This the most boring hood in America.” Sixteen year old Ramon dribbles a basketball on the decaying driveway that belongs to the old ladies who live next door. He slips on a patch of ice on the mostly clear blacktop and rights himself. Ramon grins at his friend TJ as if not falling while he’s dribbling is an accomplishment that might get him a spot on the varsity team. When TJ doesn’t grin back, Ramon does his chicken dance. The boys’ Adidas are wet from walking in the snow.
TJ wags his head. “Hood? This ain’t no hood. This is a Puerto Rican Dead End, ugly old white ladies in a falling down house on one end of the street, ugly young white ladies with ugly kids on the other end.” TJ steals the ball and shoots at the hoop on the side of the driveway. “You spend half your life playing basketball and you still suck, man.” TJ dunks the ball a second time. “Hoop ain’t even got a net. Fucking embarrassing. This street…” He snarls at the street. “ReeCans up and down the middle, gringas on both ends. We’re the filling in a white lady sandwich.”
“ReeCans? Talk normal. Say Puerto Rican. Nobody says ReeCans.”
“I just did.” TJ makes his ugly face and tosses Ramon the ball. Ramon dribbles. TJ and Ramon are tight, but TJ’s got a lot of problems “at home” as the adjustment councilor with the big titties says to explain why he sometimes acts likes a dumb ass at school. She only sees him at school, when he goes to school. This morning TJ met Ramon at the bus stop, but TJ walked away when the bus arrived and Ramon followed. Mostly TJ is okay when it’s just him and Ramon. Usually TJ saves his mean streak for jocks. He likes messing with punk jocks, which means messing with whatever team the punk is on. Weird because TJ would be on the basketball team, he’s good enough, if his grades were better. Mostly, TJ goes after assholes who deserve it, but man there are a lot of assholes, you can get real messed up, waste your whole life going after assholes, especially assholes with teams to back them up.
Ramon wonders what he sees in TJ. Like right now, TJ’s getting all strung out because Ramon’s taking so long to shoot. One good thing about TJ, he likes to screw around, act a fool even, when he’s not at home or at school. Today should be an okay day for TJ. He and Ramon are shooting baskets in the neighbor ladies’ yard. Ramon’s grandmother will make them maizena if they go over to her place. TJ likes to eat it slow and tease Ramon’s grandmother about the two of them getting married and moving back to the island. But this morning TJ is acting like a ten inch prick.
Today TJ’s not going near Ramon’s grandmother or her maizena, if Ramon can help it.
“Well, you’re the only one who says ReeCan, Little Man.” Ramon is short and skinny. TJ is even shorter, but not as skinny as Ramon. And TJ is a lot stronger. “You getting your rag on, or what, TJ?” TJ’s arms are roped with muscle, his chest broad for his size. Even under the two hoodies he’s wearing anyone can see that TJ has a kick ass body. Both TJ’s hoods are off. The head of the serpent that inks its way from his shoulder to the back of his thick neck and right up into the shaved edge of his hairline is visible.
Ramon shakes his head. With all that going for him TJ is still sensitive about being short.
TJ stares at Ramon who just keeps shaking his head until TJ wails the ball at Ramon’s crotch. Finally, TJ smiles. His smile is butt- ugly today. Ramon turns sideways taking the blow on his hip. “Why are you doing me like this?” Ramon means to sound tough, but the hurt in his voice bleeds through. “Serious, what’s your problem? Why you fucking with my manhood?”
Ramon slams the ball at TJ’s chest. TJ catches it easily. Ramon turns, giving TJ the double finger as he walks away. When Ramon is all the way down the driveway TJ yells after him, “She’s dead,” like a threat or an insult, like it’s Ramon’s fault he doesn’t know what the fuck TJ is talking about. Like Ramon killed whoever it is died.
Ramon freezes and asks without turning around, “Who?” Not TJ’s mother. TJ wouldn’t be playing basketball if it was his mother or one of his sisters. His grandmother in San Sebastian, maybe?
“The butch one,” TJ says.
