An Unexpected Blow
Ruby Hobbs came out of her room, dancing and singing, buck naked, again. “All I want is a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air,” she warbled, her old body jigglin’ and wigglin’.
Ruby being naked may sound funny, but it’s a sight so disturbing even Teddy C can’t take it, and that’s saying something. Teddy C ogles all the oldies. Fat ones, bony ones, doesn’t seem to matter to him. He’s ninety, but his eye is always roving. He does the whistle, too. Or at least he tries. It’s more air than sound, but there’s no mistaking what he’s thinking.
At first I thought the whistle was a joke, but Ma says it’s for real and that his old-guy eyes see what they used to know, not what’s actually there.
Except, I guess, in the case of Ruby Hobbs. “Somebody help!” Teddy C called, like he was being robbed. “She’s at it again!”
“Now, now, dear,” Gloria said, snatching a sheet from one of the monster-eye dryers and rushing over to wrap Ruby in it. “You can’t dance at the ball without a gown on. What would the governor think?”
Gloria sure does have a way with the oldies. Maybe it’s how she can jump inside whatever fantasy or memory they’re in the middle of. Or maybe it’s the fake flower she wears in her hair. It’s the exact same one every day, but every day it seems brand-new to the folks living at Brookside. “Oh, what a beautiful bloom!” someone’ll say, like it’s the first time they’ve seen it. “As pretty as you,” Gloria’ll reply, which makes them blush. Like it’s the first time they’ve been paid the compliment.
It could also be the way Gloria’s voice always seems to calm things down. Her now, nows and there, theres work like she’s castin’ a spell.
Whatever it is about Gloria, her magic doesn’t only work on the oldies. It works on me, too. Ma tells me, “Focus,” but all I can think about is how dumb it is that I have to spend my afterschools here, in an old-folks’ home.
Gloria, though, will give me a little smile and whisper, “Now, now, Lincoln. Remember, the more schoolwork you get done here, the less you’ll have to do when you get home,” and just like that, I buckle down.
But back to Ruby.
I’d been coming to Brookside every school day since September, and even though we were in the middle of November, it was still a surprise to see Ruby bust out her dance moves. Aside from her being naked, which I guess anyone can figure out how to get, the big shock is always seeing her move.
Normally she shuffles. Shuff, shuff, shuff, her slippers go. Shuff, shuff, shuff, slow and tired. All the oldies shuffle. Usually with walkers, or while hanging on the arm of one of the nurses. Or, I guess, “caregivers.” The word seems so stiff, but Ma says I need to use it, seeing how caregivers are not actually nurses. At Brookside, nurses are the ones in white shirts, and caregivers are the ones in purple shirts. Nurses do the pills and the blood pressure and call the ambulance. Caregivers do the meals and the clothes and all the nasties. Like mopping up accidents. And changing diapers. And dressing corpses.
But back to shufflin’.
It’s what all the oldies do. Going to the Clubhouse at mealtimes, to the Activities Room for entertainment hour, to the patio for a little afternoon sun . . . they shuffle and they look straight down at the floor. It’s easy to get lulled into how slow everything goes. Which is why Ruby coming out of her room naked with her arms out and twirling is always such a shock.
This time, though, it was different.
This time, the flower and the sunny sounds from Gloria didn’t help. Ruby cried when Gloria wrapped her up, and she whimpered, “Let me dance. Please. Let me dance.”
This time, seeing Ruby Hobbs was more than just surprising or disturbing or funny. It was sad. And sad on top of everything else that had happened was an unexpected blow. One that knocked the wind right out of me.
Spinnin’ Lies into Truth
The trouble at my new school began the very first day, during the very first recess. It’s bad enough starting a new school when everybody else acts like they’ve known each other since diapers. And it’s bad enough when your new teacher makes everyone read a passage aloud from a story and then fusses over your “darling Southern accent.” Ms. Miller thought she was payin’ me a compliment, but no boy, sixth-grade or otherwise, wants to be put in the same sentence as “darling.”
