A personal note from Randy Joyce Locke:

LET ME JUMP out in front of the nonsense. I’ve been around for many years. The years’ve not been kind to me. I’ve been less than kind back. Life’s come to my door, often kicking it off the hinges. I’ve kicked back without apology.

My life’s what I’ve experienced, moments and events stand out in my mind. They jump off the map at me, they dog each step like my shadow. These experiences define me. The past is immutable. The past is my story and that’s the story I’m going to tell without remorse, excuse or pretext. I don’t know if I were nubile before the burst of puberty, which thundered across me much too early anyway, many people were sexually drawn to me appropriately or not, which set off a cascade of events.

We are sexual beings, after all.

How you feel about my story is up to you. How you feel about my story is going to spring from your own story, your own assumed values and your own platitudes. My story isn’t pretty and I don’t ask anyone to agree with me.

Only listen.

Judge me as you will. What you think of me, actually, is none of my business.

Okay, my many years – all seventeen. Laugh, feel free, knock yourself out. Tell me: “Oh, you’re just a kid! What do you know of life?”

I’ll answer: fuck you, and if I’m in a good mood, that’s not what you’ll hear. Just maybe I know some secrets. I understand what many people miss: the human heart. I know where the bodies are buried and how they got there. I know the deal. I’ve walked with the shadows. I’ve watched life slip away, running hot down my forearms, looking in the eyes of death. I’ve felt the height of human pleasure, spasms quaking under my body and screams muted into my mouth. I’m wise to the game. Judge me badly for not being you and I’ll answer: fuck you. If I feel like it, I’ll leave you standing.

I’m the chick your mother warned you about. I’m the person that’ll crush your spirit and steal your soul. Nothing is beyond my grasp simply because I don’t fear reaching out and taking what I want.

If only for a moment.

I don’t labor under the weight of high moral platitudes, frozen like a deer in the headlights. I could be the second coming of Satan. I’ve sat with God out beyond where words can walk. I know His ineffable name.

My parents should have named me Lilith.

 

1

OFTEN, SOMEONE asks: “Isn’t Randy a boy’s name?”

If I’m in a good mood, I ask back: “What cave you live in, moron?” If I’m in a not-so-good mood, I’ll pull my shirt open and my bra down, revealing my breast. “You ever seen a tit like this on a guy?”

I’ve seen such men, most people haven’t.

I’ve been called strong-willed and opinionated – on a good day. Mostly, I’m called incorrigible and delinquent. I work hard not to disappoint. On the first day this year in English class, Jack Elder, the teacher, one of the very few morons requiring seating assignments, put me dead center in the front row.

“I’ve been warned about you.” His proclamation came down to the class, his nose and finger raised toward the ceiling as proof.

I opened my large purse on my newly assigned desk, plucked panties out, pink with brown dancing teddy bears, tossing them on his desk with: “Here. So you can check them out without getting a kink in your neck.”

As I said, I work hard not to disappoint. The first day of school this year, I got sent to the office three times, a personal record for me.

*****

RANDY HOLMES ISN’T a small man. He’s not a large man, either. He’s got two inches on me, maybe, standing his whole five feet, ten. His hair is non-committal brown with a lot of body. I bet if he’d let his hair grow, his hair would wave down his back like Jesus in the pictures. When we first met a couple of years back, he had no gray hair. Now, his head is streaked with silver. I personally take credit for the change.

Randy Holmes is the vice-principal and disciplinarian. He reminds me of my father. That is to say, the shadowy memories of my biological father, the guy who squirted his spunk in my mother. I can’t picture Holmes with a black derby on his head. Men don’t generally remind me of my father. Doesn’t matter: I don’t hesitate drawing comparisons to any man daring to cross my path. Dad’s Reeboks hit the blacktop not long after I pleased Mom by making the boat in the proper place with any regularity.

I don’t know whether the memories of my father are real or imagined. I want to insist real. I know my recollections are imagined.

“Hey, Randy.” My greeting came after the door clicked shut. “How many times today did you hear: Isn’t that a girl’s name?” I’ve always called Randy by his first name. We wrestled for a while. I gave him a choice. I told him I’d call him either Randy or fucking asshole. A good disciplinarian knows which battles to fight. We cut an unspoken deal: as long as no one was in earshot, I’d call him Randy, around others, hey you or something close would do.

