Authors: Cynthia D. Grant
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The White Horse
Cynthia D. Grant
We're flying down the road in this big old car, my mother at the wheel, a Marlboro in her mouth, the windows open, hair blowing all around, her pink arm spreading out the window
“Wanna see this thing do a hundred?” she says
She cranks up the radio. It's howling
I've just learned to count to one hundred in school. We're headed there now. The little arrow zooms up. Forty, fifty, sixty. The country road becomes a runway. We hurtle through a world of streaming color. The Buick shudders as if it will fly apart, pieces shooting into space; tires, doors, my heart. Seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred. One hundred miles per hour in a ton of creaking metal, the engine screaming, one hundred and ten
“Shit.” My mother's fooling with the tape deck, hunting all over for her favorite cassette, looking through stuff on the floor, the dashboard. I'm steering with my eyes. She slams in the tape. A torrent of distortion blasts out of the speakers; her theme song, the music she hears in her head when things get broken and out of control, cops pounding on the door in the middle of the night
“Where's the stewardess?” she jokes. “I need a drink.”
My mouth opens and closes. No sound comes out. Like that goldfish we had. No plants, no friends. No food, sometimes, when my mother forgot. Or sometimes it ate ten times a day because we all wanted to feed it; we'd never had a pet. I'd watch that fish's mouth open and close and wonder what it was trying to tell me
“This baby handles great,” my mother shouts, feeling in her purse for a cigarette. Usually the backseat's full
of kids, poking and pinching and slugging each other, until my mother hits like a meteorite; out of the blue, and hard
I've never been alone with my mother before. And I'm thinking: We're going to die
The city limits sign suddenly looms ahead. She punches the brakes and the cigarette lighter. We sail into town at thirty miles per hour, our
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT
bumper sticker flapping, past the disappointed cop who's waiting for speeders. She waves at him; he doesn't wave back
We cruise the main drag to the elementary school. I'm late, again, but they won't ask for a note. If they do my mother will pound on the counter and shout
QUIT PICKING ON MY KID
. Nobody messes with these kids but her
She steers that boat into the parking lot. Such a tiny little lot, full of teeny toy cars. She slams on the brakes; the engine's running, gunning itself, crap pouring out the muffler
A woman walks by and shoots us a look, but scurries away when she sees my mother's face. She's never lost a fight, and I've seen plenty, like the one last night with the badass biker. He said she'd burned him; he wanted his money back. His friends had to carry him out
She lets me kiss her cheek. I hop out and wave, but she's already gone, peeling rubber, like the cops are coming. They probably are. She hits the boulevard, tires screeching, as if she's just remembered something important, something crucial, like:
I'M OUT OF DOPE
I used to wonder: How can she do so much crank and still be fat? Most of the speedfreaks I knew were scrawny; skin stretched tight over skeleton bones. My mother gobbled down buckets of food: fried chicken, fish and chips, chili dogs, cheeseburgers, washed down with Coke, at least a case a day; some plain, some fortified with “Vitamin A,” rum or vodka or whatever was around. She liked beer too and seldom got drunk; the drugs kind of balanced things out. She hated pot. Pot made her mellow. She didn't want to relax; she had to stay on guard because people could turn on you any second. Even the people who said they loved you. She didn't trust anyone enough to pass out
The teacher stopped reading. From across the desk she could feel the girl's eyes on her face, like hands.
She chose her words carefully. “This is remarkable, Raina. It's even more moving than your poems.”
“It's bullshit. Just a bunch of words.”
The teacher's head snapped back as if she'd been slapped. But she kept coming, she was stubborn.
“Raina, why do you act like this? Why can't we talk?”
“I didn't know you'd lived in the country.”
“We been everywhere. It didn't work out.” She shoved a Marlboro into her mouth.
“You can't smoke in here.”
Got it lit. Exhaled.
“You're a smart girl, Raina, with genuine talent. You can do something with your writing. Your life.”
“This is my life. Real pretty, isn't it.” She grabbed the pages, crumpled them up, threw them into the trash and walked out.
