Authors: Mary Elizabeth
SITTING BETWEEN FLAC
and Low in the front seat, with weed whacker guy in the back by himself, we drive from Culver City into Inglewood. An orchestra of trumpets, violins, and guitars clatter from blown speakers in a Mexican symphony that has Flaco bouncing up and down with rhythm and joy.
When two of the three men begin to sing song lyrics in a language I don’t understand, I look to find Lowen’s blue eyes set on me. I elbow him playfully before resting my bare arm against his on our own laps.
he slight burn of his skin soaks deep within me, melting away lingering bitterness for my parents.
They become an afterthought … an indifference.
“Should we take you somewhere?” Low asks as Flaco pulls the truck in front of a small blue house. A Hispanic woman and three dark-haired children wave at our arrival from the porch, illuminated by an orange doorway light.
I shrug, unbuckling my seatbelt. My ears ring from the sudden silence when the engine is cut and the stereo silences a mid-trumpet solo.
“I can find my way around,” I say, stepping out after Lowen onto the cracked sidewalk.
“By yourself?” My unlikely friend scoffs, slinging a backpack over his broad shoulders and smirking. “No fucking way, Poesy.”
The pre-summer day has fallen into early night, setting off streetlights that cast shadows across Low’s face. Unlike the domestic hum my neighborhood sings at night—primetime television, pool filters, and crickets—this is East Los Angeles. This town doesn’t hum; it shrieks.
Police sirens pollute the air, and backyard-bred dogs sprint up and down chain-link fences, guarding the homes they surround. Homeboys drink 40s in front of open garages, and homegirls hang on their arms. The scents of marijuana and exhaust fill my lungs, gangster beats shake my bones, and I lean against the green Chevy to soak it all in.
“I’m not afraid.” I lift my chin.
“You should be,” Low says, holding his hand out for me.
Taking it without a second thought, I place my small palm in his large one. Hard work and struggle roughened his skin, a blatant contrast to my own. I don’t lace my fingers with his, but keep our hands cupped together as he leads me down the street.
“Have friends here or something?” my chaperone asks. His grip tightens slightly around mine.
“No,” I answer.
Lowen lets out a small laugh. “Is jumping in trucks with strangers something you do often?”
“You’re not a stranger.”
“I’m your gardener,” he replies.
“You’re my dad’s gardener,” I say spitefully, turning my gaze from him to the broken sidewalk passing beneath our feet. “That doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
Lowen drops my hand to rest his arm across my shoulders as we exchange neighborhood sidewalks for city streets. The night is alive and thriving as the freaks come out, crowding street corners and tramping through gutters. Eventually, liquor stores and laundry mats taper to apartment buildings and run-down houses in a part of town that has the hair on the back of my neck standing straight.
“This is me.” Lowen stops, stepping away from me toward a yellow house with white trim. Stucco has fallen from it in clumps, the brick steps leading toward the door are chipped, but the lawn is on point.
“Okay,” I say, looking around. Most of the streetlights are broken, there’s not a star in the sky, and the thick sense of being watched is suffocating.
As Low heads toward his front door, leaving me alone on the sidewalk, the fright balled inside my chest reminds me of exactly who I am: a scared white girl from the ’burbs.
“Poesy,” the deserter calls out to me. “Are you coming in or what?”
My feet move before I inhale a breath to answer.
LOWEN’S HOME I
everything mine isn’t: adored.
The TV is set on an old dresser, the couch has holes in the arms, the coffee table is missing its glass top, and the artwork on the wall looks like it was taken from a cheap motel. But there’s a young blonde-haired girl sitting at the dining table with a notebook and calculator, doing her homework, and another woman in front of the stove, jumping away from popping oil with the sound of her laughter filling every inch of the kitchen.
“Motherfuck, that hurt!” she shouts, shaking her left hand while flipping chicken with the right and some tongs.
“Mom,” the younger girl groans, rolling her eyes.
“I know, Gillian, but the fucking oil keeps biting me,” the chef hoots, swapping the tongs for a wooden spoon to stir the pot of mashed potatoes. “Shit, my language. Dammit, I’m sorry. Fuck!”
Low places his hand on my lower back, guiding me to the commotion. Gillian, who’s maybe twelve years old, spots us and drops her pencil. The blueness of her eyes puts me under arrest, enchanting me with the same spell Lowen has for weeks now. She shares the roundness of his lips and the sharpness of his jawline, too.
