Fall 2008, Volume 25.1
"Scarf" is a work of fiction about James Iredell, a real person, who wrote the story and who grew up in Castroville, California, but who now lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His fiction, poetry, and nonfiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The Chattahoochee Review, Zone 3, SUB-LIT, Descant, Elysian Fields Quarterly, The Literary Review, GSU Review, ISLE, Terminus Magazine, and numerous others. He is production editor of New South and teaches at Georgia State University. He is currently shopping his first novel, Burnout, about family, addiction, and the countercultural experiment of Burning Man.
I was a jerk as a kid. I had reasons for being a jerk—many reasons—but the result was always the same: dead. I think I got over it when I almost pulled off something stupid, hitting another kid at school—Michael Tsung—over the head with a lead pipe because he threw an Oreo cookie at me. We were in the seventh grade at lunch and I thought I had to do something to show I wasn’t a pussy. Scarf was there and by this time I had a reputation and had to keep it up because Scarf would’ve tried slashing my toes with the nail he’d flattened when a train passed on the rails outside of town. He’d sharpened the nail to razor-sharp on the electric whetstone at the carniceria in the Toro Shopping Center next to Bing’s Diner, where his father worked. When I said dead, I didn’t mean death to Michael Tsung or anyone else—I never really wanted to hurt anyone—but death to a part of me, the part that made me want to cry when my mother worried because I hated going to church, the part that offered Darla Darlenson a seat on the bus home from school each day because the other kids made fun of her babyfat cheeks and thick glasses. Finally I had to put an end to all that dying, because soon there wouldn’t have been a decent part of me left.
Scarf popped into my life like a gift when it wasn’t my birthday. We had both lost girlfriends: he because Erika’s grandfather wouldn’t let his granddaughter even talk to boys at thirteen, much less a known Norteño like Scarf; and me because Anna Morales had not known how to say no when I had asked her to go with me on a whim after fifth period math. I’d only asked because having a girl seemed like the thing a guy was supposed to do. So Scarf and I had something in common.
I used to hang out with Michael Tsung, Toby Bennet, and Vincent Randall—kind of dorky white kids (well, all except Michael, who was half Chinese) from my neighborhood who played instruments in the band, which was pretty dorky. The cool kids (i.e., the Mexicans) wore dark clothes and got into fights and were infinitely more popular than me. I wanted to hang with their crowd so I started kicking it with Omar Mercado, Rafael Padilla, Memo Bravo, and a bunch of other guys who were all very different from me: I was white, they were Mexican; they chatted on and made fun of me in rapid Spanish, and I had only learned enough to catch a phrase here and there; they lived in Castroville in small houses with their grandparents and cousins, aunts and uncles; and my family—all five of us—lived in our three-bedroom, two-bath house in a wooded development three miles from town where the closest Mexicans were those working in the strawberry fields beyond the vast green lawn and forest of oaks that made up my back yard. To be white and middle class meant I was out of place at school; I was the minority. Omar and Memo made fun of me all the time. I was chubby and gangly with long arms and legs and too big of a head and I couldn’t play basketball worth a shit. And then, at the height of Michael Jordan’s career, if you couldn’t play basketball, you were automatically a loser.
Scarf was tough and looked it. He wore his black hair dyed blond on top and used hairspray and gel to comb it almost straight up. His mullet came down long and straight to the small of his back. He wore checked brown and red flannel shirts, buttoned to the neck, and loose-fitting polyester pants with black boots. He had XIV, the Norteño number, tattooed on his forearm and a long scar on his right cheek. That was why he was called Scarf—short for Scarface—but he hated the name and threatened to kick anyone’s ass that would say it to his face. He was Antonio Hernandez, and the scar was what remained from a scab he’d picked after falling face-first onto a railroad tie on a poorly landed bicycle jump.
My mother’s shop sat in Castroville between the Fairway Supermarket and North County Florist, which was perfect because my mother’s best friend, Janet, owned the florist and they drank bottles of Napa and Monterey Chardonnays every afternoon; so fresh bottles weren’t far away at the supermarket, and neither of them got much work done. This was good for me too. Sometimes, instead of taking the bus home to watch television with my brother and sister, I could stay in town at the shop—and later I walked the streets with Scarf—until my mother finally locked the store and we went home at 10 PM. Mom boasted the only gift/antique shop in town and often gave the Mexicans deals when they shopped for relatives in Guadalajara, which afforded me some limited leverage in the community. I never introduced Mom to Scarf, though. She probably wouldn’t have liked him, or thought he would influence me in bad ways (which he did), and his parents were Norteños too and I don’t think gangsters spent much time antique shopping.