But worse is recess, when you’ve got nowhere to go. It’s time-tickin’ torture. Ms. Miller had instructed us to “stay within the confines of the blacktop area for today.” I had no interest in making a further fool of myself by handling a ball, so I went to go sit in the shade of a tree off the edge of the blacktop. And I was just fixin’ to sit down when I noticed a stream of miniature black ants windin’ around the tree’s trunk. I stayed standing, studying them. They were nothing like the ants back home—those ants could haul a house away. These were small as fleas, scurryin’ up and down in a thin, winding line.
“Hey!” a kid on the playground called. “We use bathrooms in these here parts!”
The voice seemed off in the distance, barely reaching my mind ’cause I was concentrating on ants.
“Hey!” he called again. “Quit whizzin’ on the tree!”
What he was sayin’—and that his fake Southern accent was aimed right at me—hit like a bolt of lightning. I whipped around quick. I didn’t know him, but he was standin’ near the edge of the playground with a boy I recognized from my class.
“I was just lookin’ at ants!” I hollered, but it was too late. They ran off, hee-hawin’ like donkeys.
Back in class, Hee-Haw #2 spread it around to the guys on his side of the room. I could see them grinnin’ and whisperin’, spinnin’ lies into truth. It was the first day of school and already the beginning, middle, and end of any hope I had for making new friends.
After that I took to hiding out. It was a whole lot safer than opening myself up to the hazards of a new school full of old friends. If they could make such a fuss over me watching ants, I didn’t want to find out what they’d do if they knew where I went after school.
The Fling Zone
It didn’t take long to settle into the new routine. I ride the school bus to Thornhill School in the mornings and the city bus home from Brookside after Ma’s shift is done at night. To get from school to Brookside, I walk. It’s only about twelve blocks, but it’s a long twelve blocks when you’re tired from school and luggin’ a backpack and you’re on your way to a home for oldies. It’s not exactly a destination to look forward to when you’re eleven.
Or even when you’re ninety, now that I think about it.
If I dawdle, I hear about it from Ma. “What took you?” she whispers, giving a worried look at the wall clock. “You’re not getting mixed up in anything, are you?”
“Ma-ah,” I groan, ’cause I’ve never been mixed up in anything. Her asking me that came on after we moved. Maybe ’cause we’re living in a “rough zone,” as she calls it, but our apartment is a long ways from the route I walk from school to Brookside, so her frettin’ like she does makes no sense to me.
Finally, she’ll see that I’m just tired and hungry and say, “Let’s get you a snack.”
Snacks at Brookside are okay. Not great, but okay. They’re for old folks, so they’re low in fat and sugar and salt, which adds up to them being low in flavor, too. They’re still better than the snacks marked D, which are for the diabetics and made with fake sugar, since real sugar could send them into a diabetic coma.
But the snacks are free and the juice is usually cold, which is mostly what matters. And after I’m parked at my regular table with my snack, Ma can quit worrying about me and what I might have been doing on the walk over and get back to work.
I don’t tell her this, but it’s not the walk she should be worrying about.
It’s the bus.
I don’t mean the city bus, either. She’s with me on that one, so she knows what I see there. She always has advice for me when we’re on it, too. “Don’t stare, Lincoln,” she’ll whisper. “He’s drunk.”
Like I haven’t seen drunk enough to recognize it? Like I haven’t figured out it’s the whole reason she dragged me halfway across the country? I know drunk, and I can usually ditch drunks. Ma . . . well, that’s a different story.
But back to the bus.
On the city bus, we’re allowed to sit anywhere. We can move away from trouble if it starts up, and that makes the city bus a safe zone compared to the school bus.
The rule on the school bus is little kids up front, big kids in back. And the first couple of weeks I followed that rule because it made sense to me.
Besides, what sixth grader wants to sit with first graders?
Before we moved, I used to walk to school, so I never knew how rough the back of a school bus can get. Ma doesn’t want me watching R movies or playing violent video games, but the back of a school bus is as bad as both.
