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An excerpt from Ragtop Impala
There stands Drew, another Friday night, another dusk spent waiting in the driveway for Ike to arrive. It is just past sunset, the sky yields purple to black, the fluorescent streetlights flicker on without much commitment. It is still almost a hundred degrees outside. At this moment, Drew wants nothing more than his own car.
Headlights flood the street and Drew notices his lungs opening up; there is a physical relief at Ike’s arrival. But instead it is his father bringing his little brother home from diving lessons. The Volvo pulls into the driveway; Drew moves aside. The passenger’s window rolls down and the sweetish smell of fried chicken tickles him, makes him pause a moment, as though he’s forgotten something. “I thought we were eating together tonight?” his father asks, still holding the wheel. There it is, thinks Drew, his second strike of the day.
The flood lights on the eucalyptus trees flash on and the three look toward the backyard. It gives Drew a moment to think. The trees look ghoulish tonight, lit from below, thick leaves draped heavily over the branches. The limbs sway, although Drew feels no breeze—they are mourning, he thinks, they are trailing behind the dead. “Ike’s picking me up and then we’re headed to Brady’s house,” he says with an anger that surprises even him. His father takes a breath; Drew scuffs the pavement with his foot.
Keith offers, “Hey, Drew, I did a back dive today.”
“Yeah?” Drew asks, leaning into the car again, focusing on his little brother, still wrapped in a towel, still wearing a wet swimsuit, a bucket of steaming chicken in his lap. “What about the high dive? Are you ever going to go off the high dive?”
Keith swallows and blinks as though he’s been smacked—it is that way between Drew and Keith. They rarely leave each other feeling good. Drew wishes he was a different kind of brother, confident enough to tousle the kid’s brown curls and kiss him on the forehead. He goes mute as Keith swallows and says, contrite, “I’m not sure, I think you have to be in the other class to go on the three meter.” Keith plainly admires Drew and it breaks Drew’s heart.
“When are you going to be home?” his father asks.
“There’s a movie. I’m not sure.” Drew looks directly at his father, wanting to force things, to see whether his father will tell him to cancel his plans and come inside to eat some chicken, spend some time.
But his father just nods, and to Drew it feels as though they’ve just agreed on something, although he can’t imagine what. It scares him, all of it: watching his father reach to adjust the radio or the air conditioning, then give up. “Be home by midnight,” his father says.
Drew nods and Keith begins to wave, but reconsiders and quickly puts his hand down. The car pulls up the driveway, into the garage, shudders to silence. Drew looks eagerly to the street, waiting to hear the back door slam shut, sealing his father and brother inside.
Instead, Drew’s father tells Keith to go wash his hands. “You set the table. I’ll be in for dinner in a few minutes. I just want to get the newspaper. Don’t eat all the biscuits.”
“Is Drew in trouble?” Keith says, his voice cracking with concern, and it makes Drew smile. Drew listens for his father’s reply, but can only hear the squeaky hinges on the back door. Then, the sound of his father’s footsteps coming down the driveway to retrieve the newspaper—it’s only a few feet behind Drew, splayed open on the pavement. His father is tall and walks the length of the driveway in long, slow steps, an aging ball player, too fatigued to run. Drew decides to remain quiet, challenging his father to do the work. His father bends over and Drew gives him his back. Let him see how my hair is long enough to curl at the edges, Drew thinks. Let him burn.
Just then, the expected comes: “Colton Mix called me today,” the words Drew had been waiting for.
A car passes on the circular drive that leads to their street and Drew imagines himself in it, the wind cooling the sweat on his neck. “Yeah, that’s what he said he was going to do,” he acknowledges. There is gravel all around, everywhere Drew looks, in every yard, pink, cream, colors that match the houses. He squats to pick up a handful and it is warm to the touch. He lets the stones fall, one by one, to the cement of the driveway, knowing he will have to sweep them away tomorrow morning.
This is the moment he’s been waiting for. He knew his father would confront him about the afternoon. Colton Mix had kicked Drew off the tennis team. Drew deserved it, after all—he’d let all his rage fly at C.J. Schiff, who had taken Drew’s ex-girlfriend, Val, skiing. It began when C.J. unintentionally beaned Drew with a volley, then there was cursing and finally, C.J. threw his racquet down in a fit of anger. And for Drew, that was enough for him to hurdle the net and tackle C.J. to the ground. Coach Mix was able to pull Drew off C.J. but Drew shoved him and that was the end of his tennis season.
