This story is included in the collection, Magic Rats, available on Kindle.
One Way is of the first stories I wrote for the kids at the youth center where I worked in 1988. It was also the very first story I sold -- to ZYZZYVA Magazine in 1988 -- and later became part of my first published book, Rats In The Trees, 1990. Robby, Donny, and other characters from this story, as well as characters from Rats, appear again in my novel, Skeleton Key, 2007. One Way was also published in The Barcelona Review.
© 1988 Jess Mowry
Robby pushed open the bus station doors, getting pushed and shoved by the people behind him. He carried his skateboard under an arm, and a big paper bag in one hand. At least the air was cool inside, though reeking of city and diesel smoke. He smelled cheeseburgers from the station cafe, and his empty stomach growled, but five and change wouldn't go far. He looked down at his roll of belly chub that peeked from under his sweaty T-shirt and jiggled a bit as he walked: maybe he could live off his fat awhile like bears on Animal Planet?
He spotted a whole cigarette on the floor and snagged it fast before somebody else did. Matches were always a problem to score when you were thirteen and looked eleven; but he'd boosted a Bic from the zoo-keeper's desk and it was still almost full.
He got out of the way of the pushy people and walked to a black plastic TV chair, which was just like the ones in the Fresno station. He slid behind the little screen, slipped the cigarette between his lips and scowled at his button-nosed face in the glass. He looked like a panther cub trying to snarl. His shirt was too small and its sleeves had shrunk, baring his arms almost up to the shoulders, but he didn't have any muscle to show and his chest was as bobby and soft as a baby's. A rag was tied around one upper arm, about where a bicep should have been, its grimy whiteness showing stark against his midnight skin.
He brushed back his busy hair, then pulled the lighter out of his pocket. He wondered if they had The Thundercats here, but it wasn't worth risking a quarter to check. The cigarette was a pussy light, so he broke off the filter before lighting up. The smoke eased his hunger a little, but that cleaning stuff they used on the floor was giving him a headache.
A security guard materialized as if beaming down from the planet of shit. He was bored and white in a brown uniform that might have come from the Salvation Army.
"You got a ticket... boy?" he demanded.
Robby sighed and dug it out. The guard examined it carefully as if it was Robby's license to live.
"One way," said the guard as if scoring a point. He jerked a thumb at a clock on the wall. "Next bus leaves at seven-twenty. I'd hate to see you miss it. ...And put in a quarter or sit somewhere else."
Wannabe pig! came to Robby's mind, but it didn't seem worth the trouble to say it. Besides, he needed to piss. He took a long hit off the cigarette and blew out a leisurely cloud of smoke. Then he slipped from the chair and walked THE WALK to the bathroom entrance while letting his jeans slip low on his butt. He wasn't wearing any shorts so the meaning should have been obvious.
A tall skinny black kid stood by the door and made Robby think of a jackal. "Blunts," he murmured expectantly, as if knowing what Robby's problem was.
"Just say no to drugs," said Robby. "Even if they don't listen." That got Robby a curse and a shove; but he only smiled, hearing the cop-shoes coming over, squeaking their way across the floor.
"Get out!" growled the guard to the jackal-boy, finally performing a useful function.
"Later," the kid replied, while giving Robby a glare.
The bathroom was all shiny tile under ugly greenish fluorescent lights. It smelled like piss and pine disinfectant, both of which burned Robby's eyes. An old white guy, maybe forty, was leaning against the line of sinks. He offered Robby a too-friendly smile just like his twin back in Fresno.
Perv! thought Robby. Anybody who hung where it smelled this bad had to be more than a little twisted. He saw the long trough and the man watching him. He hated those things, out in the open and always too high. How could anyone take a piss when trying to stand on their toes? Naturally, all the stalls wanted money, except for the one with somebody in it. It was stupid to pay a dime to piss: he should have used the one on the bus; he had to start thinking of stuff like that -- survival skills -- but at least he could lock the door.
He fed the box a dime and went in. His jeans were only halfway buttoned, giving his belly the freedom it needed, and he simply slid them off his hips without unbuttoning any more. He made a lot of water-noise for no particular reason, then flipped his cigarette into the toilet and used his foot to flush it away. Then he lay his skateboard across the seat and sat down in his ten cents of safety.
