Joyland

a hub for short fiction

The House Where the Grifters Squat

I am sixteen and running away to the house where the grifters are squatting. A single story rectangle with a claustrophobic porch, the place is rotting. You can almost smell it from the street. Chunks of decomposed siding litter the dirt yard. A frayed rope hangs from the tree like a claw, reaching for the tire on the ground. The rest of the block has fluffy green lawns dotted with Halloween decorations and houses done in inviting colors—robin egg blues with bright white trim. The grifters’ house looks like crushed eggshell on wet asphalt. But it’s not the grifters’ fault.

Inside, the house smells like greasy linens and green bell peppers laced with the smoke of a thousand packs of cigarettes. That’s not the grifters’ fault either. This is how they found it. The furniture is from the fifties, not groovy furniture but suburban pieces with matching fabric to give the appearance of harmony. Now everything is faded and threadbare. The harmony cues are gone. The floors are dark and sticky, the windows filmy, the curtains coated with thirty years of other people’s exhalations. Perfect for squatters and one runaway.

Most runaway girls head directly to their best friend’s house or sneak in their boyfriend’s bedroom window, but I don’t have a boyfriend and my two best friends, Susie and Nancy, are staying in some guy’s van at Venice Beach. I don’t care if they’ve both been diagnosed as sociopaths; I love them fiercely. They call me their third twin and fight over who gets to whisper secrets in my ear. Sometimes they do it in stereo. We roam in a pack, the twins and I. We share makeup and clothes and boys. We do things we aren’t supposed to do; the kinds of things that someday, if we have daughters, we will absolutely forbid.

It’s been six months since the twins left and it’s finally dawning on me that they are no longer runaways. They are just gone. They call when they can, but since my mom took my phone away, communication is difficult. When I dial the number of their favorite pay phone, it rings and rings. I imagine the phone booth parked where the sun-bleached concrete meets the sand. Waves crash in the distance, drowning out the ringing, as the twins surf and drink Mad Dog 20/20, their favorite share liquor, with the homeless beach guys. I hang up the phone.

I pick my way over milk crates full of license plates and taillights on the porch where the grifters squat. I knock on the door of the egg-cracked house. Dave C’s dad answers, dressed in his usual —tie, suit, fedora, old man slippers. There are bags under his eyes and his skin is the color of soapstone and jaundice. His face is gaunt, like someone let half the air out, and full of quiet worry except when he smiles, which he does when he sees me.

“Hi, honey,” he says. He’s over six feet tall and his voice is five hundred feet deep.

Dave C’s dad never minds when I hang out after school, listening to Led Zeppelin records and smoking pot with Dave C in his room. As long as we attend classes and don’t curse, Dave C’s dad is fine with whatever else happens. He just wants peace and quiet so he can watch the spluttery television while he waits for the next phone call.

“Dave, your girlfriend’s here!” Dave C and I always laugh at this and so does his dad. We all know Dave C and I are friends, nothing more. Dave C has big plans to get the prom queen to fall in love with him and I have slept with Dave C’s best friend, so there’s two solid reasons why I’ll never be his girlfriend.

Dave C appears in the hallway. His thick black eyebrows shoot up. “I just dropped you off,” he says. “What the fuck happened?”

“Language,” Dave C’s dad intones.

Dave C pulls me into his room, which used to be somebody else’s room. The walls are dirty and the matching dresser and twin beds have a Leave it To Beaver quality. He turns up Led Zeppelin on the boom box and we sing on cue at the top of our voices:

“Ramble on! Now’s the time, the time is now! Gonna sing my song!”

Now that the twins are gone, Dave C has kind of become my new best friend. I watch him air guitar along with Jimmy Page. Every guy I know can air guitar, but when Dave C does it, it’s funny on purpose instead of by accident. Gangly and tall like his dad, he smiles a lot, revealing a chipped front tooth that, no matter how nicely he dresses, will always betray him. I know a little about that betrayal too, searching through used clothing bins to find something stylish for a dollar and accepting my wealthy friends’ hand-me-downs, trying to pass as someone who has more.

While my mom has struggled to make ends meet, I realize how much we have compared to Dave C and his dad. My mom and I live in our own home, with sunlight and artwork and an impressive reggae record collection. Even though we can’t afford a pool cleaner, we have a pool, even if it’s tiny and unheated and tinged green with algae. Dave C has exactly what is here in this borrowed house—a closet full of clothes, some stained comforters, a copy of The Hobbit, Ralph Lauren aftershave, and his dad, who looks more like his grandpa. They have an ease with each other, something I can’t imagine ever having with my own parents.

