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Editors' Pick

Excerpt from Vocational Degrees

Chapter 3



Come one, come all!  Step on up to the House of Wonders!  Inside you will encounter varieties of humanity you have never seen!  See the one-armed juggler!  See the Dog Boy, a child with the vocal cords of a dog and the brains of a human.  See him communicate his thoughts with his bark!  See the hundred-pound rat, captured from the dingiest tenement in the Lower East Side!  See the strongest midget in the world!  See him crumble a cobblestone in his bare hand.  See Throwuppity, the knive-throwing virtuoso.  Half admission back if you volunteer as one of his targets.  All of it back if he hits you!  Come see, come see!

C, I know you don’t like when I do imitations of my Dad.  But that’s word for word, from before I was born, when he was still barking for the freak show.  These days Dad will point out the unemployed sword-swallowers, bearded ladies, and fire eaters still hanging around the neighborhood.  And if he isn’t repeating some old bit, comes up with new ones and tries to explain them to me:

–‘Call the Pill People!  Just five bucks a pop and feel your neurological dislocation fade, feel your hair grow back or fall out, depending on preference.’ That’s how you make something out of nothing.  The right voiceover and all of a sudden there’s a new medical condition that needs treatment.  Drowsiness, hairy toes, baldness, attention-deficit disorder.

When he gets going, you can’t stop him.  His eyes go like pinball machines, which is all good if you’re announcing for a show, though not if you’re taking your kid grocery shopping.  I guess it’s also good if you’re trying to live on disability for the next twenty years.

He was trying to teach me his one talent, saying if I pay attention I could go into advertising, into PR.  When I actually made it up, that’s when he didn’t like it.  I wasn’t babbling about freaks or memorizing his favorite commercials, but something more useful.  Check this.

– Get your organic, cruelty-free calcium enriched herbal stress remedy!  These herbs have been permitted to live out their natural lives in a free-range environment!  Get your iron, zinc, vitamins B1, B2, B12, B12 and-a-half!  Each nickel bag contains ninety-five percent of the daily nutritional requirement!  Four out of the last five doctors down my way now recommend the occasional use of this drug for medicinal purposes and broadly defined wellness, not to mention the legalization thereof!

Get it while it’s tax-free!  Before nickel bags cost $6.50!  Support your local business before Camel takes me over and inserts preservatives and strychnine into your vegetable matter.  Yours!  Mine!  Ours!  So get it here, for local business, for vitamins, free-range habitats, and your long fruitful life!

I’d like to think this skill could be useful.




            Greenpoint Avenue was next, twenty feet above our heads, past concrete, steel, garbage, and some air-conditioned space inside the subway.  Greenpoint Avenue was announced, three times, as clearly as the announcements are ever made.  The last stop in Brooklyn, it would go on to Queens.  Some passengers stirred from their one-borough snoozes.  Others picked up speed in their newspapers, scanning articles they might not see again.  A few stared up, at caution signs telling us not to hold doors open, or at advertisements that doubled as caution signs: “Torn Earlobe?”  “Hair Loss?”  “Lost Toenail?”  Some riders leaned in to complain about the service.  Others took a few steps to coo over someone’s baby, ask how old she was, and maybe give advice.  I think Boris’ and mine were the only eyes darting around at everything as doors finally closed.

Boris and I wondered out loud what might happen to us in Queens.  We agreed to keep still as the doors closed.  After a few seconds the doors opened back up, for no reason that we knew.  I’d like to say “great minds think alike” as we both changed ours at the same time, as the doors let us out that second.   We did not go to Queens.  Instead, we walked to school in time to be marked three hours late, go to our class, and find it closed – and without a note saying where the class had gone.   With a thousand students in a school designed for two thirds that, it wasn’t hard to narrow down the options.  We found our class wandering around the gym.

It was a college fair.  To get a few city colleges to come must have taken some doing, even more persuasion than it had taken to get the students to walk into the gym and approach the tables. When you figure seniors headed for college numbered in the single-digits each year, and one fifth of the seniors were graduating, is a college fair a personal favor or a city requirement?  The college representatives could have scheduled one-to-one meetings with the five or ten students they might as well be talking to.