Usually when there’s trouble brewin’, I find a way to sidestep it. I hush up, duck out, and live to see another day. So that’s what I tried to do on the school bus. I started bending the seating rule a little, not going all the way back when we piled on. I’m not exactly big for eleven, and I’m new, so the younger kids didn’t really know any different, and they didn’t seem to mind.
But the kids at the back of the bus sure did.
“Dude, ain’t you in Miller’s class? Why you sitting way up there?”
“Yeah, whatsa matter? You got a problem with us?” It was Hee-Haw #1. The one who wasn’t in my class.
I waved at them like, no hard feelings, but I guess there were hard feelings anyway, ’cause as the bus roared along, the teasing started. First they picked on my “drawl” and how I was “a Southern boy.” Then the names began flyin’. Hee-Haw #1 started off callin’ me the Wiz, but one of his herd thought that was a cool name—like I was smarter’n them, or a wizard. So he moved on pretty quick from that to messin’ with my name, calling me the Missing Link and the Weak Link and then just Link for short.
I knew they were trying to make me say something so they could make fun of the way I’d said it, but what it did instead was make me face forward and keep my mouth shut tight. But over time the names went from mean to meaner, ’til they were so bad I’d’ve been whupped to Sunday if I’d said them at home.
When they ran out of new names, they added shoving.
And when they got bored of the shoving, they added spitting.
By October they were up to spoon flinging. I got hit with grape bombs and tuna fish and Jell-O and whatever part of some other kid’s lunch they didn’t mind wasting. They were sly about it, so the bus driver never saw them, and everyone else was too afraid to do anything. Instead of trying to get rid of the flingers, the little kids tried to get rid of me. “You can’t sit here,” they told me, and who could blame them? I was the target, but with spoon flingin’ there’s lots of hits outside the bull’s-eye.
I didn’t know what to do about it. It’s not like I could tattle. I knew where that’d get me. And it’s not like I could change my mind and start sitting further back. Either way, I’d get murdered.
So I was stuck.
Stuck in the fling zone, with tuna in my hair.
The Great Escape
Maybe I was willin’ to put up with tuna and Jell-O flying at me ’cause they were nothing compared to what I’d been hit with before the move. For Ma it was even worse.
Then on New Year’s Eve almost a year ago, Ma made a resolution: we were moving.
She whispered it to me with a bloody lip and a puffy eye while I was in my hiding place, under my bed.
Ma’s escape plan included stashing away cash, which meant meager eats and no extras for a good six months. It also included two small duffels and two one-ways on the Greyhound bus.
The night of the great escape I didn’t sleep a wink. I had my duffel packed light, like Ma had told me—spare clothes, travelin’ food, and a toothbrush, plus the only things I couldn’t stand leaving behind: my secret notebooks.
When it was finally time, we walked the three miles to the station like our unders were on fire. In some ways they were, ’cause it was late July and swelterin’, even at five in the morning.
Ma kept looking over her shoulder, but we made it to the station without being stopped. The only worry I had was the worry I caught from Ma, who was oozing with it. The way I saw it, Cliff was on whiskey time. He wouldn’t be up ’til noon.
I’ll never forget Ma’s face, reflectin’ in the bus window as we pulled out of the station. She didn’t know I could see or she’d have hid it better, but she was one scared rabbit. “Oh, Lord,” she whispered, clutchin’ her bag tight. “Lord, oh, Lord.”
She may have been scared out of her mind, but I was glad to get gone. After Cliff moved in with us, our life turned into a bad movie that got played over and over, with the fight scenes getting longer and louder.
Cliff wasn’t just mean to Ma. After I called him out on a couple of lies, he took to hating me. The older I got, the meaner he got, so leaving didn’t scare me near as much as staying did.
Plus, I was looking forward to meeting my aunt Ellie and my cousin Cheyenne. I figured they had to be nice, seeing how they were letting us stay with them until Ma could find a job and a place of our own.
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