Sterling and his cohorts started the semester referring to their new AP Literature teacher as a female Ichabod Crane, and since they were top dogs in the 12th grade at Ramsey High, the image caught on. Though Sterling knew the comparison wasn’t accurate. Mrs. Logan was tall and skinny like Ichabod, but “willowy” was a more appropriate word. Even aging into her 50’s, she was attractive with large green eyes and a wide, full smile. And not the least bit timid like the small-headed Ichabod. All well and good as far as Sterling was concerned. Her assurance gave the boys a greater challenge.
Their last semester of high school begun, luck of the draw had landed four of his eight compatriots in Mrs. Logan’s fifth period. She’d taught at the local community college until coming to Ramsey this fall, but to them she was a rookie. She had plenty to learn about brainy kids headed for top universities. Last week, his buddies Rich and Kipling had reduced Mr. Curtis’ student teacher in AP Calculus to tears. They didn’t set out to make the poor guy weep, but you couldn’t help it if you knew more than he did.
Sterling and his group had been at the top of their game ever since they banded together in middle school. He suspected the guidance department tried to keep them separated because teachers complained about having them in class together. Rarely now were more than two of the “Crazy Eights” together in a class. And it wasn’t fair. Just because they liked to play off each other and challenge a teacher’s position during discussion, they were singled out.
But in this case, uptight Mr. Oliver, the head of guidance—personally supervising Sterling’s applications to Brown, Yale, Amherst, and Columbia as these schools could be especially demanding on Southern boys, he contended—either had no other choice or hadn’t noticed four of them thrown together.
Mrs. Logan’s first assignment was Trifles, an easy one-act whodunit, a relic from the early 20th Century. True, it was an eloquent and nuanced read, but so straightforward and the playwright’s feminist bias so blatant, even the most clueless would get it. As Mrs. Logan worked herself into a fervor examining motives for Mr. Wright’s murder, how could Sterling not play devil’s advocate? He raised his hand, his face mock serious. “How can we be so sure Mrs. Wright is the culprit?” he asked.
Mrs. Logan swiveled and looked at him. “What do you mean?” she countered. “Could you show us any indication to the contrary?”
“Certainly,” Sterling said. He offered a red herring, claiming—with evidence—that Mrs. Wright was too much of a mouse to kill her husband. His buddies agreed and chimed in. Kipp raised his hand and then Rich and then Alex, bouncing verbiage all over the place while Mrs. Logan tried to defend her position until finally, outnumbered, she quit.
At first, he was stunned—for Mrs. Logan was a sharp and resilient teacher—when she announced, “I cannot continue. Some of you are determined to undermine the seriousness of the literature. You may do as you wish.” She added before closing her anthology with a solid thwack, “I apologize to those who came to class today to learn.” She left her book on the podium, retreated to her desk, and turned to her computer. Sterling couldn’t resist. He walked to the stand and opened the book. He began to teach the play.
No teacher had ever turned in Sterling or his buddies for disrespect. Or for any other reason, for that matter. So when Mr. Early, the 12th grade vice principal, called him, along with Kipp, Alex, and Rich, to his office, Sterling couldn’t fathom why. Until Mr. Early showed them Mrs. Logan’s “write up” accusing them of “effrontery,” a situation, she claimed, making it impossible for her to teach.
“What?” Sterling threw up his hands. “We were having an academic discussion. It’s not our fault if she can’t see other points of view.”
“Not buying it,” Mr. Early said. “Not for a minute. Your gooses are cooked. ”
“What are we in for?” Kipp asked, sounding stupidly sheepish, folding his hands at his waist. Alex gave Kipp a shove at this affectation and Rich rolled his eyes.
“If a teacher can’t teach because of student disruption, it’s grounds for out-of-school suspension. But Mrs. Logan asked for in-school suspension instead.”
“What the …?” Alex started, but Mr. Early gave him the evil eye and he stopped.
“Just send us home,” Rich muttered.
“Your teacher specified she wants you all in school, not at home raiding the fridge and watching Netflix. In this case, a lesser sentence is more.” Mr. Early almost chuckled. “I concur.”