The college reps seemed out of place here.  They stared down at their papers and up at the gym’s ceiling, maybe concerned asbestos was going to hit them.   They only made eye contact with students when directly approached.  The reps regarded dismissal time with the same flexibility as we did, so a three-hour college fair shrank to an hour and forty minutes.  Boris and I would manage to skip two classes in the gym.  We collected pamphlets from each table that hadn’t run out and pretended to examine each one.  Once we had asked each college rep about majors in drug dealing, there was nothing left to do but stand around.  Then Oak popped right in front of us.




– Watch your fucking language, or they’ll both pack up.

– Oak, how you know I said something bad?  You following me?

– As if you two are going anywhere except upstate.

That answer got Malik going.

– Oak, you see how this negative stereotyping influences your word choices?  Why can’t ‘upstate’ be a 4-year college?  Why is ‘upstate’ shorthand for the penal system and not the higher education system?

– I got this, Malik.  Why can’t you all put a real college fair together?  If I was going upstate, it’d be no thanks to this fair.  Except for one of the vokes, nobody’s traveled more than half an hour to get here.

– So what about the vocationals then?  Was good enough for me.  You talk to them?

Malik held up the flyers he got from the vocational colleges.

At this point, Mr. A. came our way.  He had that smile like any small talk would swing into a sincere discussion about our futures – and encouragements that made no sense.  We all tried to look past him at the college reps behind him.  The reps packed up fast like they had to make a flight.  Mr. A still had to get involved:

– What do you want to do, Boris?

– I’m ‘a learn some skills Mr. A.

– Like what?

– Safecracker, those guys get the props–in prison and out.

Mr. A twitched a bit like someone who realizes his fly is down, and Oak did something between a sigh and a raspberry.  Behind them, the reps made quick exits before anybody could thank them for visiting.  Tomorrow those reps would go back to active recruiting and us students would go back to active class-cutting.

But we did go to the next class.  Castro can work us at a brutal pace of repair and inspection for ninety minutes.  If a teacher’s lemon needs a tune-up, Castro works it in.  Instead of repairs that day, he was razzing the Knicks fans.  As students got worked up over basketball, Malik and I sat in the back, not paying attention to sports commentary.

Twenty minutes later, Castro opened a car hood, and directed us toward a radiator.  Basketball scores and gossip faded as auto repair took over.  Engines turned, minds focused, all that.  We kept on like this for an hour.

The bell rang.  The students scrambled into the hall, except for Malik and me, who slipped out the half-open garage door and on to a quiet street.  It was a long detour away from the main drag of Bedford Avenue, straight to the river instead.  We couldn’t see the river through the warehouses, factories, and transfer stations but we knew it was there.  The only person in sight was a worker catching a smoke in a warehouse doorway.  We followed the hidden river to East Seventh Street and cut back over to Bedford, into the subway station.

We ran our train cards through the turnstiles and went down to the platform.  A few students waited nearby, holding backpacks.  Most other travelers at this time were the twenty-five-year-olds moving into the neighborhood.  One sound seemed out of place, like a pound’s worth of keys. We turned around to see Johnson, the probation officer, still on duty today.  I greeted him.

– Johnson, where’s the van?  Getting some exercise today?

– Funny.  Now where you characters supposed to be?

– School day’s done.

– Done?  Let’s see your schedules.

– Sorry, not on me.  Moreover, due to the diversity of schedules in the various schools in our district, students found outside the school grounds after twelve noon can no longer be assumed to be cutting their classes, particularly at the secondary level.  Memo number two-eighty-six.  Is that not right?

– You kids.  When I was your age, I was in school until four o’ clock.  Sometimes later.

– No doubt.  Did the nuns smack you round good?

Johnson waved us away and went back upstairs, to a Polish deli I’m guessing.  Malik and I got on the next train.

On the subway, Malik took out his sketchpad and flipped though some pages, did a few scribbles of “Kalim,” probably less than a second for each one.  Malik tried to explain to me how when a piece of art gets repeated too much, it can grow more abstract than it was meant to be.  And what’s Kalim suggest, except some kid switching two letters around in his name?  I had to ask.

– Does that make it, what, abstract?  Did it used to suggest anything?

