by Shayn Davenport
My brother Josiah has always been my wingman. Like me, he is strong and stout. Besides our blonde hair, we are every bit the Czech image our father has passed onto us. He is exactly two years younger than I am, and he is one of my best friends. He knows everything about my life.
“Are you ready to go, Josiah?”
“In a minute. I have to piss.”
“Hurry up; Mom will be back soon and I’d like to avoid that whole shit-storm.”
“No shit, should we leave a note?” cynicism laces Josiah’s laugh.
“Yeah, she’ll be wracked with worry about her two lovely boys.”
We both have feelings of despair. He feels the abandonment and emptiness of our family. It is as deep as Death Valley and just as dry. One good thing about inattentive parents, though, is they don’t miss you when you’re not around.
Our mom, half in the bag most days, has a hair-trigger temper and is not afraid to find the nearest item at hand to throw or hit us with. Her rants about her lazy, stupid kids are nearly every day, and there has never been anything any of us has ever done correctly. She has grown her nails out like claws. She strikes with them like a feral cat and once she has a hold, she does not let go. She may be insane. There are times I wonder why she ever had children because of the hatred she has for us.
My dad is not much better. Between his job and his church duties, he finds little time for us. When he is around, he plays buffer between mom and us. He sees her anger and refuses to deal with it, leaving us to fend for ourselves against the monster she becomes. I often wonder who is worse: my mom or my dad. Six of one, half dozen of the other is what I come up with.
We drive to Eric’s around ten and flash the lights. Eric bounds out the door wearing a Metallica tee shirt. Josiah screams at him, “Don’t forget the bread, or Andrea will be pissed!”
Back out in a few minutes with the stale bread, Eric hops into the van and slaps Josiah in the head. “Don’t yell at my house, dick breath. My dad’s sleeping.” We pull away to the mission at hand.
Creeping through the deserted parking lot, we wait patiently for our opportunity, the sweet, juicy prize in sight. We breathe silently and progress closer to our goal. Without a word, two boys leap from the side of the moving van and sprint toward the helpless victims of the hunt. They pounce, claiming the best of the bunch, and run to the safety of the still moving van. Eric screams, “Drive!” I floor the old Chevy, and we squeal away to share our spoils with the fourth member of our troop.
I slow down and relax my driving. I don’t want to attract attention. In Manteca, if you are not constantly vigilant for the totalitarian police, you’ll end up getting popped. I’ve been pulled over for low tire rubber, unsafe lane change (12:30 am, no traffic), and for a zip tie fastening my license plate to the van. In this town, if you are under 21 and driving, you are fair game for the cops. Eric doesn’t drive anymore because of all the hassles he gets. We drive across town, and catch every light… all four of them. This is Manteca, the most boring town in California. The most boring town in the world, in our opinion. The only thing people remember about this town is the awful stench from the sugar plant as they drive north on Highway 99. It’s kind of like rotting fish mixed with cooking cabbage stewed in crap. It is a town with deep agricultural roots, but now it is a virtual bedroom community for the Bay Area. BATs (Bay Area Transfers) are everywhere. They have transformed our little town into a little town with a lot of people.
“Did you see Christie’s new BMW?” Josiah asks.
“It’s a piece of crap,” is Eric’s venom dripped comment.
“You’re out of your mind. The M3 is a fantastic machine. You’d give your left nut to have one.” Of course he would. I would too; it is a beautiful car.
“Not if it means I have to be a BAT kid,” is the response from Eric. “Those kids are spoiled rotten pieces of shit. They think because they have daddy’s money that they are better than we are. Fuck that! Christie can shove that car up her fat ass.”
Josiah laughs and says, “You’re just pissed because she won’t go out with you.”
“Bullshit! I’m pissed because her old man came over the other day and pissed me off.”
“He went to school with my dad, and he came over to say hi I guess. When he found out my dad got laid off, he got all weird and asked if there was anything we needed, like food or crap like that. Then when he gets up to leave he tells me to come over this weekend and he’ll find some yard work for me to do to make some extra money…fuckin asshole.”
I’m grinning ear to ear as I ask, “So what did you say?”
“I told him I would be over later with Brutus to start prepping the lawn.”
Almost in unison, Josiah and I inquire, “Who the hell is Brutus?”
“My grandma’s Bassett Hound. He’s a shit machine. I took him over and let him shit all over their yard.”