“Sir,” Sterling said, “with all due respect, we were building a case regarding a piece of literature that didn’t agree with her view. Shouldn’t we be free to think?”
“Certainly, when it’s for the right reasons,” their grade principal said, fingering his absurd horseshoe mustache. “But that’s not the case. I’ll check on you fellows tomorrow at first bell.”
“My parents taught me to challenge authority,” Sterling said, trying another approach, using his most polite voice.
“That’s right,” Alex added. Rich and Kipp nodded.
“That’s dandy, but you crossed way over the line,” Mr. Early said. “End of discussion. Report to Room 252 tomorrow.”
Sterling was dumbfounded. He’d never been sentenced to any kind of school punishment, much less ISS. It was crazy to sit bored all day in a classroom with a bunch of losers. The only positive was maybe his parents wouldn’t know. Even if he was certain they’d have agreed with his defense.
Sterling and his pals were spaced far apart in ISS so they couldn’t converse. He’d been placed near the door in row one. When he’d signed in, the facilitator—a fat assistant basketball coach—handed him a load of busywork compiled from all his classes. Such crap. He finished it all in a couple of hours. Too bad they’d taken his phone. He could have played Doom or Space Invaders when the coach wasn’t looking.
Now, Sterling had nothing to do, so his eyes roamed Room 252. The room held a subtle but foul odor. He concluded it came partly from unwashed hair and flesh along with stale cigarette smoke sealed in clothing. His view grazed across this bleak bunch. The guys wore t-shirts with inane slogans like “Blink if You Want Me,” and “Bustin’ Ours to Kick Yours.” But many of the girls wore tops barely reaching the required coverage. He could get used to this look.
His gaze stopped on a girl beside him in row two. Her tank top was tight, pressing across a pair he could tell were exquisite. She was exotically beautiful, biracial he was sure, with dark, deep eyes and honey skin. And those monster gorgeous lips. He’d never seen this girl in the halls, much less in his classes, populated mostly by WASPs like himself.
His school’s demographics didn’t follow the traditional Bell Curve. If he thought of a shape, it would be like the letter U with rich kids at one end, underprivileged kids at the other, and a small middle population. He kept his sight fixed on this forbidden girl from the other leg of the U. Finally she noticed and looked shyly at him. He felt his groin tightening.
“I’m Sterling Anderson,” he whispered. “Who are you?”
“Hazel Smalls,” she whispered back. They weren’t supposed to talk in ISS, but Sterling had observed if the prisoners kept it low, the coach didn’t bother with them.
“Hazel, are you kidding? Who is named Hazel?” The girl looked hurt, so he amended himself. “It’s just old fashioned, is all. It’s nice, really.”
“My mother named me for her foster mother,” Hazel said. Sterling raised his eyes, so she explained. “My mother moved in with foster parents when she was 12. When they moved to Florida, she was old enough to go out on her own.”
“When was that?” Sterling asked.
“I think she was 16.”
“Whew,” Sterling answered.
“My family calls me Zell,” she said.
“Nice. So, Zell . . . what’re you in for?” She didn’t answer. Instead, her face stiffened. So he offered, “I got written up for busting a teacher’s lecture,” and chuckled.
“What does that mean?” she asked. The drawn muscles around her mouth relaxed a little.
“It just means my buddies and I had some ideas she didn’t like about this play we were studying. Sucks, man.” She nodded slightly. “So?” he questioned again, “what did you do, or more like, what do they say you did?”
Again, she ignored him. It was like he had never spoken “It can’t be that bad,” he urged. He reached over and touched her arm. He gave her a sincere look. She relented.
“I didn’t wear my uniform to ROTC class like we’re required to on Fridays.”
“That’s just stupid. You got ISS for that? I’ve seen that sergeant in the halls. He looks like an uptight ass. Why would you want to be in ROTC anyway?” Sterling couldn’t imagine anything worse. The fat-ass coach looked briefly toward them again, and Sterling made a choking motion to his throat to show he would quiet down.