– You don’t remember now, do you?  And worse, it’s invisible.  Watch the window.

The train eased into the next station.  I stared at the window as instructed.  Malik stared at me for I don’t know how long.  Then he told me.

– You stared at my tag out the window as we pulled into the station, and you didn’t even know it, did you?

–So, that can happen.

–That can happen?  I go through a lot of trouble to put that on there.  These folks don’t have to notice, but you – you ought to see it.

– Should I have?

– No, you shouldn’t have to do anything.  It’s the job of the writer.  And you’re not the only one who’s missed some of my best walls.  That was a great wall, clean, and right where the train goes slow.  I picked it with care.  Come tonight.  I’ll show you how to do a wall.

– No offense, but you know I’m never going to.

– I know.  You’ll never tag, but it’s good to see, just to see how it works.

We spent the rest of the ride back in quiet.  Malik pointed each time we passed another wall he had tagged.  Malik had a point.  He had walked through tunnels, jumped down onto tracks, done his murals with fifteen-minute deadlines, ten-minute deadlines, or less–and where was the fame?  And what kind of fame is supposed to come, for this art only visible to other taggers and a few police and school administrators?  Not that he would have pointed out his creation to the whole car.  In fact, the rest of Malik’s moving exhibit was done with quiet nods toward the window, all the way back.




Boys can’t tell me about their tags.  I mean, they should know better is all.  They open their tag books and act like kindergarteners come home from art class.  They shouldn’t be surprised if someone tells them what they look like, them and their baby-scratchings.  I seen Mama scrub that shit off our door too many times to say those messes are anything different than what it is.

Boys think it’s better if I see them in action, making a dumb scribble on the side of a desk, on a doorway, on the back of a chair.  They got it backwards.  It only gets uglier if I see them do it.  Then they turn into their own sportscaster, doing color commentary over a scribble.  Anytime they try, I tell them so.  And those who want to tell me that it actually says something? Don’t even.

Malik’s the one exception.  I seen him working on his art too many years – seen it develop – too many years to act like it stops here, with him demoting himself to a “tagger.”  He might not know it’s a phase, but I do.  A few more years and I expect people will be paying him to paint designs on the sides of their stores.  Maybe he’ll take it someplace none of us can imagine yet.

Before switching back into school he made some great designs and he didn’t mind showing me.  I didn’t always know the ideas behind the designs, plus I didn’t want to make him talk too much about them.  Once I told him he could make his own line of clothes and I’d buy it.  He couldn’t decide whether he liked that comment or not.  He said he wasn’t sure if clothes was his “medium.”  And now, his medium is “tag.”   If we talk about anything visual these days, we’ve got to talk about it as a tag or else he’s got nothing to say.

That’s all good.  Malik’s not fooling me.  Riding into our station, I look at the wall and pick his tag out.  It’s still got plenty of his artist style, whether he wants it to or not.

*     *     *

            I’d been dropping by my cousins more often these days, and earlier too.  In just a few days it got easy to leave school.  To enter school, that’s not easy, especially if you arrive on time.  The long line of students goes out the door and winds up the block.  At the front of the line are four security guards, one policeman, and two metal detectors.  Slowly, they have each student step through.  A few students have to step aside while one of the security guards waves a wand all around their bodies.  It beeps for a key ring, for a nail clipper, and sometimes a knife.

I’ve checked every door on the first floor.  Some don’t open.  Some open and set off fire alarms.  A few open and lead to the street.  I’ve remembered that last group of doors, even the hall traffic around them at different times.  Just after twelve I can slip out of one of these doors and walk down Bedford.

It had become regular.  The school day ended at noon for me.  I decided four hours in school is enough.  Shop class was done with.  So was math, because it came after shop, a little time between shop and dismissal.  Also, because they’re doing multiplication, problems I was doing in my head seven years ago.  Either way, the walk is healthier.  Healthier than classrooms that were not even allowed to open two years ago, when asbestos was discovered all across the city.  Even two years later, I still hear people talk about it all happy, everyone forgetting how bored they were by mid-September, so bored that it was alright for things to get going again.  “I’m so bored I could do a science lab,” I remember someone saying, even though “lab” was a funny word in a school that saved all year for some dead frogs in the spring, but we had a period for it every other day.