We all start laughing and Josiah shouts, “Fuck the BAT people!”
We met Eric while I was a lighting tech for a play Josiah had a role in. They played members of a gang of thugs looking for vigilante justice. We all got along really well during the play, and this summer we’ve hung out together almost every day. I think Eric is like us in many ways. His folks don’t miss him when he’s not around, either.
I hate the BATs because I am poor and they are not. I envy them because I am poor and they are not. It is hard to decide if I hate or envy them more. I want to hate them, but I’m more afraid of envy. It troubles me that I want to wear Polo shirts and tri-colored deck shoes. I want my dad to be able to afford a new car for me to drive. I want to be part of the “in” crowd. I feel terrible for having these thoughts, but I do. I think that is why I like Eric so much. He’s hard-core and doesn’t take bullshit from anyone. I wish I could be the same, but I care about what people think about me, and I try to play in both worlds. This summer is different, though. I feel more at peace with who I am. I think it is because of all the time I spend with Eric, my brother, and Andrea.
As we pull up to her house, she runs to the van, her hair flying behind her like the tail of a comet.
“Did you get them?”
“You know it.”
With an expression of happiness, Andrea smiles and says, “Let’s eat.”
No one thought to bring a knife, so we decide to smash open the watermelon against the bumper of the van. The flesh is cool and sweet, and the juices flow freely down our faces. There may be no better taste than that of a freshly stolen, perfectly ripened watermelon. It is liberating to eat with no utensils. It brings out the evolutionary past in a person. Our ancestors did not care about table manners. When they were hungry, they found and ate food. Tonight we are cavemen. Just like our ancient ancestors, it is for survival that we do what we do. We did not need to steal the melon to survive, but we needed to do something to survive the wretched dullness of this place.
No one should judge us for what we did. In fact, they should thank us that we did not do more. We are filled with teen angst, economic uncertainty, and bitterness. For God’s sake, Ronald Reagan is president. At any minute, nuclear missiles could destroy us. They tell us greed is good and “just say no.” Excess is everywhere, but none for us. There is so much uncertainty in our lives. We are no longer children, but we are far from adults. We have each other, and right now that is enough to occupy our thoughts and actions.
“Let’s go see Rupert,” Andrea pleads.
Rupert is a stupid white duck that lives at the municipal golf course. We met him a few weeks ago on a jaunt to the greens. It is the only park in Manteca that is open after dark. We had originally gone for a change of scenery. When the sprinklers came on, Josiah and Eric stripped to their underwear and ran through them like children. “Come on with us, Andrea!”
“Umm, yeah I don’t think so, pervs,” she giggled.
When they returned, soaking wet, a duck followed them. Andrea was instantaneously in love with him. She decided that his name must be Rupert because he was ugly but adorable. We would visit Rupert a few times a week. He would receive gifts of crackers and stale bread, and Andrea would play with him while Josiah and Eric ran through sprinklers.
We load into my old red van and hurry our way to the golf course. “Let’s get tacos at Jack in The Box,” Eric says.
“Alpo tacos, really,” Josiah answers.
“The best thing ever, and they’re cheap as dog shit.”
I laugh so hard, we almost wreck. “We are not getting cheap-as-Alpo-dog-shit tacos. We have to see Rupert.”
We pull into the parking lot, and as always, there is no one else here. There is never anyone here at night. I don’t know why. It is peaceful. After a summer day in the valley, where it was 103 degrees, it is cool outside now. The whole vibe is relaxing. When I’m here, I feel like life is better. My mind tends to forget the facts of my banal life and starts to question in the night. What are we here for? Why do people hurt each other? Am I destined to live like this forever? These are the types of questions I think of here. I can sit, ponder, and try to make sense out of senseless things. Many times I come here alone to think, but it is always better to come here with my friends. When I am here with them, I feel more joy than burden.
As we wait for Rupert, I look at Andrea. I have seen her hundreds of times, and each time is memorable. Andrea is beautiful, stunning actually: seventeen years old, almost six feet tall with chestnut brown hair and big hazel eyes. She is a vision of lovely femininity. We met at the beginning of our junior year. She was new and pretty, so she got a lot of attention. She seemed to like just hanging out with friends, and she didn’t date much at all. I think it is weird that we are close. We have mutual friends and a class together, but to me it is strange that we spend so much time together. Almost daily, on my way to pick her up or hang out in front of her house, it strikes me that she should be somewhere else with more popular people, but here there is something familiar between us four. We fit together, and sometimes my imagination lets me think we are in a John Hughes film. We are hodge-podge of characters that unite to become greater than the sum of our parts.
