By Ellen Nimmo
The afternoon was warm, sticky with humidity. The air smelled like something between barbecue and a tire fire, and the hairs on the back of her neck were beaded with moisture, but Naomi didn’t notice. She had her eye on the prize: the junk yard three blocks over. They’d be back well before Ms. Thornton’s Buick was back in the driveway and, if they were lucky, they’d surprise Naomi’s dad with another gear, maybe the rarer herringbone style, for his growing collection before bedtime. Naomi knew stealing was wrong, only, was it still so bad if you were doing it to make someone smile? She wondered. Her dad still smiled, every morning before he left for work and every evening when he came home looking tired and dirty from hours out at the farm, but she could tell there was something different behind his broad grin, something that, if it had been a sound, would have sounded like the cooing of the mourning dove, sad and sweet at the same time.
The dog, Winston, knew where they were headed and took off in the direction of the yard. Part hound, part shepherd, Winston had a coat of speckled black, grey and tan, which Naomi was supposed to keep free from briers and matted messes. His ears gently bouncing as he trotted out front – sniffing for delicacies of dried up worms, leathery squirrel carcasses, chicken wing bones and McDonald’s happy meals that had been flung out car windows by conceivably less than happy kids. “Winst, this way –.” Naomi gave a slight motion with her hand towards an alleyway which cut through a row of houses. Grown up with weeds, honeysuckle and thorny blackberry bushes, this route would allow them to travel easily, sheltered from eyes, the neighborly questions and concerns. Naomi didn’t need Mrs. Linen making a quick phone call to “double check” with her dad about every move she made. Besides, she knew these neighborhood streets like she knew her mother’s looks. Some streets you can wander and spend hours on, others are better left alone.
Winston darted past her down the alley, but came to a hasty stop at a compost pile, last night’s fresh additions on top, ripe for sniffing. Finding nothing so tasty as a crispy sidewalk-worm, the dog moved along dashing his way to a mixed mound of old dead leaves and fresh tree trimmings: someone’s yard work had made it over the fence to finish becoming soil. She could tell by the old dog’s tail, how it wagged with excitement, there was probably a field mouse hiding between the sticks, quivering. “Leave it,” Naomi commanded, no time for distractions.
They came out the other side of the alley and, between a large clump of white and pink peonies, connected with a footpath that led through someone’s backyard and over a little hill. At the bottom of the hill was a line of orange safety fencing and beyond that – the yard.
Squeezing herself between a gap in the tin fencing Naomi was alert. She surveyed the yard. Empty bottles and cans inside scattered peaks of fescue, the occasional thistle patch growing tall amidst an otherwise dusty lot, piles of smashed up cars and a row of barely recognizable pay phones – their days come and long gone. Looking down she saw a streak of shimmering red; she’d cut her leg on the edge of the metal fencing. She stared for a moment, lost in the rush of seeing her own blood. She snapped back, pulling the metal to widen the gap so Winston could get in too. He’d bark otherwise, unwilling to let the adventure go on without him. Naomi took a moment to look around. Aside from wanting to hunt for loose gears and other odds and ends, she thought the boys might be here. She was curious, and cautious. You wouldn’t exactly call them dangerous, but Naomi would prefer to see them first rather than the other way around. Her eyes settled on the broken door of a large, yellow bus. There were holes in many of its windows and it was rusting out in places; the hood was ajar and all four tires were flat, making it look like some other-worldly, beached whale. A decaying heap that once brimmed with life. The boys sometimes hid out there and Naomi held her breath as she watched, listening for any stir of movement. Deciding at last the coast was clear, she motioned to Winston (who had been busy peeing on tires and peeking under rusting cars hoping to spook out a rabbit). Let’s go check by the stacks of winches and mufflers for anything new.
There was something captivating about seeing all the used up and corroding old machines in neat little rows. Organized chaos. The words came to Naomi’s mind. Is that what her father had meant when he tried to describe his years overseas before she was born? The language barrier. The rows of tattered tents. Procedure and protocol built for another time and place.
Suddenly, Naomi felt a sting of heat hit her right shoulder. Then her back. When she saw another rock fly past nearly hitting her head, she ducked behind a car, one of the old classics nearly rusted out. OUCH! She saw blood on her leg from where the fence had cut her. “Y’all will feel bad when you see what you did. . . I’m bleedin!”
A few months back she had surprised the boys (there were three) inside the yellow bus, plotting who knows what, and after cornering her, teasing and testing her, they decided she would be “allowed” to play with them. For a while it felt kind of fun. Like being part of a secret club, both inclusion and exclusion part of the pleasure. But then, as the weeks went by, Naomi got bored of being the sanctioned snack-bringer, bearing the brunt of the friendly “banter” they loved so dearly. No thanks. Plenty to do on my own anyhow. She stopped joining them for their scheduled after lunch “meetings” and things hadn’t quite been the same since. Two weeks ago they had chased her all the way down Ashland Ave, hurling names and sticks at her until she rounded the Baptist Church on the corner.
Winston? Oh. The dog was right beside her, his panting grin a misleading comfort.
“Sanctuary! Oooh, help me, sanctuary! That bit again?” – The oldest one mocked her. “Yeah. She’s always hiding. Can’t stand to come out and show her face. Reckon she’s too scared. Is daddy’s wittle girl affwraaaid?” Casually flinging rocks to thump against the side of the car, the boys kept on. “Her own mama couldn’t stand to stay stuck in the house with her. Had to up and leave. Can’t blame her, her man ain’t even a real American.” A rock shot underneath the car and between the bend of Naomi’s left leg, smacking to a halt after hitting her right shoe. The words stung, but as one hot tear trolled down Naomi’s tan cheek, she knew what she would do. Swallowing the lump in her throat she stood up and walked straight towards the boys, who scattered like little black and red beetles underneath cedar needles that collected on the porch her mother used to sweep away.
God knows why those boys ran, but Naomi sure didn’t, nor did she want to stick around and find out. Her walk turned into a run and when she hit the tin wall she and Winston slipped through in one clean motion. Outside the yard, the glow of afternoon began to turn cloudy, and a greenish hue settled over everything. Thunder rumbled low in the distance. Checking her leg, Naomi wiped at the sticky, drying blood with dirt-smudged fingers and thought it almost beautiful.
Let’s go, Winst.
The two took off down the street, towards home. Naomi’s heartbeat racing still.
To read part one of this fictional “Story Series” click here.