Letting myself out of school didn’t take as much concentration as it had before.  I didn’t need to plan out crazy escape routes, unlike some people in this room.  I’d walk down Bedford, invisible as I’d pass by cafes, record stores, health food stores, and everything else popping up around here.

I’d stay invisible, past hundreds of people, all the way until I turned the corner and walk down the block to my cousins’ garage, where they’d see me coming from inside, from through the walls it seemed like.

C!  We’re so glad you made it!  We’re trying to figure something out.

– What’s the brain-teaser for today?  I ask them.  Tio answers.

– Crunching the numbers, you know, to make a steady budget for the month.  I wanted someone else to look at it, someone less likely to make goofy mistakes.

The cousins all shrugged.  Tio went on.

– As you look it over, see if all the expenses are addressed.   Then we can do this operation a little less by the seat of our pants.

I was smiling as I walked into what’s been passing for an office.  An old desk with a cash register almost as old.  A bunch of tools that for no real reason don’t sit in the garage: measuring devices, wrench sets in a case, two new screwdrivers.  In the corner, two small file drawers, one on top of the other, but not attached.  I’m not ready to ask what’s in those file cabinets.

What I did ask Tio – so am I the accountant now too?

– If you want to put that on your resume next summer, that’s fine with me.




Not to brag, but did I tell you I can stick a power drill up my nose?  And turn it on besides.  That’s what got me sent here the first time, since we got the power drills in auto class.  Show me what rule I’m breaking, I told Mr. Oak.

The rule against me getting sued for skull damage this close to retirement, Oak said as he pushed me out the door and down the hall.

There’s a part of the nasal cavity that goes a little deeper, in between cartilage and skull.  I don’t know how to explain.  I could show you with a pencil – no?

Dad used to have people over at our place.  And always, someone wanted to show me a trick.  Sometimes Dad would object, say something like, Hey what about when you leave and my kid lights his tongue on fire?  But I never got the hang of that one.

The one that freaked Dad was Livewire.

Far as I know, Livewire’s the one guy from then who still does this stuff, at the one place where it’s still done, now with acting school people and guys with pierced eyebrows.  We’re not close but we say hi, and I’ve seen his show because he’s let me in free a few times.  I think he even married the woman who swallows the swords.  They seem like one of the happier couples around here.  Not with any stiff competition, but still.

Livewire – I never knew his real name – seemed halfway between my age and Dad’s.  He would look at Dad then look at me, all serious, pick up a small butter knife and say in that stop-and-start type wayRemember – Don’t – ever – do – THIS!

Then he’d stick the knife in the socket and make a spark jump off his face.  That was the one trick that got my dad bent out of shape, shouting how that’s the last trick we need to be doing in front of kids, how too many kids already do that without some jackass coming over and showing it to them, and how he can’t believe he’s working with all these nutjobs.

His other work buddies were mellower – the knife-thrower, the contortionist, the fire-eater – a little older too.  They each had a trick to show me, but mostly were happy to sip spritzers and watch baseball games.  Once I told the knife-thrower he could cause a mad scene at a restaurant. He shrugged and shook his head like I had suggested robbing a bank.

They were all scolding Livewire that day because he’d gone into some bar in Manhattan and did stunts to get free drinks.  The old fire-eater was really on him.

– Livewire, you’re going too far.

– Max, I’m just having some fun.  Besides, it’s good advertising.

– Yeah, for who?  They make you stand outside and do that?

– No, Max.  It’s not like that now.  And I’m allowed to have fun, right?

Livewire was Dad’s only work buddy who actually talked to me, aside from What’s cooking, Barker Boy? Or, Clown Kid, or whatever they were calling me that week.  True, I got at least one trick out of everybody at some point.  Otherwise, Livewire was the only one who’d always ask how I was doing.  Or pull out the Parcheesi set that Dad and I forgot about.

The best was when he’d change the channel during the baseball game and switch it to a cartoon.  He’d jump on the couch and pat the spot next to him, inviting me to sit down and watch with him even as the other guys were yelling at us from every direction.  That only made the cartoons funnier.