The sprinklers are on, and Josiah and Eric are gone in a flash. As they run, I think I see a bare ass this time, so they have graduated to full on naked sprinkler running. Andrea and I sit on a bench and wait for Rupert. She has brought the stale bread and some watermelon. I know the duck won’t eat the watermelon, but I don’t say anything. I look out to the 12th fairway and see where it starts to dog-leg right. The pine trees that line the fairway rustle with a bit of wind, and there is almost a nip to the August air.
“Andrea, why are you here?”
“To see Rupert.”
“I know that, but why are you hanging out with us? You’re beautiful and charming, and we are definitely not. We are more like apes,” I jest. “Shouldn’t you be at a party with the super popular kids and dating some good looking jock?”
There is a long pause, and I know that I have offended her. I didn’t mean to. I am about to apologize when Rupert comes waddling up. He quacks and seems happy to see us. Andrea quickly throws him some bread. There are a few moments of uncomfortable silence as Rupert eats his bread. Then Andrea speaks, “You want to know why I hang around you guys? It’s not that hard to figure out.” There is a break in her words and she throws more bread to the duck.
“Have you seen my mom this summer?”
“Once or twice when we come over, I guess.”
“Yeah, well, I haven’t seen her much more than that. She’s not around much.”
“Where is she?”
“Work…boyfriend…I guess…we don’t talk much since my brother died”
“Geez, Andrea, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“My mom can’t deal with it, so she just isn’t home much. It sucks. I mean… I have nightmares, and when I wake up no one is there. Everyone else treats me like I’m not real. They avoid me or look at me with this ridiculous pity. The whole “beautiful” thing is way overrated, too. Guys want to get in my pants, and most girls think I’m a bitch because of the way I look.”
A tear rolls down her cheek. She picks a piece of watermelon out of a plastic bag and throws it to Rupert. He looks at the melon and looks back at us. I don’t know what to say. There is an awkward silence. Then Andrea speaks, “Family, that’s what you guys are to me…family. When I’m with you guys, I feel safe. I’m not alone, and I know there are people who really care about me…just me. You guys treat me like I’m normal. Most days I’m barely hanging on, and then I remember you, Josiah, and Eric are coming soon. That makes me happy.”
I am stunned because she is right. I should have realized this by now. “You are my brothers, and I need you.” It is at this moment I realize that this is true for all of us. We are a family, and we need each other. Our families have let us down, and we have sought out new family.
Andrea leans against me, and I instinctively put my arm around her. “Rupert is the best pet I’ve ever had. If I had a pond at home, I would take him tonight. He gets me, too,” Andrea says.
It is a few minutes after midnight, and Josiah and Eric come walking up. Their clothes are damp, and they are laughing at something. I look at Andrea and smile, “Your idiot brothers are here.” She laughs and throws more bread to Rupert. We go back to the chariot of freedom and get in. As I start the van, Eric says, “Tacos sounds great!” We decide to go through the drive thru at Jack in the Box.
As we pull through to pick up our order of a dozen Alpo tacos and four drinks, I notice Christy is working the window. Josiah leans over me and says, “Hey Christy, how is your new B-mer? Is daddy making you pay for insurance?” We all impulsively giggle.
Eric chimes in, “Tell daddy I will be back tomorrow with Brutus. I’m feeding him all these tacos.”
Christy look bewildered, and we erupt with laughter.
We pull up to Andrea’s place, and she opens the door. She gets out, takes about three steps, turns around, and comes back. “I love you guys; you are the world to me.” She turns around and runs to her door. Once she is in, we drive away. We drop Eric off and tell him we will see him later. Josiah and I drive to our home in silence. We are both tired. When we get home we hit the sack, and I fall asleep immediately.
That night, I dream of a princess. She has three faithful bodyguards who protect her from all manner of evil. They would lay down their lives for her, as she would for them. Together they have many adventures riding a giant duck that does not like watermelon.
Shayn Davenport is a husband and father of three wonderful daughters. He earned a B.A. in English and English Literature from Southern New Hampshire University. He has been a writing tutor for seven years and started his teaching career in 2015.