Dave and I lay in our 1950s beds with mismatched sheets, whispering in the dark. We share secrets. We decipher Led Zeppelin lyrics. He tells me what his dad does for a living, how he fakes car accidents and gets money from the insurance companies. Dave C tells me he hasn’t seen his mom since he was ten. She isn’t dead as far as he knows, just couldn’t handle things, so one day she was gone. She doesn’t write, or maybe she does, but she knows sending a letter is futile. Dave C and his dad don’t keep the same address for long and there’s never forwarding information. This egg-cracked house is the longest they’ve lived anywhere.

I tell him which girls at school have crushes on him, which makes him leap up and jump on the bed, smacking the ceiling with his hands and saying, “Let me hear you say yeah! YEAH!” He asks why my mom and I fought, why she kicked me out.

“Ditching, basically,” I tell him. The words feel heavy on my tongue. I wonder how it must sound to him. At least I have a mom to fight with.

He falls asleep. I lie awake. The house smells. I’m used to how it smells during the day, how it fades after we smoke a little pot and spray Ralph Lauren to cover our tracks, but at night, with the cold air, it becomes unbearably sharp, like an ice bath. I try to remember what my room smells like. When people walk in our house, I wonder if they’re greeted by a particular scent, like when I walk into other people’s homes. Susie and Nancy’s house smells like old Christmas trees mixed with charred wire and sour milk. My grandma Blanche’s smells like after-dinner mints and hair spray. While I’m pretty sure my mom’s doesn’t have a smell, that it’s just neutral, I make a mental note to inhale deeply the next time I walk in. If there is a next time, that is.

I always fight with my words. Well, almost always. The twins prefer using fists and tried to teach me how. They’ll fight anyone they think is giving them the stink eye, even boys, and when no one gives them the stink eye, they’ll fight each other. In an instant, they’ll be rolling and scuffing over the school bus seats, throwing punches and writhing like a string of Chinese firecrackers. People jump out of the way, afraid of catching a wild punch or a mouthful of one of their checkerboard Vans. It’s impossible not to stare at the spectacle; two identical people suddenly trying to beat the shit out of each other, then almost as quickly breaking apart, out of breath, sucking the bloody scrapes on their knuckles, readjusting their bras, trading insults with the same voice and the same pair of pissed-off eyes. Just when it looks like they’re about to go back at it, one of them will say something funny, an insult that doesn’t quite makes sense, and the other will crack a smile. It’s a game they play. As quickly as they fight, they find a reason to laugh.

Now they’re gone, rolling and scuffing over the dirty sand at Venice Beach, throwing wild punches, then laughing about it while onlookers gawk. I miss them. I miss everything about them. That’s probably why I shoved my mom as hard as I could after she smacked me today. Then she told me to get out.

Usually when I run away, I wait till no one’s looking. This time, there was no sneaking out of my window, no pit in my stomach wondering when my mom and stepdad will discover I am gone. This time it was on the up and up. She told me to leave and I did. Now my mom cannot complain to her therapist, to my grandparents, to people in the grocery store line, about what a difficult teen I am. How I run away at the drop of a hat and go missing for days. About how there’s no handbook on how to raise a feral teen. If you let them do their thing, they end up dead or in jail. If you clamp down on them, they hate you. She can’t say any of that because now she is complicit. There is no crying the blues when you tell your child to leave the house. Besides, crying the blues is bullshit anyway. Our problems have always been a joint effort.

The blue glow of the television draws me into the living room. Dave C’s dad sits with two men, huddled over maps. They look up at me. The men are heavy-set and stuffed inside patterned sweaters, like the kind I see when my mom takes me shopping at Marshalls. I stand in the middle of the room, engulfed by their cologne.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, honey. You can come in,” Dave C’s dad says. He motions me to the couch. The two men watch me sit.

“Is she cool?” one of them asks. He has an accent. Dave C’s dad looks at me.

“You’re cool, right, honey? With what we do here? What we’re talking about here? You won’t say anything, right, sweetheart?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” I say.

Dave C’s dad looks at the two men. “See what I mean?”

The men look at me again, sizing me up. I look away, aware of how tiny I am on the couch, my skinny frame swallowed by Dave C’s sweatshirt. The sweatshirt says, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” I don’t like being stared at. I want to shove them as hard as I can, but instead I focus on the TV, pretending that I care about what happens next on Falcon’s Crest.

“Listen,” Dave C’s dad says. “You want make a call? Huh? Here…” He fishes some change from his pocket, blowing the lint away. “The phone is out but you can go down to the payphone on the corner. It’s safe. It’s a safe neighborhood. Here…” He hands me the change and a switchblade. “You’ll be fine. Go on.”

