Wren

I am Wren. I was born on a bus. That’s what my mother tells me. But she was also on so many drugs when she had me that I don’t know what she remembers correctly and what she invented in her delirious, maddened state.

She named me Wren Robin Finch Nightingale. My mother shares that last name with me, but she never needed to carry around the weight of three other birds along with it. I still can’t believe that she was allowed to decide what to legally name me when she was clearly strung out on more substances than I know how to name.

The point is, whether I like it or not, I am Wren. My mother is a drug addict. My father is a truck driver who gave her a lift and shared a hotel room with her for a night. He fed her. She says he was a nice man. I guess that makes me feel better about it. The fact that she doesn’t remember his name doesn’t.

She doesn’t do drugs anymore, mind you. She got clean after I was born. But she goes to meetings every day and she knows that she will never lose the track marks on her arms just as the craving for something to lift her up will never leave her either. She reminds me that because I have her genes, I’m most likely an addict too. Even though I’m only fifteen and I’ve never even tried a puff of a cigarette.

I am Wren, and today I am getting on a bus and going to visit my aunt for the first time. My mom finally got the courage to friend her on Facebook, and they renewed their relationship. My aunt wants to meet me, and I guess I want to meet her, but I’m not sure about spending the whole of spring break at her house in California.

My mother and I live in Las Vegas, and spring break is a good business time. My mom has two jobs – she reads Tarot cards at night and is a dealer at a casino during the day. She only does the Tarot reading three nights a week, but now that I’m going to be gone, she’s going to be working as many shifts as she can so that during the summer she can afford to take time off and then we can both go and visit my aunt.

But for now it’s only me. Wren. Leaving my mother for the first time in my life. Leaving Nevada for the first time. Flying away from the nest for the very first time. I’m terrified. I’m excited. I’m terrified.

Watched Pot

It was four in the morning, still dark, and Laura leaned against the counter and sighed. The coffee-maker burbled behind her, trickling the dark liquid into the clear pot – taking what seemed like forever. A watched pot never boils? Well, even if you don’t watch, they take as long as they like. She was in a sour mood.

The night shift was fine, usually. She didn’t mind starting work at eleven at night – that was when she was most awake anyway. She also didn’t mind dealing with the characters that came in and out of the all-night diner. Some were shady, scary even, but Laura treated them just as if they were a couple of middle-aged lovebirds stopping in for afternoon tea. Some of the more aggressive guys would try to hit on her, or else make fun of her relentlessly so that she’d snap at them, but Laura never caved. She was calm to such a degree that it made the thugs get bored and back off.

There were the sad people who came in, too; the prostitutes, makeup smudged, counting their earnings in a corner booth and asking for take-away pie for the kids at home; the homeless men and women who collected enough change during the day to buy a cup of bad coffee and maybe a bowl of fries; one or two crazies who wandered in and yelled about the end of the world or Jesus living inside them. Laura knew most of them, since they were regulars. The diner was the only twenty-four hour one in about a mile around. Anyone who worked or lived on the streets around it would come there instead of trekking over to the all-night Starbuck’s that was ten blocks away.

So Laura normally liked the night shift. The denizens of the darkened city and small hours of the morning were familiar to her and she wasn’t scared or judgmental of them. They were just there, and like anyone else, they needed to eat and drink.

Sometimes, though, like tonight, the familiar tired, worn out, or constantly tough faces were supplemented by others. In the big booth right in the center of the diner sat six of the rowdies, most obnoxious teenagers Laura had ever seen in her life. It was people like them that made her irritable to the point of wishing dearly to serve up coffee with spit in it.

They were obviously drunk or high, and they were laughing uproariously as one of the guys did some imitation of a comedian. Laura was rather glad they’d moved on to laughing about stupid stuff like this, because what had come before had been much worse. She already knew everything about their evening – they’d gone to Big Tod’s penthouse, and they partied there, and then they went to Shazzam, the biggest and most dangerous club in the area, where they’d partied some more, and then Trudy-O met them at the liquor store where they knew her and sold her whatever she wanted and they partied some more right there on the street until some cops came by and told them to get home or else. Instead of doing that, they’d decided they were hungry and wanted to sober up a little, so they came to the diner, where they unknowingly became the stuff of Laura’s nightmares.

Gangsters, she could handle. But these rich kids slumming it for a night? She couldn’t stand them. She knew they were just kids – probably just a few years younger than her, maybe even as little as two – but she felt that their naiveté was like a bad joke. They honestly thought they were living dangerously, taking risks, being cool. Laura could almost hear the thoughts in the heads of the other customer – thoughts of how much they’d like to teach these kids just how dangerous danger could really be, but why bother when mommy and daddy the lawyers will be swooping down on them tomorrow? No reason to create more trouble with the law than there already was.