“I got detention hall after school, but I didn’t go,” she said. “So they gave me ISS.”
“I don’t blame you for blowing off detention. Drop ROTC,” Sterling suggested. It never occurred to him then that she had no transportation home at 5:00 pm when the buses were long gone.
“I want to go into the service, to get out of here,” she said. He started to ask why she didn’t go to college, instead of getting stuck in the Army, but caught himself. He realized maybe no one in her family had gone to college. And if they had any money, college wasn’t likely something to spend it on. He wasn’t ignorant. He could picture how the other half lived.
“So why not wear your uniform? You probably forgot, right?” he responded instead.
“It was dirty,” she said.
“You forgot to have it cleaned?”
She shrugged her nearly bare amber shoulders. The gesture seemed to say it couldn’t be helped, though Sterling could not imagine the big deal of taking the damn uniform to the cleaners. “I’m sorry you’re in here for such a dumb reason,” he said. All of a sudden, he didn’t just have the hots for Hazel. He felt so sorry for this beautiful girl that he nearly loved her. He wanted to take her in his arms and hold her. He wanted to know her.
“You want to go to a movie tomorrow night?” he asked abruptly.
“I don’t think so,” she said. She looked down, wrapping her arms around her middle. She reminded him of a hunched, scared rabbit.
“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise I don’t bite.” He held up his hands in a surrender motion.
She smiled a little. “It’s not that.”
“Then what? Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No,” she said.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow night. We can go for pizza after. Where do you live?”
“No,” she said and turned to the papers on her desk. When the bell finally rang, she darted out, again reminding Sterling of a skittish rabbit. He followed her at a distance to the bus exit where he lost her in a pack of students clamoring to leave the building. But Sterling wasn’t giving up.
The next day, he went by his grade level office on the pretense of telling Mr. Early he was sorry to have been a disturbance in English class. His tactic worked because after his spiel, when he asked the vice principal to look up what period and teacher Hazel Smalls had for English (a sure bet since all students took it), Mr. Early, though he glanced a moment at Sterling, went right to his computer.
It was Sterling’s good fortune that English was Hazel’s first class. Bus students arrived early, so he’d have plenty of time to catch her. Sometimes kids waited in the lobby for first bell, but they could also wait in their first period classroom. He had a hunch Hazel didn’t socialize in the lobby.
And of all the English teachers at Ramsey High, Mrs. Logan was Hazel’s. Sterling knew Mrs. L taught all the 12th grade AP classes, and it turned out a general level of juniors filled out her schedule. He waited down the hall a little ways from the classroom, hidden behind a storage door since students weren’t supposed to hang out without passes in the halls before school. Soon enough, he saw Hazel strolling quietly up the hall.
When he stepped out from his hiding place, and she saw him there waiting, she stopped, startled. Her hand flew across her chest. “Hello, Zell,” he called. “It’s Friday!”
“Come on,” he said, striding toward her. “I told you I don’t bite.” She smiled a little, and he smiled back. “Really. Why don’t I pick you up tonight at 6:00.” And although she shook her head, she rewarded him with a wistful expression.
It was a glimmer and he seized it. He picked up her free hand, feeling the skin tight over the delicate bones. “Okay, we’re doing this,” he said and pressed her hand. She submitted to his touch and he said, “What’s your address?”
“I’ll meet you in the lobby of the downtown library. I got some work to do there.”
Sterling thought it an odd request, but he was willing to do things on her terms. “Sure thing,” he replied.
After pizza at Marelli’s, she said to drop her back at the public library. He wasn’t leaving her alone in the cold dark. She wore a too-thin coat in the January weather as it was, and he’d been taught manners, dammit, he said. Plus, the library was in the Southside, a bad part of town. But she wouldn’t give in. She insisted she was meeting a girlfriend who’d invited her to spend the night. She’d wait in the library lobby. It wasn’t even a good lie.