I am not cut out for this. I'm a lousy teacher. The kind who uses the word “lousy.”
I am so discouraged. I want to quit. I am starting all my sentences with “I.” As if what I want (I yi yi, I can't stop) matters one iota.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm helping these kids. Independent Study doesn't amount to much, but it's better than dropping out. Half of them don't show up for our weekly meeting; they're too busy getting stoned.
Sorry, Miss Johnson, I forgot
. Or working full time, because their parents kicked them out, and they're trying to support themselves. And their babies.
Out of sixteen students, five already have kids. Babies having babies. And on and on. While so many people who desperately want children can't have them. No matter how hard they try. It's enough to make you crazy.
Janessa's having a terrible time with math. She says why does she have to figure stuff out when she can use a calculator? I tell her it's important to understand the concepts. What if there's a worldwide battery shortage? She just looks at me with those big, blank eyes. Anyway, she says, I'm not going to college.
Joe's working more and studying less; his rent eats up most of his salary. He can't go home; his father's made that clear. I've got to find him another book; he can't relate to Shakespeare.
Sam wants to quit so he can work full time; his mother needs more money. Gee, I want to say, has she thought about getting a job? I'd strangle some of these parents if I could ever get them here.
I'm tired tonight. Maybe that's the problem.
I've got to remember to:
1) Test Luis and Carl.
2) Call the JC re: Scott's transcripts.
3) Check with the American Legion re: Sara's scholarship application. We should've heard something by now.
4) Get the custodian to do something about the ants. I realize we're not the biggest school in the district but we're treated like a problem stepchild, a distant relative. The District Office can't spring for a can of bug spray? Is that so much to ask?
5) Buy bigger panty hose.
6) Quit whining.
I met with Raina today. If looks could kill, the ants would be gone and so would I. She talks to me on paper but not in person. She's locked inside herself and won't come out. Toby told me she's homeless; maybe living with her boyfriend? She keeps coming back here. I don't know why. She shows me these beautiful poems she writes, then opens her mouth and blows my mind. She looks like a little girl but she's not. I've got to keep that in mind.
Ricardo says Brenda is carrying a knife. Something about her stepfather. I've got to check that out.
He was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, even now when he was so skinny. She'd watch him sleeping and think: He's mine. His chest was pale and smooth, not hairy, with a tattoo here, and here, on his arm.
They were lying on the floor, legs walking all around them. It was time to get up. The room was cold. She nudged Sonny's shoulder. He woke up foggy, reaching for a smoke, but the pack was empty.
“Cigarette?” she asked somebody passing by. One dropped in her lap. She and Sonny shared it.
Miraculously, the bathroom was empty. The door wouldn't lock, so she held it closed. She rubbed her fingers across a lump of soap and washed her face. Dried it on her sweatshirt.
Someone pounded on the door. “Come on! I gotta go!”
Kimmy came in and flopped on the toilet. It was her apartment and Rita's and Caleb's. “You guys got any money?”
“No,” Raina said.
“I'm starving. What time's the Food Pantry open?”
“Don't know.” She went there only when she had to; they gave you dirty looks with the day-old bread.
“There's gotta be something around here to eat.” Kimmy zipped up and they went into the kitchen, but everyone had scarfed up the crumbs like ants.
Sonny stumbled over to her, holding his head, skinning back his long white hair with his fingers.
“How you feeling, baby?” she asked him, knowing. His face was pinched. They had to do something quick. Every day it got harder to feed Sonny's pet.
He'd been busted several times. Got out right away. Told people his dad had pulled some strings. His father was a bigshot lawyer for the city. She knew he wouldn't even take Sonny's calls. When Sonny was sixteen and still at home, his dad came into his room one night, looked down at him lying in the bed, and said, “I wish you wouldn't wake up tomorrow.”
She figured Sonny walked by turning names. He'd be dead if people found out.
Last night they'd sat on the roof and talked. Sonny told her everything was going to change. He always did that as soon as he got high, feeling in control, no muscles screaming. “We gotta quit this stuff and get healthy,” he'd said. “Start over. Get jobs and a place of our own.”