Shamus drove his Impala like a teenager in a horror movie would, just before he crashed and turned his passengers into vengeful ghosts, but you closed your eyes and surfed on the tide of adrenaline, you could almost turn your fear into exhilaration. It was the spring of my freshman year, and I was thirteen.
I clutched the pitted vinyl of the back seat as we hurtled down the road, the engine bellowing like a horny bull. Starla sat on the front passenger side, her nose scrunched up, showing her bravery and her overbite as she laughed. Outside, the blooming pear trees spun by in a blur. The cloying scent of their blossoms tore through the open windows on gusts that ruffled Shamus’s mullet and ratted up my triangle perm.
Next to me, a boy grinned ratlike, his curly dishwater hair spilling carelessly around his bony and freckled face. His name was Mel. This was the first time I’d met him.
The car screamed up the hill to Lookout Point. We hit the parking lot at full speed and Shamus, laughing like a hyena, slammed on the brakes at the last second, bringing the Impala to a rest with its nose all but hanging off the edge of the cliff. Around us the dust billowed, and I took a moment to let my heartbeat slow and to catch the breath that, moments ago, I’d been so sure would be crushed from my lungs as we fell to the rocks hundreds of feet beneath us.
“Shamus, you are such a dork,” Starla said calmly, getting a pack of Marlboros out of her purse. Shamus killed the engine and turned around, his cold, green eyes finding me in the back seat.
“Awww, look at Gracie, she’s scared. You gonna piss your pants, Gracie?” He smiled at Mel. “Hope you don’t mind the piss stains when you’re peeling her shorts off, dude.”
I curled into a ball around my shame. Fuck you, you goldfish-looking shithole, I wanted to say, but I didn’t. I never came out ahead in those sorts of exchanges, because my voice would squeak and my face would get all red, which ruined the effect. Mel snickered, then reached into his leather biker jacket and brought out a pint of Wild Turkey. He wore the jacket over tight, acid-wash cutoffs, which just made him look even skinnier, squaring his body off like a fudgesicle over his stick legs. He handed the bottle to me.
“No fucking way, dude, you have Wild Turkey?” Shamus said. The two boys high-fived over the seatback. “Where’d you get it?”
“My dad,” Mel said.
“You steal it from his liquor cabinet?”
“No, he just got it for me when I went to visit him.” Shamus’s bulgy eyes opened even wider with incredulity.
“My mom totally lets me drink her vodka all the time,” I lied. “We sit around and party.”
Shamus sneered. “Your mom likes to party, huh, Gracie? I’d get drunk with that bitch.”
I took the bottle from Mel and unscrewed the cap, my nose cringing back from the fumes. “Do you have a chaser? Shamus, can I have a drink of your Big Gulp?”
Shamus’s lip curled up in mock disgust, and he thrust the cup at me, the slurry of ice cubes and Mountain Dew sloshing against the top. “Don’t get your whore slime all over the straw,” he said.
“God, Shamus,” Starla said mildly, her cigarette sending up curls of smoke around her fingers.
I took a glug of the alcohol and choked, quickly swallowing it and soothing my throat with Shamus’s drink.
“You blew snot all over my drink!” he yelped. “Did you see that? She blew her slut juice all over the place. Give me that.” He grabbed his soda back, and my hurt must have shown in my eyes, because he grinned. “Just teasing you, Gracie, God, don’t cry.”
“I’m not crying,” I said.
The bottle went around a couple of times and then was empty, leaving my mouth tasting like kerosene and my head spinning. The sun had set, the last layers of red and green fading over the desert hills. The spread of city lights began to glimmer below us, a huge platter of white and orange jewels, little headlights streaming along the roads. Above, the stars were coming out in the wide sky. Shamus and Starla got out of the car to play a game of slap-grab-and-tickle, and Mel’s eyes gleamed in the low light as he watched me.
“You drunk yet?” he asked.
“I like your shirt. Megadeth is fucking rad. Dave Mustaine kicks ass. Did you hear they’re coming out with a new album pretty soon?”
“Yeah, I think I heard,” I lied. I never knew things like that. I gazed out the windshield at the stars and city lights, Shamus and Starla’s silhouettes darkening them from time to time as they flirted elaborately.
“Peace Sells was an awesome album,” Mel continued, then started headbanging vigorously, flipping his curls around and playing air bass. “Bow-buh-bow buh-bow.”