It was obvious she didn’t want him to know where she lived, and he told her so. It was ridiculous. “What? Is your family hiding a serial killer who carries a double-edged stiletto knife at his waist? ” he asked. She looked abashed, her hands pressing over her nose and mouth. He let up. He’d only meant to tease her.
Still, he was frustrated as he sped off. Not until a few minutes later did he realize he could have simply remained in the parking lot to see where she went. But she’d have known and no need to upset her after she’d already looked like a scared rabbit again after his murderer joke. He was sorry about that. She didn’t know him well enough yet. Better to savor the evening—her incredible lips—wet, pillowy, and warm when she allowed him to kiss her deeply, his tongue roaming her mouth, filling it, while they embraced in his car in Marelli’s parking lot.
Oh what a night, Sterling thought driving home, reassured by the rhythmic thrumming of his Audi TTS—a hand-me-down from his father, seven years old but a damn cool car that seduced even the haughtiest girls he’d dated. Forget the girls he was supposed to impress. God, how he dreaded the pompous spring debutante ball, where—to his parents’ delight—he’d been enlisted to escort prissy, silly, obscenely rich Molly Gaines.
This girl he’d met was gorgeous and mysterious. She was also delightfully forbidden—far from the socialites expected in his future. He rolled the vision of Hazel—Zell as he thought of her now—around in his head. This girl had him on fire. Forget his parents would have twin strokes even to imagine he might invite a half-black girl from who knew where on a date. Where did she live, he wondered again.
Every school morning, he waited outside Zell’s English classroom door. When his buddies asked why he wasn’t showing up in the courtyard before school, he said he was working with the tennis coach—the season approaching and a safe bet, since no one else in his crowd was on the team and everyone knew he was mediocre and needed practice.
He hadn’t been able to hide for long from Mrs. Logan, though. On one of the first mornings, she walked out of her classroom toward the teachers’ lounge and saw him half concealed behind the storage door. “Sterling, you need to see me?” she asked. He shook his head, said forthrightly he was waiting for Zell.
Ever since the shellacking she’d dealt him and his crew, he’d been a model student. In his other classes, too, as rumor had it other teachers came to her door to thank Mrs. L personally. He’d heard Mr. Macintyre, the AP Statistics teacher, said it was high time and should have been done long ago to “those holy terrors.” He’d misjudged the depth of his English teacher’s chutzpah, and would rather play dutiful student than see ISS ever again, even if it had introduced him to Zell. He actually thought Mrs. L liked him now. And he had to admit she was a teacher who could actually keep his interest.
He tried to see Zell during the day as well. He learned her schedule, and could sometimes catch her briefly in the hall between periods. She was always alone. After school, though, was impossible as she dashed for the bus. Over and over, he offered to take her home, but she refused. On weekend evenings, he picked her up at the library. He knew something wasn’t right, but he was so mad for her, he didn’t want to rock the boat. He usually took her somewhere to eat; she was always hungry. He liked her appetite. Afterward, they parked at Kinsmen Lake not far from his Georgian brick home in Stockton Estates.
They first made love on the third trip to the lake, parked under pine trees away from the streetlamps ringing the shore. He hated they were cramped in the back seat of his Audi, but once his hands were on her breasts, he forgot he couldn’t completely unfold himself. And Zell didn’t complain. In fact, she was amazing. She took him in her mouth without being asked. Sterling nearly exploded before he could pull the condom from his wallet, tug it on, and enter her.
Still, he longed to be in a real bed with her. To spread out, press his body fully over hers, and take it slow. He wanted to feel the stretch of her spine. If only he could get her into his bedroom without his parents knowing. He’d moved into the basement last year and had the run of the space. He’d taken girls to his subterranean pad plenty of times to watch television, listen to music, whatever else. His parents were cool with his privacy because they knew these girls and their families. Plus, he always made a point to sit around and chat with his parents before he and his date headed downstairs.
But he couldn’t bring Zell to the house. The parents would freak, all hell break loose. They might ground him. Take away his car. Then where would he be? He thought of sneaking her in, but he couldn’t figure out a failsafe plan, not with his nosy, ubiquitous mother.