He looked at his watch and then down to his desk, eyeing my schedule. “You didn’t even get through the roll.”

I cracked my gum. Randy gave up on me and gum years before – proper battles again. With rolled eyes and my little signature bounce, my weight on my right leg, I pointed out: “I made it all the way through gym and lunch. Good idea starting us out with pizza, by the way – nowhere to go but up. Chances are, I won’t land here from art class, so I’m looking at a winning average. If this were baseball, I’d be in the hall of fame.”

“I really don’t need this crap this year.” He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, mirroring me.

“Might help if you don’t give teachers a heads-up. The moron –”

“Moron?”

“Yeah, the moron, Elder.” I wanted to spit over my shoulder, waggling my thumb toward the door instead. “Said he was warned about me. Things would’ve been dandy if he didn’t get in my face. Do you know what it’s like for a moron to be taking roll and look at you and tell the whole class: I’ve been warned about you? Poke me with a stick and I’m poking back and me and you, Randy, will be having this same conversation.”

Randy Holmes sat back, twisted his face and eyed my short skirt. “You pulled the tossed underwear on him, didn’t you?”

“You know, sometime I gotta get a cam running – maybe a phone. You just can’t appreciate it if you don’t see it.” Tossing my panties on a teacher’s desk is a great gag but can’t be overplayed or word gets around. I skipped the whole year before. “I don’t know where you get these guys. This moron Elder’s gotta be a defrocked priest or something. He’s got those eyes. The panty deal was perfect for him. I bet he hits on me before Thanksgiving – no, Halloween.” 

“You think all your teachers are going to hit on you.”

“Just the guys and half the chicks.”

“That just isn’t true and you know it.”

I gave my standard shrug-of-the-shoulders.

“I did not have a conversation with any of your teachers. Those who had you, I’d guess, told war stories. We do not have a blacklist.”

“Had me? Not nice to kiss and tell.”

“Had you in their – oh, you know what I mean. It’s the first day so I’m granting amnesty.”

“To them?” I gave him the wide eyes, leaning forward.

“No, to you. No detention.”

“They should get the detentions. Elder started it, I told you.”

“That’s not the way it works.”

“We should copy and paste this conversation. We have it a lot. I won’t roll over when someone gets in my face. Just because someone happens to be older and happens to be a teacher, doesn’t mean they can abuse me at will.”

“Mr. Elder didn’t abuse you. He was warned about you and simply pointed it out.”

I narrowed my eyes. “He pointed it out in front of the whole class simply to put me down. He could’ve told me in private if he had to open his big mouth. This isn’t Nazi Germany. He gets in my face, I’m jumping back.”

Holmes smiled. “You could have calmly pointed that out in private.”

I giggled, rolling my eyes. “The expression on his face was priceless, and I’m sure the lesson will stick better.”

“Actually, I think your lesson will just make him more antagonistic.”

I tilted my head back, looking down my nose. “Then, it’s going to be a very long school year for Mr. Jack moron Elder.”

2

ELDER WOULDN’T let go. I was like a dog with an old sock. Before the week was out, we had a meeting, the three of us: Randy Holmes, Jack Elder and me. Elder and I sat side-by-side in front of Holmes’ desk. I had an advantage in the meeting. I didn’t accept the authority of Randy Holmes.

Holmes opened the meeting, leaning back in his chair, his fingertips playing on each other just below his chin. “Mr. Elder, don’t you feel you may have handled the situation better?”

I love the New Age touchy-feely stuff. Right and wrong becomes blurred and mixed up, confusing people. I do know a teacher has the job to control a class and generally, he’ll come out kicking ass and making an example just to set a tone. If a teacher gives up too much control too soon, he’ll never get it back. To this end, Elder came at me to cull the dominant horse from the herd. Now, Randy Holmes wanted Elder to reflect, to think about feelings, to see where he was wrong.

I slouched in my chair, pouting. “Tell me in front of everyone I was bad really made me feel bad.” I thought to sob or maybe cry a little. I didn’t want to overplay my advantage.

“Maybe.” Elder hesitated, nodded slowly, his wheels turning, then snapped back to reality. “But, what she did was uncalled for!” His arm came up, his waggling finger inches from my face.

“You started it.” I sobbed. I didn’t convince myself. I’m sure I didn’t convince Elder.