Ramon spins on his heels. “One of the old white ladies?” He nods at the house in front of them. “Jackie? We saw her yesterday.” “She had a heart attack.” TJ squeezes the wet ball between his chapped hands. He looks like he might go for Ramon’s crotch again, but puts the ball down on the driveway and sits on it.
Ramon walks back up the drive and crouches next to TJ. “We helped them tie that dead Christmas tree to the roof of their car yes- terday.” Ramon lives closer to the old ladies than TJ does. He can see them coming and going out their front door from his bedroom window. He points to their car which is parked at the curb.
“She died after we saw her, dumbass.”
Ramon frowns. “That old lady is flat on her back, with the TV on, snoring like a beached whale.” Ramon points his chin to the side of the house. “Right there in that window.”
“Papi says she’s dead.”
“Your papi never says shit about anything.” Ramon pulls the sides of his unzipped parka together and thinks about TJ’s father. It’s true, TJ’s papi has next to nothing to say. When he bothers to talk, he says what needs to be said, bare minimum. The man could not be bothered to open his mouth to tell a lie. Ramon nods and says, “Shit. Only one white lady now.”
“What have I been telling you?” TJ’s eyes dart around. Ramon knows it’s because he wants to run, but TJ is hanging on. Only his eyes are running. For now.
Ramon feels like crying, but TJ might get crazy for real if he does that. TJ loves that old lady. That’s the truth. TJ spends a lot of time inside the old ladies’ house when his father isn’t home and his sisters go at it. He slept on the old ladies’ couch just last week. TJ’s the baby of the family and the only boy. Maybe that’s why TJ gets crazy; all those women making all that noise, his papi gone half the time making money somehow, somewhere, barely saying a word when he’s home.
The boys squat. TJ’s ears are turning red. Ramon starts to tell him to pull up his hoodies, thinks better of it. Pulls the hood of his own parka up instead. Come to think of it the old lady, the dead one, is quiet like TJ’s papi. The live one talks enough for them both. The dead one, Ramon wants to laugh, one of those horror movie laughs, the dead one will talk less than TJ’s papi now. Jackie, her name is Jackie. The other one’s name is Regina. Seems to Ramon, someone dies, you call them by their name. Someone’s wife dies…Ramon can’t finish the thought without barking out a laugh. The old ladies got married. What’s he supposed to think about that?
TJ doesn’t even flinch when Ramon laughs.
Ramon studies TJ while TJ studies a crack in the driveway. Ramon knows exactly how many nights TJ spends on the old ladies’ couch. The whole neighborhood knows who sleeps where. They know that TJ’s father slept in a third floor apartment with TJ’s mother’s ex best friend one time. They know Ramon’s father kicked Ramon’s brother Oscar out of the house for smoking marijuana in front of their little sister Evone and now Oscar lives with their grandmother and gets to eat her maizena every morning. Everybody knows every damn thing. But Ramon keeps his mouth shut about TJ staying with the old white ladies. Sometimes the only privacy you get is not having to talk about your own personal business.
“Only ever was one lady in that house,” TJ finally says. He sounds like somebody else. Someone in a trance who might cry without having to punch out the person he cried in front of. His voice is soft, like when they walk in the woods behind the strip mall.
Ramon knows what TJ is saying. Jackie was barely female, buzz cut, men’s pants, work boots, on an old lady. A really old lady. “What’s going to happen to her, the pretty one?”
“Pretty?” TJ is back to being a dick. “She’s poor. She’s old. She’s white. She’s a dyke. Pick any two and it don’t add up to pretty.”
“You got a white girlfriend,” Ramon says. “She ain’t old,” he concedes. Reconsiders. “But she’s poor.” He runs a finger along the crack in the blacktop wondering how TJ, with his shit for personal- ity, got a pretty girlfriend. Must be his body. He wonders what the girlfriend lets TJ do. “This is why you’ve been ugly all morning?”
