Tucson, 1966 by Paul Justison

School rebel Mark Stenrud is threatened with suspension and sent home, so he joins some friends on a road trip across the Mexican border that will change his life, in Paul Justison's coming-of-age tale. 

My inner clock had beaten the alarm by almost four minutes. Not sure why I even set the thing. Safety maybe. Dressed and opened the door of my sanctuary. Quiet in the rest of the trailer, and I kept it that way eating a bowl of Rice Chex. Avoided Mother's heels and a pair of boots in the living room, shut the door behind me, and strode out of the Oasis for Mobile Living.

Often on the way to school, I'd glimpse the mountains ringing the town and remember peaceful walks in their shelter. Sometimes I'd picture what else surrounded Tucson - Titan intercontinental ballistic missiles. We could destroy 18 Soviet cities with the 9-megaton nuclear warhead on each Titan. Our annihilation would occur with the initial Soviet strike or from the resulting fallout. I never worried which.

A modern architect designed Javelina High with bold shapes and real curves. They could hold geometry class touring the buildings. The school board wouldn't hire him again though. All the curves offended their stiff minds. I should know. At a dance junior year, they suspended a girl and me for doing the two-step too close. I'm positive our chests or hips never touched; I would have known. But those curves had to be kept from contact; the shape alone was enough to offend.

First class after lunch was chemistry with Mr. Boone. He had a puffy face and thin lips he was reluctant to part. As I finished today's experiment and cleaned my work area, a classmate came over and said, "Mark, the principal wants you."

"What for?"

He shrugged and lowered his eyes. Delivering messages to the school's rebel with or without a cause was probably not a task he'd volunteered for, so I nodded and got off my stool. Eyes around the benches rose. Mr. Boone sat motionless, face averted, hands out of sight. I gave my lab book a gentle toss plopping on his desk. "My book, Mr. Boone." I sauntered out of the classroom and over to the lobby of the main building where big globes dangled from the ceiling. Disneyland was our nickname, but I liked plain old Javelina High and our prophylactic mascot, the Trojans.

Mrs. Apariencia stood behind the counter in Administration, a flip curl in her hair, and a light blue sweater with only the top button closed.

"What's this all about Mrs. A.?" I asked. She didn't belong here; she actually cared about students.

"I don't know, but they've been in there a while." She nodded toward the principal's office. "Whatever is happening, remember, you have scholarships waiting."

Dean Gall interrupted. "Mr. Stenrud, please come in."

I entered the principals' den - photos on the walls, trophies in a cabinet, and hardly a book. Four of them - Principal Piltz behind his desk, two deans on a divan, and my track coach in a chair. Someone from a different planet or continent would have a hard time telling them apart - Anglo, buzz-cut, short-sleeved white shirts, and clip-on ties.

Dean Gall began the inquisition. "Mark, this is serious. We cannot allow students to disobey their teachers."

"OK. What's this have to do with me?"

Gall had the pinkest face of the four. "Don't play games with us."

"I'm not. Please, tell me why I'm here." Had someone blamed something on me?

Principal Piltz couldn't wait to take over. "Mark, we know what happened. Mr. Boone asked you to remove your pin, and you refused."

"He didn't even speak to me today, and he sure didn't ask me to take off my pin." I usually wore two or three anti-war pins. Today, I just had on my "USSR - Hungary 1956 / USA - Vietnam 1966" pin. I'd taken a liking to it after I'd read a paperback Mother's latest had left around. The cover featured a beautiful Hungarian named Ilona wearing black, and Sandor, a kid my age, holding a smoking machine gun. During the Hungarian uprising, Sandor shot Soviets and threw Molotov cocktails, while Ilona taught him all about what women want. She certainly taught him more than any kid at Javelina High knew.

"Mark, are you with us? We're talking about your pins."

I snapped back. "I wasn't asked to take this pin off, and I don't see why I should."

"Are you accusing Mr. Boone of lying to us?"

"Why isn't he here?"