Should he go on to San Francisco? How long would that take? It would likely be dark when he got there -- too late to see the ocean today -- and without a ticket they’d run him out if he tried to sleep in the station. He'd slept on the street a few times, when his parents were fighting or when he was drunk. He could always find a place...
Somebody tapped on the door. "Hi, little guy. Are you busy in there?"
Robby looked down, seeing a pair of K Swiss shoes showing under the door. He'd never let anyone touch him before, but his homey had, in Rotting Park, and had gotten twenty dollars. He'd said it was creepy, though not really bad, but to get the money first.
Robby sat and considered; a Jackson would be cool to have, and he could buy a cheeseburger. "Yeah," he said, stalling for time and wondering what he'd have to do. Then he had an inspiration: "You can watch for twenty."
The man sounded like he had hurt feelings. "Hey, little guy, I think you're cute."
Robby yelled in sudden fury, "I ain't cute, you dog-suckin' pervert!"
The ugly white shoes didn't move.
"Stick your head under that door," added Robby, "an' I bust it to hell with my board!"
The shoes went away.
* * *
The evening air was stale and hot as Robby came out on the sidewalk. His ticket was good for tomorrow, and he'd decided to stay here tonight... wherever the hell "here" might be. It was best to find a crib before dark, and there might be an ocean in Oakland, too.
A black kid rolled by on a beat-up old board. He and Robby ignored each other but checked-out planks as he passed. Robby's was cooler and both of them knew it. The kid wore urban camouflage pants, which rode even lower than Robby's jeans, and his T-shirt was tied around his head like one of those Foreign Legion hats. Robby pulled off his own shirt to copy the local style. His jeans didn't need much adjusting, and another half-inch would have gotten him busted.
Jackal-boy was on the corner trying to sell to passing cars -- not an especially cool thing to do -- which showed how desperate for money he was, no doubt getting high on his own supply. Robby quickly decked his board and rolled in the other direction. It didn't seem to matter which way, but he thought of the ocean again. His homey had said you could sleep on a beach.
His wheels clicked cracks and the blocks rolled by. Robby stayed on a straight line to somewhere. The sidewalks were crowded at first, and he was too busy dodging people to pay much attention to where he was going. The concrete here was old and rough. The curbs were different too; but there was a lot of skateboard paint where other kids had blown their ollies.
The sun grew orange in distant fog as it slowly sank in the western sky. The air began to get cooler, and Robby stopped sweating so much. Although he'd been chubby all his life, he hadn't been able to skate for a month -- mostly locked in his cage -- and had put on a little more weight. The food hadn't been very good in the zoo, mostly cheap shit like beans and rice, but there hadn't been anything else to do, and by stuffing himself he could sleep.
He passed another boy on a board, a little black dude on an old cruiser plank who was also shirtless in low-riding jeans and showing six inches of snowy white shorts. The kid studied Robby as he rolled by, then smiled and flashed him two fingers of peace. There was still some brotherhood left in the world.
There were lots of little storefront cafes, and the smells of food were a torture. Robby tailed his board in front of a diner and thought about buying a burger, but saw a cigarette under a bench and picked it up instead. He fired the smoke as he rolled along, but it didn't seem to ease his hunger, and buzzed his head a little. He pinched it out halfway, and dropped it into his bag for later.
The streets were getting deserted; that quiet time between day and dark when working people were home having supper and night hunting things were just waking up. Shadows were stretching long and thin, alleys were turning to dangerous canyons and doorways becoming threatening caves. Robby rolled on for a few more blocks, then came to a stop and scoped around. The buildings were old and crumbling brick, the color of rust in the fading light. There were no more stores or restaurants, only a little corner market with massive bars on grimy windows plastered with ads for beer and malt. The other buildings were industrial shops, closed for the night and massively shuttered. The sidewalk was littered with garbage and trash, and a man lay drunk or dead in a doorway. It was all so ugy, dirty and sad... and stupid because it made Robby homesick.
But then he smelled the ocean! He'd never smelled it before in his life, but he knew what it was anyway. He lifted his face and took a deep breath, then rolled in that new direction.
Battered trucks and junky cars were parked here and there at the curbs. Windows of buildings were heavily barred or covered with plywood and planks. He looked at the spray-painted tags on the walls; some were familiar but most were not, and a lot of the meanings were different than Fresno... the same words and signs, but arranged different ways.