“How am I supposed to know what’s going to happen to the pretty one?” TJ looks like he might spit on Ramon. Not that he would. Probably not. He spit on Ramon’s sneaker one time. TJ’s shoulder starts twitching like it does when he’s trying not to hit someone or trying not to cry. Ramon has seen him cry, but not since TJ’s favorite cousin got killed by a hit and run and even then TJ crying meant TJ crazy after he stopped crying. Ramon can see the shoulder moving right through the layers of hoodies. He pretends he doesn’t see TJ’s arm spazzing.
TJ jumps up. “Let’s go see.” “See what?”
“If she’s in there, sitting on her chair like a beached whale, like you said. Maybe Papi got it wrong. People on this street.” TJ’s voice lifts with the thought of how wrong people on this street can be. “You see an ambulance? You hear sirens?” TJ’s excited like he hit on the essential point that’s going to save the old butch white lady from being dead. Like his papi, maybe this one time, carried a rumor without checking it out, without making sure it was true before it came out his mouth.
“Sirens every night.” Ramon thinks a minute. Maybe TJ has a point. “You hear them, same as me, but never on this street, hardly ever.” He stops, yeah, maybe TJ is right. “No ambulance next door, not last night.”
TJ sprints around to the side of the house, stops dead in his tracks, stands with his back against the faded clapboard a few feet from the window. Ramon stands shoulder to shoulder with TJ. If she’s not dead, Jackie should be sleeping on the ratty chair inside the house at this time of the morning, not five feet from the window.
“Look inside,” TJ hisses. He crouches and hugs his knees, his butt against the house.
Ramon would tell him that the mold on the clapboard is going to rub off on to his jeans, but TJ would be disgusted if he knew Ramon even thinks about this stupid shit.
“You look inside.” He slides down next to TJ. “She was your girlfriend.” Ramon winces at his own remark. He didn’t mean to say was, didn’t mean to disrespect the dead, not with TJ looking so messed up, his arm twitching, his chest heaving like he ran a mile. Ramon is afraid of looking and finding an empty chair, too. “TV ain’t on.”
“How do you know?” TJ stands up. “The window is closed. How do you know the TV ain’t on?” TJ’s voice is a loud squeak.
Ramon shakes his head. “She likes the TV on loud, man.” TJ knows this. They’ve spent enough time slumped against the side of this house by this window to know you can tell if the TV is in on or not even with the window closed. Even on a cold day they can catch the score of a Patriot’s game by listening near the window. “Let’s get out of here. Your girlfriend is dead.” This time Ramon says girlfriend and dead on purpose. He figures if he can piss TJ off by repeating the shit about Jackie being TJ’s dead girlfriend TJ will go just a little crazy and they can fight instead of looking in the damn window, not seeing Jackie sitting on the chair, and having TJ go full blown crazy.
“Shut up fool.” TJ punches Ramon in the biceps but there’s no muscle behind the hit. He stops breathing and listens hard.
There is noise coming through the screen window. Not snoring, not the TV. Whimpering. Ramon leans forward on the tips of his sneakers so his stick-out Obama ears can catch the sound. “Jackie,” he whispers.
TJ shakes his head. “Regina.” TJ, on his feet, squints through the window. His hand shades his eyes from the glare that bounces from the snow to the glass.
Ramon stands behind TJ, puts a hand on his shoulder. They stare in at Regina.
Regina, who handed them cookies like they were little kids, just yesterday or maybe the day before. She’s sitting on Jackie’s chair. They see her in side view. Between the screen and the fact that there is no light on in the room, the boys can’t see her very well. They can tell it’s her though. She’s on the edge of the seat, staring straight ahead, an old lady zombie making a sound that’s getting louder or maybe just sounds louder because the boys are listening so hard. She’s so close that if the window was open and they leaned way in they could touch her.
The pane barely rattles as TJ puts a hand flat against the window, but Regina cocks her head responding to the sound.
They watch Regina’s slow-mo move as her head swivels in their direction. They watch her frown as she fights with the sash to unlock and raise the window. They watch her close her eyes and bite her lip as she manages to move the stuck screen. Ramon wants to yell, “Never mind the fucking screen.” Something is happening in his chest, like somebody shoved a fist in and is squeezing his lungs, maybe his heart. It hurts bad.
When the screen is finally up the old lady says, “Oh, TJ. Oh, Ramon.”