Piltz came around his desk, and stopped in front of my chair, towering over me. "Mark, we are deeply concerned that your pins are creating an unsafe condition for our students."

"They're pins, not bombs."

"They could lead to violence. You'll have to stop wearing them if you are to remain at Javelina High."

I was surprised by this ridiculous demand, but years of Mother's training kicked in - breath slowing, senses on alert. "This is totally wrong. I wear pins to protest our inhumane assault on the Vietnamese people. We have freedom of speech. We have elections for class offices - young Republicans, young Democrats - and you want me to stop wearing my pins?"

"This is not a debate. You'll stop wearing them or you'll be suspended." Piltz caught himself and reduced his glare. "Mark, we think it best for you to go home for the rest of the day. You'll have the weekend to think things over. There'll be no penalty for missing your remaining classes."

I didn't know what to say, so I stood. They weren't ready for that, so I left with my tiny victory of surprise.

Mrs. A. wasn't behind the counter. I marched out of campus and down Dodge Boulevard for three-fifths of a mile. No sidewalk, just dirt and gravel. No trees, just telephone and utility poles. I didn't stop until I crossed Grant Road and reached the Oasis.

Our little lot was in the first row I'd come to. Mother's car was gone, and I went inside the trailer. Left my books in my room and went back outside to the cinder block temple of hygiene. The male side had four showers, toilets, sinks with mirrors, and electrical outlets. I guessed the female side was similar. Trailer parks had their pecking orders; those without plumbing were at the bottom and had some stigma attached for using the communal showers. I didn't mind though, in fact I preferred leaving our bathroom to Mother and enjoying the torrential water pressure in the communal blockhouse.

The shower faucets released their elixir from high up on the wall. I stood, upright imagining a glorious waterfall - cool water cascading over smooth rocks, spray all around. The fast, smooth liquid worked for a time, keeping the shameful prospect of not wearing my pins out of my mind, but the faces of the administrators kept coming back. I couldn't let them win.

I changed in the trailer, used my fingers as a comb, slung my corduroy sport coat over my left shoulder, and ventured out for the night's poetry reading. The university was about three miles away, less than forty minutes with my long legs and easy stride. I could take a bus, but there were better uses for my cash. Besides, there was a cool November breeze. I avoided main streets with cars screeching, squealing, honking, and tailpipes releasing. Avoided the signs selling, stores purveying, eyes everywhere judging. Angled instead through residential streets, quiet and unbothered.

The reading was in a redbrick Unitarian church. I'd toured it a month before and was amazed there was no confessional. I realized then why nuns had taught us it was a sin to visit churches of other religions. They didn't want you to learn you didn't need a priest in a box for forgiveness.

As I reached the church, across the street I saw two people I'd met at the last reading. The guy called to me and I went over to them. "Remember us," he said, "I'm Chas, and this is Terry." He had an easy smile and brown hair fell over his ears and onto the collar of his army surplus jacket. Terry was far more interesting - hands hard in the pockets of her open navy pea coat, lean face untouched by makeup.

"You two going to the reading? I have some new poems."

Terry shook her ponytail, blue eyes sparkling in the streetlights. "It's cancelled. They put up a sign yesterday."

"What a drag!"

They whispered something and Chas asked, "You smoke weed?"

I smiled.

Terry took a step forward. "My little sister Lauren is here from Scottsdale for the weekend. I'm not setting up a date or anything, but we're going to a party tonight, and I don't want the college boys hitting on her. Would you come along?"

"Sure, but will she want to?"

Terry laughed, "She's a high school senior too and you're, well, you're..." Her smile grew. "It'll work out."

Chas had a car I'd never seen before - a Citroen - plush inside and roomy enough for my lanky body in the backseat. We stopped at a two-story Spanish-style house, and Terry brought out her sister. Blond hair shorter than I'd ever seen on a girl, revealing a high forehead and giving me a start. Her flared nose was set at the barest angle, which made her all the more exciting. She sat a little stiffly. A jerk of the steering wheel or a big bump could send her right on top of me. At least, so I was hoping.