I giggled nervously, picking at a hole in the vinyl seat, and he grinned wider, his little attempt at a moustache sticking out around his sharp nose like stubby whiskers. “You’re a freshman, right? How old are you. Fourteen? Fifteen?”
“I’ll be sixteen in July,” I lied. It was an old lie. “How old are you?”
“I’ll be sixteen in September,” he said.
“What school you go to?”
“I dropped out. My mom kicked me out of the house a few weeks ago, and it was a pain in the ass to get to class. I wanna get back in school though. Some parts of it are pretty rad. I always liked English class. Have you ever read Jack Kerouac?”
My neck snapped around as I turned to look at him, a real smile breaking out on my face. “Yes. I’ve read On the Road and Dharma Bums. I think On the Road is my favorite. Do you know he wrote that in just a few days? He actually had to, like, get a roll of paper so that he didn’t have to stop writing to put new sheets in.”
“I think he was taking a lot of speed. His head was full of words all pouring out of him all like BLUH BLUH BLAB BLAB.”
I laughed, and he laughed. I picked at the vinyl some more. “You ever read Carlos Castaneda?” I asked.
“No, what’s that about?”
“It’s really trippy, it’s a true story supposedly, about this guy who goes down and hangs out with this Yaqui Indian sorcerer in Mexico. He takes a lot of peyote and smokes mushrooms and learns how to do magic and stuff.”
“That sounds rock and roll,” he said, grinning. “I want to read that. You ever do acid?”
“No. I’d like to, though.”
“Me, too. I know a guy who can get some.”
“Totally. I’ll get some, and we should drop together.”
A little shiver of fear and excitement skittered down my spine as I thought about doing hallucinogens. I wondered if I’d see the Guardian or an Ally like Carlos Castaneda had.
The sound of Starla and Shamus’s laughter floated through the open windows. I could see the end of her cigarette flaring in the darkness as she took a drag.
“You wanna go outside?” I asked.
He agreed, and we climbed out into the night. The air was cool and smelled like the blooming orchards. You could hear the hiss of traffic down in the city, but a chorus of frogs rose up above it, the sound settling into my soul like a hymn.
“Hey Mel, your dick wet yet?” Shamus yelled from over where they were. Starla giggled as my cheeks burned and my heart crumpled.
“My dick’s always wet,” Mel replied.
I hugged myself and craned my neck up at the stars, which wobbled a little in my drunken eyes. “Somewhere up there, there’s aliens,” I said. “The universe is so big, there’s just no way we’re the only ones in it.”
“Rock and roll aliens!” Mel yelled up into the sky. “Hey, you extraterrestrials, do you like to thrash?” He started strutting around, playing his air bass again. “BOW-BUH-BOW-BUH-BOW.” He was sort of embarrassing, and I looked away.
“Hey, aliens,” Shamus yelled. “Wanna come down and stick your knobby, weird dicks in Gracie’s loose pussy?”
Starla laughed. “Shut up, Shamus, God.”
A couple days later I had my mom drop me off at the park by the river so that Mel and I could go for a walk. He wore his leather jacket again, his knobby knees showing between frayed cutoffs and dirty high-top sneakers, his hair corkscrewing all over the place. “He’s quite the looker,” my mom drawled, and I heard an unspoken No wonder he’s interested in you trailing after it.
My chin fell to my chest. “He’s really nice, mom,” I muttered. I wasn’t attracted to him, but at least he did seem interested. And he’d heard of Kerouac.
She took off, smirking at me out the windshield as she turned the car around. Mel and I walked along the river, and I plucked fragrant, sticky cottonwood buds from the branches. The spring sun was warm and kingfishers skimmed and dove into the swirling pools.
“Hey, did you know your dog looks like Jabba the Hut?” Mel informed a passerby, and I winced with mortification.
“You still living with your grandparents?” I asked, to distract him from harassing strangers.
“Yeah, but they don’t want me there,” he said.
He shrugged, the zippers on his jacket clinking. “My mom is pissed at me, and she bitches at them for taking me in.”
“That sucks.” I crushed a bud between my fingers, getting sticky balsam all over my hands. A breeze fluttered my hair, bringing with it the rich, green river smell, which reminded me of summers spent waterskiing behind boats piloted by drunken relatives. Mel was gazing at me.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
I avoided his eyes, clutching my elbows, my hands sticking to my skin and leaving little brown balsam stains. “No I’m not,” I said.