TJ and Regina stare at each other. TJ’s mouth is open. It makes him look stupid. Ramon feels like he’s doing something bad, watching the old lady’s sad face and TJ’s open mouth. Regina looks older by the second. TJ’s hoodie gets wet in the front. Ramon wonders if TJ knows he’s crying. He wants to run, but he can’t leave TJ.
“Remember the time Jackie caught you peeing on the rhododen- dron in the back yard?” Regina says. “And that bouquet of sunflow- ers you picked for her. She still has those, on a vase on our dresser, all dried up.” She smiles, a far-off looking smile that scares Ramon. “Ten years of dust, all the seeds fell out a long time ago.” She sighs. “I tossed them in the trash, but she pulled them out.”
Ramon takes a step back. Shut up about the fucking dead sun- flowers, he wants to yell, TJ doesn’t know the difference between a rhododendron and an oak tree.
“You were about six years old,” Regina says, almost happy. “So cute.”
TJ nods and his fists curl. Ramon wonders if TJ remembers it was him, Ramon, and not TJ who got caught pissing on the rhododen- dron. Ramon can’t remember if it was him or TJ who gave Jackie the sunflowers. TJ’s fists clench and uncurl. He is fighting his hands so they won’t try to put themselves through something.
Ramon stares at Regina wondering if she’ll have to move. Where’s TJ going to go when he can’t hack it at home if she moves? He can’t stay with Ramon. Ramon’s father doesn’t understand that some people live in places they have to get out of once in a while.
Regina leans closer and puts her fingertips on TJ’s cheek. The pain in Ramon’s chest pokes at him. He sees Regina’s face clearly, her hair uncombed, the wrinkles deep. “She loved you. She would never say it, wouldn’t want to embarrass you or herself, but I will.” Regina’s lips are dry. She usually has pink lips and cheeks. Her face is all the same grey today. Her voice sounds younger than usual, a girl’s voice coming out of an old lady.
Ramon tries to breathe the knotted fist out of his chest. The old butch one is dead. He has known people who died, young people. He held a baby once, a little girl who lived right down the street, held her while her mother picked up the shit that fell out of her purse. A few weeks later that baby died. Ramon kind of liked holding her. She smelled good, but he didn’t panic when that baby died. His cousin died. Ramon tries to calm himself by thinking of all the people he knows who died and all the times he didn’t panic. He sucks in a big breath and holds it, a trick his father taught him. If Ramon doesn’t stay cool he can’t help TJ stay cool. Old people, Ramon reminds himself, that’s what they do, they die. But Jackie, somehow he thought Jackie would wait until TJ got better. Who’s going to help Ramon help TJ get better now? He holds his jaw to stop his chin from shaking. Ramon closes his eyes, hoping TJ and Regina keep staring at each other for a minute so he can think of something to do to get them all out this, some way to get the pain out of his chest, but all he can think about is their future. His and TJ’s.
Ramon has been holding back visions of their future for a long time. They’re only sixteen so, if neither of them dies young, there’s a lot of future pressing hard, breaking through his thoughts at the wrong times. He sees them, him and TJ next week or next month, maybe tomorrow or later this afternoon, after TJ stops falling apart and comes back together, and he will, TJ will fall apart and he will come back together, maybe crazier than before, but he will come back, he always does. Ramon tries, but he can’t hold back his worst thought – TJ losing the fight to keep his fists down, going after who- ever is closest. That’s what Ramon is most afraid of – TJ not able to keep his fists at his sides until he finds a punk who deserves them. TJ wailing on whoever is closest.
Ramon wonders when his mom and the rest of the neighbor ladies will come with rice and beans and cake and mass cards. The old dykes have lived here since before the boys were born. The neighbor ladies will turn out for them.
He realizes his mom doesn’t know yet, none of the ladies know. TJ’s papi wanted TJ to know first. So TJ could pay his respects before everyone else got there. He tugs on TJ’s hoodie. TJ shakes him off.