It must have been five minutes before she spoke. "So, what's the surprise - where we're going, or is it him?"

Terry looked back at her sister. "I told you at the house. We know Mark from the poetry readings. He has a great voice, and he makes the poems come alive."

Lauren finished assessing me and asked, "Great voice! You're looking at a career in radio?"

I couldn't tell if she was being sarcastic, or just playful. "Maybe, if I can pick the music."

"You into surfer music?" she asked.

"No, not really. I like the Stones a lot, the Byrds, and the Who."

She relaxed and sank back into the seat. "Sing something with me."

"I'm not very good at singing."

"C'mon, 'Can't Hurry Love,' sing it with me!"

"Really, I can't sing." Wasn't sure I remembered the words either.

"Come on!"

I couldn't resist her smile and we sang a few verses.

Terry turned back to us. "Hey, you two, you're ruining the song."

Lauren landed an easy punch on my shoulder. "You're right, you can't sing at all." She moved closer, then asked the front seat, "Where are you taking us?"

Terry said, "To Nogales. To a Tokeathon."

Chas asked, "Have you been to one in Mexico?"

We each said no, and I didn't volunteer the fact that I hadn't even been to a domestic Tokeathon.

Terry studied us while Chas drove and talked. "We've got three cars. One's getting the brick. One's bringing drinks, and we're buying food. We're all meeting up on a hill outside town. We have one important rule. Never put any weed in your pockets. They could search us going home. Got it?"

Lauren and I chorused, "OK."

Chas said, "We're going to stop for munchies before we cross the border."

Being fond of Mexican bakeries, I asked, "Why don't we get pastries on the other side?"

"You speak Spanish?"

"Enough to buy pastries."

Terry handed me a ten. "There could be fourteen of us, is that enough?"

"More than."

We had to wait at the border with all the Friday night traffic, but when we pulled up to the Mexican checkpoint, they just waved us through. Chas didn't take the easy way out of town, heading instead down the main business street. Shops specializing in gallons and half-gallons of tequila, rum and any other saleable variety of liquor outnumbered the craft, leather, and clothing stores. Cheap booze brought the masses across the border.

We found a large panaderia with hundreds of sweet baked goodies neatly arranged in four glass display cases. A nice old lady, who didn't look like she enjoyed too many pastries, boxed up an assortment of three dozen with some of my favorites: empanadas de pina and conos. After I paid, a man in a gray suit spoke to me in Spanish. I asked him to repeat it. He did and I still didn't get it, at which point most of the shop tried to suppress their giggles and laughs, and the man got a little red in the face. But he recovered and said in English, "I'm sorry young man, I didn't want to embarrass you, but I was complimenting you on your Spanish." I mumbled something, shook his hand, and pondered the problem of knowing only part of something.

With our shopping finished, Chas found the fast road out, and we headed south and then east. Houses grew further and further apart, and the naked, solitary light bulbs burning outside almost every front door cast less and less light on the hills. Soon the barking of chained dogs gave way to the howling of coyotes, and Chas turned off the main road and up into the hills, stopping next to a VW bug and an old milk delivery truck. We found the others up on a small plateau and Chas introduced me and Lauren. A tall, broad-shouldered guy named Peter gave us the same rules, and said we'd have to do the seeding and stemming because we were first-timers.

He took us to a flat area, where a brick of weed wrapped in orange cellophane rested on newspaper. I'd never seen one before. It was maybe 4 inches by 8 by 12. He broke off a chunk of compressed stems, buds, and leaves, releasing a sweet and earthy scent. He showed us how to clean it and left us to the task after rolling a few joints. Lauren started gathering buds, and I began the finger-scratching task of separating weed from seeds and stems.

Peter came back after we'd cleaned a fair amount and lit a joint for us. I asked him, "Are we going to smoke all of this?"

"No way!" He laughed. "We've got a connection who gives a good price on a brick. Sometimes he'll sell half. Even with a full brick, it's cheaper and safer than buying smaller on the street."

