Sass
Bill Derks


My cousin Greggy was spazzing down the sidewalk in his little red mommy shorts. His shoulders hitched up and down. His sneakers were falling off and he slapped at his chest like the bugs were on him. Ever since he turned six, I think attention was all he wanted from the world. And since my mom and Aunt Carol had gone shopping at Penney’s for like the millionth time, I was stuck babysitting the turd for another whole hour.

That good sun was on my legs as I sat on the curb in my shorty shorts. The Episcopal Church was there in front of me. I was wiggling my toes in my pink All Stars—pretty sweet—and as I made sure Greggy didn’t trip into the road, Victor Guerrero, who was so only my guy-friend and nothing else, came down from his balcony when he saw me outside. When I yanked Greggy down the steps seven seconds earlier, I swear I could feel Victor peeling back his curtains and spying at me through his third floor window. But like every day when he came to visit with me, the only thing he liked to do was put his hip next to mine, flip his greasy bangs out of his eyes and say all kinds of crazy shit. I mean—he wasn’t horrible—but I still liked to imitate his moves to my friends just to show them how stupid he was. ‘Hey girl.’ I’d flip my hair to the side. ‘Whatcha doin’ with that puddin?’ I’d say.

Greggy did somersaults beside us. Victor and me sat, picked at the grass and stared at the long windows of Episcopal Church where a bunch of people in sweaters and dress pants were glomming onto each other. The willow switches my mom’s boyfriend had trimmed back from the fence that morning were piled next to mine and Victor’s butts. Greggy howled up the tree, and when I turned away from him completely, Victor leaned over, put his chin on my shoulder and said, “Hey. Holly-girl. Why don’t you let me get a sniff of that burrow you got hidden down there?”

His breath smelled like burnt corn, and out of instinct, and because Victor was known for saying all sorts of weirdness, I did my move where I get all back-straight on people. I said, “Whut, dude?”

He leaned back. “You know what I mean,” he said.

Usually when we were together, like in the back of the roller rink where we piled all our coats, I could shove his shoulder and he’d get the hint. Only this time his voice made me kind of sick in my throat. So I reached over, picked up one of the fresh willow switches and showed it to Victor in my fist. I said, “How ‘bout I rope this around your face?”

“Easy Beezy,” he said. “I’m jus’ doin’ ma thang.”

I jerked the switch. He flinched, tried to grab it from me but couldn’t. We wrestled for a sec in the grass. Then Victor tried to reach behind my back for it. His arms were cold. My yellow tank didn’t go all the way down and his one hand stayed on my bare hip while the other stopped going for the switch so much. “Gimme,” he said.

“No,” I said.

We stopped. We sat there totally awkward. And when I looked over at all the church people still hugging and shaking hands across the street, there was a squirm in my belly from the feel of Victor’s hands around me. He poked my arm once, and then again. He said, “You’re all bone, girly.” I almost went to punch at his nuts for saying it. And the only reason I decided not to was because I saw my friend Cassie come walking at us. She waved to her dad who was the preacher’s helper on Sundays. She crossed the road in her white heels, and it was pretty hard not to notice she was looking all Betty Lou in her blue dress with white polka dots. She also must have had some sass with her that day because, when she came up to us, she kicked Victor’s sneaker and said, “Stop messing with Holly. You know she’s like my sister-friend, right? Don’t mess.”

“Holy cats.  Sassa-fricken-Fras,” I said.

Cassie gave Victor her uppity eyebrow.

Victor nudged my shoulder all warm. “This girl just mad,” Victor said. “You only got a taste, Cassie-girl. So now youse mad.”

Greggy spazzed over from the middle of the yard and slapped his own face. Then he skipped circles around Cassie and sang his little song about her, ‘His Bestest Super-Friend in the World. Don’t you mess. Don’t you mess.’

But I have to admit, when Victor piped in and said, “Shut up, you little turd,” I kind of thought there was a cool side to him, like we were dating and he knew stuff about me.  But that’s when Cassie’s sass kicked back in. She said, “You’re a fucking mistake, Victor.”