“You are, too. A lot of guys may not think so, but I see the beauty in you. I can see the beauty in any girl. You’re like a wildflower, the wind blowing through your petals in a sunny meadow, free and natural. You look like a wildflower to me.”
I cringed inwardly at his horrible prose and the affected earnestness in his eyes, but still got a little warm burst of happiness inside.
When my mom picked me up I told her how Mel didn’t have a place to live. “His parents kicked him out?” she asked.
“His mom – his dad’s a heroin addict so he can’t live with him. His mom sounds like a real bitch. He told me that she beats the shit out of him when she’s drunk.”
My mom’s mom had been a bitch, too, who had once beaten her with a fire poker, and my mom had left home when she was fourteen. So she took pity on him, and that summer Mel moved in with us. She enrolled him in school with me, also to start as a sophomore that coming fall, though he was two years older than I was.
My family lived on ten acres of fruit trees on a hill outside of Selah, Washington, in an old farmhouse that had once belonged to my grandmother. There was a huge warehouse at the bottom of the hill, crammed to the dusty rafters with ancient furniture and farm equipment. It had an apartment in the front, which had been rented out to workers in bygone days but now stood empty. The irrigation ditch flowed by the front stoop, fringed by hollyhocks and tangles of tea roses. I vacuumed the threadbare carpets, scrubbed out the horrifying fridge and all the scary, dank corners with Pine Sol, then took it over for the summer.
Kids walked miles to hang out there, because it was teenager heaven. They brought bottles of Boones Farm wine and garbage bags full of pot leaves they’d gleaned from their cousin’s grow op. We’d get headaches from smoking that shit, then sit around listening to Slayer, eating uncooked ramen and Little Debbie snack cakes. I dyed my hair blonde in the green-toileted bathroom, attempted a tattoo of an inverted cross on my shoulder using a sewing needle and pen ink, and Mel taped up a sign on the front door that said, “This is the House that Rock Built”.
Meanwhile, up at the main house, my parents’ marriage was disintegrating. My dad had just gotten his music teaching degree, but then had trouble finding a job. When he finally did, it was on the other side of the state, and so he was making plans to live apart from us. But I hardly knew what was going on with them, nor they me; they had their lives, and I had mine.
One of the kids that came to hang at the House that Rock Built was named Chad. He had long, flowing blonde hair and really nice lips that curled up at the edges, as if he secretly found everything amusing. I’d sit next to him on the sagging, ancient couch and giggle at everything he said, feeding him pieces of snack cakes with my fingers. He’d pretend not to notice me when other people were around, but one afternoon we were alone behind the warehouse and he kissed me, his hands sliding up tentatively to squeeze my tits.
Mel came around the corner and saw. Later, after everybody left, he turned on me, his eyes slightly askew, his shoulders tense. “You going to let that pretty boy Chad fuck you?”
His anger was like a force field pushing me back, and I cowered under it. “I…I….”
“He doesn’t like you. He just wants his cock sucked by some slut. He doesn’t understand you like I do. No one will ever love you like I do.”
My forehead scrunched up with hurt and happiness all at once. I kept sleeping with guys because I liked the closeness, the warmth of them beside me in bed. I liked knowing that, even if it were just for a moment, they were paying attention to me and cared about me. But no one had ever said they loved me before. No one had ever really given a shit.
That night, I let Mel fuck me on one of the musty beds in the House that Rock Built. As he lay there sprawled out afterwards, his pale and shiny-wet dick lying limp on his scrawny belly, I was embarrassed about it. But at least I didn’t feel alone anymore.
On the first day of school, Mel strutted in like the prom queen, his tight curls flopping. He’d taken a Sharpie and written “Metallica” on the back of a jeans jacket, then cut off the arms and was wearing it over his leather one like a vest. A group of jocks smirked openly as he walked me to my first class, and he grinned back cockily. “Hi fellas!” he said, in a loud voice. “How are the balls dangling today?”
“Low and lazy,” one of them said, staring over the shoulder of his letterman’s jacket at him. I kept my eyes on the floor.
My first class was junior AP English. Through a snafu my Freshman year, I’d been placed in the sophomore AP class, and since I’d gotten an A they let me keep on with it. Mel backed me up against the wall by the doorway of the classroom and kissed me. Then he bounced off down the hall to social studies as I ducked into class.