I wasn't sure I understood, but I let it go and he left with the buds and loose weed. We relaxed looking at the stars while the others hung out nearby, smoking and laughing.

"You going steady?" she asked.

"No, you?"

All I got was a sarcastic laugh and we went back to cleaning. Peter reappeared with another guy and said we'd done enough. He gave us a joint the size of a small cigar. "Once you get it going, just take little puffs. There's juice and soda over there with those pastries you brought. We don't have any blankets. We don't want any weed getting caught on them."

As they were leaving, the other guy stared at Lauren, probably at her short hair. She turned her head and looked down, her lips pursed.

I wanted to move closer, but wasn't sure and instead asked, "You OK?"

Her shoulders eased and she turned to me. "What do you think of my hair?"

I didn't think, just said, "I like it because it lets me see all of your face."

She smiled. "No one has ever said that."

"Can I run my fingers through it?"

"Maybe."

I reached part way, hand suspended inches from my target, but she pushed it away and held out the cigar-sized joint. "I want to light it, but I'm cold."

I moved closer, until we were shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip. Got up the courage, and started to put my arm around her, but she turned her face to me and then back so fast, I hesitated.

Time went by as her magnetic field kept pulling me, while I reluctantly resisted, unsure and uncertain. Then I felt her arm around me. Relieved, I put mine just above hers and we stargazed for a while. Most delightfully, she rested her head on my shoulder.

Terry came over. "You two OK?"

Lauren looked up and said, "We're fine."

Terry said, "Those pastries are really, really absolutely good." She jumped up a foot or so. "Yeah... they're... they're really good. Absolutely... far-out good." She walked and jumped off.

"My big sister is really... really... absolutely stoned." We laughed and Lauren pointed to the colossal joint. I got it going, and we toked for a while. Legs intertwined and arms wrapped around each other, we switched from star gazing to face gazing.

Chas plopped down next to us. "Hey you two, I brought pastries and juice."

I didn't realize how stoned I was until I looked at Chas and tried to speak. He saw me trying to talk, grinned and said, "Nothing in your pockets," and headed back to the group.

Lauren found my lips with hers. Our senses doubly alive from the weed, hit high registers of whoopee. Kisses lingered, triply amplified with the palate twisting tastes of juice, pineapple pastry, and crème-filled cone.

Peter came over with another guy, who asked, "Hey man those pastries... those pastries. They were like out... out of this fucking world. You got any more?"

"No, I brought them all up."

He bit his lip and started walking around in little circles.

Peter asked, "You need any more weed?"

"No, we're fine."

"We'll be heading out in a while."

They left, and we went back to face gazing and kissing until my inner clock interfered, and I asked, "Maybe we should test our legs."

"I want you next to me."

"We could walk around together."

"You just want to show me off!"

"Yes, I do!"

She smiled and lurched up, me following. She fell back and I caught her, but I lost my balance and landed flat with Lauren on top of me, face-to-face.

"You did that on purpose," she said.

"No, but I liked it." Then I felt something pointed beneath my back. "I have to get up. I'm lying on rocks." We gathered our debris and shambled over to a small, freshly dug garbage pit. We dumped our trash and joined our companions in cross-border enlightenment by the cars. A tall redhead, hair tumbling out of her watch cap, said, "Listen up, you dope-fiends. We don't want to go over the border together, so we'll draw straws."

Chas got the short straw and we had to wait twenty minutes. We stood by the Citroen, checking out the stars and shaking out our limbs until Terry asked, "Say Mark, can we get something to eat this side of the border instead of waiting here?"

"I know a place."

Cool wind rushed in and out of the open car windows, dispelling our rich aroma until we slowed, entering back into town. After a few turns, we saw the neon sign - Bar de la Prensa. Inside, five men sat at the bar. Only one turned to look at us. A waiter gave us a table in a corner and I ordered from the small menu - fruit drinks, and plates of eggs with machaca. We were the only gringos, but we weren't drunk and loud, and nobody but the waiter paid us any attention. Even so, we were all a little zoned and could've gotten paranoid, but the food came, and we started with curious appetites. Hyperactive taste buds mapped the contrasts of moist but charred beef with chilies and tomatoes, creamy eggs, and hot tortillas - every distinct flavor pleasantly amplified. As we finished, we pushed back our chairs, satisfied and softly stoned.