I’d known of Scarf for some time, but we didn’t actually meet until one day at school when I had a bathroom pass. He sat on a bench beside the basketball courts, ditching class (a very cool thing to do), and he was slicing his arm with that flattened nail. Drops of blood had pooled on the blacktop between his feet.
"What are you doing?" I asked. Scarf just looked at me with crazy, wide eyes, red-rimmed from what looked like crying. Then he held that razor-sharp nail up so I could see it for a second, before he swiped it across the end of my tennis shoe. The nail sliced the leather, and by the time I moved out of Scarf’s reach, I saw my white cotton socks through the slit. Scarf jumped up, stood on the bench, and waved the nail in my face. "Don’t fucking say anything, or I’ll cut your face," he said.
"I’m not saying anything," I said, scared as hell. "It looks kind of cool this way."
"Let me cut the other shoe."
"Just one’s better. Don’t you think?"
Scarf shrugged, and sat back on the bench. I didn’t want to seem scared of him, and so I didn’t leave when perhaps I should have. I didn’t want to get hurt, but somehow I thought if I talked to this guy, maybe I’d have a cool Mexican ally. My way in was that I was a good listener, and I knew that I would listen to Scarf.
I noticed that he wasn’t merely slicing his arm, but was carefully carving a girl’s name there. "Who’s Erika?" I asked.
"My girlfriend," said Scarf, not looking up from his work.
"Oh, that’s cool."
"What’s so fucking cool about it?" Scarf looked at me, the craziness in his eyes again.
"You must really like her to do that."
Scarf looked down again. "I love her." He practically whispered.
I knew that I loved my mom and dad—even my brother and sister, though they got on my nerves—but I had just gotten used to the idea that it was okay to sit next to a girl on the bus or in a classroom. I guessed that my mother and father loved each other, but that felt different. When my father came home from trips to clothing conventions in New York and Chicago, my mother’s smile crawled across her face and her teeth showed, her eyes squinting, like mine do when I laugh. My father would say, "Hi sugar booger," as he wrapped his arms around her, patted her behind. Mom said, "Hey Mr. Love." It embarrassed me, but it also felt okay, like that was how things were supposed to be. I couldn’t begin to understand how Scarf could love Erika, so that interested me right away.
"Wow man," I said. "That must be cool."
"It fucking sucks," said Scarf. "We can’t hang out."
Scarf then told me all about Erika’s grandfather, who was a rancher and her legal guardian. They had money while Scarf had none, and Erika’s grandfather was old and watched his granddaughter like the guards at Soledad prison down the valley watched their prisoners. He even drove by the middle school during lunch to make sure she wasn’t with Scarf.
I knew the girl Scarf talked about. She was one of the pretty ones; that much I could tell. There were some girls with eyes that looked to be hiding something, a secret they might let you in on, and I wanted to know what it was. Erika had eyes like that. That and a butt that I wanted to put my hands on, though at the time I hardly knew why. I had never spoken with Erika before and Scarf, telling me her story, wiped the blood that hadn’t clotted on his pantleg. I felt sorry for him and thought that if I had Scarf on my side I could get in better with the other Mexicans at school. For once I could be a cool kid. I said I’d help him and Erika to be together. He shrugged, but said thanks. Then I went back to class. Scarf stayed; I wasn’t as ballsy as him.
That day after school I ran into Omar and Memo at Seymour and Cooper Streets. They asked if I wanted to go with them to Omar’s house. I was about to say yes, but the look in my eyes must’ve shown my eagerness to be included because Memo, three inches taller and forty pounds heavier, pushed me hard and said, "No gringos allowed, puto." He and Omar turned their backs, laughing as they walked away. My face turned red and I was about to cry, I was so embarrassed, but kids from school milled all around me, walking home, and I didn’t want to soil my pride further. I sucked it up and glanced around, to see if anyone had noticed, and I spotted Erika carrying her books and walking slowly with her head down, the other kids turning sideways to pass her on the sidewalk. I was normally very shy with girls, having only recently gotten the gumption to even speak with them at all. But since Erika was Scarf’s girlfriend, I didn’t feel like I would need to impress her. So I waited until she reached me at the corner, and then I simply said, "Hi." She looked up for a moment, said hello, and let her face drop toward the ground again, and continued walking.
I let my pace match hers. "Why are you so quiet?" I asked.
"No reason," she said.
"You look sad."
"I guess so."
She stopped walking, looked at me. "I don’t even know you."
