There's one, says Uncle Charlie. They like this corner.
He double-parks the 7-Up truck in front of the Roseland and goes inside to take his order. I swing the bay door up and pull down the hand-truck. When Uncle Charlie comes back out he'll tell me how many cases to get and my 13-year-old arms will get a work out. Back in school, after Easter break, the girls will marvel at my biceps.
I stare at the prostitute. She has nice legs and wears a cast on her wrist. She winks at me and I feel my skin get hot. Then she walks over and asks me what my name is. Henry, I tell her, looking at my work boots. She says her name is Nikki, and that I have beautiful hair.
An unshaven guy in clothes that remind me of my old hobo Halloween costume from elementary school walks over and says that I'll get arrested if I go with her. We're just talking, Nikki says, and the guy says, yeah, sure, you're just talking, and he asks her about the cast and she says it's none of his goddamn business. Then she winks at me again, and strolls away.
Inside the Roseland, the manager makes me an ice cream sundae. Uncle Charlie used to go dancing there when he was a bachelor. Big band music, he said, that's when people really knew how to dance.
I eat my ice cream and tell Uncle Charlie about the guy who threatened to arrest me. He's just trying to scare you, he says, he's an undercover cop. I say that the prostitutes in the movies are prettier. Yeah, well, that's the movies for you, he laughs, they got some good looking ones in real life, but you have to pay a lot for them.
Before we leave, Uncle Charlie dances with an imaginary partner in the emptiness. Watch this Cha-Cha, Henry, he says, and his hips move in a funny way, and then he says, you ain't seen nothing yet, get ready for a Lindy, and his body becomes animated and jerky, and he starts to breath a little heavy, now we'll slow it down a little, he whispers, and end with a waltz. He looks surprisingly graceful for a guy his age, nearing retirement, with thick gray sideburns.
They all wanted to dance with me Henry, he says.
Did you have a girlfriend when you were young, I ask him.
I had many girlfriends, he says.
Our next stop on Uncle Charlie's route is a small grocery store. The owner gives him a bag full of magazines. In the truck, Uncle Charlie spreads them out on the front seat. Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler, Oui. The face of a blond with red lips stares back at me. There's the trace of a smile, but there's something about it, like it could betray you in a second.
Two summers before, my neighbor and I waited one afternoon for her mother to pick us up after a matinée. We sat in a field behind the movie theater and she blew some cotton grass seeds out of a fluffy white flower and asked me if I wanted to finger her cunt. I didn't know if it was the same thing as vagina, so I didn't say anything. She asked me if I'd ever done that, then laughed, and we just stood there and watched the floating white seeds disappear into the empty blueness. When school began a week later, I overheard another girl ask her if she liked me, and she said that I was too small. They both laughed. He's so small, she said, that he's almost invisible.
On my walk home, I wasn't really seeing, I just followed along on some instinct, like a bug that relied on its antennae to propel it along to a desired destination. I told my mother what I overheard. She rubbed my hair and said that when I became a movie star those girls wouldn't matter anymore.
After dinner, my aunt makes me an ice cream soda, and knits. Uncle Charlie has a martini and plays big band records. We watch a couple of cop programs and then I fall asleep on the couch, a Spider Man comic in my lap. In one issue, Spider Man's girlfriend, who had been killed a few issues before, has mysteriously come back after being cloned. I think about the possibility of my mother dying from leukemia and being cloned, and what I'd say to her if she could come back. I'd promise her that I'd be in the movies.
I have a hard time falling asleep because I can't wait to get back to school and tell the kids about the prostitute, and her compliment, with the hope that Marilyn, the girl who sat next to me in math class, would get jealous. Then I'd show her some of Uncle Charlie's dance steps. We'd be married someday.
The next day, on Uncle Charlie's route, I look for Nikki. But there's nobody on the corner. It could be the rain. I wonder what prostitutes do when it rains.
For lunch, Uncle Charlie and I have Chinese food. A black driver with bad teeth sits with us and asks me if I'm going to take over Uncle Charlie's route someday. He'd better go to college, Uncle Charlie says. This is no kind of work for a smart kid.
I tell them that my dad says I could take over his plumbing supply store, but I think I'd like to be a movie star, or a stunt man, I say, because their lives seem pretty exciting. Uncle Charlie says that everybody's got the same problems.
He puts mustard in his soup. The black driver opens up the sports section of the newspaper. I notice that the rain has stopped and ask if the prostitutes will be out.
We make the rounds in the truck and I flip through the pages of the magazines.
I asked my cousin George if vagina and cunt were the same thing. We were sitting in my tree fort one afternoon reading monster magazines. You guys are way behind in the sex department, he said. George lived in Brooklyn and would visit us in the summer. He always told me crazy stories, like the time this girl had let a bunch of guys have sex with her. George was waiting his turn outside the room and heard her saying over and over something like, oh Richie you got a rough dick, oh Richie, it's so rough. George didn't get a turn, he said, because the girl got too sore.
I didn't tell him about the girl behind the movie theater.
Two days later, Nikki is back on the corner. I watch her from the truck. She winks again. I bring her a can of 7-Up that Uncle Charlie keeps in a cooler under the seat. Her short skirt is covered with roses. My father told me to pray to St. Theresa for my mother's recovery, and if I saw a rose that day, it was a good sign that she was listening to my prayers.