Chas looked around and asked, "How'd you find this place?"

"You used to be able to bring back a gallon of liquor for every person in a car, so grownups would bring kids along to get more booze. A friend's dad liked to eat here. I liked coming with him. He'd teach us Spanish to pass the time on the drive."

The waiter brought the bill, and I started to contribute but Chas looked at the number and waved me off. Back in the car, he said, "They could take us inside and search us at the border, but we're OK because we've got nothing, and the smell should be gone by now. And I'm the only guy with long hair, so just look straight."

At the checkpoint, Chas answered a few questions from the border agent, who looked us over and seemed puzzled by Lauren's short hair, but he let us through.

Terry let out a rush of air and said, "That was the easiest time we've had in a while."

Chas said, "Maybe he went on average hair length."

Terry looked startled for a moment and then changed the subject. "Mark, where are we dropping you back in Tucson?"

I was about to answer when Lauren leaned toward her sister. "We're not dropping him anywhere; he's staying with me."

Chas kept his eyes on the road, but offered some helpful insight. "Terry, no one could get a putty knife between those two tonight." She shrugged and laid her head back on his shoulder. Lauren slid next to me, gave a dreamy look, and drifted off, her arms and legs corralling me.

I'd expected to be dropped off, likely arranging to meet again, so I was overcome with joy and shock when Lauren claimed me for the night. Never felt like that before - my eyes wide open, basking in the glow of Lauren and the receding pot. Memories of my other sad experiences tried to invade, but her warmth kept them away.

Inside their Tucson house, Terry took Lauren into another room, and I followed Chas into the kitchen. Dishes, glasses, and supplies stood neatly behind the glass of wood cabinets. Windows over the sink looked out on a side yard. Chas poured glasses of cold water and gave me a big one-armed hug. He said something, but I barely heard, focusing instead on trying to remember the bedroom lessons Ilona had given Sandor in my Hungarian novel.

Lauren found me in the kitchen and tugged me toward the stairs. She went up two at a time and I did the same. In her bedroom, she opened the blinds on the French doors, starlight spreading across an unmade bed.

We stood staring at each other in the striped cosmic rays. I was frozen standing by her bed, but I watched her face go through the same emotions until magic intervened and we held and kissed. Stripped off our jackets and stumbled into bed, as if we were still on the rocky hill. Got warm, arms around, holding and caressing, legs intertwined. Exploring lips banished fear and memories, and we linked at the hip, two halves of a bicycle sprocket going through the gears - climbing, racing, coasting, climbing again, and gliding on into glorious sleep.



Next morning, Lauren drove her sister's Austin Healey, but she wasn't too smooth with the clutch. "Don't say anything," she said as the Austin lurched into second. "Don't say anything!"

"I didn't."

"You were about to."

"I'm just watching you because I like watching you."

"So, why do you want a work shirt?"

"Because you want to buy me something."

"But why a work shirt?"

"It doesn't cost much, and I have a sudden need for one."

"What's the sudden need?"

"I'm going to be suspended from school if I don't stop wearing my peace buttons, and I want to do something different to drive them crazy."

"So, you're going to wear a work shirt?"

"A work shirt and a tie. The young Republicans all wear dress shirts and ties. But what's the difference between a work shirt and a dress shirt?"

She slugged my shoulder. "I like you."

I continued Lauren-gazing until we parked at the army surplus store. She wanted to buy me three or four shirts because they didn't cost much, but I only let her get two roughly textured ones - a light blue and an olive.

She was smoother with the clutch when leaving, but she parked six blocks away in front of a two-story brick house with a large yard and a low plastered wall at the sidewalk. "How many girls have you been with?"

She'd caught me by surprise. "Why are you asking that?"

"I want to know."