Sterling decided they could go to Zell’s house. The climate would surely be more accommodating. Her parents might be happy to see their daughter with a white boy, since Zell had a white father. She revealed little about her family, but he’d learned this much and a few other details, pressuring her one Saturday night—eating hamburgers at the Wheel-In. He found out she had a sister named Chloe in fifth grade, that her mother was black and cleaned apartments, and her father was a yard maintenance man. Seemingly, ordinary people with working-class jobs and two girls to raise, so what was the big deal? What, did they maybe live in that park of rusty trailers near the landfill?
“Take me to your house,” he had said then. “I want to meet your parents.”
“No,” she said flatly. Sterling didn’t get it.
In the beginning, he’d mostly ignored her reticence; it was just so good being with her. There wasn’t a lot of trivial chatter or need to be constantly affirmed, like he endured with most girls. And when they made love, my God, from the luxurious time of their fondling—the incredible desire she created in him—to the moment of climax, it was like heaven raining gold.
But Sterling was the kind of boy, that once he got a notion, he followed through. “We’re going to your house,” he commanded. “This is insane. Do your parents know I’m crazy about you?” Zell looked down. She rubbed one hand quickly back and forth across her forehead, a gesture he’d come to recognize as nervousness.
“Don’t do that,” he said. He grabbed her hand and pulled it from her face. “I’m serious, Zell.” She looked down. She remained quiet. “Zell, did you hear me? Look at me,” he said.
“I heard you,” she said, barely above a whisper.
“Then, dammit it, answer me.”
“Why don’t we go to your house instead?” Her voice was barely a peep.
It was Sterling’s turn to remain silent.
There was more than one way to skin a cat, Sterling determined, as he waited in his Audi on the outskirts of the bus lot at Ramsey High. He would follow Zell’s bus to her stop, and know once and for all where she lived.
Waiting in the cold car, his coat bundled around him, he dozed, nearly missing Bus 22 pulling out. He didn’t know what roused him—instinct, maybe?—but quickly, as he saw the students boarding, he started the Audi. He followed with several cars between him and the bus, first to one drop-off and then another.
The last stop was Indy Lodge, a beat-up motel downtown, only blocks from the library. The property should have been condemned and bulldozed. He knew firsthand because last year before prom, he and his friends rented a room there to liquor up before picking up their dates.
No one had asked for Kipp’s ID—they were all underage at 17 — when Kipp paid in cash. The room was a hellhole with black mold spattered impressionistically over the bathroom ceiling. With a toilet leaking at every flush, water puddling around the base where goldfish could have swum. With a bedroom ceiling mottled in brown-gray clouds from who knew what leakage above. And a seaweed green bedspread dotted with cigarette burn holes.
Sterling watched Zell and several other kids exit the bus into the parking lot. He focused on her advance toward the motel units. Dumbfounded, he watched her walk into Room 133. The girl who had him hook, line, and sinker lived in a dilapidated motel room. He felt sick even as his anger swelled. At what? At himself for not recognizing how dire her circumstances might be? At whatever circumstances had put her here? What the hell? Didn’t she tell him both her parents worked? Didn’t they have apartments in Ramsey that two working parents could afford? As his father would put it, Sterling smelled a rat.
He drew in breaths deep to calm himself, to focus his emotions. He’d figure it out. He was a guy who knew his way around. He’d meet the challenge head-on. He wanted Zell. He could help her.
At the lake Friday night, he decided to come clean about his discovery. First, he kissed Zell for a long time—she loved to kiss—then he caressed her shoulders. He felt her muscles relax, heard her involuntary whimper, and knew his ministrations felt good.
“Zell,” he leaned down close. “Don’t be angry when I tell you I know where you live. I wanted to know. I followed your bus.” The loose muscles drew tight and she jerked away from him.
“You shouldn’t have done that. Don’t come there,” she said.
He waited several moments before he asked, “Why?”
“I don’t live in a big house like you do on a hill that I’ve never seen.” Her voice sounded flat and hard.
“I know your family doesn’t have much money. That’s never mattered to me,” he responded.