He jumped a gutter, crossed a street, and slapped his board against the curb, tired and blowing his ollie. A cartoon tag of many colors faced him from a corner wall, cute but also menacing... a territory mark for sure. It was old, but no one had messed with it. Whatever that saber-tooth tiger-dog stood for, it seemed to rate respect.
He scanned around and felt uncertain: to go on would be entering somebody's ground. Of course, everywhere was somebody’s ground but this was getting specific. But the sea smell was strong and beckoned him on. He rounded a corner and there it was! He tailed his board and stared. Tears filled his eyes but he fought them back.
There was no surf like he'd seen on TV. The water lay silent and darkly sullen. There wasn't a beach, only greasy black mud, rotted wharf pilings and slimy green rocks. Dim and gray in the gathering fog, was a ancient wharf that was half-collapsed and a big old warehouse with broken windows.
He walked to a rusty chain-link fence, where a weathered sign warned, DANGER KEEP OUT. The mesh was peeled away from a post, and he crawled underneath to go out on the wharf. The planks were rotten and missing in places, and weeds grew tall in the cracks. He walked to the end and sat down, dangling his legs and looking between them at oily water where garbage floated. A mossy old tire drifted past. He pulled the cigarette out of his bag. Tears welled up in his eyes again, but he told himself it was only the smoke.
He should have figured it would be like this. The ocean was just as worn-out and trashed as everything else in the whole shitty world! Things were no different anywhere, and if there were sandy white beaches for real, it would be like a mall with security guards to keep out kids like him. This was all the ocean he was going to get!
* * *
The sun had set somewhere in the fog, but a blood-red gash like an open wound still lingered in the western sky. Robby sat alone in the dark. He smoked until the butt burned his fingers, then let it drop into the water. Its hiss was small as it died. The thickening mist was wet and cold, and he put his shirt back on. He wished he had a forty so he could drink until he passed out and wouldn't feel anything more. Then he pulled up his knees, lay his face against them, and cried for no logical reason.
A wharf plank creaked in the darkness, but Robby didn't look around. What the hell did it matter? Maybe it was the Tiger-Dogs, but he didn't give a shit. Let them come and beat him up. Maybe they'd even kill him. And maybe that would be the best thing: there was nowhere to go from here.
That was funny, even now. Robby turned around to see the fattest kid in the world! The boy didn't look any older than him, but he must have weighed at least three times more. His T-shirt was almost as black as he was, and clung to the rolly balloons of his chest as if it was spray-painted on. His belly was completely bare and hung halfway to his knees, and he seemed to cover more of his jeans than they could cover him. "You ain't Whitey," said the kid.
"Or duh!" answered Robby. Even as awesomely fat as he was the kid might have been able to kick his ass -- a lot of fat dudes were pretty strong -- but he'd have to catch him first.
That didn't seem to bother the kid. He smiled a little as if at a joke. "You ain't from here."
"No shit," said Robby.
"So, where?" asked the kid.
"So, nothin'!" said Robby, trying to snarl. "I'm Panthro from Third-Earth, fool!"
The fat kid only smiled again, and that bothered Robby a little. Nobody smiled when you dissed them, unless they knew something you didn't.
"I like The Thundercats too," said the kid. "But, you startin' to sound like Mum-Ra to me. Wanna get put on your back?"
"By you?" snorted Robby. "I doubt!"
The fat kid grinned with big white teeth, brightly stark in his ebony face. "You be in Animal-Land, boy. Lion-o ain't gonna save your ass."
The dude had a point, but Robby didn't care. "Who you callin' boy... boy?"
The fat kid only grinned wider and put on a Buckwheat drawl. "Ah calls 'em as ah sees 'em, Spanky." Then he moved a lot faster than it looked like he could, snagging Robby's ride.
Robby jumped up, clenching his fists, but the kid was only checking the board. Robby wasn't sure what to do, the dude wasn’t any taller than him, but how could you fight a kid that fat? Like, what could you hit that would hurt him? His belly and middle were so big around that it would be hard to swing at his face. And anywhere else would only bounce off. His navel could swallow Robby's whole fist and, despite the present situation that made a funny picture.
