Santa Rosa, California


Her name was Marcel. She was twelve years old. We were in the fifth grade. I had just transferred to her school. I call it her school because she had been there longer than the rest of us. Marcel was built like a boxer. She had flunked a couple of grades but she was nobody's fool. She was pure stealth. Her afro stuck out in unmanageable clumps. Kids said it was because she carried razors and such in there. I don't know about weaponry, but she was intimidating. She scared the crap out of her enemies with a look. It was worse when she'd crack a bubble while sneering at you. That spelled doom. That's what happened to me one day. I had heard Marcel wanted to kick my scrawny butt. She hated my type, they told me. I hadn't been around long when my new best friend Rosie, and I decided to become the cheerleaders for our football team. Nobody stopped us so we had our moms order some costumes; short green skirts, white sweatshirts, emblazoned with green tigers, and the requisite, coordinating pom-poms. That was it. We were cheerleaders. We liked having something to do, some reason to get out away from our bleak houses.

Rosie lived near a monkey. I liked to visit her house and hang out at the top of the ravine. We would take our Big Stick Popsicles out there and watch that chained monkey cuss at us. He was stuck on a metal roof, and the sun made that roof a kind of hell for him. He kept hot-footing it back and forth across that tin-roof, in an ill-choreographed dance that made him appear both, pitiful, and dangerously tough; not unlike Marcel.

The first time Marcel came for me, I tried to reason with her. I was pretty adept at talking my way out of bad situations. I tried to explain about the cheerleading, how anyone could have done it, how it was just fifth grade, and in the scheme of things, and later on, would not matter. Still, her hatred was immediate. The more I talked, the more agitatedly her pic attacked the brown tufts of hair. "Why you always walking' around here singing?" she asked. "What you got to sing about?" she asked. "To get the shit out." I said. Marcel looked at me disbelieving. Her big, dull orbs focused on me like a bank-robber working a safe. "You got nothin' to sing about, do you?" she asked. I smiled.

"Look, Marcel, you know why I came to this school? I came here because all of the kids at my last school hated me. They tortured me. They lifted their feet when I walked into class. Marcel, I don't think you know who you are talking to. That's what I think."

I was pissed. "All right." she told me, and turned and walked down the corridor, I guess to class. I sat out in the courtyard, too late for Mr. Richardson, and his take on math. I still had my pimento-cheese sandwich. I peeled back the plastic, and devoured the thing. Who the hell had that kind of sandwich? It wasn't normal. Me, that's who. I didn't even want to know what Marcel brought for lunch.

When school was out, I headed to my friend Mary's house. I thought Mary was beautiful. She looked like Mary, on Little House on the Prarie, and she let me practice kissing on her. I didn't like her family. They read S&M magazines, and wouldn't let friends stay the night. On the way to her house I saw Marcel, walking ahead of me in the ravine, teasing the craw-dads with a skinny stick. "Hey," I called to her, "Marcel," I yelled. A crawdad pinched her foot. "Shit!" she yelled." What?" She demanded, looking up at me with great irritation. "You hate these things too?" I asked her. Mary, and I had been taunting the crawdads every other day. We liked to get them running after us. It took a lot of effort, but it was satisfying to see them lose. It was something anyway. "Yeah," Marcel said, stabbing one through the head. "Where you going?" she asked, "You don't live on this side of the ravine." she told me. "I don't know," I said, trying not to stumble down to the creek bed, trying to catch up. She stared in my eyes as if she was a little afraid, and asked, "You wanna' come over?" I couldn't really believe it. "All right Marcel. If it's okay with your mom, and stuff." She was relieved. "It's all right," she said.

Her house was a squat box in a grimy, overgrown, neighborhood. Her mom, a stout woman, with a cherubic face, and a cigarette between the far reaches of her lips, greeted us with surprise. "Well.." she said, eyes sparkling, "Marcel, is this a school friend?" she asked. "Sure. " Marcel mumbled, moving toward her bedroom. "Oh!" her mom went on, "I took the sheets off Marcel, you know, because..." We were inside of her room. She had slammed the door shut when she realized what was obvious to me. "Okay. I wet the bed sometimes." I felt bad for her. "No big deal." I said, playing it off. I kind of wanted to know Marcel. "Don't say anything. It's nobody's business," she told me. "What's this poster?" I asked, changing the subject. "Black Panthers," she said, "My mom's friends." Her mom was in the photograph. "They look serious." I said. "We are very serious." Marcel told me, unfolding a speed racer sleeping bag across her twin bed. "I'm starving,"

I told her. It was the reason I liked to go home with kids. Our fridge held little, and what it held was always spoken for. Marcel disappeared, leaving me to stare at the poster.

Her mom looked more like Marcel back then. Now she looked grateful for small things. Marcel came back with peanut butter and crackers. It was nice to have something normal to eat.

We lay back on her bed, our lips glued shut with the peanut butter. We turned in to face each other and tried to laugh. We couldn't breathe. We had to stick our fingers through the wall of peanut butter to get air. "Shit." I said, just glad to be breathing. "Shit," Marcel, said, sitting up to recover. She pulled her pic from her back pocket and adjusted her afro.

She shook her head hard, and to the left, as if she had water in her ear. The thin, silver razor fell to the wood floor. Marcel was all business when she told me, "You got lucky, square."