I remember asking Dad how come Livewire stopped coming over.

Dad’s face tensed up like when the guys came over and the ballgame wasn’t enough entertainment.  Lenny the contortionist sprawled over half the sofa, showing me double joints I didn’t know were possible.  Livewire lit matches and held them in front of Max, asking him to eat one and blow smoke out his nose.  Every time Max yelled at him, someone joked about smoke coming out of his ears.

I’d watch from the floor, bending my toes backward with one hand, the other hand lighting matches and throwing them into my mouth.  Dad would clench his jaw, bite his lip, and shake his head until somebody gave him a spritzer and distracted him some other way.  Dad did the same thing with his face that time I asked him about Livewire.  He unclenched his jaw long enough to answer.

– Livewire doesn’t behave.

When Livewire would still come over, he’d sometimes look me in the eye like he was going to say something deep.  Then he’d say, This trick – should not – be attempted – at home!  Every time.  Then sparks would fly.




            I wasn’t sure what to say to Mama and Pa.  About Tio, about the whole day or school or anything.   Sometimes I think I’m the only one who’s got it like that, but when parent-teacher night comes around I see it’s not the case.  In fact, that’s the reason I let them know about parent-teacher night when it’s so easy to hide, easier than report cards even.

We watched other families’ dramas spill into classrooms.  We saw one father take a swing at his son.  A teacher I don’t know broke it up by holding a photocopy in between them, and talking about “the next project you can help your son with.”  Some families stared down like they were in mourning for their child’s marking period.  While waiting they did not talk.  When they talked with the teachers, they still said almost nothing.

There were exceptions.  Parents who shouted at the teachers how they wanted more communication.  How if their son’s average drops below seventy, they need to be notified at once.  How this is the kind of service their tax money should get for them.  Those parents went to each classroom with the same announcement.  I bet some teachers had called them two or three times.  Good thing I always answer the phone in my house.

I was leading the tour that night.  The three of us walked to each room, each teacher, talking about my talent and potential, how I was acing their class.  I translated all this so they could smile, say thank you, and move on.  You’d have thought I got straight A’s.

I led my parents to most of my teachers, but not the ones I had not seen for some time.  I led them to all the classrooms with the shining reports of my work and behavior.  I translated each report without exaggerating.  As the night went on, my parents’ smiles kept growing.

Some teachers get happy just because your parents show up.  Some parents, like Malik’s mother, work long hours, too long to come.  Some live in Queens, or even the Bronx.  Some, like Boris’ dad, I’m sure had no idea it was parent-teacher night.  Mail gets intercepted.  Calendars get messed with. My parents knew more than most.  Later they would tell me how proud they were – from the classrooms I chose to bring them.




–You don’t know, ‘cause you don’t keep up.  If you kept up, you’d know what I’m talking about.

– You buggin’.  Someone told you too many bogeyman stories as a kid.

– This ain’t no bogeyman shit.  It’s coming up in every newspaper these days.

– Yeah, how many newspapers you read this year?

– Funny.  Like I’m saying, the shit is fact.  Hard science.

– Sounds type conspiracy shit to me.  Your pops come back home from his Black Panthers tour yet?

– Leave his pops.

– My fault.

– I heard some of this on TV, how none of the computers are set up for the year changing.

– So what?  My computer says it’s 1958.

– That’s when your computer was built.

– Least I got a computer.

– My god!  Let the man talk.  I want to know, so what happens if the years change wrong on all the computers?

– They didn’t get deep into it on TV, but everybody keeping records on computer might have them wiped out on New Years—banks, government offices, military–

– Missiles flying over for no reason on Y2K, right?

– Traffic lights switching any color any time, causing car accidents for anyone crazy enough to drive during that time.

– What they were saying on TV was about the economy, chaos around the world because of no records of anything, maybe more things controlled by computers that don’t know what day it is or if they’re even supposed to be on or off.

– Makes me want to take out a few loans.

– And not pay them back!

– You got that!

I mixed up who said what on the roof.  No real answers, but some real questions.  If I was more enterprising, I’d have set up a Y2K pool, with bets as to what type of mess is going to get made, if school gets accidentally cancelled.  A few categories to bet on.

