Mia’s house is surrounded by a hardscrabble yard that’s littered with sun-bleached Fisher-Price toys: a plastic slide lying on its side, a push popper abandoned next to the yard’s only tree, and the ubiquitous ring stacker, blue and orange rings missing. Concrete steps lead to a concrete slab porch. There’s no hand-railing, and I balance on the sides of my jelly sandals in order to avoid green army men, a dirty hairbrush, and an empty juice burst. I hesitate, my hand an inch from the door. I wonder if my mom would believe me if I told her no one was home. But Mia’s mom arranged this. Her job at the grocery store has her working overtime. Mia’s brothers and sisters go to a school program at their elementary on the weekends. Our middle school doesn’t have weekend programs. Mia’s mom is paying my mom in grocery store coupons to watch Mia every Saturday.
Mom will ask too many questions if I try to lie, so I knock. Mia throws open the door, a big smile on her face. I try not to look past her at the opened package of Pampers spilling out onto the floor, or the dirty plates of half-eaten food covering the coffee table.
She slams the door behind her, not inviting me in. I stick my hands in my short pockets, relieved. Once when I came over, her mother opened the door. She hadn’t left for work yet and insisted I come in and sample her iced tea. I was enjoying myself, surprised by the tea’s citrus tingle on my tongue, until I noticed a dead fly in the pitcher. When Mia’s mom asked me if I wanted more, pushing the pitcher toward my cup on the kitchen table, I told her I’d had a big breakfast.
“So hot today,” Mia says, pushing her bangs off her forehead.
I nod, taking in the stringiness of her dark brown hair. Is it dirty, or did she use too much hair gel? Her hair is chopped short like a boy’s, and often styled crazy. Punk, Mia calls it.
Mia slams the front yard’s metal gate behind us. She leads the way across the alfalfa fields that separate the subdivision I live in with the rows of weathered stucco houses that populate her neighborhood. My mom is always telling us to go around the fields. She’s afraid the farmers will be mad, or the laborers will harass us. We never listen. Cutting across the fields saves fifteen minutes. That’s fifteen minutes less in the central valley heat that is already pushing 85 degrees even though it’s the beginning of May.
“Think there’ll be pizza for lunch?” Mia asks, dragging her tennis shoes through the dirt. The white canvas is already dirty even though my mom put them in our washer last week. They thumped inside the washing machine for 45 minutes while we played Candy Lane (and then Guess Who and Operation) with my little sister.
“Probably leftovers,” I say as we cross the street into my neighborhood. “Mom made a big pot of spaghetti last night.”
“You should tell her to order pizza.” Mia grins hopefully, like I have any say in the matter.
Mia is always wanting pizza. Or hamburgers. I once saw her devour a bag of Fritos like they hadn’t been sitting at the back of the pantry for a month. I cringe remembering how she wiped her greasy hands down the sides of her faded Minnie Mouse shirt. Whenever she comes over my mom feeds her leftover meatloaf, pot roast, soup — whatever we had for dinner the previous night. If there’s any left, she sends Mia home with a paper plate wrapped in aluminum foil for her brothers and sisters. She tried Tupperware at first, but Mia never brought the plastic containers back.
When we walk through the front door, my mom is pulling the cushions off the couch, handheld Hoover at the ready. She throws her free hand up in greeting from inside the couch where she’s putting the Hoover through its paces.
Mia kicks off her shoes near the door. “Hey, Mrs. R!” Mom sometimes substitutes, and rather than having her classes try and pronounce our complicated last name, she asks them to call her Mrs. R.
“There are cracker crumbs all over the couch. Know anything about that?” Mom asks me.
“Probably Cynthia. She likes to eat when she watches Nick Jr.” My little sister is always munching something. It’s got to the point where mom had to buy her new clothes two sizes up to fit her expanding middle. Now her jeans hang past her sequined sneakers, and all the arms of her tops go past her hands. Cynthia’s teacher mentioned something about comfort eating during the last parent-teacher conference.