"Cool," said the fat boy. "Whitey gots the exact same deck. Like, a parallel universe, huh?" He checked the downside and pointed to a sticker. "Skully Brothers. I seen their ad in a magazine. They in... um..."
"Fresno," said Robby, unclenching his fists.
"Yeah." The fat kid handed back the board, and Robby studied him. The dude was almost too fat to walk but Robby asked anyhow: "You ride?"
"A little. But it's hard."
"Yeah," said Robby. "I guess it would be, bein' so... big."
The fat kid laughed and slapped his belly, which wobbled in waves like an earthquake in Jell-O. "Just say fat, it save you time. An', it's hard on the boards, what I sayin'."
"Oh. Yeah," said Robby. "Guess it would be."
The boy scanned Robby from top to bottom. "You sure look a lot like Whitey."
"The hell could I look like a whitey?"
"Whitey's black, an' kinda cute."
"I ain't cute, goddammit!"
The fat kid only laughed again. "Now you even sound like Whitey."
"Hey, I'm older than you think!"
"I think you about thirteen," said the dude. "But you startin' to sound more like three."
"...Oh." said Robby. "...Well... then why's he called whitey if he’s black?"
"'Cause, that's why. ...An', what's the rag on your arm for?"
"Your period!" snapped Robby.
"If them be somebody's colors, you better lose 'em now."
Robby thought for a moment. There was a door on the side of the warehouse, and the other -- Animals? -- were probably in there. For sure he was going to get his ass kicked as soon as they got bored.
"They nobody's colors," he finally sighed. "I cut my arm yesterday. I'm Robby. Carve that on my stone. Can I have a smoke before I die?"
"Want a blindfold, too?" The fat kid gave him another smile, then pulled a pack of Kools from a pocket, which wasn’t easy with all his fat. He carefully straightened two cigarettes and handed one to Robby. "Got a match? ...An' if you say, 'not since Superman died,’ I throw your ass in the water."
"I can swim," said Robby, pulling his Bic.
"You ain't supposed to eat fish from that water no more than two times a month. Think about it, man."
"Yuk!" said Robby as he fired the fat kid's cigarette.
"I'm Donny," said the dude. "Randers could give you a dirt-nap, if you really lookin' for one. But he probably just do you best moves for keeps an' score himself your board."
Robby didn't say anything; he'd lost another plank that way. He took a big hit off the Kool, then checked the warehouse doorway as Donny sat down on the edge of the wharf, more on his jeans than in them. Finally Robby joined him. They sat for a while in silence, just smoking and spitting in the water. Donny smelled a little like burgers -- big juicy ones with everything -- and Robby's stomach rumbled.
"Sound like a lion," said Donny.
Donny chuckled. "Oughta hear mine when it's hungry. So, where's Fresno, man?"
"A long ways from here, that’s all I know."
"How'd you get here?"
"On a bus."
"I ran away. ...From nothin'." Robby blew smoke and spit in the water. "An' ended up in nowhere."
Donny blew a perfect smoke ring. "Even a nowhere be somebody's somewhere."
"Yeah. Guess it is. Sorry, man."
Donny shrugged. "Kevin don't gots a home no more. Not since his mom took to crack. He stay at my crib sometimes. Or with the other dudes."
"It's good when you got folk," said Robby.
"You got folk, then nowhere be somewhere wherever you are." "Is that tiger-dog your mark? For the Animals?”
"Yeah," said Donny. "I do 'em.”
"It's cool, man."
Robby glanced at the doorway again. He knew better than to ask how many Animals there were... or where they were.
"So, where you cribbin' tonight?" asked Donny.
Robby shrugged. "Nowhere, I guess."
Donny stretched, his shirt riding up so it looked like a bra containing enormous water-balloons. "I’ll take you somewhere. ...An', by the way, I'm alone."
"Oh. Ain't you scared?"
"Of you? I doubt."
"How you know I ain't packin'?"
"Oh, gimmie a break!"
"It 'cause I cute, huh?" demanded Robby.
"No, it 'cause you can't lie worth shit. Besides..." Again, Donny made a move, and Robby was suddenly facing a gun, its muzzle an inch from his nose.
"...Oh," said Robby. "That’s a Glock."
"Any little kid would know that."
"Can I see it?"
“You’re seein’ it now.”
End of excerpt. This story is included in the collection, Magic Rats, available on Kindle.