There was nowhere else to go except the mall. Guys would drag up and down El Camino in hopped-up cars that used to belong to their mothers. Everyone hung out there, smoking grass in the breezeways, kicking their tennies off, drinking beer in their cars. Just waiting for some store manager to nose out and tell you to clear off. You’d move on down, remembering that store. Remembering to rip it off.
We’d just moved there, so I didn’t know the other kids too well. I worked in the hardware store after school, bringing stock in from the back, sweeping the floor. There wasn’t much to do, so I’d pretend to be busy. I’d watch the kids outside, get lost in the air-conditioner chill, wait for that hot dry air to push in. Do my, “Can I help you, sir?” Smiling. Showing the hoses, the fertilizer, the electric hedge-trimmers. Sweeping the drift of sand out past the planters. Watching the kids string beads and laugh. Boys in their T-shirts, girls chewing gum, playing with their hair. And sometimes someone from school would pop in, from French class or homeroom, and say, “Hi, Darrell. I didn’t know you worked here,” then drift out again. With a soft, leaking ice-cream cone.
On the way home I’d stop for a cone myself. I’d drive with one hand, windows down, whipped by the hot air. Zooming past the corn and the bean fields. Seeing the migrant workers in their pointed straw hats, bending between the rows of plants. Seeing their kids in the morning in class. Knowing they’d move on soon, the way we would.
My sister Merry says I’m not friendly enough. Two weeks in a new place and she knows everyone. She gets invited to parties, asked to try out for the cheerleading squad. Gobbles her food down, gum on the side of her plate, then goes rushing out the door, while Dad laughs and Mom yells, “Merry, did you do your homework?”
We leave the cars in the driveway or on the street, so I turn the garage into a studio, all my work money going into canvas and paints. Dad bellows, but Mom says, “Leave him alone, Frank. It’s his own money.”
I don’t know how they found out about my painting at work. But soon they have me doing signs for the windows. It’s fun, playing with words and colors. Even if the signs only come out saying “Hi-speed lawn mowers — now on sale!” I still like to look at them from way down the other end of the mall. People notice them, the owner said, and then he gave me a raise. Someone from another store offered me more money to do signs for him. But I said no. The hardware store is right at the end of the mall, not on either side of the walkway. It’s the only store whose windows you can see from far off. I paint in day-glo, in big letters. Always coming up with some new idea.
There’s this girl in my chem class, Bonnie. Sometimes we talk in the morning, walking there after homeroom. She invites me to a party. I don’t go. One day she comes into the store to buy birdseed. She sees me there, in the back, sprawled out on the floor, painting. Comes over and says, “Hey, Darrell, I didn’t know you worked here.” Watching me paint for a while. Then saying, “Hey, you ought to meet my brother. He likes art, too.” And I think, oh great, some guy who draws cars. But maybe two weeks later, in comes Bonnie with this guy. “Darrell, this is Tom, my brother, who I told you about.” She leaves us there to talk while she scoots down to the cleaners for her mom.
I’ve seen Tom at school. He’s on the swim team, a year ahead of me, in Merry’s class. We talk a little. When Bonnie knocks on the window to say she’s ready to go, he and I have decided to get together, maybe go to a movie. But I’m afraid to call. Hoping he’ll do it. At school, when I see him, he smiles and goes past with a bunch of kids.
On the school bus I hear two girls talking about him. “He’s dreamy,” they decide. “And his eyelashes are so long. Did you notice?” Yes. And I call, sounding awkward on the phone. My mom overhears, and announces at the dinner table that I have a friend. I eat real fast, do my homework, go out to the garage. We live in the last row of houses. Beyond it, there’s only sand and scrub brush, and night and stars. I paint it over and over, in the dark, in the garage. Playing the Stones. Painting white splotches. “You call that stuff art?” one of my brothers says, laughing with his friends, out on the driveway shooting baskets. “I read how they got monkeys that can do that,” Dad says one night, coming in to get the hacksaw.
