It’s funny what miles of push mowing will do to your thoughts. Where I’m the star of my daydreams, ripping off my warm-ups, running layup drills, a sea of Woodberry maroon and silver in the stands as I crack the starting lineup, maybe getting all-conference a few years down the road. I’m the talk of the town, making the evening news, wiping my forehead and stressing the results of hard work and discipline.
I’m off in my own glory when I hit a stump with the mower and get pulled back into the summer heat.
In reality, my board meeting with the school is weeks away. I have no idea what to expect. Ideally, I would explain why I decked Mr. Meyers and the powers-that-be would believe me and he’d get the justice he’s due. Again with the glory. Maybe I’d be deemed a hero.
Right. Not gonna happen.
We break for lunch and I hustle to the car, I drive up East Ridge, where all the stores and fast food places line both sides. Traffic isn’t bad, and I’m back in ten with some Subway, which isn’t great but I’m too hungry to care. I find Molly Martinez under an oak tree. I hand her a double chocolate cookie, her favorite.
“Thanks,” she says quietly.
I sit down and unwrap my meatball sub, tearing into a bite, talking through a mouthful of food. “So, I spoke with my mom. About you guys crashing with us? Like I said, we have plenty of room. She thinks it’s a great idea.”
True story. At the restaurant, Mom leaped from her seat when I told her, nearly knocking over her salad. She’d clasped her hands, nearly in tears. Gary, her wannabe boyfriend looked somewhat skittish about the idea and I could tell he was distancing himself from legal implications. Mom spent the rest of the weekend she’d spent painting and nesting–as she’d called it–over the moon about having Molly’s two little sisters running around in the house.
The cookie falls to her lap. She looks at me and cocks her head, like she’s trying to figure me out. “That again? Nat, why are you…” she takes a breath. “I mean, is this like something for your college application?”
“Wait, I’m sorry. What?”
She sits up straight and suddenly she’s bigger than I ever realized. Her eyes focus and I feel like a fool for all the times I misjudged her, which was pretty much all the time until now. She blows a loose strand of hair from her face, her hands flapping around her lap. “Seriously, you punched a teacher who was assaulting the undocumented girl. Then you got her a job. Now, you want to take in her family, like a box of puppies.”
I shake my head, trying to gather my thoughts. Then deflect with a joke. “Molly. Stop. Talk in first person.”
She sets her face straight ahead, closes her eyes. I run a hand through my hair that’s getting long and starting to curl. “Yeah, Molly. That right, this is all for my college application. Except, I’m probably not going to make it back to high school, so…”
Her hand flies to her chest. “And that’s my fault, right?”
I exhale. We take a moment to reset, maybe to wonder why we’ve been thrown in this thing together. I don’t tell her that we owe property tax on the house. That I stalk my dad’s new family through his wife’s blog. I don’t tell her that I’m so afraid of the silence in my house that I would invite anyone to live there. So why not them?
“Molly, we have more than 3,500 square feet,”
She turns to me. Her cookie still untouched. “Kind of a weird time to start bragging, isn’t it?”
“My point is that we have more than enough room.”
I watch as Molly sits back, her knees pulled up and her head against the tree, unusually pensive, even for Molly. I do what I always do, just keep talking. “I mean, you guys would have to put up with a lot. She stays up late, throws these, writer parties because she thinks she’s a writer. She’s delusional, but she’s harmless. I take another bite, chew, wipe my chin and say, “So, I mean, if you guys get tired of living across the street from Charles Manson, then, well…there’s two bedrooms downstairs, however you’d want to work that out with the little people.”
Molly closes her eyes, a near smile on her face as I finish the first half of my sub and pick up the other half.
“I love it here,” she says quietly. “This campus.”
I’m not sure if she heard what I just said. Why I care so much. But the Woodberry campus is a nice place to dream.
“Me too,” I say, and we stare out at the grounds, the smell of fresh cut grass, mulch, a tinge of exhaust in the air. The wrought iron, the ivy, the stone buildings. We take it in, the two landscapers, and I’m thinking about opportunities and consequences and all that bullshit when Molly takes a deep breath, turns her head to me, and starts talking.
“In fifth grade, we were studying the founding fathers and our class announced that we would take a field trip and go see all the monuments in Washington, D.C.”
A group of students tromp across the grounds, all smiles and confidence. Our mowers sit near us, their carefree laughter separating them from us. The help from the students. Molly doesn’t seem to notice. She blinks her eyes, sets them out to the grounds, lost in the thought. “I remember, I was so excited. I ran home, burst in the house. I told Mom I needed my social security number. Her face went cold. She was pregnant with Ana and my dad was out of town working. I asked if she was okay, if she needed anything. She told me to sit down.”
She’s not crying but her jaw is set. She looks down but then forces her chin back up, to the sun. “She said I didn’t have a social security number. That I wouldn’t be going to this field trip. That it was better that I knew, that I was lucky to be in school. Sorry baby, this is how it is and there is no way to change it.”
It’s nearly ninety degrees out and I’m covered in goosebumps. Molly hugs her legs, her long black hair falling down her arms. Field trips. Laughing, cutting up, the teachers telling us to be quiet. You couldn’t tell us anything. Another round of laughter from the students. That was us.
She bites her lip, nods. “I have no choices, Nat. I have no voice. Do you understand that? I didn’t know that when I was little, I thought I was like my classmates. We’d been in school together since I could remember. I had to learn my limitations, just like history or math. I had to learn that I couldn’t do certain things.” She throws her hands towards the students. “I’m still learning, like that I have no way to go to college.”
“Molly. You’re like the smartest person in school.”
“We’re getting evicted,” she says, ducking her head, trying to hide her eyes. Her voice cracks. “My mom says we can pay you.”
I slide closer to her, realizing that while Mom was celebrating, Molly was having an entirely different sort of conversation. That like me, Molly daydreams, too. She dreams of going to college. Only there are no cheering fans, only legitimacy.
I reach for her hand. “Molly, no, no way. It’s fine. You guys can come tonight, okay?”
She nods, then looks up and stiffens. Virgil approaches. He stops, seeing us. Molly is wiping her face.
“Hey Virg, we’re going to need to cut out early, okay?”
He does the big breath sigh. He’s dripping with sweat even though Molly and I have done all the push mowing. “What? Both of you?”
I nod. He eyes us over, then cocks his head at me and I know what he’s thinking.
“What’s going on?” he says,
“I need to help Molly with some personal business.”
He looks us over, shakes his head. “Knew this would happen.”
Oh God, no. “No, Virgil, it’s…”
Molly and I move away from each other. Molly quickly wipes her eyes before she looks at him, her face blank, and says, “I’m really sorry about the time off recently.”
“It’s okay, I guess, just, I’m going to need you to be in early tomorrow. We’ve got that place over at Crestview.”
We both nod as Virgil stomps off and starts loading up the mowers. We jump up to help him, moving mowers and weed whackers and doing whatever it takes so that we don’t have to look at each other.