"I know your name."
"Well, what’s wrong?"
"Today’s my mother’s birthday."
Erika began to walk again, now faster, looking straight ahead. My pace kept with hers.
"What will you get your mom?" I asked.
Erika looked sharply at me and then started to cry. "My mom is dead," she replied. "I’m not getting her anything."
I felt like an idiot for not remembering that her grandfather was her legal guardian. "Sorry," I said. She said nothing and then a big white pickup slowed in the street and stopped next to us. Erika’s grandfather wore a white cowboy hat and his face was clean-shaved and pock-scarred from acne.
"Erika!" said her grandfather from the driver’s side window. "Que estas haciendo? Quien es esto?"
"Un amigo, solamente," said Erika. But I couldn’t tell what they said, only that it was about me.
"Ven mija!" said her grandfather. He watched me with half-open eyes, like I’d seen my sister do with her homework before she got her glasses.
Erika hurried off the sidewalk, hopped into the truck and they sped off. I watched them leave, then continued to walk; there wasn’t much else to do but go to my mother’s shop.
My mother and Janet chatted about an upcoming trip to Cabo San Lucas when I walked through the front door. Yvette, the pretty, dark-haired lady who was my mom’s only employee, smiled her hello as she took down an old toy wagon from a shelf for an older couple.
"Are you sure you’ve got that, Yvette?" said my mother. "Be careful now. Oh God, Janet. You wouldn’t believe this guy at the front desk last year. Hello sweetie. Look at you. Would you tuck in that shirt please?" My mother, as usual, talked to three different people at once, about three different things.
"Hey kid," said Janet. She always called me that and I hated it, but she was mom’s best friend; how could I tell her off? I nodded, chin up, like I’d seen Omar do to Memo when they met for lunch in the cafeteria.
"Would you please say hello to her, James? What is this nodding thing?"
"That’s the cool thing to do, right?" said Janet. "Everybody at school doing that?"
"Yeah, yeah. Huh, huh," said my mom in her deep tough-guy voice that she used when she made fun of me. I smiled. Even though my mom was well mannered and Catholic, jogged everyday to stay fit, and wanted me to do the same, she was still pretty cool.
"Mom, can I have some money to go to Burger King?"
"So this guy?" asked Janet.
"Oh. Yeah. This guy was just such an ass."
"He wouldn’t even upgrade our room."
"Yes, yes. Come to the back; I have to let Janet out anyway. She has to go back to work." They laughed. They really did have work to do, but they lagged at getting it done.
Once in the back my mother added conversation topics to her repertoire. "Oh. Yvette," she whispered, so the girl up front wouldn’t hear. "She was late again today, smelling of vodka."
"Well, she does a good job," said Janet.
"Sometimes. And you know, we’re owners at this place. I was real upset."
Mom talked about her time-share. Whenever things didn’t quite go her way she’d bitch and complain. Last year the resort was booked during her annual stay, so they couldn’t put her and my dad up in their usual private cabana; they had to settle for one of the regular hotel rooms and Mom angrily gave the board of directors a piece of her mind.
"Here’s five." She handed me the bill. "Darla Darlenson came in yesterday with her mother. She asked about you, James."
"Oh, has someone got a crush on you, Jamie?" asked Janet.
My mom opened the back door; Janet followed behind me. The back door to the florist was there.
"I’ll see you at five?"
I began to walk away.
"What’s with her mother’s hair? It was all pink."
"I don’t know," I said.
"Oh yes. I’ve got a Round Hill bottle back here." They giggled like sorority girls.
Hunger always hit me after school. At home it was customary for my brother, sister, and I to open a couple of Hostess cupcakes with a glass of milk, while Bryan and I fought to watch the GI Joe cartoon and Meghann wanted to pop her pre-recorded cassette of Days of Our Lives episodes in the VCR. A perk to staying in town was the fast food accessibility, and not having to deal with my siblings.
A Whopper, a large soda with free refills. The Burger King was in the Toro Shopping Center, too, and they got more business than Bing’s Diner. So did the Mexican restaurant next to the carniceria. This made poor, old, fat, balding, white-cheeked Bing pretty upset, but he was still around after thirty-five years. The Diner—fashioned out of a now-stationary railroad caboose—had enough nostalgia and old-fashioned steak and bacon and meatloaf to attract young, convertible Beamer-driving tourists passing north from Carmel and Monterey up to Santa Cruz who wanted something other than photos of Marilyn Monroe and fried artichoke hearts. Castroville’s two claims to fame: it’s the "Artichoke Center of the World," and Marilyn Monroe just happened to be the first official Artichoke Festival Queen.
