Outside of a Wendy’s parking lot, a man collects cans in a trash bag. His daughter is in a shopping cart playing with a doll.
The city of Phoenix hit a high of 117 degrees that afternoon and the people felt it. The heat followed them into their cars and into their psyche where it frazzled, fried and left them lethargic, limping over the crosswalks and crooked asphalt.
“I know, sweetie. Please, put some more sunscreen on.”
Clark Turner, the father, was black, and Michelle, the girl, was a bit lighter. The mother had left some years ago when Michelle was was very young and Clark had lost all contact with her.
Michelle helped her dad scour through the trash, looking for cans, bottles, scrap metal, electronics and other recyclables. This had recently become part of their daily routine as Clark went unemployed from one day to the next.
“Look! Will this work?”
The girl pulled out a milk carton she had found.
“No, no. I told you!..Michelle, we’re only looking for aluminum and other metals. Cardboard won’t work They won’t take it.”
Michelle pouted and threw back the carton.
By this time of day the Turner family had amassed a good forty pounds of aluminum, scrap metal, and other recyclables. They’d been working feverishly since before dawn and had hit all of their usual spots near their apartment behind the Filiberto’s. Clark decided it was time to take the bus down to the EZ Money recycling plant on the south side of town. He and his daughter walked toward the nearest bus stop.
“Daddy…Captain America is a good guy, right?”
“Okay. And so is Spider-Man, and Black Widow, and Rocket Raccoon?”
“Well could they be bad guys?”
“What do you mean?”
He looked into her eyes as he pushed her in the cart. They were big, bright and brown, just like her mother’s. Her hair was braided like she wanted; something he learned to do only just recently.
“Well…Why are they good guys?! How come the bad guys are so evil?
“I don’t know, dear…It’s just a movie. Some people think the world should be a certain way, I guess.”
“Do you think Captain America could be a bad guy?”
“Like, could…could something make him a bad guy? What makes guys bad guys?!”
“Honey, some men are just…Evil. They do bad things. Maybe they were raised wrong.”
“Like they didn’t have a mom and dad? Or maybe…Their brother stole something from them! And they’re really mad! And they want revenge!”
“Yeah, yeah… Or maybe they weren’t taught right from wrong.”
“But not us! We’re the good guys!”
There was always a spark. She was the wick, he was the wax.
“Yes…You and me, princess.”
They arrived at the valley metro stop and sat next to a Hispanic woman and a messy, disheveled white man. The woman was on her phone, talking loudly in Spanish. Clark thought it sounded like gossip. Clark thought all Spanish sounded like gossip. Michelle continued to play with her doll’s hair and talk to it and raise it up and lower it. The bus came and the folks got on, leaving the shopping cart behind them.
The Valley Metro was filled with the usual lot. In the far back was an older woman, Hispanic. She was equipped with a caddy full of cleaning supplies; windex, Pledge, a towel or two, a feather duster, etc. Her children were with their grandma while she was out working. In the middle right was a scraggly, sunburnt man who was talking to the vacant seat next to him. The conversation must have been thrilling, as the man occasionally burst into laughter and then got angry and then got quiet and listened. In the back right was an older black man who sat silently, listening to the music of his youth. In the middle left a disheveled, gray-haired woman clipped her toenails. To the right of her a young man scowled in disgust, on his way to his job at McDonald’s. Behind him was a young white man who worked at the local sandwich shop.
Clark nodded at the bus driver – fat, stout and stern – and carried his scavenged goods with him. The commander of the urban ship glanced at the bag of cans and then looked the other way toward the traffic. Clark and Michelle grabbed an open seat in the back left and sat there, awaiting their fate. The man from the bus stop sat next to them.
“Hi!” he smiled. He was swaying uncontrollably and his energy made the Turners tense.
“Hello,” Clark nodded and avoided eye contact. He clutched Michelle’s hand.
“Y’know,” said the man with missing teeth and a face like burnt chili, “I’ve lived in this city all my life. Really! And this heat just never gets better!” He shook his head. “Yeah…I was here back in the 70s and I hated it then! Had a good wife, then, too…Ah, but she left me. Ha!”
Clark sighed and nodded. The man continued.
“Yeah, I got fired from my last job, heh heh…they said I stole from them! But fuck ’em! If they hadn’t of treated me like I was some sort of cheat and paid me such shit then I wouldn’t have done what I did. No! Fuckin’ Jack in the Box…I was good to them! Really! Just one measly hamburger they were going to throw away, anyway…All of the regulars loved me! Called me “Pete” even though my name’s Peter…My name’s Peter, by the way.”