“Yes it does. You don’t know.” Her voice rose.
“Don’t know what? I’m sure it’s something temporary, right? Has something happened with one of your parents’ jobs?” He reached over to touch her, and she lurched away.
“If you want to call six years temporary,” she snapped. “It takes a lot of money for apartment deposits. And then to turn on heat and lights. We don’t have that much at one time.”
Sterling was taken aback, not just because of the shock of her homelessness, but because of her sudden shift in tone.
“Maybe I can help,” he stammered, having no idea what he might be suggesting.
“You can’t,” she said. “Take me to the library.” Neither mentioned since he now knew where she lived, he could spare her walking several blocks in the cold. In fact, Zell did not speak at all.
On Monday morning, as usual, Sterling waited outside Zell’s English classroom door. They never talked on the phone because Zell didn’t have one. It hadn’t been a big deal until now, when he’d fretted the rest of the weekend about her. His buddies without dates were glad to have him hang out for a change, while he’d almost driven to the motel and knocked on Room 133.
He exhaled when he saw her lovely shape coming up the hall, wearing the jeans she wore most days, hugging her books to a worn burnt orange sweater that made her skin glow warm and golden. “Zell,” he called enthusiastically, but she ignored him. He stood in her path. She walked around him into the classroom.
“Wait,” he called, but she was gone.
“Dammit,” he hissed to himself. He didn’t hesitate. He was breaking rules, and he didn’t care. He followed her into Mrs. Logan’s room, empty except for Mrs. L at her computer and Zell dumping her load of books. He walked to Zell’s desk. “Talk to me,” he said.
“Go away, Sterling,” she said.
“No,” he responded. “This is crazy. Nothing has changed.”
“Everything has changed. Leave me alone.”
Mrs. Logan rose from her desk and called his name in a warning tone.
“I know. I know. Not supposed to be here. Just let me talk to Hazel for a few minutes.”
“I don’t think Hazel wants to talk to you,” his teacher said.
“Yes, she does,” he said. “Can you please . . .?”
“I can’t,” Mrs. Logan said. “You need to go to your own first period classroom or another authorized place.” Her voice was stern. Reluctantly, Sterling stepped away, walking backward, staring all the time at Hazel whose gaze was turned toward the floor.
When the bell rang at the end of fifth period, Mrs. Logan called to Sterling. Teachers rarely detained students at the end of periods because there were barely five minutes between classes. He halted near her desk. “Yes, ma’am?”
“I’d like to talk to you for a minute.”
“Yes, ma’am, but I have to get all the way to D-wing for Calculus.”
“I’ll write you a pass,” she said.
Now, she was breaking the rules, Sterling thought. Teachers were forbidden to write passes allowing students to enter their next classes late unless it was an emergency.
Mrs. L motioned to him as his classmates exited. He stepped forward until they stood face to face. He saw pale seams of lipstick in the creases of her lips. She touched a hand to his shoulder. “May I ask if Hazel is your girlfriend?” she ventured.
Sterling thought how this was none of her business, how he could get his teacher in trouble for asking personal questions, yet he’d intruded into her room this morning, making his feelings for Hazel obvious.
“Okay,” he said.
“Yes, we see each other.”
“You didn’t ask my advice, but I’m going to give it,” she said. “We teachers are good at that,” a hint of self-mockery in her smile. He nodded and she continued. “The world you’re in is not the world Hazel is in.”
“I know,” Sterling said.
“No, you don’t,” she answered. “I’m not sure either of us can really know, Sterling. My guess is you haven’t been where she lives.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you know she lives in a motel, homeless, a victim of her parents’ circumstances?” He nodded. “Do you also know school district policy dictates motel kids ride the first bus of the morning and the last in the afternoon? It’s to protect these young people as much as possible from bullying. Do you know the phrase ‘motel rats’?”
Sterling cringed. “Doesn’t mean we can’t care for each other,” he said, defensively.
“No, it doesn’t. But . . . how. . .”