In the kitchen I pour two glasses of guava juice. Not the good stuff you find in the aisle with all the granola and dried fruit, but the frozen canned stuff. Reconstituted. Nevertheless, we gulp it down. The ceiling fan in the kitchen is going full blast; Mom won’t turn the air conditioning on until the highs are well into the 90s. She reminds me of the rolling blackouts and how everyone has to do their part, but I know the real reason is she doesn’t want to spend the money. How much can it possibly cost to turn it on, even for an hour? I wonder as the sweat runs down my back. I had to start wearing deodorant this year, well ahead of the hygiene talk our sixth-grade class had last month. One day in February I came home from school and there was a stick of Teen Spirit sitting on the counter in the bathroom I share with Cynthia. Mom has never been known for her subtlety.
I don’t think Mia wears deodorant. She always has this oniony, corny smell. Not terrible as far as BO goes (some of the boys in our class smell much worse), but noticeable. I wonder if Mia will come home from school one day to find a stick of deodorant waiting for her. Judging by the inside of her house, I doubt it.
I push my empty cup to the middle of the kitchen table, next to a mound of clipped coupons. The big Sunday issue of the last week’s newspaper is stuffed in the recycling bin. Sunday mornings Mom goes through the grocery store advertisements, clipping 50 cents off Raisin Bran, 75 cents off Charmin. She says it’s her church. God saves souls, she makes sure we’re regular and can wipe our butts.
Mia is already out the screen door, pulling out a jump rope from the outdoor storage bin. I follow her into the backyard and watch as she ties one end of the rope to the pole of our covered patio. She twists the other end in her hand and motions for me to join her. Mia’s wrists rotate in small circles and the rope arches above our heads, scraping the cement patio on its way down.
I jump in. The sweaty soles of my feet leave a faint print on the gray cement. Mia grins, bobbing her head to the motion of the rope. It’s embarrassing how long it took me to learn how to jump in like this. While the rest of the girls in my school mastered double Dutch by the third grade (some even do tricks like touching their knees to their arms), I can barely jump in on a single rope in the sixth grade. Mia taught me last fall. We spent every recess up to winter break practicing. She said it was her Christmas present to me. She never got annoyed all the times I jumped in, my feet landing on the rope, whipping it out of her hand. Not even when the other girls told us we jumped rope like a bunch of kindergarteners. Mia just let their comments roll off her while my cheeks turned magenta.
“Forget them, amiga,” she would say.
“Girls,” my mom calls from the screen door, “Lunchtime!”
Mia drops the rope even though I’m mid-jump and races toward the door. She’s already sitting at the table when I walk in.
Two plates of spaghetti and a jar of Kraft parmesan wait on the table. Mia shakes the parmesan over her pasta until the red sauce is completely covered. I watch her shovel forkful after forkful into her mouth. I’m barely halfway through my plate when Mia is digging into seconds. Won’t she get gas eating so fast? Specks of tomato sauce line Mia’s lips, and bits of parmesan cling to the brown hairs above her upper lip.
When she’s done, Mia lets out a loud burp, a look of contentment upon her face. I immediately look toward my mom, who pretends not to notice. I frown, watching her load the dishwasher. I’m not allowed to burp at the table, or anywhere else for that matter. Mom is constantly telling me to “act like a lady.” Don’t burp, fart, pick your teeth, or slouch. Mia’s immunity to censure baffles me.
But before I can point this out to Mom, the front door opens. Dad is home. He stops on the doormat to kick off his steel-toed boots. They’re dusty, as is his sweat-soaked T-shirt that peeks from underneath a faded button-down. He drops a five-gallon bucket filled with his tool belt, thermos, and hard hat next to the door. He drags his right hand through the thinning hair on the top of his head. Sweat and dirt mingle in the chestnut peppered with gray. There’s an outline of sawdust around his face, and probably sticking to his nose hairs, although I can’t see them.