Clark begrudgingly shook Peter’s hand.
“Yeah, yeah…” Peter went on, “I was in the military! Army, to be exact. During the Gulf War. Now they’ve got all that DOMA and gay acceptance shit…Tell you what! When I was in the army, a faggot was a faggot! We all knew it! Shit…We’d laugh at him, call him a little cock-sucker like he was, we all knew it! Now we have to know it…None of that shit actually mattered! All that mattered was if he could shoot a .15 or how well he could handle his liquor. Then he’d go back home to his gay-boy and suck a dick like you couldn’t imagine. That shit was none of our business. Now it’s everyone’s business! I tell you, it’s Obama and it’s…-”
Clark looked at Michelle to make sure she had heard none of this. She had her headphones in and was using her father’s phone to look at educational videos on youtube. Little Einstein was teaching her the different parts of an insect and playing pre school music to keep her interested. The sunburnt man lightly tapped Clark with his hand as he went on about the Gulf War, shooting Muslims, his G.I. Bill and other happenings during that time.
Clark usually escaped to his phone during these moments, but Michelle was preoccupied. That was fine. That was better.
“Well I tell you one thing, at least they have their 72 virgins…God damn! What a life, eh? Seventy two of them? I don’t even get one in this life, really! Ha! Can you believe it?”
This sort of thing went on for a while, seemingly never stopping. Eventually the bus came to a halt and Pete rose and looked at Clark and the girl.
“Well, this is my stop,” said Pete. “It was nice meeting you. What was your name again?”
Pete walked out into the oven with a sort of limp that only veteran Phoenicians have.
A few stops later, Clark and Michelle had arrived near their destination. With the trash bag at their side, they headed south toward Buckeye with hopes of striking it rich. EZ Money had done them well in the past, and maybe Michelle could have a new hair brush; her current one was showing some wear after years of use.
Near the stop was a Seven Eleven.
“Are you hungry, Michelle?”
“Alright, we’ll stop in here.”
He sat the bag down near the door. Outside there was a man in short, gray Dickies with a black shirt and tattoos. He was acting erratic and jittery, constantly fumbling for missing items in his pockets. Clark looked at the man and noticed that his eyes weren’t the typical eyes of a tweaker. No, they were pretty and blue; not quite lost to the demons of boredom and poverty.
The father clutched his daughter’s hand while they walked through the aisles, perusing the snacks. Clark decided on a bag of Doritos and Michelle decided on gummy worms and a lemonade. They began waiting in line when the disheveled man from outside found his way to the cool, dirty interior of the gas station. There he jerked, with his beers and his keys and his backpack taking up much of the counter and floor space. Clark, holding on tight to Michelle, asked this man:
“You okay man?”
“…Huh?” the man replied, vacant and aloof. As if the question came from nowhere.
“I just wanna make sure you good…” the father went on. “Because I got my daughter right here and-”
“Yeah, yeah I’m fine! I just…Fuck!” He patted his shorts at every angle. “I just can’t find my phone,” he sighed. “Sorry sir! I didn’t, uh, mean to interrupt. Sorry! Sorry!”
He scurried off back to the aisles and the family man ordered his drinks from the clerk, who was shaking his head at the event.
“Yeah, two shots of the fireball, please,” Clark said.
The clerk grabbed him the alcohol and rang up the rest of his goods. Clark paid and got out of there and back to his trash bag. He quickly and discreetly shot back one of the hitters. Before he started the second one Michelle asked him
“Dad, can I try some?”
“You wouldn’t like it, Michelle.”
He couldn’t say it wasn’t for kids; she’d want it more.
“How do you know?!”
“Because it’s gross and spicy and…Ah, fine. Here…Give it a little taste”
He uncapped the fresh four ouncer and let her have a little sip. Her face puckered and she spat it to the ground.
“Euch! Ah! It burns! Why do you drink that stuff?!”
Clark smiled at her and told her to come along. She continued to hold her doll as they walked toward their paycheck.
The semi-drunkenness led Clark to thinking about his mother. She was a good woman, had raised him all his life. She was saddened by the fact that she couldn’t help look after Michelle, as she was a waitress at the local sports bar and worked long evening hours. Clark’s mom didn’t need help from a man and now Clark didn’t need help from a woman. The Turners were surviving folk.
They walked into the EZ Money recycling plant and around them were scraps, trash and all sorts of metals. Also around him were homeless men, husbandless women and the outlying hipster with no recycling can in his apartment complex. He stood in line behind them and Michelle began to speak
“What’s your favorite gummy worm?” she asked
“I don’t know they’re all the same…”
“Tell me! You must have one!”