Happier than I could remember, and then buried memories sucking out my breath. I felt safe with her, but why was she asking this? I couldn't place the emotion on her face. She wasn't smiling or frowning. Trepidation, was that an emotion? What emotion I had, I didn't know. What I knew was that I couldn't stay in the confined space of the car. "Can we sit over there?" I didn't wait for an answer, just got out and sat on the low wall.

Lauren said, "All right, we're here now."

I looked at her, at my knees, back at her, and felt maybe I could tell someone who'd given me such joy. But I looked back at the sky trying to avoid her question. She nudged up against me and a dam broke somewhere inside, and I just started blurting it out. "Before last night, I'd only been with two and I've never told anybody about this." Looked at my knees some more. "The first was a big woman. She owned a house in Florida that Mother had moved us into. I was 14. She raped me."

I raised my eyes to see her reaction. Her look had turned to confusion or shock. Tried to keep my eyes on her but couldn't. I'd look at my knees again, then the Austin, the clear desert sky. "One afternoon, she and I were alone in the house. I was tall, but not this tall, and pretty skinny. She was large, fat I guess, and tall for a woman. She had me carry something into her bedroom. She pushed me on the bed and got on top of me."

"Maybe I could have fought my way out from under her, but I didn't. I didn't even think; I just shut down. She took off her bra and her breasts hung, big and fleshy. She put my hands on them, and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Kept trying to look at something else, but all she had on her walls were bright colored dog paintings: hairy dogs, hairless dogs, small dogs, big dogs. I couldn't focus on them. My mind kept coming back to her and what she was doing to me."

I had all Lauren's attention. Nothing outside our space on the low wall existed. "She took..." Unused to tears, I had trouble going on. I couldn't find my refuge, my solace, my numbness.

"You don't have to tell me anymore." She had an arm around me now and tears of her own. "I'm sorry; I didn't know you'd tell me anything like this."

"No, now I have to!" I'd raised my voice, but caught myself. Ran my hands though my hair and rolled my head. "She took off my pants, but I wasn't hard. I'd dream about girls and look at pictures and get hard, but I didn't then. She started licking and kissing my cock. It felt really weird, but she got on top of me and rocked and rocked, like I was some dick on a board."

"That bitch!" She was mad and I liked that.

I couldn't sit in that open-air confessional any longer. Lauren sensed something. She tugged me up, and we walked hand-in-hand.

"My second was much different. There's a girl at school I've known a couple of years. We've been friends and we talk about politics and colleges. We started making out and then we did it, but it was completely awkward, and I felt odd afterward. I like her a lot and she really wants to see me, but I just feel uneasy. I don't know what to do." I looked into Lauren's listening eyes. "That's all."

We drove back to her place without words, only freshly dug secrets.

Terry wasn't home and we went into Lauren's bedroom. Noon light shone through the open French doors. A breeze stirred tall yellow flowers in a red vase.

I felt dirty and wanted to feel clean around Lauren. "I need a shower."

She had a real bathroom, like my grandparents. Smooth, almost white tiles, some with sketches of cacti. She followed me into the glass-enclosed shower.

"Soap?" I asked.

She shook her head. "It dries out your skin." She squeezed liquid from a bottle and washed me up and down. We dried each other off with a big fluffy towel and lay on her bed - me on my back, her head on my chest. "My sister lied to you a little. I don't go to school in Scottsdale. I used to, but now I go to a boarding school in Texas."

"Why'd you switch?"

She propped herself up on a bent arm. "It was more than just changing schools. I had a huge fight with my dad and shaved off all my hair. "I was so angry with myself and angry at some boys, and I was ashamed, and everything was..."

She looked away, then back at me and continued, "I had a sort of boyfriend. We used to make out, and then we did it, but it was like nothing; it wasn't as good as just making out. I tried again with him, but the same thing, nothing. I tried it with others and the same thing, nothing. Then everybody was talking about me, that I was this horrible slut. Dad's friends found out and then Dad... he might have been better if Mom were still alive, but..." She sat up, eyes still on me. "That was really hard, because I know he loves me, but he freaked out. I didn't know what to do. Terry was on a trip. I couldn't talk to her." She closed her eyes. "I flipped out and cut off all my hair. He threatened to send me away to school. I told him, 'go ahead, get me out of here.'"