I realize that I've forgotten to pray that day, and wonder if I've hurt my mother's chances of getting well.
It's hot today, Nikki says.
Do you like what you do, I ask her.
Do you like going to school?
Sometimes, I say.
Well, I feel the same way.
She takes a sip. Let's share, she says, and hands me back the can. Her lipstick on the rim tastes like watermelon-flavored bubble gum. I feel an erection.
The girls must fight over you, she tells me, with that hair.
Not really, I say.
It'll happen, be patient.
What happened to your arm, I ask.
I fell, she laughs, off a bike.
I've taken some bad falls off my bike, I tell her. She appears to study me.
Helping your father, she asks.
I'm on vacation. With my uncle. I'm staying at his apartment in Queens.
What kind of a vacation is this?
He thought it would be a good experience for me. To see the city.
I guess. My mother's sick, too, and my father's at the hospital a lot.
I'm sorry, she says. She takes another sip and hands me back the can. Well, Henry, I think I'm going to get off my feet and go to a movie. Get a big bag of popcorn. You have a nice day. And enjoy your vacation.
I like the movies, I tell her.
Yeah, what kinds of movies?
Action, James Bond.
I like science fiction, she says. It's nice to imagine yourself someplace else.
Our vocabulary exercise was to put the words, related to Halloween, into a made-up story. The girl from behind the movie theater wanted to read mine. She moved her desk closer and shared her watermelon-flavored bubble gum. It was the first time that she paid attention to me since the afternoon behind the movie theater.
My story was about a private eye sent one autumn day to a mysterious island to investigate the disappearances of people who went on vacation. On a stormy night, he encountered a dilapidated mansion and the pieces of bodies in a cellar. Then he was attacked by a Cyclops, and carved out the creature's eye with a knife. He set the house on fire, but a chandelier, lit with burning candles, fell on his leg. He crawled out to his motorboat, legs burned off, and drove back to shore where he collapsed on the beach and died in the waiting arms of his girlfriend at midnight.
Am I the girlfriend, she wanted to know.
I didn't say anything.
The teacher asked me to read the story out loud. When I finished, this fat girl, who always bragged about how many gold stars she got for reading books, called me a freak. I told her to go finger her cunt. The whole class looked stunned. I don't think they knew what the word meant but it sounded like it could be something forbidden.
The teacher told me to stay behind while the class went outside to play kickball. He mentioned calling my parents. I told him that my mother had just gone into the hospital. I asked him what chemotherapy meant.
He rubbed my shoulder. Why don't you go out and play some kickball, he said.
At dinner, my father asks about my vacation with Uncle Charlie. I think I got stronger, I tell him. That's good, he smiles. We eat dinner in silence. Then he lights a cigar and tells me that he saw a rose today. But it seems as though he could be talking about anything, like he could've just said that he saw an airplane in the sky today.
Later, I'm in my room reading when I hear him on the phone. He says something about the chemotherapy not working.
After school, I let myself into the house and make a peanut butter sandwich. Then I hide the magazines from Uncle Charlie's truck in my tree fort. I attempt to masturbate to Nikki, but my mother's face, shrunken from disease, gets in the way.
My mother dies a week later. My father says it's for the better, since she suffered for a long time. We go through her closet, and I come across a box that contains some of my old schoolwork. It's a very colorful collection of reports about books, planets, and explorers. I didn't realize that she saved any of this stuff.
On the desk in my room are the folders the teachers gave me to make up work I'd missed. They said they were sorry about my mother. I leaf through the folders but I can only think about Nikki's lipstick on the 7-Up can.
In my dream, the girl from behind the movie theater sits in my tree fort and points to a vagina in Playboy magazine. That's what I was talking about, she says. Can I do it now, I say. No, she whispers, we're going to be late for the movie.
In the morning, my pajamas are crusty and I wonder shamefully if I've somehow wet myself. But I realize it's something else, something I've heard talked about in school. I lie in bed and think about the dream. But my mother's face creeps back and says that it's my fault she died, because I didn't pray.
It occurs to me that they teach you everything, fractions, and push-ups, and Columbus, but not the stuff that really matters.
In school, we take a test, and I stare at Marilyn's tan leg in the row next to me. I focus on the little wisps of blonde hair and get a feeling of hopelessness. It's as if her leg belongs to another dimension, one that I'm not part of, and will never be. I flex my bicep as I reach for a pen that I've intentionally dropped, but she doesn't notice.
Later, in the cafeteria, I tell the kids I have a girlfriend. Nikki. I met her on the playground while I stayed with my aunt and uncle. We went to the movies and had popcorn.
Then she let me finger her cunt.
About the author:
Peter DeMarco has been teaching high school English in the Washington Heights section of New York City for the past seven years. Before that, he acted in regional theater and performed stand-up comedy on the open mike circuit. Peter's short story "Background Noise" won 2nd prize in New York Stories' fiction contest, and his short story "Blue Shirt" was recently published at CadillacCicatrix.com. Peter lives in New Jersey with his wife Charmaine, and two boys, Dexter and Sam.