Spring roared through Wilsy, the plumes of ashy smoke plastered on the azure backdrop in the distance. Men and women waged war against the blazes on the rolling hilltops, trees and their inhabitants falling victims in great numbers. Our neighborhood stood on the precipice of it all, just a vast sea of green separated us from certain death. On the snaking roads, bike lanes and bus stops built up along the flanks, business went on as usual. The fires never encroached on the city itself but there was always the potential. Two children strode by in khaki shorts and polo shirts, muttering softly.
Car engines whined, birds chirped their desolate song and dogs howled and barked in freshly manicured lawns, all of it coming together like an orchestra. Stifling heat battered my face so I yanked the brim of my hat down even more. The yellow monstrosity ambled up the road, air brakes squealing. Shrill voices banked off the surrounding facades, intensifying my already forming headache. More squealing, the accordion door swung open. Linda smiled at me, her long auburn hair harnessed in a ribbon.
“Good morning, Allie.” A kid sneezed on cue.
“Morning.” The raucous chatter continued, undulating towards me. A lone seat second from the rear, more or less reserved. Karen Briggs turned around to face my direction, the waves of sun glinting off her blonde head. She held out her waifish hand, concealing a treat wrapped in plastic paper. The material crinkled, adding to the cacophony.
“No thanks. I already ate.” Pulsing shot through the top of my skull. I had to remove my cap.
“Okay. You waiting for Tiff?” She tore open the package, popping the square into her mouth. Nuts and nougat clashed with chocolate, leaking onto her lips. Acid rose up in my throat.
“Everyday. I have a headache already.” My friend turned back to face the front of the death machine. More smoke wafted in from afar.
President Street teemed with early morning traffic, honking, the squeaking brakes as metal meshed together. Humans from every corner of the earth met here, the epicenter of our city. Mattress-sized posters flapped about in the wind, displaying grotesque cabarets and galas only the opulent could attend. Streetlights, long ornate ebony poles reached skyward, some had bicycles clamped around the base, others assisted in propping up homeless or the elderly. Mustached men with gauze wrapped hands puffed on cigarettes, ash curling and burning down to the filter. Linda surveyed the doors, the kids beginning to settle down.
Another batch of middle class neighborhoods passed by, the bus chugging and groaning, shifting into the lowest gear to manage 46 Avenue. Houses flanked each other, sardines in a can, speckled with bits of brick, stone and dirt. These ones had basements underneath, the windows kept captive by iron grids, a prison in suburbia. Linda pulled up to the curb by the end house. Final stop before school.
Tiffany shuffled up the rubber stairs, her shimmering locks briefly reflecting the rays outside. She waved to me.
“Hey. Did you do that test yesterday?” The dull roar of voices mixed with the sounds of engine sputter. Her perfume hit me in the face.
*****. I forgot. Can I cheat off your notes?” She snorted.
“I can’t help you. How are you going to learn this stuff if you don’t study?” Linda took a corner too sharp. Some of the kids tumbled to the treads.
“Be careful. It’s not a race.” My friend called out.
“Geez, you’re beginning to sound like my Mom. Please? Tell you what, I’ll just look at the notes for like five minutes and I’ll try to memorize it.” A sigh escaped her lips. Karen turned around, leaning on the plush back. She still hadn’t wiped away the accumulation of sugar gunk off her chubby face. I motioned to my own mouth, trying to implant the idea.
“You didn’t study.” Her teeth emerged, still ******** with chocolate.
“I never do. I always forget.” I cracked open the maroon binder, various colored dividers sectioned off my subjects. Three untouched pens held prisoner, strapped inside the cover, a notepad, yellowed and tarnished with divots on the soft surface. The pages, barren. No words or numbers rested on the blue lines. Tiffany tapped the top of my forehead.
“What’s the use of having a binder if you don’t write in it? I’m looking out for your best interest.” Karen giggled, lilting, levitating above us.
“God, she is beginning to sound like your mom. You guys wanna hang out at lunch? I got a gift card to Subway.” She unearthed the plastic from a pocket. I shrugged.
“Tiffany is going to help me with my notes. Aren’t you?” My friend turned her lips up in a grin.
“I got no other choice.” The beast careened down Temple Drive, just one more block until school. Sizzling asphalt cooked the rubber on the wheels, machines whirring like supercomputers. One man slumped over a jackhammer, his body vibrating in cadence to the bus engine. Bubbling tar pooled in the indentations of the road, lava coursing down a volcano. Two workers leaned against the back of a cherry red pickup, indulging in a bottle of soda, light shining through the glass like a prism. Chests heaving, heads thrown back in laughter like some exotic bird.
“He’s cute.” Karen pointed out. Alas, the duo moved out of sight but my friend kept her eyes trained on them.
“Too old for you.” I yanked a pen from the holder, pressing the soft tip to the pulp.
“Day one? What’s that?” The girl in front gnawed on yet another chocolate square. Isn’t it obvious?
“I’m thinking of starting a journal. Just something I might try.” Tiff picked at a wedge of fabric from the seat.