On weekends, sometimes, Dad and I go camping. Driving out to the desert, just the two of us. Mom says the twins are still too small. We drive, and then hike out. Never talking much. But that’s all right. His dad used to have a shack out there. Dad knows all the rocks, all the canyons, the names of all the cactus. We hike all day, heat baking down. Heat vapor on horizon. A mirage of ancient cities. My dad and I get along out there.
Tom said, “Just come over sometime.” I wait a week. Then I stop by his house one afternoon on the way home from the store. Some friends of Bonnie’s are over, talking about kids that I don’t know. Laughing and poking fun.
“Did you see her dress?”
“His dad really does have one leg.”
“With that puss, Mindy couldn’t get anyone. Let alone Marty.”
I say I have to get home. In the car, I think about Tom’s T-shirt, the hair on his ankle sticking out from under his cords. The wind is razor-sharp, hot as an iron. It feels good cutting through my hair. Mom says, “Don’t ride with your arm out the window. I read you get cancer.” If the car were narrower, I’d put both arms out.
The grass is always dying. Dad has the twins out watering, but it never helps. Tumbleweeds blow up to the door sometimes. Lying there like cats, waiting for me in the morning.
I pull up in the driveway. “Daddy says not to leave the car there. It has a leak,” Timmy whines. I change my clothes, slip down under there to fix it. There are no birds now. Just the car above me and soft orange shadows everywhere else. Bobby runs into the house to get a flashlight. He and Timmy fight over who’s going to hold it. Mom yells from the house, “Telephone, Darrell.”
It’s Tom, wanting to know if he can come over. Mom stands behind me, wiping her hands on a towel. “Is that that nice Macauley boy?” Merry runs in. “Tom Macauley? Was that Tom? Bonnie said that he was gonna call. Me.”
“Shut up, Merry!”
“Don’t talk to your sister like that. Do you hear me?”
I hop in his car. We go down to the strip, stop for root beer and tacos. Under the arc lamps he shows me his drawings in a little red book. Page after page of birds, cactus, mountain range.
“Do you ever go camping, Tom?”
“My folks won’t let me.”
“You ought to come with me and my dad.”
Dad calls and talks to Mr. Macauley. He says that Tom can go. Tom and Dad hit it off so well that he’s practically part of the family. “Your Dad’s great,” he says, “the way he talks about all those things.” But in school Tom just smiles in the middle of his crowd. Merry says he isn’t really nice.
I call him. I show him my paintings. He says he doesn’t understand the big splashes and solid blocks. Not like the intricate lines of his stuff, even the tiniest detail drawn in. Each cactus spine.
Tom has this girlfriend, Sue Ann. She fixes me up with her best friend Roselle. We double. Roselle and I in the back seat of Tom’s father’s car. We go to the movies, stop for ice cream, make out. I lie awake half the night, thinking about the back of Tom’s neck.
Tom says it’s all right with his parents if the two of us go camping for one night. We pick out a place my dad knows, down by my granddad’s shack.
“Did he live there his whole life?”
“No. just on weekends. After my grandmother died, he stayed there all the time.”
We drive past the shack, up the road to the place where the Indians used to camp. There’s a trickle of stream, pine trees in a gully, scrub grass, cactus. In the middle of nothing. We set up camp. Tom gets to talking about Sue Ann, about what a drag she is. About the whole class. And how he’s going to enlist in June when he gets out.
We brought cassettes. We listen to Dylan, cook soup in a can, roast hot dogs, watch the stars. Try to draw each other by the fire.
“You know, Darrell, I guess you won’t believe me, but I’ve never had a friend before. I mean someone I could talk to.”
“But what about all the kids at school?”
“I told you about them. If I weren’t on the swim team, none of them would talk to me.”
I look at his eyelashes.
“Your dad’s real cool. I mean, the way he knows the stars and everything.”
There are more stars out than there is darkness. We fall back on our sleeping bags. It’s so quiet you expect a flying saucer to land any minute. I look over to Tom and get choked up. I hear him clear his throat. “Hey, I brought along some grass. Well, only one joint. I got it from Deanne. You know, the one in your chem class who hangs around with Bonnie and your sister.” We put on Led Zeppelin. Taking drags, watching the faint wisps of smoke streak out in front of the stars. The night gets even quieter, even with the music loud. Tom says, “I’m a little scared,” and the two of us break into laughter. Feeling little and big and aware of being alone, with no study hall, no buses, no mall.