Laura didn’t approve of harming people just because they were annoying, but she couldn’t help fantasizing about it, especially since these idiots had been mean and abrasive towards her, and she knew that she was going to get next to no tip, despite the fact that they had a big order coming. Including, of course, six coffees, and right now, followed by an audible whisper and giggle concerning white-trash waitresses.

The coffee-maker clicked off, the pot full, and Laura turned back to it. She poured the coffees, put the mugs on a tray, and carried it over to the teenagers.

“Here you go,” she smiled brightly and put the coffees down in front of each of them. She caught the guys staring down her shirt and the girls turning away from her, continuing to talk over her, as if she were invisible. No thank-yous came, but Laura smiled and told them their food would be coming out any moment now. She smiled all the way back to the coffee machine, which she refilled and started up again.

This time, she faced it. Maybe this way she wouldn’t be able to go back to the table to bring refills. No coffee boiled and brewed, no refills, right? So she stared at the machine, willing it to adhere to adage and never boil.

A Leroy Excerpt

Leroy remembered only two things from his early childhood. Tony Boss-man has asked him about it once, to see how good his memory was. So he’d told him those two memories, like pearls in the rough and dirty shell he’d become, and he’d felt he was giving part of himself away. But then, the Boss-man always made everyone feel as if they were giving themselves away. That was part of the Boss-man’s power.

The first thing he remembered was eating cereal when he was about two years old. It had been a shabby house then, shabbier even than the next ones would be, but he had a corner that his mother had painted yellow, and his little mattress was there with his few toys. Inevitably, night after night, he’d sit in that corner and watch as his mom fought with his dad. It happened every day, as far as he could tell, and only years later did he figure out what his mom was doing and why his dad objected. The particular memory that he could see so clearly in his brain was different. It didn’t have drunken-dad and floozie-mama in it. It had been an afternoon alone, and he’d climbed up onto the counter in the kitchen with the aid of a stool, a chair and then a big heave with his puny arms. If nothing else, being inside had strengthened those skinny arms of his. No one can stay weak inside. If you do, you’ll get in trouble. But on that afternoon, he’d felt it was the biggest accomplishment of mankind that he’d gotten all the way on the counter. He’d opened the cupboards because his belly was rumbling – and there was something else, he was always hungry then, but of course he would be, why should his parents give a hoot over a two year old’s nutrition? He’d found a box of cornflakes in the cupboard, and he sat triumphantly on the counter with his small legs dangling daringly. He dug his tiny fist into the box and heaved out a handful of the dry little flakes. He put them in his lap and ate them slowly, one by one. One by one. That’s what the Boss-man always told him, too. Take ’em one by one, Leroy, taken ’em on one at a time and it won’t feel so big. As if the Boss-man, sitting in his office with his piggy little eyes knew anything about the streets.

The second memory Leroy had was from around the same age, he thought, and was just as vivid, although it had a more surreal quality to it. It was a night when Momma and Pop were settled, not fighting. They’d gone to their room for a while, and both came out smiling. Leroy remembered smiling, too, and reaching out with his arms to latch onto Pop’s leg. Momma lit a cigarette and gave it to Pop. The smell wasn’t the same as the one that already permeated the house. It was different. He’d gone over to his corner and taken a pen and stuck it into his mouth, pretending to pull something in and then blow something out. Momma and Pop laughed, so he did it again, and stood very straight with his arm bent sideways, the way Momma held her cigarettes. They laughed again, and this time Pop stooped down to him and gave him the burning roll-up in his hand. Leroy’d been afraid, but he wanted Pop to keep smiling so he took it but didn’t know what to do. Pop took it back and whispered to him that this wasn’t just that green stuff or brown stuff that your Momma has all the time. No, this was some fine quality heroine right here. So smoke up, boy, never too early to have some fun. Leroy, panicking, tried to bend his face away from the smoke that was so close, making his eyes tear up. Pop put it in his mouth and pinched his nose closed, so he’d had to inhale a bit of whatever it was Pop had. He went limp, and the last thought he remembered having before he passed out was that maybe Pop was making him a hero, he gave him hero smoke, maybe he’d be like Superman.