“Like a diary? That’s sounds cool.” Scintillating conversation. Linda guided the hulking giant to the side of the curb, alloy components shifting behind the tires. A few kids collected their backpacks from the floor, stained with dirt, gravel and dust, slinging them about their wiry shoulders, feet stomping the concrete outside. Mrs. Palmer stood in the crossfire, students parted into separate streams, her commands futile. I stuffed my bag and advanced on the folding door, Karen and Tiffany following.
“See you tomorrow, Linda.” She gestured with a flick of her wrist, seashells and Japanese stones clinging to life from a delicate chain. Palmer pressed her hands to her supple sides.
“You three better get a move on. Class will be starting very soon. Spit out that gum.” Karen sent the projectile flying onto the road.
Yeats Middle School. My home for five days out of the week.
“So, what’s going to be your first entry?” My friend chewed the ferrule of a pencil, enamel slicing through the thin metal. I shrugged.
“I don’t even know if I will. Hey, before I forget, can you give me your notes? I wanna study them tonight so I don’t look like an idiot.” She exhaled.
“Okay. You gotta start doing this on your own. I don’t want to nag-.” I cut her off.
“Then don’t. Last time, I promise.” The bell clanged sharply, encased in the shell. Bodies shuffled around us, soldiers marching in step, eyes ensnared by phones. One guy shoved past me, my bag crashing to the tile.
“Sorry.” He called out, not caring.
“Jerk. I don’t want to be late. Let’s go.” She squeezed my arm.
Tiffany pushed along a stark white tray, scratching the base against a trio of silver bars. She clutched an apple from the cabinet, the flesh tinted a deep brown, but mostly a radiant yellow. A cardboard carton of milk and some French fries rounded out her lunch, the product of public funding. I shredded a paper bag containing my sandwiches, pulling the material into julienne strips, wrapping them around my fingers.
“Make sure you don’t lose my notes. Aren’t you going to have any lunch?” She noticed my haphazard destruction of the bag, but the sandwiches remained sealed.
“Not really that hungry. Hey, did you want to go see a movie this weekend? I’m gonna be bored on Saturday. Cole probably wants me to play video games with him.” The corners of my mouth twisted downwards. My friend sensed my disdain.
“Just tell him you don’t want to play anymore. Hang out with Michelle.” A snort of air escaped my lips. I continued to mutilate the sack, breaking down the strips into microscopic entities. Tiffany grabbed my sandwich from under me, severed the top half, the beheaded plastic discarded on the floor. She handed it back to me.
“Why did you do that?” She giggled.
“Now you have to eat it. I don’t like wasting food. What’s wrong with Michelle? She is your sister.” My teeth lacerated the firm bread, mustard, pickles, salami bursting with flavor inside my mouth. Mom made delicious food.
“Tiff, you know we don’t get along. She’s almost eighteen. Why would an eighteen year old want to hang out with someone four years younger?” She didn’t respond.
More bodies piled into the lunch room, trays sliding, fluorescent tubes overhead crackled, cutting through the noise. A swarm of preteens emerged through the pair of glass doors, donned in a melange of school colors and hair swept up in matching ponytails. They droned on like a nudged record player, each girl plucking a white plate from the dispensary, a cursory glance over their shoulders. Then the clamor continued, six trays shuffled in unison along the track. Much of the pain in my head subsided, but the squeaking of metal on plastic brought it back.
“Fries please.” A blonde one third down the line scooped out her phone, on the cracked surface I saw she set up a calorie counter.
“Spaghetti. I need the carbs for swimming.” She bared her teeth to the line cook. He replied by slapping some pasta onto her dish, moisture glistening on the starchy surface, a collection of worms. His ladle delivered the ground beef sauce and the group sashayed down the line as usual.
“Garden salad and carrot sticks for me.” Her face formed a smile but her body language told a different story. While the other girls in her group stood tall, shoulders set back in confidence, this poster child for negative body image hunched over. I nudged Tiffany.
“Poor girl. She’s under a lot of pressure to stay thin.” My friend arched her arms, popping a strip of fried potato into her mouth.
“How do you know? There is such thing as healthy eating. I gotta get early to class and talk with Forster. Here, do you want the rest of my food? I’m not really hungry.” Tiff shunted the tray over to me, the scratching and whining invading my ear canal. Gradually the noise died down in the cafeteria, like someone cranking the volume knob on a stereo.
First bell, the siren call. A sea of hormonally challenged kids bottlenecked the corridors on either side of the office, a palette of crimson, oranges and other shades blended together, an artist’s easel. I slipped my backpack on, precious cargo encased within. Tiff’s words flashed across my eyes like a teleprompter. Don’t lose my notes.
“I promise I won’t.” One of the nerds heard me, scrunched up his face.