There was one customer in front of me: Scarf’s dad. Gang tattoos sleeved his arms and neck. He had a goatee and was mean as piss bottled in a jar and set in the summer sun for a week. His blood-soaked apron from slicing slabs of meat at the carniceria didn’t help to lighten his image. I’d never seen him and Scarf together and—as a matter of fact—there’s nothing to prove he was his father, but I guess I knew it intuitively. If there were anyone who would’ve fathered Scarf, it would have to be him. I’d heard stories about Juan Hernandez. He’d been in Soledad. He’d killed people. He’d punched a Monterey County Sheriff.
He schmoozed with the girl who took his order. She couldn’t have been seventeen. She smiled and looked shyly behind piles of powder and foundation and mascara and eye shadow that looked about an inch thick.
"Hey," said Juan Hernandez. "You know what I want?" The girl shook her head, smiling. "I want a little bacon on my burger. You got some bacon to give me? Huh?" The girl giggled, then both she and Juan Hernandez noticed and looked at me. I nodded to them like I had nodded to Janet. They both laughed hysterically. Juan Hernandez said to me, "You know gringo? You’re a fucking little dork." I froze. "Why don’t you get the fuck out of here?" I left, hearing Juan Hernandez and the girl’s laughter behind me. What else was I supposed to do? Juan Hernandez would have beaten the living shit out of me.
I looked across the parking lot at Bing’s Diner. I had lost my appetite, though, so I walked past it, out to Merritt Street, and kept walking. I walked north through town. Merritt Street is Castroville’s main drag and it’s mostly lined with 1950s and Victorian style houses, but I also passed the elementary school where I went until the third grade, and Mike’s Bar and the Central Texan. Big trucks filled with artichokes from Sea Mist Farms passed rapidly by me on the street, their wind ruffling my hair as they geared up, their diesel engines thundering so I could feel them in my chest. I would also pass Omar’s house, and ahead I saw Omar and Memo playing basketball at the hoop in the driveway. I didn’t care, though. I guess I was beyond caring. They saw me approaching but didn’t stop their game even to make fun of me. They ignored me as if I didn’t exist, and I said nothing to them, but passed by.
About twenty-five yards past Omar’s house, something hard struck me in the back and a rock hit the sidewalk near my feet and skidded away. I turned and Omar and Memo were reaching into the bed of Omar’s mom’s garden for more rocks. Then Scarf was there. He must’ve rounded the corner at Rico Street while I had my back turned.
"What’s up with you, ass?" he said. Omar and Memo threw a second set of rocks and I dodged them. "Are you going to take that shit?"
"What am I supposed to do? Memo could kick my ass."
"Fuck that," said Scarf. "Let’s go kick their asses."
I don’t know where the bravery came from, but it had to have been Scarf willing to fight alongside me. I continued to protest, but my feet had already begun to retrace the steps to Omar’s house, to Omar and Memo. They looked at us and stopped laughing, squaring their shoulders. Scarf told me that he loved to fight—what else was there to do in a town like this? He said we should hit Memo first, then Omar might get scared, since Memo was the big guy. That’s what we did.
As we approached, Memo taunted, "Oh, what you going to do, gringo? Kick my ass? I’m scared, eh."
Scarf and I didn’t bother to reply. He hit Memo at the temple and then I had him in a headlock and Scarf hit him again, and again. I rammed his head into the door of Omar’s mom’s Ford Pinto that was parked on the street. We turned, but Omar was gone and I heard yelling. Memo was crying and it was Omar’s mom coming out of her house who was yelling, so Scarf and I ran.
We ran across Merritt Street, dodging eighteen-wheelers, and down Rico Street and cut down Geil, alongside the church. When we had run for about five minutes we slowed to a walk, both of us panting. Then Scarf laughed. He laughed so hard he bent over. He laughed so hard that I started laughing, and it felt really good to laugh. I hadn’t laughed hard for a week.
Finally Scarf said he had some things to do and was leaving.
"Thanks man," I said, sticking out my hand. But Scarf only turned his head to the side, spat, and walked off, turning the corner at the end of the block. He was a strange, moody guy. I didn’t feel that I should bother trying to be too good of friends with him. I knew now that I wanted to be, but it appeared that Scarf didn’t give a damn. And based on my experiences with Omar and Memo, I didn’t want to seem too desperate for his friendship. But now I had the rest of the afternoon and the evening to occupy myself, and I had fought someone who might want to retaliate. I needed to get off the street, so I walked to the rear of the elementary school and cut through the playground to get back to my mom’s shop. There I sat in the back and did my homework—also for the first time in a week.