Leroy’d thought a lot about those memories when he was inside. When he worked out, he thought again and again about getting rid of his tiny arms, of those little things that had hauled him onto the counter. When he sat and muttered and made people think he was crazy, he wondered if that toke of heroine smoke – hero smoke, as if – had really made his wiring go wrong. Those memories had proved to Boss-man that he could do what was needed. That’s all that mattered in the end, really – Tony Boss-man approving you or not. He’d been approved and he was damn proud of it at the time. But the man – the gaping hole – the smell of gunpowder – and Tony, letting him take the fall. No, that didn’t sit well with Leroy, not one bit.

Going Soft and True

Leroy glanced down at his watch for what felt like the hundredth time. They were late. Very late. And he was out on a limb here, risking his ass for Mr. Tony Boss-man. As if the Boss-man ever did a day’s work in his life, sitting there on his throne of black leather on wheels, computer screen hiding half his face, playing at being all modern. Sure, he was modern. If modern was looking at dirty videos all day.

Patting his pockets, Leroy searched for his lighter. Realizing it was already in his hand, he drew his pack of Marlboro cigarettes from his jeans, shook one out, and lit it. He glanced at his watch again, breathing in the smoke as if it was much needed oxygen. They were so late, he thought again. He could feel the prickles on the nape of his neck; he was sweating so badly that his hair seemed to be leaking. There was no reason for them to be late. Not unless… But he wouldn’t go there. Not yet, not consciously.

Glancing at his watch yet again, he realized that this was the first time in a long damn while that he’d been up in the small hours of the night. He remembered the last time vividly now, as if it had been yesterday instead of eight years ago. He could almost smell the smoke from the barrel of the gun – but no, that’s the cig, he reminded himself – and could almost see the hole in that man’s chest. That was a long time ago now, and Leroy tried to forget it more often than not. Only right now, with them being late and all, it was getting hard to separate his quickened heartbeats from that other night when he’d felt them so strongly too.

He realized he was muttering under his breath and shut up quickly. It was a habit he’d picked up at the pen. Some banker who’d offed his business partner had told him that muttering made people stay away from you. Leroy’d started doing it one evening when one of the thugs seemed willing to come beat on him for some sport, and he’d found that the thug turned away pretty quick when Leroy didn’t respond to his taunting but just kept on muttering. The thug had made his dumb friends laugh by making fun of the crazy dude talking to himself, and that had been it. The habit of muttering had stuck. The Boss-man told him to cut it out, that it was freak-show quality stuff that would scare away his clients. Didn’t need the muttering, though, to scare them away. Since they were so late that Leroy just assumed that they weren’t coming.

Just as he took his last puff and was flicking the butt into the road, he caught sight of headlights coming towards him. That moment seemed to stretch into forever. Leroy saw the headlights, saw the flare of his cigarette hitting the ground, saw the man’s chest torn open eight years ago, saw the bars of his solitary confinement when he’d raged at first, saw the eight wasted years. He saw it all in that one instant, and instinctively turned and jumped over the railing of the highway into the adjacent field. He ran through it, the dew making the ground slippery and the plants moist. He slipped, fell, hands covered with mud where he caught himself in the wet earth. He stayed down, heart beating, and listened.

He heard the idling car. He heard voices, but he couldn’t make out what they were saying. The blood was pumping so loudly in his ears that he felt that they must have turned into beacons of sound, broadcasting to all the crooks he’d ever known, telling them all that Leroy’d turned soft. That jail had reformed him. That Leroy wanted to clean up his act and never think of how another deal gone bad could turn into a gaping hole in a man’s chest.

He stayed down for a long time, long after the car had gone with the dealers in it. He lay in the damp earth until the sun rose, until the plants and ground around him seemed to start steaming. When the sun warmed the back of his still sweating neck, the warmth gave him goosebumps and shivered. The involuntary movement jarred him, and he finally managed to make his stiff limbs listen to his brain. He sat up, and stared around him. The field he was in looked nice, tended, except for the long path he’d made from the highway where all the plants were trampled, bent and broken. Like him, like Leroy the ex-crook, the ex-brave, the ex-badass.

There was a house a few hundreds yards away, at the end of the field. Leroy got to his feet, shaking, and took a good long look at it. He’d go there, ask about making amends for the ruined crops. Ask if he could work to pay for some food. Maybe if he’d prove he was strong and just as able as any man to work a long day in the sun, they’d let him stay for a while. Rent a room for his labor. That is, if there was anyone in there. With his luck, it’d be some old bag who hired illegals to work her fields, or some senile man with fifteen sons who did everything that needed to be done. But then again, maybe it’d be a husband and wife and a little boy who needed some extra hands to help get the harvest in proper. Leroy started towards the house, thinking that soon enough he’d find out.