The desks were arranged in a circle facing the center, and there was a boy sitting off to the side, his asymmetric-cut blonde hair hanging over his face as he drew in a notebook. His name was James, and he was in a band called Nelson’s Hangover that had played a cover of “Love Buzz” at an assembly at the end of the last year. It was the first time any of us had heard of Nirvana, and it had been epic. I screwed up my courage and sat next to him.
He glanced up with a daydreamy look when I put my book down on the desk, his eyes bright blue and friendly. He was a little bit pudgy like a teddy bear, his fingers thick and dexterous with callouses on the ends: guitar-player fingers. The notebook he’d been drawing in was almost completely covered with an intricate pattern of swirling lines and bizarre smiley faces.
“Good morrow,” he said in a funny voice, and then smiled. “You’re that uber mega smarty pants girl, right?”
I smiled back and turned all sorts of colors. “I…yeah. I’m Grace.”
“Grapes? What kind of name is ‘Grapes’? Your mom must have been hungry when you were born.” He laughed, an infectious chuckle that came straight from his belly. “Or maybe she liked Steinbeck. Is your middle name Ofwrath?”
“How did you know?” I said, giggling. “She was going to name me Cannery Row, but when I came out all purple, she named me Grapes instead.”
He laughed again. “I’m James,” he said. “Nice to meet you, Grapes.” Then the teacher came in, and he hunched over and resumed his doodling. I snuck peeks at his drawings, then opened my own notebook and copied him.
Mel insisted on walking me to all of my classes. He was noisy and embarrassing, but he did seem to be making friends already. A couple people said hi to him in the hallways after second period, and this kid named Will asked us to sit with him at lunch. He had been a huge bully in grade school, the type who pushed other boys down into the dirt and laughed while he kicked them. He still had a thick neck and a cruel sense of humor, but he was an okay guy now.
I didn’t want Mel to go with me to my fourth period class, right after lunch. It was jazz choir and I knew James would be there. So I told him I had to go to the bathroom three minutes before the bell rang.
“Don’t worry about walking me to class,” I said. “I don’t want you to be late to yours.”
“Don’t get your panties all bunched. The magic math man will wait for me if I’m fashionably late.”
My chin fell between my hunched shoulders. “I can get to class on my own, Mel,” I said, but he stood like a sentry outside the bathroom anyway. He kissed me at the classroom door just as a lanky boy with long, brown hair walked in. I caught the boy’s sidewise, laconic glance as I broke away from Mel and headed in after him. His name was Craig, the bassist for Nelson’s Hangover, and for the jazz choir.
In the choir room, James was playing the drum set, bouncing in his seat as he worked the kick and high hat pedals. He kept an admirable beat, steady and strong. Then he messed up a fill and stopped, laughing at himself, before picking it up again. I sat shyly in a seat not far from him and watched.
Craig started sarcastic scat-singing along with the beat as he set up his bass cabinet. “Dooby-dooby BOW, BOW. Diddle-de-dee-dee-diddle.” James, still drumming, joined in, his forehead scrunched up in an over-zealous jazz face. “Bugiggledy- ZOW, guh-booby booby ZING!” They kept on until Orland, who was the drummer for their band (and also the jazz choir) came over and ordered James out of his throne.
To my surprise, James spotted me and came to sit down next to me. “It’s Grapes!” he said. “I didn’t know you were in our lovely musical en-sambluh.”
I twisted the hem of my shirt. “Yeah, I tried out and got in.”
Craig leaned his bass against his cabinet and came over, sitting down on my other side. “Hey, I know you,” he said. “You’re the chick that takes guitar lessons at Talcott Music. You wear a Slayer shirt and always sit up playing the B.C. Rich guitars on the sales floor.” He had a half-smile, and I couldn’t tell if he was making fun of me or not.
“Yeah, I’ve seen you there,” I said. “You take bass lessons from Bob?”
“Craig, this is Grapes,” James said, and Craig snorted and smiled wryly at me.
“Grapes. My name is bananas. Wanna know why?” He pursed his lips and ground his crotch in James’s direction.
“Hey, we have a whole fruit salad!” James said. “Delicioso!”
I giggled. “I’m Grace, but you can call me Grapes I guess.”