“Does it spook you?” A satellite goes by, or maybe a shooting star, arching across the sky, getting lost in the darkness. The cold drops in real fast. We slide down in our sleeping bags.
A thousand stars, a billion. Thundering silence. It’s Tom who reaches over. He puts his hand on my chest and says, “I wish we had more grass,” and leaves it there. Till I curl up beside him.
We don’t sleep at all. Later we play Simon and Garfunkel. We wade in the stream. Tom finds a lost joint under the back seat. I step on a burr. We run naked, wearing only our shoes. And dawn is pinker than he is. We keep laughing, eat breakfast, and then sit on a bluff, watching the heat come up in snaky fingers. Sketch pads balanced on our knees.
In school on Monday, I see Tom with Sue Ann. They walk by smiling, going down to graduation practice. Mom and Dad have a fight. Finally they agree that I can go camping by myself. Dad says it will be good for me. I blast Janis Joplin in the garage. Paint dark mountains at the bottom of huge canvases while the twins look on, silent. I leave for the desert first thing Saturday morning. The tire tracks are gone. The roach, the tin can.
When I get back, Mom says that Tom called. We meet out in the flats. Without speaking, we fall together the minute we get out of our cars. Doing it in the back of mine first, and then his, to be fair. And the touch says it. What fear has no words to tell. We drag back into town side by side, flashing lights, horns blasting, heads out the windows. Waving as we screech off in opposite directions.
It’s 110 degrees on the day of graduation. They hold it in the gym instead of on the football field. Cold air like a knife when you walk in. Tom graduates with honors. His picture is in the paper. Mom saved it, because he broke up with Sue Ann and asked Merry to walk with him at the last minute.
I get a postcard covered with his drawings: the hills, a cactus, those knots of clouds. “Boot camp is the pits. T.” Then another card comes. Pictures, faces, the hills again. Our two cars side by side. “We’re being shipped out in a week.” Merry gets nothing. She hates me.
It’s summer. The twins go back East to Mom’s parents. I work full-time at painting signs and smiling, pushing the sand back with my broom. Everyone hangs out at the mall. In summer nobody cares. Kids go barefoot, wear peace signs embroidered on their cutoffs. They keep slipping into stores to cool off and to steal things. With the money from work, maybe I’ll have enough to go to art school next year, maybe back East. “It’s his money, Frank. You ought to be proud of him.”
The grass doesn’t grow. No one buys hoses. Sinks don’t seem to break in summer. Mr. Burney doesn’t mind if I sketch outside. A quick page of faces to send Tom — kids with long, stringy hair; moms in shorts with curlers, huge shopping carts packed full; dads in baggy Bermuda shorts. Every once in a while someone stops by to say hi. Merry and Bonnie come by. Everyone hangs out by the cactus planters. Down in the middle of the mall, guys are on one side, girls on the other.
I ride home with the windows down, feeling the hair blown back the wrong way on my arm. Mom is sitting in the driveway on a folding chair. The twins are playing tackle on the dry grass. “Go in and talk to your sister,” Mom says. Putting her drink in the shade under her chair.
The house is cool. Joni Mitchell is playing in Merry’s room. I go in. She and Bonnie are sitting on the floor, holding each other, sobbing.
Red eyes look up. Merry says, “It’s Tom.”
“Is he —”
“Yes.” They go back into their huddle of sobs. I stand in the doorway, rocking myself in my arms. Tears pour down my face and get lost in my collar. “What are you crying for?” Merry snaps. “You have no reason.”
Mom yells as I pull away. Timmy runs after the car.
Tom and I were sitting on the bluff, naked, bent over our sketch pads. “What’s that?” I asked him, pointing to the horizon. Watching his hand make short, thick, dark scratches. He looked up, said, “My grandmother is part Indian. She told me those are old cities that used to be there. Before the tumbleweeds got them.”
In the desert, sometimes the wind blows flat across the sand. Flat like a hand.