His father steps toward him. He’s over fifty, but at moments like this, when he summons his full height, Drew is still afraid. His father stands before him and even on the slope of the driveway he towers over his son. He is waiting, smacking the newspapers against his leg, and there is no ignoring him.
“Dad, I don’t know. I pushed Coach Mix, all right? Is that what he told you?” It didn’t escape Drew that his voice sounded like his younger brother’s, pleading.
“Drew, he told me you pushed him after he pulled you off C.J.”
“C.J. threw a racket at me, Dad. Then Mix comes over and tells me if I want to fight somebody why don’t I take him on. So I shoved him. Then he kicked me off the team. I mean, you’ve played tennis with him. You know him—those bullshit drop shots he hits to Old Man Hill. That’s the kind of guy he is, he’s an asshole.”
Drew caught his father smiling despite himself and noticed the lines on his father’s face, around his mouth. His father was readying to speak, but a car pulled onto the street—the old Impala convertible Ike’s father had bought for him as a birthday gift.
“Does this mean I can’t go out?” Drew asks.
“Drew, this means I need some help. I can’t be the only one working here. You’ve got to step up now, you know that. I can’t do this all by myself,” his father says, exasperated, gesturing with the newspaper. “See you later. 12, okay? I’ll be waiting. We’ll talk then.” He taps Drew affectionately on the shoulder with the paper and waves to Ike before turning to walk back up the driveway, unaware of his son’s skillful jump into Ike’s car. It is something Drew wishes his father knew about him, this random, untethered facility and grace that always seems to escape his eye.
Ike yells at him, “The upholstery man, the upholstery—have some respect!”
And it feels good and right to Drew to yell back, “Get me out of here, you fag.” There is hot air on his face and he feels entitled to a night of velocity. That’s the word he thinks of, velocity, the word that seems exactly right to him.
They twist through the dark streets of Paradise Valley, a town that has outlawed streetlights and is nightly sheathed in desert and expansive wealth. Ike does his best to hit unsuspecting jackrabbits on the quiet streets. Drew is quiet, willing to listen to the music and ignore Ike’s stupidity. He doesn’t respond to Ike’s questions or his latest lie about some girl. He is wondering what is in store for him at midnight, what his father will say—did Coach Mix tell him everything? Drew realizes this is one of the moments he recedes into himself, girls form their opinions about him in moments like these—this is why Val chose the word cryptic to describe him.
It takes ten minutes to get to Brady’s house. Brady isn’t waiting out front for them, so Ike leans on the horn and it seems like minutes before Brady’s father appears, framed by the front door and yells, “Ike, you’d better end that. Or I will.” Brady’s dad had a framed picture of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima in his den.
Brady emerges a few minutes later, jogging to the car, still wearing his football cleats.
“Who are you, man, fucking Zendejas? Do you wear those things to bed?” Drew says, using his thumb to direct Brady to the back seat. He would like to turn to Brady, to tell him about the afternoon.
Ike sounds like a disapproving mother, “What, did you bring the ball, too? Does Mina know you dress like that?”
Brady is big and bulky, his father’s son. He doesn’t need to care about their stupid jokes: he is the football star, dating the captain of the track team, he can do what he wants.
He steps on the seat and Ike puts up a fuss. “When you two losers get cars, I’m going to destroy your fucking rides and we’ll see how you like it.”
“Okay, I’m telling you,” Brady says, “go to the end of the block and take a right.” Brady directs them to a house that isn’t more than a few blocks away, although it might as well be miles. To return to Brady’s Drew would need bread crumbs: the streets are that dark and twisted. Ike stops on Cactus Wren, in front of a yard lined with overgrown orange and grapefruit trees, garish because they go unclipped, unlike other yards. The fruit is soft and shriveled, rotten already, by March.
“Yup,” Brady says, smiling. “I told you. I used to work for her in the summer, clean her pool, you know. She gave me lemon cookies and milk. It’s okay, pull up under that one.” He points to one of the larger, overgrown orange trees.
Ike hesitates, drives slowly over the gravel in front of the house, quietly edging his car beside the tree. The branches scrape against the paint; Ike winces, but says nothing. The trees are at least ten feet tall, but the branches hang low enough to touch their heads as they sit in the convertible. Leaves, dark green and sharp, linger over them, an invitation. Brady stands on the back seat, Drew climbs onto the trunk and both grab limbs wrinkled and tough. There are thorns. Drew hesitates, indulging for a moment the thought of how nice it could be: his father and brother, fried chicken, a copy of Time magazine, the couch. Ike scrambles to cover the interior with a giant plastic sheet, stolen from the loading dock behind the Smitty’s where his little brother bags groceries.
