at his toes. “I’m sorry I got mud on the seat,” he says.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” she asks.
He gives her the can, which is lukewarm now and smudged with mud. She looks at it and then takes a long drink.
“Hmm,” she says, handing it back to him.
He stares at her as she wipes her mouth with the back of her hand. She looks different. She’s smiling.
“Your grandfather’s gonna crap when he sees the inside of this car,” she says. “That oughta get him talking.
Featured image: Shutterstock
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