“What’s that?” Victor said.

Cassie bent forward and her French braid was about as perfect as you could tie it. “You heard me. You’re a mistake of the earth, Victor.”

A little bang flipping. He looked at me and rolled his eyes.

Defending him, I said, “Greggy over here was a mistake.”

Greggy nodded. “My dad was in the army,” he said.

“That’s not what I mean.”

Cassie put her hands on her fancy hips and watched down the hill where all the roofs were eye level with us and the smoke from the mountains steamed behind them. She kept her head turned toward the sun. “Can you leave, Victor?” She held her hand to her ear. “Isn’t your bitch-ass mom calling you?”

We waited. I didn’t hear anything, only the sound of Greggy popping his cheeks apart. Victor flipped his bangs, huffed, got up, gave Cassie the ‘you-can’t-faze-me’ shoulder and said, “More like your mom is calling me.”

It wasn’t a very good burn back—mom jokes never work—but Cassie’s mom was kind of a church-freak and we all thought she had the wets for Victor’s dad.

All of a sudden Cassie shoved her finger down her throat and made a puking sound as Victor hiked up his pants. He went onto the sidewalk and headed home, which was just a few doors down behind a set of walnut trees.

I hummed and watched his butt. I said to Cassie, “Aside from all the hair flipping, and the creep factor, he might actually be kind of sexy.”

“Holly. Please,” Cassie said.

“What. Don’t act like I don’t need it,” I said.

“You’re twelve,” she said.

I stuck up my nose, “Going on twenty.”

“You wish.”

I closed my eyes and raised my brows while her back stayed turned. She cleared away those willow switches to sit, and her perfume—that old lady Avon brand that smelled like she’d been rolling around in Band-Aids—hit me in the face. I almost said something about her getting it from her mom’s medicine cabinet, but I shook it off because she was right. She was totally my sister-friend, and even though she went to church and knew all the Jesus-jams by heart, I knew sister-friends didn’t come around but once in a blue.

Greggy yelled, “Help me. I’m stuck, Cassie.”

Some other kind of dead branches were piled up next to the neighbor’s shed. Greggy was lying down in the shade by them and his shirt was twisted underneath him from rolling around so much. He held up a boney leg and pulled his foot in and out of the pile of sticks.

“Quit it, turd,” I said.

Cassie hit me. “Just pull your foot out, silly,” she said.

“Oh,” Greggy said. He rolled up and called her name in the air. “Cassie-Fo-Fassy. I got new trucks, new trucks.”

She told him to go get them, to let her see, so Greggy jumped some imaginary hurdles along the yard and into the house. Cassie’s legs were crossed into the road and the toes of her white church-heels tapped together. Sometimes it made me sick how nice she looked all the time, so I peered over at the stop sign one yard over—the sign I always told Greggy was out of bounds—just so I didn’t have to see her freshness.

We were quiet for a sec. One of those orange city trucks grumbled by and Cassie peeled her legs in.  My eyes got big as I stared at the church windows and said, “Last night was an enormous bang-session over here. I think my mom is sexing the entire town, Cassie-girl. No joke.”

Cassie wiped the creases out of her dress. There was something about it that I didn’t like so I kept my head turned. “What is wrong with you?” she asked. “You realize I just got out of church, right? Are you watching Greggy… or is it Victor?” she said.

“For sure I’m watching,” I said. “But what does that matter?” I flipped my hair behind my shoulder. Then I didn’t say much because I knew Cassie and Victor kissed like seven times in one sitting underneath the California Cruisin’ pinball machine at Skate Estate. Not only that, but she was the babysitting queen of the entire universe. She’d taken Red Cross babysitting classes at the fire barn where she had to stick her finger down a baby mannequin’s throat. She gave the stupid thing mouth to mouth, even. Then she couldn’t answer the door when the volunteer fire-chief, her dad, knocked on the door and pretended to be a stranger. But one night, when everything seemed to be going good with her sitting gigs, Cassie had a seizure on her living room floor in front of three of her kids. One of the older ones called Cassie’s dad while Cassie laid there jiggling in her blue dress. It was super weird to know that that could happen to her at any moment, and I felt bad in a way that made me not want to hug her, like she was super-delicate, so I guess you could say we weren’t really the greatest friends, anymore.