“What the fuck is that?” Brady whispers, incredulously, looking to Drew for confirmation that Ike is an exceptional puss.
“The seats, man, the seats. You think I want moldy citrus staining my leather?”
“Leather?” Drew says, “Right.”
Ike watches the other houses for lights to go on, or off, a car to swing round a curve in the road, for anything at all to change. Drew gives the branch a shake and a couple dozen stinking oranges thud into the crevices of Ike’s convertible. Brady’s style is all his own—he shakes the branch hard and the fruit pounds into the car. Then he moves on. But Drew won’t let a branch go until the last orange drops. He resolves himself to it, thorough, holding on until the last orange is in the car, until thorns scratch his thighs bloody. He is standing on the trunk of Ike’s car, like some kind of triumphant warrior. After five minutes, Drew realizes, they already have more fruit than they can use, even though the fifty or so oranges in the car barely carpet the floor. But there is something about this simple chore that is satisfying, and he wants nothing more than to linger there, in the black heat, filling an Impala with oranges.
When they finish with the first tree it is bereft of all but 2 oranges. Ike eases the car forward, to a tree sagging with pink grapefruits. It doesn’t look like it has been fertilized and Drew imagines the skin is inches thick, impenetrable, the meat shriveled and bitter. Ike keeps vigil over the neighborhood and Brady is slow to start on this second tree; he is clumsy and bearish. Drew gains momentum, though, rattling the tree until it is empty, then dropping to the ground and tossing in the fruits that have fallen to the gravel. They empty two more trees: one lemon, another orange, before they are satisfied with their haul. Drew shakes the last branch so hard that Brady has to whisper fiercely, “Enough, man! This is too much. Enough, let’s go.” The car is half full; oranges and grapefruits have buried the floor and sprawl over the seats so that Drew and Brady struggle to make room for themselves, Brady in front and Drew in back now, pushing the fruit into pyramids, forced to sit on them, lose their limbs in them.
Ike is laughing as he finds his way back to Lincoln Drive from the maze of dark, quiet streets and turns toward downtown Phoenix. The wind is loud in their ears, and they all reek of citrus. They are crazed with the oil on their fingers, the hundreds of grapefruits dizzying them, the random waxy leaves poking out between lemons. The edges of the plastic ruffle in the wind and Ike has to shout to Brady, beside him, “So, you hear about Drew and C.J. Schiff today?”
Brady looks at Drew, who has turned sideways in the back seat and dug his legs underneath the grapefruits. Drew imagines himself a victim of random crime being rushed to the hospital. He stares at the mountains. He feels Brady’s unwavering stare and his voice seems inevitable, “What happened between you and Schiff? You kick his ass?” Brady picks up an orange and digs his fingers into it.
Drew is quiet. He takes his eyes off the mountain, looks at Brady and shrugs, “I guess.” There is a weariness between the two of them, too profound for people so young. They have witnessed too much of each other.
“God, did you see what you did to his shoulders?” Ike can’t resist. “I thought you guys were friends, man. Like last week you were getting Pete’s Fish and Chips with him. Then today, after it happened, you should have seen his back—there were blisters. Coach Mix had to hit Drew with a racquet to get him to stop, like some kind of ‘roid rage.”
“Mix hit you?” Brady looks again at Drew, offering a chunk of the orange.
“Yeah, next thing I push Mix into the fence,” Drew lets out a little smile. He takes a piece of orange. The warm air is cooking the fruit, it seems. He feels like sliding beneath all of them, burying himself, drowning, letting Ike just drive.
Ike shouts into the rear view mirror, “Did Mix kick you off the team?”
“I don’t know. Yeah, I mean, he did, but I don’t know.”
“You’re pretty tough, lately, huh?” Brady shouts into the sideview mirror. There is a bitterness, an iciness to his voice. “Soon you’ll be coming after me?” It is a challenge, Drew knows, and he wants to be able to explain himself to Brady, but it is as impossible as asking to turn the car around to go home.
Ike slows for a light, looks around to see if anyone will take note of them. Brady puts a piece of fruit in his mouth and still shouts desperately, although they are at a dead stop in a quiet neighborhood. “Fuck C.J., man. Fuck his fucking cabin in Aspen and fuck Val, too, if that’s what she’s about. I mean it. It’s time to find you somebody new—what about that chick in econ man, with those braids?”