“I know Zell is tough,” Sterling interrupted his teacher. “She’ll get out of that dump. She’ll be fine. I’m going to help her.”
“Young people like Hazel live in fear and secrecy, looking only a day ahead at a time. There could be things in the world you don’t know. That’s what I want to say.”
“I will help her,” he said.
She nodded. “Your desire is admirable.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Logan,” Sterling said.
“You’re welcome,” she said and scribbled her name and the date onto his pass.
Sterling made up his mind if Zell would see him again, he would take her to his house, introduce her to his parents. The fallout would be bad, but maybe they’d get over it. Maybe her beauty and sweetness would override their preconception. And if not, well, too damn bad. He would find a way to bring her home at will. And he would introduce her to his friends.
But Zell would not give him the time of day. It was making him crazy, his desire to be with her. So obsessed that on impulse one Friday evening in late February, he drove to the motel. He pulled his Audi into the parking space fronting Room 133. He wondered then if her parents had a car, or if no one was home. He stared into yellow light behind the pulled curtains at the window. If Zell was in there, he was going to see her.
He cut the engine and stepped from the car. He tugged at his shirt, stuffed it tighter into his pants and grabbed his jacket. He pulled his shoulders back. He knocked at Room 133.
A big white man with a thick, dark beard and drooping eyes, the skin pinkish at the lower rims, opened the door.
“Yeah?” he inquired.
“My name is Sterling Anderson,” he replied, “is Hazel home?”
The man raked his gaze over Sterling from top to bottom. Sterling brought his hands together to keep from visibly squirming.
“Who are you, boy?”
“I go to school with Hazel. We’re friends.”
The man looked like he couldn’t make up his mind, whether to open the door wider or close it on the stranger wearing pressed khakis and a collared shirt under a wool jacket. Stupid clothes to wear here, Sterling now realized uncomfortably.
“Sir, I just want to say hello. You must be Hazel’s father.” Sterling grabbed the door’s edge with one hand and thrust the other forward to connect in a handshake.
“Zell, you got company,” the man called loudly, suddenly making up his mind, swiping loosely at Sterling’s hand. Hazel appeared quickly, wearing a black t-shirt and familiar jeans worn at the knees. She did not shut the door as he feared she might. Instead she walked outside, pulling him with her and shut the door behind.
It was dark and cold as they walked past the front of the motel. Sterling took off his jacket and wrapped it over her shoulders.
“I’m okay,” she said pushing it away. “Why did you come here? When you know how it is.”
“Because I care about you,” he said. “I’ve been wrong not to take you to my house. I don’t blame you for being upset with me.” He hoped he sounded convincing because he knew full well his parents would not accept Zell, and he didn’t want to picture the consequences. He pushed the thought away for another time. “It’s wrong for me not to visit where you live,” he added. She shook her head.
A strong gust swept across the parking lot. Zell shivered in her short-sleeved t-shirt. Sterling was cold, too. “Can we go inside?” he asked. Mercifully, she opened the door, and he followed.
Wedged into the back corner, her father lounged in a tired plaid club chair. He stared at the television, a cooler beside him. Sterling wondered how the man could see the screen from that angle since the television faced straight from the front wall toward two beds. A girl, obviously Hazel’s sister Chloe, sat cross-legged on one of them, also peering at the television.
“Hello sir,” Sterling called tentatively, not sure how to address Zell’s father. His first name, Bradley as he felt inclined, or Mr. Smalls as he’d been taught was proper.
“Sit down. Make yourself at home.” Sterling was certain he heard the man belch.
“Thank you, Mr. Smalls,” Sterling said, choosing the latter option. The man harrumphed at Sterling who looked around for a place to sit other than the beds. Two straight chairs flanked a little table near the bathroom, but Hazel sat on the same bed as her sister, so he followed suit.
“Where’s your mother?” Sterling asked Zell.
“She’s cleaning rooms here,” Chloe answered for her. “Who are you?”
“I’m a friend of your sister’s. Sterling. What are you watching?”
“Once Upon a Time.”
“Yeah? What’s it about?”