I dial Susie and Nancy’s favorite payphone number. It’s a full moon tonight. I bet they’re having a bonfire. I bet there’s marshmallows and hot guys and someone’s telling lots of funny jokes. The payphone rings at the edge of the sand, but everyone is having too good a time to even hear it.

“Hello?”

“Nancy?”

“It’s Susie. Who the fuck is this.”

“It’s me, Bobsie Three.”

“Ahhhhh!” A scream of joy arcs through the phone line. Then, “You are so lucky I even answered. There’s this drug dealer who thinks Nancy stole some of his pot, which she would never do, but it doesn’t matter now because we’re going camping with these guys.”

“That sounds fun,” I say.

“Kind of. One of them is a little creepy. Where are you?”

“My mom kicked me out.”

“Ahhhhh!” Another scream. “Get over here! Can you get over here? Can you get a ride from someone? Or hitchhike? We’re leaving in an hour and I would totally ask them to come get you—wait a sec—” She pulls the phone away from her face and shouts. “Nanny! Nanny-O! It’s Bobsie Three. She got booted. Her mom booted her.”

"Ahhhh!" in the background.

Susie continues, “Do you think those guys would come get her? What if you give them some pot? You have pot. You do. Don’t lie to me. Okay—” Susie is back on the line. “Where are you?”

“Dave C’s.”

“You are not. Is that crazy lady there?”

“What crazy lady?”

“The crazy lady. The crazy lady who lives in the back. Who smells. The crazy lady whose house it is. Did she die? Hold on—” She pulls the phone away. “Nanny! Nanny-O—wait! Did that old lady die? The one who smells like bell peppers. The one who called you a whore. Yeah, that one.”

Up the street, the two men leave Dave C’s house and climb into their car.

“Hey, Susie? I have to go…”

“Okay, we’re going to ask these guys to come get you. We’re going to Yosemite. Or maybe Big Bear. You can sleep in my sleeping bag. It’s a double.”

“I don’t think I can,” I say. The headlights flick on, shooting light through the windows of the cars parked ahead of them.

“Is it because of school? Because I’m taking correspondence courses and I’ll be graduated, like, way before you. You just get a P.O. box and they send the assignments. There’s a guy who lets us use his shower. He might let you use his address, if I tell him. He does whatever I tell him sometimes.”

“There’s a play I might try out for,” I say, watching the car pull away from the curb.

“Really? Yeah, well, you should stay then. That shit is important to you. Maybe we’ll come out and see it.”

The car drives over a speed bump. The headlights wash up and down my body.

“Susie, I gotta run. Just call me when you—when are you back?”
“A week. Call me in a week. I love you. Nanny-O says she loves you too. Tell Dave C hi, but say H-I-G-H for me—”

I hang up the phone. The men press on their raspy brakes and stop. One of them leans out of the window. I take off running, the full moon following me, the switchblade in the sweatshirt pocket, bouncing hard against my stomach.

Dave C’s dad sits in front of the television, the light filling the crevasses of his drooping face. He barely nods as I put the knife on the table. I close the bathroom door and flip on the light. A cockroach scrambles behind the medicine cabinet. The fluorescent lighting plays on the water spots, making the fingerprints on the mirror glow. A sliver of green and white soap clings to the porcelain lip of the sink, lightly coated with hair. There is a small amount of toilet paper. I use one square to push the toilet seat down. It hits with a hollow bang. I ration six more squares to protect my ass and I sit.

I’ve been in Dave C’s bathroom many times during the day. At night, it is a completely different jungle. Everything pops in 3-D. Like staring deeply inside a stranger’s ear, I don’t want to know this much about anyone. I take eight squares, being mindful to leave a few turns on the toilet paper roll, and I wipe.

I stare at the blood on the toilet paper for a really long time.

I need something. Something I’m sure I won’t find in this bathroom. Something I can’t ask Dave C’s dad to go get for me. I don’t even know how much it costs and I have two dollars on me for lunch tomorrow. I slowly unravel the last of the toilet paper and wad it up in my underwear.

I catch my reflection in the mirror, a pale version of me, as I open the medicine cabinet. Old sticky bottles of burnt orange liquids and hotel soaps with faded wrappers. I close it. There’s me again, staring back, useless. I crouch down to peer inside the cabinet under the sink. At home, my mom always puts what I need in the cabinet right by the toilet. I can reach over without getting up. In Dave C’s cabinet, there’s a hair dryer being strangled by its own peeling cord, two bottles of silverware polish, and rat turds. I stare inside this cabinet for a while, wondering who keeps silverware polish in a bathroom. Maybe a crazy lady who smells like bell peppers after her kids grew up and left, after she dried up.

I lean back against the wall, still crouched in front of the open cabinet. For a second, I can smell the ocean floating through a window in the night breeze. And then it’s gone.