As for Holmes, he knew me too well. “Randy Joyce Locke: sit up and don’t pull that crying crap. I want you both to suck it up, shake hands and start tomorrow a new day. Clean slate. Can you do that?”

“I insist –” Elder tried.

“You mistake this for a conversation?” Holmes pronounced our sentence: “You will both, from this day forward, treat each other with a bare minimum of respect. Randy, if you can’t act like the young woman you are, then you won’t finish school here. Mr. Elder, if you can’t act the adult you are, then you can’t teach here. Is that clear to both of you?”

“Ding dong,” I affirmed.

“You going to let her call you that?” Elder jumped to his feet, his chair skidding back a foot.

“Gotta be a teacher shortage.” I offered a conclusion, this time no doubt who my thumb referred to. “Get me another class. This clown doesn’t know English. How can he teach it?”

“Randy!” Holmes put a palm hard to his desk.

“What!” I found my feet, resting my knuckles on Holmes’ desk, going almost nose-to-nose.

*****

I DIDN’T GET my classes switched. Jack Elder, when it comes to teachers, is young. I place him in his mid-twenties. I’ve met him before. I don’t mean him – I mean people, teachers like him. He remembers his high school days but doesn’t know we’re not him, this is not his high school and the years have rolled up. He may, in time, become a good teacher. He has the raw talent. I like him. In the meantime, he’ll stumble along trying to find his way. I know he hates me, but not for who I am. He hates me because he cannot be me. He hates me because I see the shadows. I predicted he’d hit on me before Halloween.

I was right.

3

I’M NOT SURE how others see me. I know many people think I don’t like school. I like school just fine, and if I could remove most of the student body and a large hunk of the teachers, life would be perfect. I think Randy Holmes knows more about me than he’s saying. I’m certainly not a ten, though I dress up good. I make me a seven and a half. I’d be a six, but I know how to use and project my presence, my body. Shadow dancing: I eke out the additional one and a half.

Holmes’ fingerprints are all over my schedule.

Lisa Abraham is a short package. She looks like a Precious Moments chick with big soft eyes and perfect brown hair the color of a spring doe. I’m not sure she’s human. She could be an imp. She’s my homeroom teacher, my guidance counselor and my teacher for first period: computers. Oh, sorry: information sciences. They feel compelled to change the name every year. Abraham and Holmes huddle too often for me to believe my schedule is random happenstance from the drop of some cosmic dice.

Abraham never gets in my face. Talking with her is like dancing with smoke or wrestling with water. She knows how to handle me. I hate her for it, but I love her, too. Lisa Abraham has this way of looking at me. If I could master the look, I could rule the world. Computers and me get along great.

Lisa told me: “I think you have a future in computers.”

Of course, I do. Me against the machine, the machine has a fighting chance.

My first visit to the office this year came as a gift from Bruce Garner, a dinosaur of a man, big, slow moving and old. He wanted to separate who might need remedial study from those who’ve been awake to hear the basics. The quiz had ten problems, all simple stuff we first saw in seventh grade, including the one trick question.

Ten minutes after the test was handed out, I waved mine in the air. “Number ten is a trick question. The negative flips five times.”

Bruce Garner didn’t like I ruined his old gag. As with computers, I’m pretty good with numbers – real and unreal.

Third period almost got me to the office. Wilma Sharpe, our gym teacher, is very cool. “You can call me Willie while in class, but please call me Ms. Sharpe in the hall.”

I like a teacher who’s direct and clear with her instructions. We kids are easily confused as it is. Rose and I were the only two students dressed for gym and ready to go.

As with the past four years, the teacher addressed us, detailing what uniforms were appropriate for class with an eye on what she expected, including an overview of the sports and equipment. “Willie,” I called from the bleachers. “Me and Rose’ve heard this four times already. We’re dressed. We’re going to do some laps.”

With a stern look, Sharpe narrowed her eyes, pondering what lines to draw. A breathless moment passed. I didn’t know whether I’d go to the office or out to the track. I did tell and not ask. She nodded hard, once. “Is anyone else prepared for class today? I like students who show initiative.”

I suspected Sharpe would let me run. Though I’ve yet to have her as a teacher, she’s also the soccer coach and I know she wants me to go out for the team. I’ve been lobbied for the track team. Track’s not for me – not enough contact, as with soccer.