“It matters,” she said. Over her shoulder she tried to watch inside the house for Greggy. We had a big window in front where my mom’s vine plants curled around the sill. I looked, and since I didn’t see any flames inside, I figured everything was good in the hood. Greggy could stay inside forever for all I cared.

Cassie still wasn’t paying attention to me. “But aren’t you listening?” I said. “My mom is like sexing the entire town. Guys are coming down from the mountains just so they can come on down the mountains.”

“Disgusting.”

“It’s true.” My shorty jean shorts went up pretty high and I kept slapping my thighs so Cassie could see I was total seriousness. “She has like two boyfriends,” I said. “They come over on different days, and like, at eleven, or whenever they think I’m sleeping, I can hear my mom getting her brains banged out.”

“Wow,” Cassie said, just trying to act cooler than me. I kept talking.

“You listening?”

“I guess.”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “One guy tells her where to go,” I said, “on the bed or whatever. And another one is always saying, ‘C’mon. Let’s just try it once.’ And then, whatever he was asking for, I think my mom said okay to it because they started moving around the furniture. She kept saying, ‘Easy, babe. Easy.’ Do you even know what that means?” I asked her.

If Cassie did know, she didn’t say anything, so I clenched my fists and raised them up like I was talking to Jesus when I said, “You don’t know how that feels, Cassie. I have to listen to it all night. And Victor is so…” I stopped to take a breath. “Sometimes he’s all sorts of hotness. Not all the time, I mean. But when he’s older, I think he’s going to be like a model. Like for Guess jeans or something.”

My knees pressed together. I rocked them back and forth with my hands lain back in the grass, and across the street, I watched Victor’s third floor balcony through those walnut leaves. His dad was a dentist with an office next to the grocery store downtown, and Victor’s bedroom had an open glass door with white curtains. When the wind blew, the curtains moved over the balcony’s railing like bed sheets.

“Your mom is totally old enough. She can do what she wants, I think.”

“My mom is a total bitch,” I said. I didn’t want to remind Cassie about how my mom totally freaked and hit me when I took a little money from her drawer, fifty bucks, and when I left Greggy at the tasty freeze just because I wanted to talk to my friend and just forgot him. “She is such a bitch,” I said. “And she’s old. That’s for sure. But don’t you think it’s time for me?” I asked.

“Holly? Dude.” It took a sec for her to breathe. “But with Victor?” she asked.

“Sure. Well—whoever?”

“But Victor?” Cassie said again.

“He’s like the sass-man,” I told her. “He tells you what he wants.” There was that squirm in my belly again.  “And it’s always that crazy talk. It makes me feel all fondle-fingers. Like a pillow between your legs.”  My eyes went big.  “Or a showerhead.”  I wiggled my brows. “In a good way.”

“I can’t imagine that’s a good kind of fondle,” Cassie said. “Grody Victor.” She plucked up a piece of grass. With her short nails she peeled it apart like string-cheese, and then made a face like she was sorry for having to rip it to shreds. “And you don’t want guys like him telling you what to do either,” she said. “Believe me.”

I knew Cassie was just mad because Victor told her to meet him at the Dairy Freeze one night. Only when Victor showed up, he had his two brothers with him. She ended up paying for everyone. It was totally her fault. Victor never said it was supposed to be an alone-date. But it wasn’t like Cassie not to agree with me, or at least not to say I was totally stupid for liking him. That’s why I asked, “Are you getting all Jesus-jam on me right now? You’ve been doing a lot of Jesus-jamming,” I said.

