Karen Lee Boren
Thomas lights a match, tosses it onto the pile of old clothes, and runs. He’s doused the clothes with charcoal-lighter fluid, so he expects a hell of a whoosh. He’s not disappointed. As smoke plumes into the air, so black, such a satisfyingly hideous message to the gods, he dances in a way that would get him beat up if anyone at the center saw him, a sort of leprechaun-elfin dance mix, with lots of feet and knees and a little ass-shaking thrown in for joy. Before long the flames dissolve to nothing but cloth bits and black ash.
Nothing good lasts for long, he thinks as he kicks the remnants with his sneaker toe. He considers stealing another bag from the St. Vincent de Paul donation dumpster and doing it all again, but he’s used all of the lighter fluid, and he’s no arsonist. He’s just bored. Lonely, too, he supposes, although such an admission would get him attention he’s worked hard to avoid. He’s cultivated the expression on his face, in his body –chest puffed, a little bend in the knee when he walks – that asserts, don’t trifle with me, I am a serious man. Mostly the other kids don’t. Mostly the staff at the center doesn’t either.
So why does he find himself avoiding the afterschool hang out that’s supposed to keep him out of trouble but has only been only fifty-fifty on that score lately? For a while, he was a big man there, helping the little ones organize games and keep them fair. Coach Jules had made him a Leader, with a badge on a shoelace hanging from his neck, so the young ones would know it was official. He’d been doing all right there. Doing all right in school too until Glo-Glo started her shit, started messing with him, his head, his stomach all knots and leaping frogs, and her all the time pretending she wasn’t doing more than looking right through him.
Glo-Glo. Brown-black hair that she puts some sort of sparkle stuff on to make the light reflect from its surface and give her a sort of halo. Angel Glo-Glo, with a stick-straight body that moves like tall grass in the wind when she weaves her way through the games room, noticing no one special, doing nothing special, waving hey-there to someone she’s friendly with regularly. Glorious Glo-Glo, who tucks herself into a corner seat and opens whatever book she’s brought along to read, alone all afternoon, never looking up, never bothering to notice how he’s hovering near the pop machine, only a foot away, so close sometimes he can smell her shampoo, or her body shine; on hot days he smells her sweet sweat, but she never once gives him an opportunity to say, gentle and charming like he practices in his head, “How are you, girl?” Or maybe he uses his thoughtful and smart voice, “What’s that you’re reading?” He can imagine all range of things to say to her, ways to say them, always polite, always a Serious Man, a Leader with a shoelace badge proving it.
Why can’t he say a word? Why won’t she let him?
He ponders this as he jogs away from the riverbank, through the sad, old graveyard that’s overgrown with weeds. The headstones are knocked over leaving spaces like the ones in the little kids’ mouths at the center. They’re always losing their tiny teeth, wiggling them loose, blood streaming down their chins as they wail like hurt puppies at the sudden spaces they’ve made for their tongues. Thomas used to help stop their crying. He wiped their lips, sent them back to some game, the tooth wrapped in toilet paper and stuffed into their pockets to show their moms later. He took care of their skinned knees and elbows too. They always seemed to be falling down. Coach Jules used to count on him to help out. Coach’d give Thomas a wiry smile that included him in the grown up amusement at the little kids’ clumsiness.