I wanted to make it right but didn't know what to say. All I could do was listen. She wrapped around me and we lay there as the light retreated across the room.

We didn't hear the car or the front door, but we heard the voice. "Lauren, I'm home."

Downstairs, Terry sat in the living room on a red sofa. Three arched French doors behind her gave a view of a backyard and a wall of white oleander beyond.

"You look terrible! Both of you!"

We did look terrible, our faces all tear-streaked.

Lauren sat next to her sister. "Don't worry, we've been talking. We cried a lot too."

"You've been talking all day?"

"Well, we went out to the store, but yeah, we've been here most of the day. I told Mark what happened. All of it. He told me things too. But now we're hungry."

Terry looked at me. "Lauren told you everything, and you're OK with all that?"

"I'm OK with Lauren." I sat down across from Terry.

"And what did you tell Lauren?"

"Personal things."

"And he doesn't have to tell you," Lauren said, "but he understands me."

"Why don't you freshen up and let me talk to Mark?"

"I'm not freshening up. I'm not some freak to talk about when I'm not here."

"I didn't mean anything like that; I just wanted to talk with Mark."

Lauren said, "Sorry, Terry."

I watched them hug, hug as people who care for each other do. Terry looked at me, then back to her sister. "Look you two, I'm responsible here, and I'm probably not doing a very good job. My sister gets her first weekend get-out-of-jail-free card, and I set her up with a boy I hardly know, but a boy who reads poetry, so I think it'll be safe. And then..." She looked at Lauren and then back toward me. "Mark, I want to know about you."

I told her a lot. Not everything, but I didn't hide anything a sister should know. Told her about my parents' divorce, my unusual mother, and my likely scholarships. I said, "Terry, I know you have to look out for Lauren, but I couldn't hurt her. I've been hurt myself. It wasn't what she went through, but I would never... I'm not like that."

Terry looked at us, until her own tears started, and she stood. "I have to finish a paper. You two can hang out here or go out, but I have to take Lauren to the airport early tomorrow morning."

We went out. Lauren offered me the keys to the Austin, but I selfishly declined. Watching her was far more pleasurable than paying attention to the road. We parked in the empty bank lot across from the Oasis for Mobile Living.

"Which one's yours?"

I pointed. "I won't be long, just long enough to change."

"Please, I want to come with you. It doesn't bother me what it is. I just want to see."

"If I were certain Mother wasn't there, but I'm not, and I don't want you to go through what might happen. She's a certified witch."

I entered the trailer as noiseless as James Bond entering an enemy compound. Put the new work shirts away and changed into jeans and an Oxford shirt.

We ate at El Dorado on South Fourth. It was mostly a pool hall and bar, but the food in the restaurant was tasty and cheap - chile relleno for Lauren and a chimichanga for me. In mid-bite of the crunchy, deep-fried burro, I was struck by the change in my life. Before yesterday, my sensory joys had been quite limited, but looking at Lauren enjoying her stuffed green chile, I realized my pleasures had been multiplied by some factor far greater than two. All my sensing meters had developed greater range and depth - the bite of chimichanga and the image of Lauren in front of me, both were amplified.

She convinced me to drive back because she didn't know the way in the dark. I'd only used a column-mounted shift, and the floor-mounted took some adjustment, but I had it after a few blocks. The gas pedal precisely summoned more power than I'd ever felt. I wished it made any kind of sense to take the freeway back, but that was out of the way.

At a stoplight, Lauren squeezed my thigh. "You're enjoying this, aren't you? Want to drive around for a while?"

"We should give Terry the take-out while it's still warm."

She laughed. "That's not what's on your mind."

At the house, Lauren gave Terry the enchiladas while I took the stairs to Lauren's room. Inside it, I didn't have a minute too myself before Lauren came in, kicked off her shoes and pulled down the covers on her bed.