Then the choir director came in and made us sort into our vocal sections.
After class I managed to edge through the departing crowd and end up next to James, Craig and Orland. James turned to me when we were outside the door. “Hey, Grapes, you ride the sixteen bus like I did, right? You live up in Selah Heights?”
“Yeah,” I said, glancing over nervously to where Mel was approaching.
“You need a ride after school?”
I smiled. “Sure.” Then my smile fell as Mel came up and took my hand. “But is there room for Mel, too? He lives with us.”
James gave me a startled look. “Yeah, there’s room,” he said. “The more the hairier. Not that you’re hairy, Grapes, I’m talking about the rest of us hairy monkeys.”
After school, Mel and I climbed into the backseat of James’s Toyota, which seemed to be held together with duct tape and spilled soda. Craig slouched in the front seat, his knees touching the glove box.
James drove like he was playing Pole Position, his thick arms turning the steering wheel with frantic exuberance. “Do you two fine individuals partake of the marijuana weeds?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah,” Mel squeaked, and Craig shot him a faint, appraising glance over the seat back, his sensitive lips curling up just slightly.
We went to James’s house on top of the hill. The band members had built a shed that they used for band practice, a windowless box of plywood upholstered with sagging egg carton foam and tie-die tapestries. It was crammed with musical equipment, and I sat on the floor between an amp and a tangle of cords. I picked up a guitar and strummed shyly at the strings, forming chords with my fingers. James passed me the pipe and I pulled on it, my mouth filling with tangy smoke.
Craig turned on an amp as I passed the pipe to Mel, and my chords grew into robust existence as the tubes warmed up. Then he picked up his bass and James climbed behind the drum set. Craig started playing a weird melody, pausing to take a hit off the pipe as it went around again. James banged out a beat, and I played random notes and jazz chords, the fretboard seeming to melt like butter under my stoned fingers. It all came together somehow, and the music sucked me up in a whirlwind as Mel leaned back against the wall, his face frozen in a beatific rictus.
James dropped us off at home as the sun flamed up into a red ball on the horizon. As his car squealed off down the road in a shower of flying gravel, Mel said, “Those guys are cool. I hope they’ll be our friends.”
“Yeah. I hope so too, they’re really nice.” My head was still crammed full of weed, and I figured my eyes must be glowing red. “You want to go on a walk?” I asked, not ready to face my mom.
We trudged up the hill to a section of land they’d recently cleared of orchards. The plywood shells of future McMansions were going up, their empty windows gaping towards the rugged, meandering sprawl of the Naches valley. Our footsteps clomped hollowly on the bare subfloor as we snuck into one of them and sat in the whirlpool tub of the master bath. We looked out at the sunset over the snowcapped Cascades and breathed in the sharp, pine smell of the exposed studs.
Mel scooted close to me and gave me a kiss. His lips seemed bulbous and slimy and wrong, they tasted bad. I pulled away.
“What’s your problem?” he asked.
“I don’t want to go out with you anymore.”
His eyes suddenly went wide with lunatic fury. I cringed away from him, my neck hitting the faucet. He brought down his fists, pounding the back of my head as I cowered, hitting me over and over again, each blow a dull thud in my ears. “Fuck you, you fucking slut,” he said, punctuating his words with his fists, hitting my shoulder, my ribs. “You just want to fuck James and Craig.”
“No, Mel….” I curled up against the side of the tub, the fiberglass smacking into my cheek as he hit me again and again, the faucet poking my side.
“Don’t lie, you cunt. You want to fuck both of them. But neither of them would ever fuck a saggy-tit whore like you.”
I hunched over, sobs rising up in my throat. His words cut deeper than the physical pain.
Finally, the blows stopped, and I could hear him breathing hard. After a moment I heard him crying. “You don’t understand!” he yelled. “My mom left me and you’re all I have, Grace. You can’t leave me, Grace. I love you.”
I uncurled slightly and looked up at him, hugging myself. Tears streaked his face, shining orange in the light of the sunset.
Despair flowed out of the deepest part of me, flooding even beyond the contours of my body. He was right. No one else would ever have me. Nice, cool boys like James wouldn’t touch me with thick gloves on.
“Okay,” I said. “I won’t leave you. I’m sorry.”
Mel gathered me up into his arms, and I put my cheek against his chest, letting his presence banish the hurt and loneliness.