Now, football, there’s a game I could enjoy but for two reasons. Firstly, the school won’t let me on the team and secondly: I’m not a team player.

4

ROSEBUD MILK BOTTLEMockridge is as close to a best friend I have my age. Most people call her Rose. She does her best to hide the fact her parents, hippy throwbacks, named her Rosebud. I call her Milk Bottle or Milky for short because, well, she is. She has white skin and straight hair the color of sun-bleached winter wheat. I could’ve called her ghost or spook, but Milk Bottle is more endearing. Maybe Spooky would work.

I don’t wish to go there.

We did two laps. I’m a runner so I wasn’t close to the burn. Milky isn’t, barely able to keep up. Halfway around our third lap, we jumped the chest-high fence, disappearing down a small hill, falling to the grass. “This sucks.” I fished my schedule from my sock along with two cigarettes, handing the form and a cigarette to Milky. “You got any of my afternoon classes?”

She pulled hard to get air in her lungs, eyed the paper and lit our cigarettes with an unsteady hand and tentative match. “Nope. Figures. I knew after last year they’d keep us as far apart as they could.”

“What’s-his-face shouldn’t have mocked your name. I expect crap like that from kids, not teachers.”

“Well, he didn’t make the joke until –”

“Everyone laughed –”

“You always do that, Randy. It was just a couple of kids. It wasn’t everyone. Rosebud is a weird name, after all.”

I gnashed my teeth. “Yeah, well, I got in a couple of good smacks before he clocked me.”

“And, you got suspended!”

“I was ready for a week off.” I’d have been expelled for sure if the teacher hadn’t made fun of Rosebud first and second, knocked me on my ass with a sucker punch. Not gentlemanly to hit a girl half your size. I shrugged the past away. “You really oughta run more.”

On my back with my ankle over my knee, I watched the clouds. I drew deep on the cigarette, allowing the smoke to insult my body. “How was summer?” Milky and I aren’t allowed to hang out. Her mother thinks I’m a bad influence, my mother could care less. I spent half of July and the whole of August out of town, a habit I picked up almost a decade before.

“I did it.” Milky fell to the grass beside me and watched the sky, duplicating my stance.

“Anyone I know?”

“Does it matter?”

“Nah. Was it all you thought it’d be?”

“Nah and Nah. Guy down the shore. From New York –”

“Said he was from New York.”

“Yeah. I was pretty drunk.”

I snickered a little. “Pretty drunk or really drunk?”

Milky pushed me hard on the shoulder. “Very drunk.”

“Sex with guys is much better when you’re so drunk or stoned you don’t have a clue when it starts or ends.”

“Yeah, you’ve said as much a few times.” Milky sighed, groaning a little.

I twisted my face, flicked my cigarette away, reached over and pulled Milky to me. She curled up, her head against my chest. “Sorry, really. I hoped it’d be different for you.” Yeah, like that might happen. “Want to hear about my summer?”

“No.” She pulled closer like a needy child. “I think I’m knocked up.”

“How late are you?”

“I’m not, yet.”

I smiled with grim amusement. “And, you got fucked how many times?”

“Eh, just the once, it was –”

“Both you guys really drunk?”

“Very.”

I rolled my eyes, thinking back a handful of years. “Every chick since Eve thought she was knocked up the first time someone threw a hump in her.”

“You saying I can’t be?”

“Oh, girl, you could be, but damn, the odds are way against it. We got like this timing honey spot. The sperm critters don’t live all that long, the guy doesn’t cum usually like a race horse when he’s drunk, blah, blah, blah. Are you even sure he came at all or inside you? Did he use a condom?”

“I don’t know, Randy!” She sat up, pulling away.

“If we were betting, I’d bet you’re not.”

She fell back on me. “And, if I am?”

I put my arm around her again. “Four hundred clams, cut school on a Friday, you’re back on the horse for homeroom Monday.” My delivery came flat, matter-of-fact, as if I were telling Milky how to go about buying the morning newspaper at the corner store.

“But, what if –”

“Did you even get his name?”

She sat up again.

I arched high to see over the hill, no one in sight. I retrieved a joint from my sock. “Dope will get you through, you know.” I lit, toked and passed the home-rolled cigarette.