Mom, paisley apron flapping around her thighs, helps him unbutton his work shirt. “Did they …” she begins.
Dad nods. “Said they didn’t need as many to frame the place now that the foundation is laid and all the plumbing is done.”
“I thought Carlos said he’d vouch for you?”
Dad tosses his shirt in the bucket. “He is. I’ll be helping later with the plaster.”
Mom’s hands drop into the pockets of her apron. “And when will that be?”
Dad shrugs. “A month, maybe two. Carlos said they were having some problems with the electrical contract. The electrician isn’t sure they have enough time to wire this subdivision and the new hospital they won the bid for.”
Mom stands by the door twisting the hem of the apron. She picks up the bucket and hauls it to the garage while Dad rummages in the refrigerator. He emerges with a light beer that he pops the top off with the magnetic bottle opener that sticks to the refrigerator door. He falls into the chair next to mine with a humf. The smell of his skin permeates the kitchen. My mind scrambles for a way to describe it. Not typical BO. Working in the glaring sunlight, he’s sweated past the point where BO smells oniony, or like feces. This is musky, like the way my scalp smells on the second day after washing my hair.
“You girls have any plans for today?” he asks, scooting his chair back so he can stretch his legs.
I roll my eyes. We’re eleven. What plans could we possibly have? No license, no money, and its 90 degrees outside. Not to mention we live on the south side of town where parks, shopping, and libraries are few and far between. We’ll end up watching Blue’s Clues with Cynthia, flipping to MTV while mom is distracted.
Mia grins. “Katie’s been practicing jump rope. She can jump in without biffing it now!” She gives me a thumbs up, and I smile.
“No more nosebleeds on the playground then,” Dad says, winking.
I cringe. Last year, right after school started in September, I had an accident jumping rope. I guess I was feeling cocky, finally being a sixth grader and all, and decided to try double Dutch. “What were you thinking, chica?” Mia had asked as she helped me to the nurse’s office. Bits of asphalt dotted my face, and the blood leaking from my nose had already stained the white turtleneck I was wearing. My nosedive quickly earned me the nickname “asphalt face,” which the vicious kids in our class shortened to “ass face.”
“Think you girls could help me organize the garage since I’m home early? Who knows, there might be an ice cream in it for you.”
Mia nods so eagerly that her lanky brown hair flies around her face. That coppery oniony smell drifts across the table before she launches out of her chair and follows Dad down the hall toward the garage. Mom pulls my chair out for me and jerks her head after them, so I drag myself down the hallway. As I approach the back door, I hear Mia’s rippling laughter.
Dad is standing in the middle of the garage holding an old barbell, pretending it’s a microphone. Coffee cans full of old nails, salvaged two-by-fours, and a power tool cord with gold wires poking out the end surround him, but he is oblivious as he postures with the weight bar. It isn’t until he speaks in a terrible British accent that I recognized his Mick Jagger impression.
“You see,” he says, holding the barbell with one hand, the other hand on his hip, palm facing up, “I put my ’ands like this, for some attitude, ya know.”
Mia howls, slapping the sides of the bucket she’s sitting on. I roll my eyes when he shoots a grin my way.
“Okay, enough fooling around,” he says, still in a British accent.
We spend the rest of the afternoon organizing and sorting. We push old wood paneling, salvaged from my grandparents’ den, against the walls. We dump nails, washers, and screws out of disintegrating Folgers cans onto the cement floor and pick out the ones too rusty to use. A fan, green plastic blades encased in a grimy metal cage, oscillates in one corner of the garage. Its feeble breeze barely shifts the dust on the floor. Dad fishes a stained handkerchief from his pants pocket and blots his face. I’ve used the bottom of my shirt to wipe the sweat from around my eyes so much it’s now damp and useless.
Dad reaches for the push broom while trying to kick a coil of garden hose away from the wall. The push broom falls toward him, and he jumps back as if he’s received a shock. Mia rushes to help and prevents him tripping over the coil of garden hose by placing her hands on his back.