From then on Scarf and I spent lunch together. We talked about all sorts of things. Scarf continually brought up Erika and her grandfather. He threatened to kill the grandfather and I told Scarf not to go that far, that he would only get into trouble and then never see Erika at all. Scarf said I was a pussy. I talked to Scarf about getting into fights with Meghann and Bryan—especially Meghann who wailed every time I got close to her, even if I didn’t touch her. Scarf said I was a pussy.
Occasionally, Erika spent lunch with Scarf and me. Since that day after school she and I had talked a few times. She was a sweet, sad girl. Both her parents had died in a plane crash when coming home from Mexico while Erika stayed home in California, in the third grade. She remembered them vividly and often cried. But mostly she was happy. When she was sad, she’d hold my hand. Once she did it in front of Scarf and he glared at me with those crazy brown eyes. I let go of her hand real quick then. When we all spent lunch together, we did so behind the cypress trees at the back of the field because Erika’s grandfather still drove by and Erika couldn’t be with boys. Scarf was usually quiet when we were all together; I don’t think he liked my being there, even though it was Erika who had asked me to come along. She always looked at me funny when I asked Scarf if he was okay. "Why do you care what Tony thinks?" she’d say. "You’re silly." But sometimes Scarf would say mean things to me or tell me to get lost. Erika protested it, sometimes to the point of tears, but I still left. She was his girlfriend.
When Scarf and I spent lunches alone together he often told me of his and Erika’s romantic exploits. I had never even kissed a girl, so this interested me very much. Scarf said that Erika liked to put her tongue in his mouth and reached into his pants. Scarf even told me that once, when Erika had worn a skirt to school, they’d had sex behind the cypress trees.
"Holy shit!" I’d said to that. "What was that like?"
"It was awesome, dumbass," said Scarf. "What do you think it was like?"
But I couldn’t have told him.
After school Scarf and I walked around Castroville. Since we beat up Memo, Omar and the other guys left us alone. We watched a lot of other fights in the streets, but weren’t involved in any of them.
Scarf and I got into other trouble. We found a gun in a garbage can near the community center and took it into the artichoke fields. There were four rounds still in it. They were dusting the fields at the time with pesticides. The big helicopter looped over us. We took turns firing at it. I’m not sure if we hit it—I doubt it—but we still ran like hell out of there. We left the gun in a furrow between the rows of artichokes.
We sniffed paint that we found leftover in spray cans in the dumpster behind Ace Hardware. Then it was like the helicopter from the fields was right there in my head: duhduhduhduhduhduhduh! And I got a warm feeling at the base of my neck. It looked like sunset, though it was three in the afternoon. A puppy waddled up next to us, a Chow Chow—couldn’t have been six months old. Scarf said, "Come here, puppy. Come here." And when it came he grabbed it by the scruff, twirled around three times, then tossed it over the fence into an irrigation ditch. We heard a short, sharp yelp as it hit the ground. Then silence. Scarf laughed. I did too, though now I don’t know why. I guess, at the time, I didn’t quite know how to tell Scarf that what he did was wrong.
On days when I rode the bus home I’d often get on after Darla Darlenson, and I’d see her funny, dorky, expectant smiling face waiting for me to take a seat next to her. I couldn’t help it; I didn’t know how to say no. Not that she ever asked me to sit next to her. I had invited it by offering her my seat that first time. But after that started, how could I not be nice to her? She didn’t have many friends, either. She was in the band, and when a kid’s in middle school, band is about the dorkiest thing a kid could do. For some reason or other, all the kids at my school who would be stereotyped as nerdy—thick glasses, out of fashion clothing, a lisp—all played in the band. Later, in Reno, I would wish that I had joined the band or at least learned an instrument, because, ironically, the guys who did play got all the girls. But then, like the other kids, I thought band was pretty stupid. Darla Darlenson was a band kid.
She attended my church and I’d see her with her mother and stepfather a few pews ahead of my family and me. She looked at me a lot and smiled shyly. I was always nice to her, but to be seen with her would have been embarrassing. I ran the risk of catching rude comments from other "cool" kids if they saw me with her. So we never spent time together at school, only said hello in the halls. But it was unavoidable what soon happened to us.
It got old staying in Castroville after school all the time. Scarf and I hung out for a few hours, but I had to come back to my mom’s shop eventually. Then I sat and read, while I waited for my mom to stop talking with Janet before we drove home together. Sitting in the back of that shop got really boring, so riding the bus home made for a nice change of pace.