The way she shook her head you’d think I was completely out of the park. A beeping noise came from around the corner. I thought it was that city truck coming to pick up the yard trimmings behind us. We stood up to give it room. Cassie wiped off, and down the road I saw my aunt’s green mini-van driving toward us, its hood flashing through the tree shade. Its tires snapped over the walnuts. It pulled into our driveway next to where we were chillin’. My mom got out in her ruffled pink blouse: the satin one boyfriend-number-two had given her. My aunt Carol stumbled out in her Ozzy Osbourne t-shirt and it was pretty obvious they’d hit up Roscoe’s to catch the margarita special again. My mom laughed with a big mouth. Then she said something about the bartender’s butt and slapped the hood of the van. “Whoa big fella,” she kept saying.

They didn’t pay any attention to us. Not even my aunt Carol. Thank God they went inside. The screen door slapped. I squinted and thought how stupid they were, and I said to Cassie, “But seriously. You were just Jesus-jamming on me. I don’t play that shit, man.”

“God,” she said. “No I wasn’t.” With the toe of her pretty shoe she kicked at a stray stick in the grass. “Look,” she said. “You’re my sister-friend. So you can do whatever you want,” which was true. “Just—careful, okay,” she said.

I rolled my eyes. That beeping noise was still going and I heard my mom scream from inside the house, “Holly! What the fuck?” Her most favorite words.

“God,” I said. We went inside because that’s how things were with Cassie and me. It was allowed because Cassie’s parents took me on vacation with them once, and my mom said she trusted Cassie more than any kid, including me. We went through the living room, and when we turned into the kitchen, the entire room was filled with this gray, hazy smoke.

The fire alarm above the table was going off. Everybody ran around, which made everything seem extra crazy with the beeps. “Oops,” I said. The water in the sink ran over a pot Greggy had burned up on the stove. He was stupid enough to try to cook mac and cheese without water.

My aunt was smirking about it all. “Holly girl,” she said—all high-pitched—for the millionth time. A dish towel flapped in her hands under the fire alarm. Greggy of course sat Indian style on the carpet which separated the kitchen and living room. He picked at his shoes and cried about it.

An empty box of mac n cheese was gripped tight in my mom’s hand. She shook it in my face. “He was hungry,” she kept saying. “You’re supposed to be watching him. Did he even eat?”

I said, “Whut?” and then, “I asked him if he wanted to eat. He said, ‘No.’” But the turd busted me out.

“No she didn’t,” he said.

I kicked at him with my pink All-Star.

“Holly!”

“I’m sorry,” Cassie jumped in and said. “He said he was going in to get his trucks and I forgot about him.”

“Don’t protect him,” I said to her.

The old bitches gave each other the eye. “It’s not your fault, Cassie,” my mom said. “You shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff anymore.” The smoke cleared out enough for my mom to light a cigarette. The lighter slapped down on the table. She threw her hair over her shoulder like she does when she’s super pissed. “I can’t even fucking believe this. I can’t even fuckin’ believe it.”

My aunt gave her this half-sad, I-don’t-what-to-tell-you face, but when I saw her do it, it sent this spike toward me like everything was supposed to be my fault and not any of theirs for hitting up margaritas again. My hip shucked to the side. “Believe whut?” I said.

My mom set down her cigarette real slow in the ashtray. I knew what that meant. So when she blew out smoke and stomped toward me across the kitchen, I curled my lip and stayed leaned against the wall this time. “Whut?” I said.

As soon as I’d said it, she grabbed me by back of my hair and pulled with everything she had. I squeaked, and the way she was holding me half against the corner of the kitchen wall I could barely fight back. “Bitch,” I said.  I got hold of her satin blouse, tried to rip it from her—the new blouse I knew she loved—but a chunk of her hair was caught in my pinky. I thought I’d had her too this time, because I was getting older, and I knew this wouldn’t happen if I could set her on her ass, stand over her and say, “Fuck you, fuck all of you.” But it seemed like she knew it all along, that I was getting too old and I was ready for it, so it was like she’d tried even harder by putting all her strength into me and shoving. “Cindy,” my aunt said. When we turned into the living room Greggy got up and started hitting at our legs like there were flies on them.

