I watched one of those old movies the other day—you know, from when nobody wore masks. It was a little disturbing to see all those naked mouths, and sometimes it was tricky to tell what was going... [+]
Anthony and DeAndre stood in the snack line studying the menu. They'd stared at its sun-bleached images of ice cream and chips every day so far this school year. It was a ritual, matching their mood with the right snack.
Almost every head in line had straight hair - some gelled and parted, some uncombed, still, others styled to an exacting degree. That is, all but the hi-top fade on DeAndre, a style that often drew attention, and, as on this day, not all of it wanted.
"Hey LeBron!" A shout came from the back of the line.
Anthony and DeAndre recognized the voice. It was Ricky, an eighth-grade menace with a penchant for picking on kids who looked different.
"Yo, I hope you didn't full price for that haircut LeBron," he continued.
DeAndre shook his head and stared at the ground. Anthony looked around to see if anyone else had heard these taunts. Where's an adult when you need one? He started playing with playing with the coins in his pocket. Jesus please make him shut up.
"How many points did you score last night?" Louder this time and followed with a chuckle. Ricky was taking target practice now. One boy ahead in line turned his head slightly but that was it. Anthony gave up on the coins in his pocket and started scratching his head, then suddenly coughed, and finally stole a quick glance at DeAndre. His expression had clouded.
A wad of paper bounced off DeAndre's head and landed at his feet. Anthony pretended not to see it, checked his phone for no reason, and then sent a text to himself. He had no idea what he was doing.
DeAndre sighed and finally looked down at the wad of paper. "C'mon," he said to Anthony without looking at him. They walked out of the line and found a spot under some trees. Anthony grew impatient for the third-period bell. He checked his phone again - eight more minutes, an eternity. DeAndre finally broke the silence. "Don't worry about it, Anthony." It was the first and only acknowledgment – the victim consoling the bystander.
"Kids a pendejo," Anthony said. He heard the contrived outrage in his own voice, and knew DeAndre heard it too. The bell finally rang, but Anthony waited, not wanting to seem too eager to get out of there. "I'll see you after school," DeAndre said, hiking up his book bag. Anthony began to offer a customary fist bump, but DeAndre had already moved off.
Throughout the school day, Anthony hoped the discomfort from his cowardice would wane. Instead, it consumed him, colored his day. He replayed the moment in his mind, each time replacing his irresolution with conviction. In this drama he was a champion; his righteous words cowed Ricky. Before long, though, he found himself recounting, with new understanding, DeAndre's sigh, his drooping head.
The text came in from Sergio. Study hall today. It was code for their clutch of friends who would sometimes meet up after school. There was never any studying in this study hall. Rather, it served as their texting alibi should a parent grab one of their phones to see what foolishness had made them late getting home.
Study hall took place on a set of oversized sectional sofas that overlooked the stream. For the boys, it was a precious interlude between the demands of school and the rules of home. It had become their sanctuary that first year of middle school, a place to lie, confess, complain, brag, and try out new ideas. There were five of them, friends since first grade: Sergio, DeAndre, and Anthony, as well as Enrique and Rapha. On that day, the snack they shared came in a large Ziploc bag: gummi bears floating in syrup the color of blood.
Anthony was particularly grateful to find solace amongst friends, hoping he could find some way to explain himself to DeAndre. When he came to find his usual spot on the couch, Rapha was already there showing DeAndre a video on his phone. Anthony took a seat on the last-place milk crate. Like most days, the chatter cycled through sports, Fortnite, Instagram, and on occasion girls. Today the buzz in the hallways had been about the school closing. There was a virus going around. Anthony had wanted to talk about his failure as a friend, but he just asked for more gummi bears.
"I gotta run guys," DeAndre said. "It's Wednesday, and the tamale lady don't wait for no one." Everyone knew DeAndre's grandmother – his surrogate parent – loved fresh tamales. DeAndre bought six every Wednesday for her from the lady on the corner. Anthony usually walked home with him and bought one as well. Today, though, Anthony just sat on the couch, staring at the ants in the dirt. He mumbled a "See ya" to DeAndre.
Two weeks into the school closure, Anthony saw DeAndre in some Zoom classes. Or rather he saw the letter "D" since his camera was always off. He thought of sending some private chats to him, but by the time he worked up the nerve to reach out, the teachers had gotten wise to this function and disabled it. Pretty soon, DeAndre's "D" was not showing up in the Zoom classes anymore. Anthony finally decided to send a text, but DeAndre's burner phone was out of data. He tried calling. No minutes either.
DeAndre had moved to Palmdale to go live with his father. His grandmother had gotten sick. Sergio lived in the same building as DeAndre and had seen him move out the same day his grandmother had been taken by ambulance to a hospital. Sergio texted Anthony when he found out.
"Which hospital?" Anthony asked back, but Sergio had no idea.
Later that week, Anthony went over to DeAndre's now-vacant apartment and asked the manager if she knew where the grandmother had been taken. When she said she didn't know, he tried knocking on neighbors' doors, but no one knew. Finally, he just asked for her first and last name, and the man two doors down who played canasta with her on Friday nights at the Kingdom Hall said her name was Rita Mae Jackson.
"Kingdom Hall?" Anthony asked.
"It's the church for Jehovah Witnesses," said the man. "It's on Roscoe near Woodman." Anthony made the four-block walk there, but the sign on the door said it was closed indefinitely. He went home and found a list of hospitals in a ten-mile radius of DeAndre's apartment and called them all. On the fourth call, he found out she was at Mission Community.
He stopped there the next day after school. "Are you family?" asked the receptionist.
"No, but I want to give her something," Anthony said. He was wearing a bandana over his nose and mouth and felt ridiculous like he was robbing a hospital.
It was Wednesday, and Anthony had brought six tamales.
"No visitors and no gifts or food right now," said the receptionist. "I'm sorry."
"Wednesday is her tamale day," Anthony said. He usually just gave up when someone said "No," but he found himself pressing his case. "They're her favorite."
"We can't let anything come in here that might endanger the patients."
He considered bribing her with two of the tamales.
"What if someone in your kitchen made her tamales?" He knew there was no chance of this but felt he had to say something.
The receptionist put her hands in her lap. "Let me see what I can do," she said. She picked up her phone and punched some buttons. "Wait over there, please," the receptionist motioned to a set of chairs.
Minutes later, a woman in hospital scrubs appeared and told Anthony that Ms. Jackson had just come out of the ICU. The woman's eyes betrayed a world of death and dying, but she managed a smile when she heard Anthony's request. "I'll make sure she gets them. Just not tonight."
He started to give the nurse the tamales but then suddenly pulled them back, seized by one last thought. He considered writing a note asking Ms. Jackson to tell DeAndre that he was sorry. Just as quickly he knew this was wrong. The tamales were meant for Ms. Jackson, not as a pretext to make an apology. And he could hear DeAndre saying, "Don't get it twisted." He handed her the tamales, thanked her, and then watched her disappear behind the automatic doors.