Another night, I heard people bust all religious as to Y2K, not the computer errors but God himself causing all sorts of havoc.  Famine, ten plagues, punishing everyone who needs to be punished, or maybe everybody just to make sure.  And then something like a Messiah Splashdown mixed with Night of the Living Dead.  That’s when it got good.

– Computer errors might explain your noise, your bank errors, your planes falling from the sky, even some fires and explosions.  But can computers explain the Fire of the Devil, and the Wrath of the Almighty?  Oh No!  There will be no technological or scientific excuses allowing you to deny the unmistakable when it arrives!

– Floods!  Fire!  War!  Pestilence!  All expressions of the Almighty’s displeasure with our behavior in this world!  You and I can’t imagine it now, but when it comes – and it will come soon – you won’t be talking about computer errors!

Okay, I’ll take my hand off my hip and sit back down.  I think you got the idea.  I wanted to egg them on, keep asking, are you sure it’s not the computer failures we’re talking about?  Repeat my question until the smoke’s coming out of their ears and Y2K makes an early arrival on their face.  More likely, Malik would see me winding up and say something to me like, back off the comedy, his mom’s a religious woman, you don’t know the stress they got in the household right now.  Save those kind of jokes for 2001, when we can all chill out some.

Malik’s right, I can’t know about that kind of religious tip and what it does.  It’s not like Dad ever sent me to Hebrew school, where we could bounce those questions off the rabbis.  Dad knows a little about that, so I asked him if our people got an angle on Y2K.

–Y2K?  Our people don’t do that stuff.  Check it out if you ever finish your homework and have some reading energy left over.  Look at our calendar. Y2K for us was a couple thousand years ago.  It was probably a bad day, Romans beating us up.  One of our minor holidays might be for surviving an ass-kicking from the Romans.  I know, this year Y2K is about what’s going to happen.  Any talk in our tradition about the future is usually from prophets having a bad trip.  Then the prophets get laughed out of town.  Why do you think Elijah gets a sip of wine on Passover?  It’s a consolation prize.  If it was the 20th century, poor guy might live downstairs from us.  Social Services might come by once a week and drug him with mood stabilizers or he’d self-medicate.  That’s a best-case scenario.  If he came from a well-to-do family he could take a nominal post in the family business or keep it together long enough for an advanced degree.  By the time the shit hits the fan, psychologically speaking, he’ll have earned tenure.  Happens all the time.  Why you asking me this?  You want to talk about Y2K, talk practical stuff, flashlights and canned food!  Goodness, this is the year to get a job with Goya foods!  Their sales are going to skyrocket, they’ll give you bonuses you’ve usually got to fill out scratch tickets to get.  And free chick peas.  Win-win.




I don’t know why Boris wanted to go for a walk a few weeks ago, the first of a couple long walks.  He used to go off about those Russian cafes, talking about “nuclear leveraged buyouts” and how many megatons could fit inside a briefcase these days.  I could always stop him cold by rolling my eyes and cracking a James Bond joke.

That day, we wouldn’t have walked so far except he kept a lid on all that spy talk.  Instead I remember us talking about switching schools — about me switching schools.  I guess I’d been bringing this up now and then since the first day, like how there might be other schools I should’ve gone to.  Boris wasn’t the right one to talk to on this one, but who else would I talk about this to, my counselor?  Please.

So you’d switch back to our zone school, whatever that is?

I think he asked me that one three times.  That’s the main reason half of us are at Automotive.  I’d heard that threat walking by the A.P.’s office once – how’d you like to go back your zone school, go back where you came from?  I wish I could remember which was the high school he said that made the gangsta-boy cry.  I’d start using it myself when someone tries to touch me.

I was telling Boris about these other schools, how they got one for nursing, for flying planes, for working on subways, one I think for building boats building boats! and more stuff neither of us ever thought about.  Brooklyn Tech, where I’d have liked to be except there was an exam I missed.  Even a school for making money, “High School of Finance.”  How did I miss that one?  Boris didn’t know about any of these schools.  I had to ask him why he picked Auto.

He said something like, It began with an A.  My research was done fast.

We kept walking, talking about it, even though there wasn’t much point.  Before I knew it, we were at one of those cafes he’d meant to go to all along.