“Alright…The blue and red ones.”
“I don’t know! I just always liked blue, I guess. And red.”
“Well here!” She handed him a blue and red one. He grabbed it and smiled.
The Turners walked up to the teller. She was an older Hispanic woman with rolls of fat concealing her chair and a voice like dry pebbles on a screen door.
“Hi, how are you?” she garbled.
Clark placed the bag of goodies down and asked to get an estimate. She obliged, took it to the back and came back with a total of fifty two dollars and twenty-seven cents.
“Fifty dollars?! Hell no! Two days ago, this much would have gotten me sixty!”
“We’re sorry sir. These things change on a daily basis and there’s not much we can do about it.”
“Fifty dollars?! You couldn’t buy a god damn loaf of bread to last a week with that! Fifty dollars?! Shit, I could take it down to “Crazy Soda Can” Luther on Van Buren and 7th and he’d pay me more than that! And he hasn’t got a damn thing!”
“Once again, sir, we apologize. It’s just the way things are.”
Clark tightened his jaw, lowered his voice and leaned in.
“Listen…Lady…I got a kid. She’s a sweet girl, really. Her mom don’t pay nothin’. I’ve been lookin’ for a job but it’s hard. You know how it is. It’s hard out there. Is there anything at all you can do?”
She took all this in, thought about it, then repeated what she had previously said.
Clark and Michelle walked out of there with fifty two dollars and some change and took the bus back home to the east side of town. It was dusk now. Phoenix was winding down and the heat was beginning to lose its oppressive grasp on its inhabitants. The city was still recovering from the intensity of the sun who had now finished his work for the day and began to retire behind the horizon. He departed with a salutary pinkish glow on the sky and the roads and the mountains; and for a brief time the city seemed to be a slice out of Mars – the kind of Mars you see in the movies. In the Palo Verde trees, the cicadas ceased their mating calls and began their rest after a hard day’s lovemaking. The citizens came out of their cool, air conditioned hideaways and went out and got drinks, drove to record stores, watched shows, went and got coffee, and loitered outside of their homes and trucks. Phoenix was less of a threat now than it had been just a couple hours before, and its inhabitants welcomed the semi-comfortability.
On the bus back to 24th st and Indian School, Michelle was alive with questions.
“Daddy, what is the sun?”
“A big ball of fire.”
“Really?! How does it get up there?!”
“Well it’s out in space, dear. It’s not nowhere near us.”
“Like, as far as antarctica?”
“Whoa! How many miles?”
“Honey I don’t know…Look it up. Google it”
“How much water would it take to put out the sun?”
“Like…A truck full?”
“Like…The whole world?”
“More. Probably a lot more.”
Michelle was amazed and contemplated the great gas in the sky. She took up her father’s phone, went to google and found out some more before she moved on to learning about caterpillars, Pokemon, Frozen, Minecraft and playing some flash games. In 2016, boredom is never an option with a five-year-old. Or even a twenty-five or thirty-five or forty-five-year-old.
The bus arrived near their apartment and Clark went to the Taco Bell where he had put in an application the day before. Unfortunately, they had told him, he could not be hired due to his criminal record. They wished him luck and sent him on his way.
The Turners went into the Filiberto’s by their place to buy their dinner. A kid’s bean burrito for the little one and a chicken burrito with rice and beans for the adult. They didn’t buy the drinks there because the prices were marked up to hell and besides, Clark wanted to get some booze at the QT across the street. They carried their dinner into the gas station. Clark went to the coolers and picked out a couple of Steel Reserves for himself and let Michelle pick out what she wanted – again, lemonade. At the counter was Yohanna – a big black woman from Ethiopia who loved people almost as much as people loved her. Everyone waited in her line, which would extend past all the aisles and almost down into the back entrance. The manager would give her the side eye to hint that she needs to hurry it up, but the customers wouldn’t have it; she made them feel important. There in that gas station she talked with her regulars about life in Ethiopia, her work, her schooling, their work, their schooling, all the while carrying the most heartwarming, exuberant smile any man or woman has ever seen. In these times the other workers would shout “I can help you over here, sir/mam!” and half of the line-folk would just wave and shake their heads. Half of those half didn’t even walk in with the intention of purchasing anything, so they’d just get a stick of gum when they got to the counter. The Turners walked up and Yohanna greeted them, beaming:
“Hi! I was just thinking about you guys!” Her accent was alluring and exotic.
“Is that right?” Clark responded.
“Yes! I wanted to tell you I’ll be going back to Ethiopia for a couple months to see my mother. I haven’t seen her in years and I miss her dearly…But I wanted to keep in touch! I want to send you photos! And videos! And messages! You MUST see what it’s like over there!”