“You get the best stuff.” She choked on the smoke and took another hit. “I don’t have that kinda money. Do I have to tell my mom? Dad’ll kill me.”

“If need be, I can get you ID. I got money. I’m on the quantity discount punch-card deal. Every fifth abortion’s free. Bring in a friend, get a discount. But, I doubt seriously you’re knocked up.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, really. You ain’t knocked up.”

She laughed. “I mean the discount!”

“No, the bastards. I was joking.”

“Thanks, I feel better.”

*****

ME AND MILKY talked about sex a lot. She dated a good deal, even had a steady boyfriend or two over the years. I told her it’s no big deal and not the Holy Grail or anything. For some stupid reason, she felt embarrassed being a virgin. “But, everyone’s done it.”

“No. Everyone has not done it. They just say they have.”

Milky doing some stranger didn’t surprise me. That way, there wouldn’t be some sperm-generating breeder skipping up and down the halls in school like a manic town crier, proclaiming he tagged a virgin. Some guys place the accomplishment up there with getting Elvis’ autograph at the local stop-and-rob.

People seem confused about sex and what constitutes sex. To me, it’s a no-brainer, and I draw the line way back. Some people believe vaginal penetration is required for sex. Me: if someone’s thinking about me when he smacks his chummy, it’s sex.

5

I’M GUESSING MY first sexual experience came when I was around six, soon after my birthday, in early summer. To make a short story long, my dad left, Mom lost the house, a house I have no memory of. We lived in a studio apartment, us sharing a small twin bed. Mom quit school to marry Dad, when Dad threw a hump into Mom, knocking her up. With no skills to speak of, she worked any menial jobs she could find. Mom’s never been the brightest star in the sky.

No matter how much me and Mom cleaned, an odd wet-copper smell permeated everything. Mom hung old sheets on the front windows. We were on the second floor. The light from the billboard across the street forced its way past our makeshift curtains, casting the night in a ghastly hue. Mom beside me at night comforted me. Sometimes Mom would leave me with Mrs. Bitner across the hall. She was a raspy-throated smelly old woman. She always wore the same housecoat and wanted to hug me too much, kissing me with her vile mouth.

When Mom was late, Mrs. Bitner put me in front of the TV with my teddy bear, Bear. She told me to make sure the door was locked. She reminded me Mom said to turn the TV off at eight o’clock and turn the lights out, to get into bed and go to sleep. She promised Mom would be home before I woke up.

I was dreadfully scared in the dark with the grisly light dancing on the walls, unidentifiable sounds creeping into my imagination. I hid under my covers as darkness crept in, holding onto Bear, trying to breathe and refusing to cry. Sleep would somehow find me and as promised, when I awoke, Mom lie asleep beside me. All was then right with the universe again.

Soon after my sixth birthday, Mom came home from work with a man, Mark Beck, I think. Mom told me to call him Uncle Mark. Mom explained adults often had special friends. The speech, as I remember it, was lame then, and it’s lame now. Uncle Mark treated me nice enough, bringing me small toys occasionally. He bought me a new dress, the first new clothes I received since Dad left. All my clothes came from the thrift store and sometimes smelled like Mrs. Bitner.

Uncle Mark liked me to sit on his lap.

Mom was late one night. Mrs. Bitner placed me in front of the TV, offering the reminders and left. For two hours, I watched the TV and the clock, the clock racing toward bedtime. At eight o’clock, I checked the door, turned off the TV, flipped the light switch off and ran for the bed, quickly burrowing under the covers. Fighting hard against fear, I found sleep.

Later, I have no way of knowing how much later, voices invaded my sleep. I could hear Mom speaking quietly – and Uncle Mark. “She’s sleeping.” I didn’t move. I stayed quiet, pretending to be sleeping. “Are you sure?” Mom asked. “I don’t know.” Mark told her: “Relax. It’s okay.” This went on for a while. I may have fallen asleep.

I recall standing near the sofa with Bear by the arm, dangling to the floor. Mom moaned deeply in hard breaths. Uncle Mark was on top Mom in the muted light, his naked butt going up and down, Mom’s bent leg cutting the view. Mom buried her face in the sofa toward the wall. I stood, staring, for I don’t know how long. I realized Uncle Mark was looking at me. He watched my eyes and smiled. Freeing an arm, Uncle Mark reached for me, lifting my oversized tee shirt just a little.