“Thanks, Mia,” he says, freeing his feet from the hose. “I must be dehydrated, got a little woozy there.” He checks his wristwatch. “Two hours! I’d say that’s enough for a Saturday and in this heat. Katie, why don’t you ask your mom if she and Cynthia want to go with us to get ice cream?”
The house is barely cooler than the garage and I wonder how much longer Mom will hold out before turning on the air conditioning. She and Cynthia are sitting on the couch with a jar of dried pinto beans. Mom counts out a dozen and takes away nine.
“How many are left, Cynthia?” she asks.
Cynthia sticks out a chubby hand toward the three remaining beans. She hesitates a second before shouting, “Three!”
“What if I add three more?” Mom adds three beans from the subtracted nine.
Cynthia cocks her head and giggles. “Six,” she says like it’s obvious. Cynthia is good at doubling.
“Mom, Dad wants to know if you and Cynthia want to go with us to that place he mentioned before.” I must be careful talking about food, especially ice cream, around Cynthia. Her doctor was adamant that calorie restriction at her age isn’t a good idea but keeping sweets and snacks to a minimum is crucial if she wants to fit back into her jean jacket with the flower appliqued pockets. At the rate goldfish crackers keep disappearing from the pantry, I doubt that’ll be anytime soon.
Mom pinches a bean between her thumb and index finger and looks at Cynthia. As much as she tries to stay vigilant, she has a hard time denying Cynthia the snacks and sweets she craves. Cynthia looks at both of us, beans spilling from her hands onto the couch.
“Okay,” Mom finally says, “but no desserts or snacks for the rest of the day.”
We all pile into my parents’ ’85 Impala. The afternoon heat rises in waves from the gray velour seats. We pass around a tattered dish towel so everyone can buckle up without burning their hands on the hot metal buckles. Dad makes us leave one of the back doors open until the car starts and we can roll all the windows down. It’ll take at least five minutes before the feeble air conditioner spews out air cooler than the interior.
George Strait crackles out of the Impala’s speakers as we cruise out of our neighborhood. Beside me, Mia is teaching Cynthia how to tie a reef knot with a couple of hair bands she found in the door handle. Cynthia pulls the knot so tight one of the elastic bands snaps apart and slaps her wrist. Before she can cry or complain, Mom reaches into the backseat and grabs the bands. Cynthia pretends to pout until Mia whispers something in her ear that makes her giggle. Cynthia leans into Mia and whispers back. She looks at me from the corner of her eyes before giggling again.
On the right side of the car, my side, a farm tractor chugs along at the edge of a hay field. Puffs of smoke pour out of the stovepipe exhaust, and even with the windows up I can smell the gasoline. The man riding the tractor, his skin a rich, reddish brown, nods at us as we overtake him. The tractor turns into a lane of bare earth separating two fields of hay. Even though I’m looking forward to a vanilla cone dipped in chocolate, at that moment I imagine myself whipping open the car door and racing after the tractor.
But before I can picture Mom’s and Dad’s reactions to me tumbling into the hay field, Dad pulls into the parking lot of the Foster’s Freeze. Its blue awning and wide windows tantalize everyone in the car with the promise of air conditioning (cold seats, table, bathroom the temperature of a meat locker). Ice cream feels like an added bonus as we climb out onto the black asphalt that’s gummy underneath my sneakers.
Dad shepherds us inside, holding the door while Mom drags Cynthia away from a ladybug that just landed on the car’s radio antenna. We line up along the rail in front of the register. Dad squints at the menu, as if he’s not going to order the same thing he always does: a chocolate milkshake. Mia looks shyly at my mom and dad. She’s probably wondering if she’s allowed to order whatever she wants. Mom orders Cynthia a child’s size cup of rainbow sherbet that looks comical in Cynthia’s pudgy hands. I get my usual. Mia orders a large sundae with fudge, nuts, extra whipped cream — the works. I feel my hands tighten into fists as Dad pulls sweaty dollar bills from his wallet and hands them over to the greasy-haired high school student working the register.