“Fairytale characters in real life. It just came on.”
“Okay, then,” Sterling said, unable to think of how to continue. He turned to Zell. “Your mama is working late.”
“She gets paid by the number of rooms,” Zell answered. “She’ll be home soon. I clean with her on Saturdays and Sundays. She finishes earlier then.”
“She’d better bring some damn dinner,” Mr. Smalls interrupted. There was no talking without being overheard in this small space. Sterling turned toward the man, saw him open the cooler, throw in his empty can and pull out another. Mr. Smalls saw him watching. “You want one?”
“Sure, if you have one to spare.” He tossed a cold can onto the bed. Sterling popped the top, relieved to have something to do.
Within minutes, Zell’s mother—he knew her name to be Matilda—entered the room, pulling off the hood of her sweatshirt to expose a crimson scarf wrapped tightly around her head, wiry whorls of hair poking out from the edges. She looked hardly older than Zell—delicate bones like her daughter’s, over darker copper skin. “’Bout time,” Mr. Smalls said, his voice gruff.
Matilda, Mrs. Smalls, rather, Sterling corrected his thought, stopped abruptly on seeing a stranger sitting on the bed with her daughter.
Sterling scrambled up to introduce himself. She accepted his proffered hand.
“This is my friend, Mama,” Zell said.
“Hello,” her mother said, glancing back at Zell’s father in his chair. It was obvious her mother also knew nothing about him.
“Where’s dinner?”Mr. Smalls asked. His wife shrugged.
Zell’s father rose from the chair, tottered as he secured his footing.
“I’m starving,” he said coming toward them, stopping in front of his wife. He shoved her on the shoulder. Sterling stepped back to clear space. His calves bumped the side of the bed. He looked at Zell whose eyes looked suddenly scared.
“You could get off your butt and walk out yourself to McDonalds,” she answered. “Can you be nice? There’s company.”
“Be nice, there’s company,” he mocked her. “Company likes to eat, too.”
“I have a car. I can run to McDonalds right now if you’d like,” Sterling offered.
Mr. Smalls didn’t so much as glance at him. His head kind of rolled from side to side close to Mrs. Smalls’ face. Sterling realized the man was totally sloshed. It hadn’t been so noticeable when he was in the chair. Again, he shoved his wife. “Dad, no,” Zell commanded. Briefly, he looked toward his daughter, glared at her. She looked down.
“Let up, Bradley. I’m tired,” his wife’s tone was brave and steely.
“Don’t provoke him, Mama, please,” Zell begged. “Not with . . . “
From the corner of his eye, Sterling caught Chloe bound from the bed into the bathroom before he heard the smack. He turned back to see Zell’s mother holding a hand to her cheek. With her other hand she clawed back, raking her nails across her husband’s arm.
It was impulse, not conscious bravery, that made Sterling step forward and attempt to push Zell’s father back.
“Don’t,” he heard Zell scream before two heavy hands thrust him backward. No match for the large drunk man’s strength, Sterling lost his balance. His head hit hard on the concrete floor, covered only with a thin layer of old carpet. He twisted onto his side, unaware now of the battle above him. He knew only the throbbing in his skull.
He felt arms reach under him. He opened his eyes. It was Zell. With her help he rose and found the world spinning. He touched something wet behind his ear—blood trickling from somewhere his head had split. He saw Zell opening the door for him as she spoke, heard her voice shaking. “He isn’t always like this. Winter is harder when he can’t get out and doesn’t work.” Sterling staggered out, realizing once he hit the cold that he’d left his jacket.
In the Audi he pulled paper napkins from the glove compartment and stuck them onto the blood dribbling down his neck. He shook his head, trying to clear his vision. There was a ringing in his ears, and it took a moment to realize it was his phone, left on the seat beside him. He glanced at the number on the screen, saw it was his mother—no doubt calling him home to dinner— back to the world he knew. Far from Zell, but some time back Sterling had made up his mind. He looked toward Room 133. He let the phone keep ringing until it stopped.
[Check out Susan Zurenda’s back porch advice here]