The muscles in Drew’s jaw tense. His fingers still tingle, the tips slightly numb, but the sensation doesn’t bother him. Even though he knows Brady is disappointed in him, something about Brady’s voice makes him feel justified. He wishes he could have witnessed himself push C.J. to the hot asphalt of the tennis court. He wants to be able to see it again and again, his knee against C.J.’s stomach, his hands pressing C.J.’s bare shoulders against the radiant service court. He hadn’t planned for any of it, but now, he’d pay special attention to C.J.’s skin, press him down a little harder, hold him there a little longer, let him know what it felt like to be left. It burns.
“Van Buren, man, take Van Buren,” Drew shouts to Ike.
Ike wants to drive Washington toward Patriot’s Park, but Drew is convinced his is the right way to go.
Cheap motels line Van Buren west of the airport. They were designed in the late fifties, when Polynesian architecture was in vogue. There are totems, strange tribal faces painted on the sides of buildings, on the asphalt of parking lots. A lot of orange and yellow paint coats Van Buren. The roofs sweep upward, somehow seaworthy. The names are lost: Kon Tiki, Tahiti Grove, Samoa Inn. Most of them are abandoned, surrounded by razored chain link fences, the paint peeling, the buildings collapsing upon themselves. On two corners between Thirty-fourth and Twentieth Streets, there are prostitutes.
Ike drives slowly toward downtown Phoenix. He wanted to target the bums in Patriots Park, but it is obvious that Drew likes the variety of color and desperation found on Van Buren. Brady, awed by the overwhelming plainness of the women, says, “Maybe we should get out and show some leg-we’d be the hottest corner here.” They all look at the scene with hunger, as though they have waited years for this night, instead of since last weekend, when Brady dreamed it up over a warm beer. Drew eyes keenly anyone with straight blue-black hair, long legs, the kind of girl who would wear a Mickey Mouse watch, anyone capable of breaking a promise—someone like Val. He watches the city scroll by him, men in shiny pants leaning against cars, smoking cigarettes, wearing hats, short guys in front of Mexican food joints, an old guy sitting in a lawn chair in the middle of a used car lot.
Ike pulls into the parking lot of La Tolteca, idles for a moment. “Are you sure?” he asks the two, “You didn’t see any cops, right?” Drew looks up at a cargo plane, its gear dropped, ready to press down upon Sky Harbor. Death is as simple as this, Drew thinks, as simple as this lustrous jet, a silly hollow machine screaming out of the sky to end everything. He shakes his head. Then, Ike peels out of the lot, speeds down Van Buren, twenty miles over the speed limit.
Brady climbs up on his knees in the front seat, holding grapefruits in each hand. He hurls one at a stop sign that clangs when struck, but the fruit is so thick it fails to explode, just thumps to the ground. Next, he opts for a thin-skinned orange and tosses it against the stucco wall of Jack’s Big Apple Bar-B-Q, closed for almost a decade. His pace then turns frantic, oranges and lemons now, all at crappy old Pintos and Vegas parked on the side of the road. He throws fruit at everything standing, shouting to Drew, “Come on, man! Move!”
What is fuzzy for Drew: the voices and the shouts in Spanish from people in the streets, Ike screaming when lights go yellow. Drew has selected one orange from the back seat; it is heavy and overripe in his hand. He watches Brady throwing the oranges and lemons randomly, at the street lights, the bright masks painted on looming wooden poles. But Drew spotted a family on the corner when they had driven west. It looked like a group of sisters, the oldest in charge of the rest. It wasn’t possible she was the mother. They all had long dark hair, pulled back in pony tails. The oldest wore a long green skirt, but the younger ones ran around in shorts, into the street with no regard for traffic, playing a miniature game of baseball, of all things. They looked carefree. It galled Drew, to see them playing in the middle of Phoenix, as the planes screamed past and the smell of greasy food cut through the citrus.
He climbs up to his knees in the back seat and can feel the fruit crushing and soaking his shins through his jeans. It stings. Drew releases the orange from his hand.
Drew watches it happen, and even though Ike guns the car, the action unravels slowly for Drew. He watches the impact of the orange against the little girl’s mouth, the explosion of pulp and peel-the impact forces her head back, as though she’s been in a car accident, whiplashed. The glove drops to the ground. Drew is plainly shocked, yet there is an alarming beauty about such precise connection, however flawed his aim, however true his intention. He can’t hear a thing except the engine and Brady shouting, “When are you gonna stop this?” Brady slaps Drew’s mouth with an open hand, and it is nothing Drew didn’t expect, but still, it is sobering and Drew blinks his eyes furiously to keep the tears in.
Within ten minutes they are safely hidden in an empty church parking lot, behind a hedge of oleanders. Brady opens the passenger door and a flood of fruit empties out onto the sticky asphalt. . . .