His bulging eyes dropped to my underwear, his face distorting. He bellowed a muffled scream, his rhythm becoming harder, more meaningful. I ran for the bed, quickly burrowing under the covers again, holding Bear tighter than I ever held him before.

I didn’t say anything to Mom in the morning. I didn’t have the words. Uncle Mark fell to a place in my mind saved for the odd, eerie shadows and unknown noises of the night. Uncle Mark appeared as a smiley man with candy. Uncle Mark emerged as a shadow-faced, intense being of ghastly distortion and inhuman sounds.

I was only six years old, sorry for repeating myself – my age bears repeating.

Uncle Mark romanced me.

Of course, I didn’t understand this at the time. Mom tried to get me into a summer school program. I don’t think we were poor or needy enough. Mrs. Bitner, old and tired, didn’t want the burden of me all day everyday. “Afternoons are bad enough.”

Yeah, I was really bad, sitting on the floor holding Bear watching stupid people on stupid TV shows talking about stupid stuff or soap operas.

“You mustn’t talk during my shows,” she told me.

Staring at her shows, the daytime dramas, is how I figured out what Uncle Mark did to Mom. I felt he wasn’t fucking Mom. He was fucking me.

Uncle Mark, in all his kindness, told Mom he’d be glad to watch me during the day. I didn’t think about it then, but now I wonder what this moron did for a living. Mom would wake me, tell me to get dressed and she’d put cornflakes on the table. I thought the only cereal in the world was cornflakes. She’d put me in front of cartoons and leave for work.

To Uncle Mark, watching me during the day consisted of showing up – he had his own key – around lunchtime, putting peanut butter on a piece of bread and pouring milk. If I promised to be a good girl for Mom, he’d give me candy, which he dug from his jacket pocket. He told me I was pretty and explained men liked pretty girls. He taught me to dance, which was him sitting on the floor while I jumped around. Again, if I danced like he told me to, he’d fish more candy from his pocket.

I enjoyed the attention.

After my floorshow, Uncle Mark went to the bathroom for a long time. When he returned, he wasn’t friendly anymore, maybe short and even mean. He’d call me a bad girl, saying: “No more candy for you!” He’d leave, sometimes locking the door behind him, sometimes not. Me and Bear would check the door and then watch out the window and the street below.

Some days I’d make more peanut butter and bread, but when I did, I might forget to put everything away and Mom would yell at me when she saw the jar open on the table. “You stupid little shithead!” she’d yell, smacking me. “I work hard for what we have for you to be wasting it!”

I only made more peanut butter and bread when I was really hungry. Mostly, I’d watch out of the window until I saw the strange tall man who always wore a dark suit and weird black derby like I’d seen in cartoons. I didn’t know whether he saw me or not, but he’d look up at my window and tip his finger from his hat. Then, I knew to go across the hall so Mrs. Bitner could watch me.

I’m not sure I put the idea into any kind of thought, but as the child at the window, I imagined the strange man, the man who stood out from all others, my guardian angel or maybe God. I wondered whether other people passing on the street could see him, too. I’d hold Bear up to the window and tip Bear’s paw back to the man.

Uncle Mark’s romance with me and affair with Mom didn’t last long. Mom came home one night just before eight o’clock crying and yelling, slamming the door behind her. Terrified, I jumped into bed dragging Bear and hid under the covers. Mom yelled stuff I didn’t understand at the time: Uncle Mark was married, a detail he hadn’t mentioned.

I left the peanut butter out. I took a beating. Mom’s face, the way the shadows played and the way the rage distorted her features reminded me of Uncle Mark, the dark foreboding creature I saw in the dimness of shaded billboard lights. I didn’t like Uncle Mark very much. I did like his attention, and I did like the candy – and my new dress, the dress I always wore when dancing for Uncle Mark.

I didn’t much like Mom anymore, either, or Mrs. Bitner or our apartment. I didn’t like the shadows at night or the wet-copper smell in the daytime. I didn’t like being alone, being hungry or being afraid. Most of all, I didn’t like being afraid.

With the disappearance of Uncle Mark – though he did come banging on the door drunk a few times in the middle of the night – my daycare fell to Mrs. Bitner. Mom woke me, told me to get dressed and she’d pour cornflakes. “Now, when you’re ready for lunch, or need anything, just tap on Old Lady Bitner’s door.”