Meghann and Bryan came home about a half-hour after I did. They were younger and attended the elementary school. They were too young to be wandering Castroville’s streets, according to Mom. It was better if they came home to our safe, wooded neighborhood. And the woods made things fun.
I hid in the oak thicket at the foot of our driveway when Meghann and Bryan walked up, and I sprang on them, literally scaring the piss out of my brother a couple times. Sometimes I threw rocks at them. That got things going. Then we bickered and fought the rest of the afternoon. We did things all together so the fighting didn’t end until my father came home from work at eight o’clock. My parents were easy-going, never hit us, and rarely got mad. But when my dad got mad, boy did he get mad. It wasn’t a pretty sight, his yelling; so Meghann, Bryan, and I tried our damndest to keep it from happening. Meghann would always say, "we better stop or daddy’ll yell in his high-high voice." But until then, when we played basketball, snuck into the strawberry fields to have strawberry wars, or climbed trees in the backyard, we constantly made an effort to get on each others’ nerves.
All that fighting between my brother, sister, and I made talking with Darla Darlenson on the bus home quite pleasant. We got along pretty well and talked about our families. Darla was an only child, so she laughed at mine and my siblings’ antics. I laughed at her mom who was from the Midwest but was a hippie migrant to California. This was the 1980s and fringed leather vests and tie-dye were way out. But Darla’s mom’s pink hair added a new twist to the fashion. We talked about what movies were coming out and those we had already seen, and then I asked her to go see one with me. I could hardly believe that I did that, but then there she was, thick glasses and poofy cheeks and all, smiling, saying yes and when and what do you want to see? We came to my bus stop and it was time for me to leave, so I said we would talk about it later. The girl seemed overjoyed and, still smiling, said that would be fine.
I felt funny when I left the bus and walked home. I guessed that I had just asked a girl on a date. I had never done that before. Now I guessed that I would have to go through with it. There would be no backing out. I wondered what Scarf would say. I knew what he would say: "What the fuck do you think you’re doing, ass? She’s a fucking dork." I decided to shut Scarf up right there; and to keep it that way, I wouldn’t tell him about it.
My mother had stopped cooking after she quit flying for Pan American Airlines because of the pit bulls that left scars on her legs. And back before discrimination laws, Pan Am didn’t want flight attendants with scarred legs in the skirts that made up their uniforms. Now, when my father came home, he fired up the barbecue and we ate steak and potatoes and chicken or pork chops with rice. My father loved it. After running the affairs of a clothing store chain in Salinas and Monterey, he grabbed a beer, turned on the ball game, and watched it through the open sliding glass door while he flipped pieces of meat and occasionally glanced contentedly at the green of the lawn in the backyard from the deck where the cue stood. This always took the right amount of time, so that when mom came home everything was ready and we ate.
We were almost ready to sit down when the phone rang and my father called to me that Darla Darlenson wanted to invite me to dinner.
"How’d you get my phone number?" I asked.
"It’s in the church directory. Should I not have called?"
"Will you come over for dinner?"
Then my father was mouthing to me: "Yes! She’s inviting you!"
Bryan and Meghann: giggles and "Darla Darlenson, ooooh."
"Okay, sure. I’ll be right over."
I hung up the phone. "You little bastards should shut the hell up."
"James!" my father warned.
"You two leave him alone. Come on Jamie. I’ll give you a ride."
My mom said that it was nice of Darla to invite me over and it was nice of me to accept. "She’s a sweet girl," she said, as dad and I walked out the door.
"Whatever," I replied. I caught a glimpse of my mother and father smiling to each other as we left.
"Just call when you want to be picked up," said Dad as I stepped out at Darla Darlenson’s. She lived in the same housing development and her place looked more or less like mine. I think we had a larger backyard. And we had the strawberry fields behind our house.
Darla answered the door smiling. She’d changed her clothes from school. She wore a purple sweater and a black skirt and she’d curled her hair and I smelled perfume.
She said hi and a big glob of spit flew from her mouth and landed on my cheek. I wiped it with my hand and Darla turned bright red and ran away down the hall. I still stood in the doorway. When Darla’s mom walked by and asked where Darla had gone, I told her what happened, and to tell Darla that it wasn’t a big deal; my sister spit on me all the time. But Darla wouldn’t come out, and her mom and I coaxed her for thirty minutes outside the bedroom door before she finally emerged and we laughed at what had happened over lasagna.