He asked if I wanted to get something here?  It’d be on him.  Said I fed him enough at my  house, right?

Maybe I used to feed him.  All those years, I’m still not sure what my parents think of him.  I don’t think Boris and my parents share more than forty words in either language that they both understand.  Still, my mom’d bring him food, he’d look bashful, she’d push, he’d chow down, say, muy bien, while his mouth was burning up.  Since those were the only times anybody ever spoiled Boris with food, I suppose he wanted to treat me now.

How the café host acted when he saw us, I couldn’t miss that.  He looked at Boris and smiled like they were old friends.

Welcome, sir.  Would you care for your usual table?

Boris smiled and nodded as the host handed us menus and said our waiter would be over shortly.  Neither of us talked for a minute or so.  I could feel my eyebrows rising up like when I expect an explanation, which I did.  Not in a bossy way, though maybe he could save me from asking some crazy questions.  Of course, he didn’t know what to say either – like he’s going explain this on his own?  So we stared at our menus and waited for the waiters.  The first questions either of us could handle was how to pronounce some of those dishes.  Boris was the first one to say anything after that.

So where you been?

Here we are at one of those cafes Boris is always talking about, the host greets him like a regular, his finger’s running over Russian menu words – and he’s got questions for me?  I nearly choked.  Which Boris took to mean he needed to explain his question better.

We get there late, Malik and me.  And you leave early, right?  It’s been a couple weeks like that, right?  You even in school?

Still speechless, not in any way about him being on to me –we could get to that in its own time – but the fact that he’s the one asking the questions right now.  Answers would have to be short.


Family?  Not your parents.  They’ll break a piece of furniture when the school sends all those absences back to your house.  Put a hole in the wall, so I don’t know what family you’re talking about.


And they don’t mind your dropping by during school?

I shook my head.

They don’t also write notes for your absences, do they?

I saw the wheels turning.  I could see him coming by the shop so they’d write him a note.  Which would not be good.  We don’t have to talk about this, he said.  I agreed.  He kept on.

So what do you do when you hang with your cousins?

Fix cars, take them apart, put them back together.

Maybe you ought to get school credit through them.  Can they do that?

I was ready to tell his comical ass off, how I could crack mad jokes about his crazy dad and A.W.O.L. mom if we want to go that way.  I leave off his Moms, since I know the story.  That’s my nuclear option and we were not at that point, mad as I was.  Plus, I saw he was at least half-serious, like when you say an idea and your friends got to point out how dumb it is.  And you take a step back and say, “You know I’m only joking with you.”   That’s where Boris was at now, except he was talking to someone he can’t fool that way.  I don’t know why knowing that made me patient with him.  I tried to put it simple, matter-of-fact.

I don’t think that would work.  School credit, no.

He kept looking at me.  Fool needed a whole explanation.

They’re too far off the books to work out arrangements like that with the school system.

He sat trying to think of his next question.  I gave a little more information.

They know how to fix stuff, but they’re not so professional about it.  No cash register, no certificates on the wall like at school.  I don’t think I’ve seen a receipt since I’ve been there.

So like, how far off the books?

I’d had it. Like I’d told Boris, I’d been looking at cars.  Where he wanted to take this, I didn’t know, except get someone to sign his absence notes.  I told him his turn was over.  Now I was asking the questions, starting with his being greeted here like a familiar face and did he have any good details on that interaction that he might like to share with me?

Now Boris was the speechless one.  I suppose there was something he wanted to share with me when he got here, like that “tiramisu.”  It’s not like I asked too much, but I think my tone of voice took him out of his sharing mood.

The waiter arrived with a tray full of dishes whose names I forgot except for one.  Only because the waiter smiled at it, smiled at us, then said that one was dressed herring, a fine selection, my dear.  At that point, I couldn’t make the connection between dressed herring and a fine selection never mind my dear.  Boris begged me to try some, but I wanted to leave.  It was reminding me of one of those dates my cousin Felicia has talked about, where for a while she thought it was a date, then she thought it wasn’t a date, and then it was a really bad date.


  1. Suzanne Smith on

    Enjoyed this very much. Funny and touching. Voices authentic.

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