Final class of the day. I sauntered in, a grey box fan perched on top of a sideboard blasted me, vibrating and shifting with raw energy. Paper dragons, dreamcatchers with tangled feathers, ******** of pink and black on a canvas, some brushes held captive in a long glass tube. Instead of desks, the room had eight tables, hitched together with clasps, horses at a post. Radiant neon bean bags, compressed and leaking, some of the other students had already taken their seats. The air thick with conversation, nothing important.
“This chick is so hot. Bro, look at her.” A surfer kid ambled over, alabaster seashell necklace clinging to his darkened skin. Teal shirt, stained with salt.
“She’s hot. I know a better looking chick.” Seashells squeezed into the span between two of his comrades. His glassy eyes absorbed the arrogant sunlight, fingers working. He produced an image of a young impressionable girl, baking in the heat, tanned skin patchy with damp sand. Her mouth teeming with a smile, although artificial, and holding a bucket and plastic trowel. Their eyes stretched open, flabbergasted. I knew that girl.
Mr. Whitehouse strolled into the darkening room, clouds blocking out the ball of gas in the sky. He coughed into his withered hand, mucus dislodging from his throat, and set down three multi colored texts. His half moon glasses dangled, trembling almost, from a wire fashioned around the back of his neck. Thin hair at the front, but swept back in a vain attempt to save his dignity. I cracked open my lone binder. He smiled at me, then did a pass around the room. No notes today.
“Wildfires still going on. They’ve been fighting them all morning.” He sipped from a pure white mug, not one blemish or imperfection dotted the surface. His hand shot out, grasping a chain affixed to a rolled up poster. The class fell silent.
“Pablo Picasso was a drunk. Plain and simple. There is nothing wrong with drinking in moderation but too much is not good. Picasso indulged too much.” The man came into view, a monochrome photo blown up and pasted to the rolling shade. The artist bore a resemblance to Whitehouse, same shining head, fringed by white hair and sitting atop his scowling face. He clutched a brush in his feeble, wrinkled claw, as our teacher did with his cup.
“In fact, most of the time he was ************ A few gulps of laughter erupted from the group, mostly the clowns wearing the seashell necklaces. Pablo’s eyes bore through me, searing my soul. Whitehouse chuckled, his chest contorting visibly.
“But the man was a bonafide genius. A true master up there with the likes of Jackson Pollock or Salvador Dali. His work is ******** with life, conflict, love, all that stuff.” Our teacher set down the mug on his desk, clanging of snowy ceramic met oak, resonating about the room. He pushed aside a dangling paper dragon, some being conjured up by an ambitious ninth grader, tossed another stack of papers onto a wire rack, creaking under the weight, and took his seat in a swaying office chair.
“Today we are going to paint in Picasso. We are going to sample a few of his works, maybe sip a bit of brandy and paint in his style. You don’t have to be intoxicated to think like him. I’m also kidding about the brandy part.” Audible groans rolled in from the back of the room. I leaned forward even more, head resting on my numbing hands. Reeves blew his nose, the tip inflamed and angry, pollen spores sailing in through the gap in the wall, cars roared on the interstate a half mile away under the horizon. Whitehouse handed out some blank stretched canvases, a few students electing to stand in the aisle and use a solid black easel.
“Use the drop cloths please. The school is getting on my ass about paint splatter.” He cracked his knuckles, pulled out a vacuum flask and set up a martini glass on the apex of his work station. Reeves wrestled with his painting smock. I offered to assist.
“Thank you. My arms don’t work really well.” He choked out through his gravestone sized teeth. The lad had horrible allergies, and honked his nose for the second time, producing a tablet from his pocket. Whitehouse clapped his hands.
“Listen up. The best three paintings, the ones I deem the closest representation to Picasso’s work will be posted in the teacher’s lounge and then shown at the sixth annual Yeats art show. I don’t expect all of you to be professionals but do your best and surprise me with what you got.” Reeves immediately began throwing together some long brush strokes, tongue agape and dripping, others in the neighboring area exhaled, the seashell guy peppered his canvas with flecks of black paint while his eyes gazed at his lap. The man in the front scanned the class, focusing on each face, brushes saturated with a multitude of colors, splatters clutching the edges of the frames. I prepared a solution, drenching a toothpick, the nib broken off. Anorexic lines, starting from the top and working my way outwards. Blending in vermillion, some chartreuse. Whitehouse always liked to use fancy names for plain colors.
Twenty eight sets of lungs heaved in and out, badger hair buckling under the mass of paint, the box fan to my left still screaming an incessant song. Pain shot back through my skull, swimming around in my brain. Whitehouse poured another glass of the mystery substance, his face darkening as blood pumped through the many passages concealed under his skin.
Tiffany stacked some books on the floor beside her locker, the spines chipped and frayed. Beads clung to her forehead, dampened eyebrows. She wiped them dry with her hand.
“Hey Allie. You still have my notes, right?” I shook my head.
“Sorry. I don’t know what happened to them.” I spun the lock through the numbers, some had rubbed off over the last year.
“Please tell me you’re joking.” I smiled.
“Don’t mess with me like that. I’ll see you around.” She scooped up all her stuff, worked her way into the crowd and out the door.