Darla’s step-dad was a real redneck. He was from Austin, Texas, drove a Chevy, and drank Pabst with his lasagna. He hardly said a word through dinner, and when he did it was only for Darla’s mom to get him another beer or another helping of lasagna. After dinner he announced that he was going into the TV room because Midnight Cowboy was on HBO, and Darla’s mom should join him when she finished the dishes. Darla asked me to listen to music with her.
Darla’s room was covered from top to bottom with stuffed animals. It was kind of spooky. I never cared for the beady glass eyes of stuffed bears or dolls; they were eyes that never looked anywhere, but dumbly stared at me, freaking me out. Darla closed the door when we entered, we sat on the floor, and she pressed play on her tape recorder. That song by Chicago, "You’re the Inspiration," came on. That awful, awful song. I loved it.
Then Darla’s mouth was on mine. I didn’t even know what happened. We sat next to each other one moment, and then she sat on top of me in the next. Her tongue slithered into my mouth. She tasted somewhat sweet and the taste of lasagna lingered. I guessed my mouth probably tasted like that, too, so I tried to ignore it. Other than that, to my surprise I liked her kissing me.
We made plans for the movies that weekend and she kissed me again at the door before I left.
"Did you have a nice time?" asked my dad when I got into the car.
"It was fine."
"Darla’s mom is kind of a weirdo, isn’t she?"
"I don’t know. She seemed cool."
"What color was her hair this time?" My mother infected my father with her gossip.
"It’s still pink."
My dad chuckled. "Well, Darla’s real cute," he said.
I hated it that my dad said that. What kind of father uses the word "cute"? But what occupied my mind was that Darla Darlenson and I had kissed. Big cheeked, four-eyes Darla Darlenson. Did that mean she was my girlfriend now? How could I be seen in public with her? Now Scarf would probably find out.
I avoided Darla at school the rest of that week. I felt pretty bad about that, but it wasn’t like anything had changed from before we kissed. I still said hello when we passed in the halls. But, of course, we had kissed and everything changed. I kept wondering: should I hang out with her? Or should I act like this wasn’t a big deal? I would see her that weekend anyway. But, man, if I wanted nothing more than to kiss her again.
Though I didn’t see Scarf that week, I talked with Erika. I didn’t tell her anything about Darla. She might have told Scarf or, worse, Erika herself might have made fun of me. I mean, Darla Darlenson was a dork. To me, she was nice, but to everyone else, she was a dork. Erika asked me to come to Castroville that weekend, the same day I was to see a movie with Darla.
"We could meet somewhere," she said.
"Won’t you be with Tony?"
"He’s not my boyfriend, Jamie. Sometimes I don’t know what your jokes mean."
"What about your grandpa?"
"We’d have to make sure he didn’t catch us."
"I can’t this weekend."
"I’m," lying, "going to a baseball game with my dad and brother."
"Well, I’ll see you at school?"
Erika walked away and then Scarf popped up, like he’d been spying on me, or something.
"You talking to my girl?"
There was the craziness in Scarf’s eyes again, but by now I’d gotten used to it. "So what. She’s my friend too." Scarf shrugged. "You always shrug like that?" Somehow—maybe it was from hanging out with Scarf—I had become much braver. Scarf withdrew his flattened, sharpened nail and waved it in front of me.
"You got a fucking problem?"
"You’re too damn high-strung. You’re a spaz."
Scarf put the nail away. "You hanging out after school?"
"No. I’m going home today."
"You always say ‘whatever’?"
"All right. I’ll take that."
"See you next week, ass." And Scarf was gone.
On the bus I sat next to Darla Darlenson. I asked if she was mad that I didn’t hang out with her at school.
"No," she said. "It’s not like we’re going together or anything."
That surprised me: "But we kissed."
"What. You never kissed a girl before?"
"Well, of course I have." I was growing into an exceptional liar.
"Are we still seeing a movie?"
"What time will you pick me up?"
My bus stop.
"I’ll see you then," said Darla Darlenson. For a nerdy band girl without many friends, Darla didn’t seem to have any problems with this thing that seemed so new to me: the opposite sex.
Not until I was two or three years older was I able to get a grasp on what happened at the movies.
My mom drove Darla and me. We sat in the back of the station wagon—a suggestion from my mother. She said I shouldn’t make my date sit in the back by herself. I didn’t like my mom using those words: "my date."