“Say sorry, say sorry to Regina.” Ramon can’t remember using her name before and he says it like a punk now, in a high nervous voice. “Then we gotta go TJ. Sorry for your loss.” Ramon wishes he didn’t have to look at Regina when he says this. If Jackie was TJ’s old lady girlfriend, Regina is Ramon’s. “I’m sorry. Real sorry. We gotta go.” He grabs a piece of TJ’s arm when he yanks at the hoodie this time.
“Get off me,” TJ growls.
“She loved you too, Ramon.” Regina is wearing some kind of a nightgown that she forgot to tie at the neck. The pepperoni skin on her upper chest shows. Ramon cries, not hard, he thinks he can stop. “But TJ…” She puts a spotty hand over her heart.
TJ grips the window sill, turns on his heels and runs.
Ramon follows him. He’s never been as fast or as strong as TJ, but Ramon catches up and tackles him on the front lawn. They roll over each other, bodies slamming together, hanging on like they’ll drown if either one of them lets go. Then there’s the moment that both boys long for and dread, when their eyes meet, when the rage and fear hang in the air and everything stops.
“TJ. I don’t want to fight you. I don’t want you to hurt…” Ramon voice is too tender for either boy to bear, “anybody.”
“Get off me,” TJ shrieks. The boys are on their knees. Ramon locks his arms around TJ’s chest. TJ struggles, but he’s fighting against too much, he collapses, an old trick to make Ramon put down his guard for a second while TJ rallies then busts out of the hold Ramon has on him. But Ramon knows this trick and before it happens, Ramon puts his head on TJ’s shoulder and kisses TJ neck softly, right there on the frozen lawn next door to Ramon’s house, right there in the neighborhood, not out in the fringe of woods a mile from here, where no one has ever found them, or only the one close call when TJ waved around a comb that the other boys thought was a blade, making the punks scatter and TJ laugh like a maniac.
Ramon knows kissing TJ’s neck is wrong, the wrong thing to do in the old ladies’ yard with the butch one dead and the almost pretty one crying in her too big nightgown. Everything is wrong. Ramon pulls his lips away, holds TJ just tight enough so he won’t slip to the ground, taking what he can get, one last time he thinks, but then he thinks one last time every time he kisses TJ. Ramon holds on and waits for TJ to bust out and start swinging. They both wait for TJ to explode. For a long moment TJ stays limp and spent in Ramon’s arms.
TJ doesn’t burst out. Ramon stops holding him and says, “Sit up, man.” Ramon puts his arm over TJ’s shoulder, like Ramon’s father does to Ramon once in a while. “Fuck all of this, TJ.” He means fuck one old white lady being dead and the other one looking tired as death and talking in a little girl voice. He means fuck TJ going to see his pretty white girlfriend after he and TJ have sex behind a tree near the strip mall. He means fuck TJ being crazy. “Jackie’s dead. I’m here, man, but I’m done with crazy.” He knows it’s the wrong thing to say to calm TJ. He knows it is exactly the wrong time to say it. He knows he and TJ will both die some day and if he doesn’t say it now he never will. “Done babysitting.” Ramon wipes the tears off his face with the sleeve of his parka. “Done fighting you, TJ.”
TJ’s broad back and shoulders stiffen. “What about fucking me? You done with that, too?”
Ramon takes his arm away. The question hangs there. Ramon pulls his head back. The boys stare each other down. They have never talked about what they do in the woods. Ramon thought TJ put it out of his mind as soon as it was over. He thinks what they do in the trees behind the strip mall is part of why TJ is crazy, but it can’t be all of why TJ is crazy, because he was crazy enough before they started going to the mall.
“If I have to be,” Ramon says.
TJ wipes the tears and snot on his hoodie. “I got your back too.” His voice is close to calm.
Ramon nods, almost smiles because he’s not sure if TJ means in the neighborhood and at school or in the woods when he lets Ramon cry on his shoulder without giving him shit about it.
“We should do something,” Ramon says. “Flowers or some shit like that for Jackie. She liked those big yellow ones. The ones that grow by their back fence.”
“Fucking sunflowers,” TJ says. “Why you pretending you don’t know they’re called sunflowers.”