Mrs. Bitner whining and grumbling, would lumber over like an old grizzly bear and put peanut butter on bread. I poured my own milk. I thought the carton might be too heavy for her. On the second day, I spilled the milk, just a splash and got yelled at. I didn’t bother Mrs. Bitner for lunch after that.

I was careful to put the peanut butter away, sometimes forgetting, but not often.

6

LATE ONE afternoon, the toilet didn’t drain and the water spiraled upward right to the brim, dripping the slightest bit onto the floor. Silly me, I flushed the toilet again thinking a second flush would fix the problem. Water spilled onto the floor. I dragged towels from the shower rod, dropping them around the toilet. I ran for Mrs. Bitner. I knew I was in big trouble. In tears, I told her about the toilet.

She stared at the TV, ignoring me. I pleaded for help. She just stared and stared and stared. I pulled on her arm. She still stared at the TV. I returned to my apartment, gathered up Bear and went down to the street to sit on the cool hard concrete steps and cry. I have no idea why I cried, not really. I was afraid. I’m not sure of what.

The sea of people ignored me, legs of all shapes moving with taps and clops and a bicycle passing now and then. I thought it might be nice to own a bicycle and go farther and faster than my legs could take me. I wanted to walk away from water dripping on the floor, smelly old women, cornflakes and dark forbidding shadows dancing at night.

A voice, deep and rich, came from above. “What’s your friend’s name?”

I started to say I didn’t have any friends. “Bear!” I held onto Bear, watching the sidewalk below me.

“Nice to meet you, Bear.” The man took Bear’s paw with a little shake. “Why is Bear so sad today?”

Still looking at the ground, holding Bear to my chest, I explained: “The toilet’s leaking on the floor and Bear’s going to get it when Mom gets home.” I’m sure I pouted.

“Who’s watching you?” The man’s tone came across too jovially considering the disaster I faced.

“Mrs. Bitner, ‘cause Uncle Mark’s married.” I looked up into the deepest, brownest eyes I’d ever seen – and the brim of the strange derby. “Oh!”

“Oh?” His eyes smiled down on me.

“Mrs. Bitner’s watching TV and can’t be bothered. She’s really, really old, you know.”

He chuckled, taking my hand. “Let’s have a look at this leaking toilet of yours so Bear doesn’t have to be sad.”

I was excited. I was on fire. I babbled about everything, anything and nothing.

With an unskillfully applied plunger from under our sink, the stranger had the toilet working properly in no time. He sopped the floor dry, rung out the towels and hung them on the shower curtain rod: “So Bear won’t get it.”

While he did his work, I made lunch: peanut butter on bread with milk. I didn’t spill a drop. The stranger accepted, with a bow, my invitation. He praised my culinary skills and my milk pouring. His eyes never stopped smiling nor did he stop chuckling, even when I told him about the evil shadows at night that come to visit when Mom’s not home.

“I have met these shadows.” He raised his face just a little, his eyelids drooping, almost as a challenge.

With wide eyes, I took the challenge. “Really?”

He winked a smiling eye. “Only special people can see them.”

“Really?” Maybe my mouth dropped wide open. I went for the big question. “Are you an angel?”

He chuckled. “No more than you. Where’s Mrs. Bitner?”

“Oh, she’s across the hall. I go there when I see you!”

Again, the chuckle. “Randy, you may call me Percy. No uncle or mister. Just Percy.”

I didn’t ask how he knew my name. I couldn’t imagine he didn’t. He went to speak to Mrs. Bitner. She was dead. As flat as that, Percy said: “Mrs. Bitner is dead.” Then, he asked if I wanted to see.

I did.

7

FOR THE REST of summer, each weekday, Percy stopped in the sea of people below my window and tipped his finger from his derby. Me and Bear ran down the steps. Percy either had sandwiches in a paper bag, which we’d eat on the steps, or we’d get a hotdog and soda from the corner vendor. Sometimes we’d eat in a sit-down restaurant a long walk away. At the end of summer, with the start of school, without warning, Percy stopped coming.

I’ve never told Mom or anyone about Percy. I did, years later, tell Mom about the night with Uncle Mark. She didn’t believe me. “That never happened. You must have dreamed it.”

I didn’t argue. Like Percy told me, not everyone can see the shadows.