We watched Back to the Future. I don’t remember much from the movie except that it went back and forth through time, like the title suggested. Darla held my hand and we ate popcorn. When my hand began to sweat I tried to put it in my lap, but Darla held on. When our hands were in my lap she softly stroked my leg with a loose finger. And then her finger started moving places. Like I said, I don’t remember much from the movie.
When the film ended we waited for most of the people to leave, then walked out, still holding hands. As we stepped through the doors and into the hall, I saw Erika with some girlfriends coming out of another movie. I didn’t want her to see me with Darla, so I tried to hide my face. But her girlfriends pointed and I knew they had seen me.
Erika approached us.
"Hi," I said. Tears formed in Erika’s eyes.
"Baseball game?" she asked.
"Fuck you, Jamie," Erika said, and walked away. I couldn’t understand what the big deal was, other than that I had lied to her. But she was Scarf’s girl anyway, so who cared?
"She wasn’t too happy," said Darla. But other than that, Darla didn’t seem to have any problem with what happened. She kissed me when I walked her to her door (another suggestion by my mother) and said casually, "See you later."
After that Erika didn’t spend lunch with Scarf and me. I asked him what the problem was, and he said that I knew damn well what it was. He pestered me about Darla Darlenson.
"She told you," I said.
"No," said Scarf. "I knew the entire time."
"Well, it doesn’t matter to me anyway. Erika was your girlfriend. Now I’ve got mine."
"She was our girlfriend, Jamie, and you fucked it up."
"You know what, I’m sick of you telling me what…." And that was when I got hit on the head with an Oreo cookie. I didn’t know what it was, at first. Something had hit me, though, and when I rubbed my head, black crumbs fell from my hair. I looked down the length of fence at the back of the field and saw Michael Tsung, Toby Bennet, and Vincent Randall—my old friends—sitting against the fence, laughing. Scarf laughed too. I heard Michael Tsung say, "Listen to Iredell down there, posing like he’s tough." His buddies all laughed at that.
"Are you gonna take that shit?" asked Scarf. "Go down there and kick their asses."
I began my walk and, in the grass, I found the pipe that had been left over after the groundskeepers replaced a line on the sprinkler system. Michael Tsung stood as he saw me coming. Fear dripped into his eyes and I knew I looked crazy. Scarf walked with me, taunting. "Come on, Iredell. Don’t let these little fucking dorks throw shit at you."
And I remembered when Scarf had thrown the puppy over the fence, but now I wasn’t high from sniffing paint, and I wasn’t afraid to tell Scarf exactly what I thought of him. "Why don’t you go down there and kick their asses? You’re the big bully around here."
"What’s the matter, Jamie? Scared of getting your ass kicked?"
"I’m sick of kicking ass, Scarf." I dared myself to call him the nickname I knew he hated. "I’m sick of you."
As I argued with Scarf, Michael Tsung and his buddies eyed me carefully as they walked off. I dropped the pipe as Scarf called me a pussy and threatened to cut me with his damn nail. But I knew he wouldn’t do it. After all those times he’d called me a pussy. Scarf walked away and I let him go; I didn’t need him any more.
And we stopped hanging out. Not long after that, as I watched the local news, I heard that Juan Hernandez was found dead in his car on Main Street in Salinas. Two shots, one to the chest and one to the head.
We all graduated from the eighth grade, Darla Darlenson, Erika, Scarf even, and me. But Erika ended up pregnant over the summer and never made it to high school. Scarf came to school sparsely, was always getting suspended. He added tattoos to his arms. Sometime in the middle of the fall semester, the news reported that a teenager from Castroville had been stabbed and shot at a party in Salinas. The police suspected a gang conflict. The dead teen turned out to be Scarf. I don’t think he had any friends, really, except me. And we were never that close. But to this day he’s fresh in my memory. I called him Scarf to his face just one time, though behind his back that’s what everyone called him. And though I know his real name was Antonio Hernandez, I remember him as Scarf. If I’d had my wits about me, and wasn’t going through the pains of adolescence, I might have tried to bring Scarf to my house in the woods so my dad could barbecue for us and he could terrorize Bryan and Meghann with me. I wonder if I could have saved him.
In our sophomore year Darla Darlenson moved to Arkansas to live with her dad. We wrote letters and talked on the phone. She came home to visit during the summers. I lost my virginity to her when I was seventeen. Just the other day, in my office at work, I found an e-mail in my inbox, "I think you’re the James Iredell from…." It turned out to be Darla Darlenson—now Darla Stephens—who’s happily married with three kids. She said she was glad to know that I was well, and said that I lived in a special corner of her heart. She’d never forgotten me, and never would, because I was always so gentle and kind.