It wasn't perhaps the right time to ask, but she hadn't mentioned her mom, and I was curious. "What happened to your mom?"

"She got cancer and it happened very fast. A long time ago. I hardly remember her." She looked away. "Enough talking for now." She moved on top of me, her eyes grazing. "Don't you wish we'd met long ago?"

"I'm not supposed to talk."

She jabbed my shoulder and started wrestling. Wrestling turned to caressing, kissing, embracing, and everything else, until we were spent, two nesting spoons asleep, knees up, heads down, one hand cupping a breast.



Next morning, I showered while Lauren packed. When I came back into the room, she'd opened the French doors and the sun threw flashes off her green earrings. She'd dressed in boots, jeans, a white blouse, and a blue plaid jacket. There wasn't much I could do to help, so I sat in a big chair that looked comfortable but wasn't. I sensed a sweet and fresh scent. It had been around Lauren before, but it always vanished, just as I noticed it.

"What's the aroma?"

"My perfume is one Mom liked. It has violets."

I'd have to study perfumes as part of my new sensory development, but now I listed reasons to be happy. They all had to do with Lauren, and she was leaving. I needed some idle chat to distract me. "Is this a guest room, or is it yours?"

"Guest room. The house was my uncle's and when he died, my father inherited it. Terry convinced Dad to keep it, so she could live here and not in the dorm." Finished packing, she lounged across my lap. "I'm so glad I met you." She hurried a kiss, stood up, and locked her suitcase. Then she sat on the bed facing me. "Mark!"

Something was coming.

"I want you to see that girl that goes to school with you - the one you told me about. I want you to see her and be nice to her."

I almost stood up. She'd made me feel happy, safe even. And now, so confused. "Are you ditching me?"

"No, no! I just don't know when we're going to see each other again, or if we will. I don't want to hold on to you if it might not work. But I want to see you again, and I want to write to you."

"I don't understand. I really don't."

"Maybe I don't either, but I don't want you to be lonely."

"I can deal with that."

"But I don't want you to." She sat on my lap again and ran her fingers through my hair. "Promise you'll write to me, and that you'll be nice to that girl?"

"I promise I'll write, and I promise I'll think about it." I wanted to know, and I didn't want to ask, but I did anyway. "Will you go out with other guys?"

She frowned. "At that school? Fat chance, but it's for me to decide. I get to choose what I want and be proud, not ashamed."

I shouldn't have asked, but she didn't seem to mind.

She stroked my hair again. "It's time."

I carried her bags to the car and gave a stilted wave as Terry accelerated out of the gravel driveway. I sat on their front steps for a while. Their house reminded me of grandfather's house: lots of windows, and quiet, heavy doors - and all I'd lost with his passing.

8 comments:

  1. This isca very wellmdone piece. I wanted to keep reading from the first paragraph.

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  2. Starts off interesting, apparently about a teenage rebel in the sixties, setting well described, then turns into a bit of a more nineties style "Dazed and Confused" memoir type story of drugs and teen romance with a modern confessional twist. I'd call it Tucson 1996. The bit about the grandfather at the end introduces something new, so it's a bit confusing, but this could be an excerpt from a novel.

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    1. You're right Harrison. It is a novel excerpt. The first chapter in the novel has also been published. It's here - https://therumpus.net/2016/10/rumpus-original-fiction-april-1968/

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  3. Very nostalgic, mixed with both happy and painful memories. The characters were nicely developed and their motivations/interactions were believable. For me a moving glimpse into an unfamiliar time and place, definitely felt immersed in the setting.

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    1. I put a lot of work into the setting, so your compliment means a lot!

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  4. Well-written. You really pull off writing about that age and staying in character.

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  5. Themes of rebellion, initiation, and loss intertwine in this coming-of-age tale set in the wild 1960s. Writing in crisp, elegant prose, Paul Justison takes us on an emotionally charged ride through transformational times. Definitely worth the read!

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