At our table, Cynthia looks at the sundae sitting in front of Mia. Her eyes well up in tears, but she surprises me. She drags her arm across her face and hunches over her half-melted sherbet. Mom is oblivious, or so it seems. She stares out the window, leisurely licking her chocolate and vanilla swirl, tilting her head to catch the ice cream that drips down the side of the cone. A knot forms in my stomach, and I make a half-hearted attempt to finish the hardened chocolate covering on my ice cream cone. I end up sharing with Cynthia. She gratefully spoons what I dump into her cup and holds my hand on the way back to the car. I don’t even mind that her hands are sticky.
The car ride home is conducted in silence. I find myself missing George’s nasally voice, thinking even the drunk-sounding twang of a steel guitar would be better than the quiet. The mood has shifted since Mia slid into that Foster Freeze booth, sundae in hand. No one said anything as we waited for her to finish, at one point sticking her finger into the cup to dredge up the last bits of fudge — something I would never get away with, or probably even think to do. The only tangible piece of evidence, the only way I know I’m not imagining tension where there is none, is what Mom did before we left. She handed Mia a wad of napkins, pointing to the corners of her own lips which were clean. Mia’s were covered in fudge.
When Mia shows Cynthia how to fold an origami boat with one of the leftover napkins, Cynthia ignores her, looking out my window at some cows grazing. I smirk, following Cynthia’s gaze, feeling so satisfied with Mia’s breach of conduct, her inability to pick up signals: Dad coming home for work early, Cynthia’s problem with food, the coupons piled on the kitchen table. I don’t know the word yet, but it comes to me later, reading a book on Tudor history during summer vacation junior year: opportunist.
When Mom asks me to walk Mia back to her house, I’m only too happy. I set a brisk pace toward the end of our street that opens onto undeveloped land, a shortcut to the alfalfa fields. I navigate half-tilled mounds of dirt and patches of unkempt grass. The odd Twinkie wrapper, partially disintegrated, clings to a group of dandelions. I even spot a torn Lisa Frank folder, two dolphin tails intertwined above the ocean floor, sticking up from the ground.
When Mia massages her middle, complaining of a stomachache, I reluctantly wait for her to catch up.
“Do you think that ice cream was off?” she asks, little beads of sweat forming on her forehead.
I shrug. This is what happens when you stuff yourself with pasta and ice cream, I want to say. Anyone would feel sick after that. Plus, the rest of us had the same ice cream.
We weave through the alfalfa fields, shoes caking with mud. A pivot irrigator sprays a fine but powerful mist as it inches its way across the field. Miniature rainbows hang in the mist clouds as we sprint under the irrigators. Droplets cling to our hair, cheeks, and Mia’s mustache. By the time we stumble onto Mia’s street, carefully avoiding the many potholes and occasional glass shard, all the water has evaporated.
A car I’ve never seen before is parked outside Mia’s house. I can see her tense as we open the front gate and she kicks a Cabbage Patch doll off the sidewalk. Through the screen door, I can just make out the outline of a man sitting at the kitchen table. Mia’s mother’s voice filters through the screen. She’s speaking rapid Spanish. Dinero … trabajo … niños. Mia hesitates on the doorstep, hand on the black plastic handle. I spot a frayed jump rope lying by the gnarled oak tree. It looks like a dog has chewed one of the plastic handles. Deep teeth marks encircle the orange plastic, and the rope peeks out the end.
“Wanna play jump rope before I go home?” I ask.
We jump, taking turns holding the rope we’ve tied around the tree trunk. Mia never misses a beat. Not when the man stumbles out of her house. Not when he frowns at us from the sidewalk. Not even when he peels away from the curb leaving tire marks. She just keeps telling me to go faster and faster until my arm burns from the effort.
Featured image: Happy Together / Shutterstock
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