“Cindy,” my aunt Carol said, again. “Cindy, enough.”

She kept pulling on me. From her old lady strength I had no choice but to do this roll onto our carpet even though I must have been hurting her too by nail pinching. I was on my side with my one hand doing a wrestler move like Victor to stay up. I could almost do something where I could get up, go outside and run over to Victor’s if I had to. That’s what I was thinking, but she had both hands in my hair, and she was way too heavy. The bitch even got on top, and before I knew it, I couldn’t stop her from putting me flat on my back with her knees on my arms. I squirmed, and right then I wanted to be like a baby wolverine in a shoebox, and another part of me wanted to lie back all what-the-fuck-ever. “You’re a fucking mistake of the world,” I said. My face stung and I coughed and cried a little. Her fingers dug into my neck. My hair had that feeling like the roots were bruised and I realized I couldn’t get out of it because I could barely breathe, and I half-wanted to cry even more because I couldn’t throw her off and I had to stay in her house as long I didn’t have a job, and working at Tasty Freeze was all I could ever think of to get her out of my life forever so she could puke the night away and die.

Some mad foot-thumping went over the floor. When I peeled up I saw Cassie in the corner of the living room in her blue dress, pretty white shoes and freckles. Of course her French braid still looked completely perfect as she held her hand over her mouth and hugged herself tight around the ribs.

“That oughta make you believe,” my mom said. I curled up off the floor. It felt like someone inserted a nail into my neck. She went for her cigarettes. “You believe that one?” she asked everybody.

“Cindy,” my aunt said and grabbed at her wrist.

“What?” She threw my aunt’s hand away. “You got no idea what it’s like around here. You have zero fucking idea what this girl puts me through.”

No one said anything. My mom smoked. Greggy slapped down into the basement to hide underneath the sink and my mom and aunt stayed in the kitchen together.

“Are you okay?” Cassie said to me.

I wiped my face quick. “You have to go home,” I said. She didn’t, so I ran through the living room and up the stairs to my room, because I figured they could have themselves forever if they wanted, and this place would never change.

I slammed into my beanbag chair. Every once in a while I punched little holes in the drywall with my elbow. That’s what my mom deserved, I figured. But it seemed like all night I sat there picking at my fingernails. After a while, I didn’t even bother turning on my lamp. It started getting dark. The poster I had of Justin Timberlake was in front of me, and that sexy stubble on his cheeks faded away as the room got darker. I watched the light coming in from the living room, through that little crack under my bedroom door, and I knew my mom was sitting at the kitchen table all by herself, as always. I heard the window rattling on the storm door. It was obviously Cassie’s knock because she’s the only person that walks in and says, ‘Ms. Jackson?’

I heard a few whispers, then there was a soft knock on my bedroom door. “Are you in there?” Cassie asked. “You in there, Holly?”

I kept quiet. There was another knock, softer this time, and when she finally quit and left, I leaned forward and hugged my knees. It was obvious we probably weren’t going to be friends anymore. So for like an hour I thought of how I wouldn’t talk to her at school. If I saw Cassie at her locker, lonely sad, not just lonely alone, I’d have to swish by and tell her to fuck off if she wanted to talk about it. “Jesus Jam about it,” I’d say. Maybe I’d have to avoid going outside when their church service got out. It was totally sad, but that’s what happens with people sometimes.

My mom’s bed squeaked in the next room. The phone rang on my nightstand. I jumped up and grabbed it so she wouldn’t completely freak again. Thank god it was Victor.

“What’s up, Butter,” he said.

“Hey,” I said.

“Sup.”

“Hey.”

“What’s the dealio with you?” he asked.

I pulled my legs in tighter. I didn’t want it to sound like there was a wet leaf in my throat, so in the dark I swallowed, and then wrapped the phone cord around my toe. “…talk crazy to me,” I said. “Please?”

 

 

 

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