“Who’s this?” she asks suddenly.
I smile at her boldness and answer, “I’m Poesy Ashby. Who are you?”
“That rude girl is my sister, Gillian,” Lowen says before she can reply, pulling out a seat for me to sit at the table. “Ignore her. She was raised by wolves.”
Gillian sticks her tongue out at her older brother.
“Excuse me. I take offense to that,” the woman at the stove interjects teasingly. She wipes her grease-slick hands on her pants before reaching out to shake my hand to introduce herself. “Patricia Seely, but I guess you can call me Mother Wolf.”
“Nice to meet you.” I shake her hand with both of mine, taking notice of the coarseness of her palms. They’re the hands of a woman who’s lived a hard life.
The wooden table wobbles as I take a seat, unbalanced on four legs. None of the chairs around it match, and the varnish has rubbed away in some places on the aged surface. But there’s a green vase with fresh flowers in the center, and red cotton placemats faded from use.
Lowen takes a seat at the head of the table, unlaces his work boots, and sits back. He closes his eyes, working his neck back and forth to release tension from the day. Patricia sets a glass of ice water in front of him, and Gillian pushes her workbook toward her brother, looking for help.
It’s a display I’ve only witnessed in movies. No one uses the kitchen table at my house. I don’t remember a time when I had a meal with my parents that wasn’t in front of the television, or had anyone help me with schoolwork without huffing and puffing about what an inconvenience it was.
“Are you staying for dinner?” Patricia asks, lowering the flame on the stove to simmer the packaged gravy. “We have plenty.”
I look to Low for assurance before I agree. I’m the girl who jumped out of a window and into his work truck without a clue as to where I was headed. He let me tag along and saved me from wandering amongst gangsters and thugs on the streets, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t want me making myself at home in his space.
“Stay, Poe. I’ll drive you where you need to go after you eat,” my knight in shining armor replies.
We eat fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and applesauce, and drink grape soda from coffee mugs, occupying all four chairs around the table. Gillian talks about her day at school, and Patricia complains about the garbage disposal not working again.
“I called the landlord, but he didn’t answer, of course,” she says before popping a piece of chicken between her lips. Patricia’s wearing bright green eye shadow with heavy pink blush across her cheeks. Her curly bleach blonde hair is pulled back into a clip, and her nails are painted red. She’s outrageous and fantastic and true all at the same time. “And he still hasn’t sent anyone to fix the faucet in the bathroom.”
“Don’t call him again,” Lowen says. He wipes his mouth clean with a napkin. “I’ll take care of it this weekend.”
Simple gestures and the genuine affection this family so obviously feels for each other burns my cheeks with awe. Hiding my smile behind my mug, I drink the rest of my soda to keep from embarrassing myself in front of Low.
“Is it okay if I get some more?” I ask, lifting my cup.
“Sure, honey.” Patricia pauses the conversation to answer, falling right back into it once I stand.
The off-white refrigerator is covered with school awards and decent report cards from the youngest member in the household. Poems written on college-ruled paper with Gillian Seely’s name in the corner are taped between her academic accomplishments, and a brochure for a teen summer writing program is in the center of it all, kept in place by a magnet.
“The bottle is on the counter,” Lowen says, directing his eyes to the liter of grape drink.
“Oh, sorry,” I say, but it’s too late. I’ve already opened the fridge to see what’s inside.
Or in this case,
Lit dimly by a clear bulb in the back, the refrigerator is empty and smells like mildew. Sticky spots and crumbs are the only indication that anything but a pitcher of water, a take-out container, and random condiments are kept here.
“I haven’t had a chance to make it to the grocery store,” Patricia says, waving me off dismissively. “Hopefully, I can go sometime tomorrow.”
This isn’t a fridge that belongs to a family with no time to shop.
It belongs to a family who starves.
“No problem.” Cold, processed air cools my warm cheeks, and I close the door quickly, fighting the urge to open the freezer.
As comprehension blankets me in a scratchy embrace, I eat every bite on my plate and consider licking it clean, not daring to waste a single scrap. I can feel Lowen’s blue-eyed stare on me from across the table, but keep my gaze down as shame rips me to pieces. It was only last week when I watched my mom throw away a week’s worth of leftovers and a drawer full of fruit that molded and thought nothing of it.