“Yeah, yeah! That’d be great!”
They exchanged phone numbers and social media information. Yohanna leaned over, looked at Michelle and spoke in a sing song voice.
Michelle smiled and waved and showed Yohanna the doll she had been carrying.
“Oh! Is that a baby doll? Haha, I had one of those when I was about your age…Gosh, do you play house with your father here?” she gestured to Clark.
Michelle nodded and her dad replied,
“Yeah…She makes me her servant.”
Yohanna let out a deep, hearty laugh.
“And what kind of things do you make him do, Michelle?”
“Uhmm…I make him change the diapers! And do the dishes and clean under the cushions and dust the bookshelves. But I bathe the baby! And dance!”
“Oh you dance while your dad works? Is that right?”
Michelle nodded excessively. Clark grinned and rolled his eyes.
“Haha, alright, alright,” Yohanna said. “Is this going to be all for you two tonight?”
“Going lighter tonight, Clark? No Rare Reserve? Or rum?”
“No…Maybe this weekend.”
“Alright, then. You folks take care, thank you!”
The Turners left and headed toward their apartment; a semi-dilapidated affair that still managed to feel like home. The place wasn’t spotless. It had the cleanliness of a man who cared only somewhat and a daughter who didn’t know any better. There was dust in places, a fair amount of dirty dishes, a floor that hadn’t been vacuumed in a couple weeks, scattered beer bottles on tables and refrigerator tops, a couple lightbulbs out, a bathroom rife with hair, brushes, toothpaste, shaving cream, razor, shampoo, other toiletries. Overall, the place was pretty alright.
After eating their burritos, the older Turner wanted a nap and peace and quiet, and the younger Turner wanted nothing more than to play and have fun. Michelle insisted and begged and gave doughy eyes before Clark finally caved in and agreed to play time (only after he had rested for some time, of course). The girl was excited and ran off into their closet to dress up. Clark stared forward at the wall and drank one of his 40s right down, then began on the next one. He thought about the mother.
Michelle didn’t know where the mother had gone. Clark had told her that mommy, whose name was Celeste, had gone away, and that was the end of it, and to stop bringing it up. He hadn’t told her that mommy had met another man at the Valley Bar down the street and was enamored with him. He was a well off man – a stock exchanger or lawyer or software engineer or some other thing – and he had taken a liking to Celeste, too. A lot of men did. She was all breasts and thighs and her laugh was a bonfire in a man’s bosom. Her brown eyes hung on your every word, waiting for you to reveal the world to her, while still exuding a reserved, collected quality. She seemed to hold secrets – the kind of secrets that can never be taught by a parent or a schoolteacher – and men wanted those secrets as much as they wanted her body and her feminine radiance.
The two lovers saw more of each other. Then more of each other. Until one day, the man announced he’d be moving to San Diego to follow a job prospect, and he’d like her to come along. She didn’t tell him of the kid or the baby daddy – he knew nothing of it. With security and stability in her heart, she left to a new life in the Golden State. She changed her number, blocked Clark on all social media outlets – facebook, instagram, twitter – and never looked back.
She’s better off now, Clark thought. Then he finished his second 40 and was considering getting another one when his daughter walked back into the living room.
She had on a black dress with gold sparkles, black, children’s high heels, and her hair all up in a tight bun. Something was different about her face, too, but Clark couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Alright!” she shouted excitedly. “Come on! Just like we did before!”
Michelle grabbed the CD player and Aretha Franklin came out brazenly through the tiny tin speakers. It started with a rollicking piano lick, then quickly gave way to the rest of the song. The daughter grabbed her dad off of the couch and they began dancing together. Clark was smooth and slick, Michelle was ablaze with reckless abandon.
“YOU BETTER THINK!” Michelle belted.
“THINK!” Clark responded back.
“THINK ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE TRYIN’ TO DO TO ME! THINK!”
“LET YOUR MIND GO LET YOURSELF BE FREE”
The ritual went on and the dancing bodies were loosely thrown about the room. The music filled the air like a victorious national anthem after a successful war. There was not a single care in the world. There was not a single person who could take away such a moment. The song went on and Michelle shouted as loud as possible with no care for the pitch at all.
“FREEEDOOOM! FREEDOM! YEAH YEAH YEAH!”
This went on with Michael Jackson, George McCrae, Abba and even the Frozen soundtrack until Michelle’s bedtime came closer and she grew impossibly giggly. Clark put her to bed, kissed her on the forehead and wished her a goodnight. They slept well.