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Neither Here nor There

stepside edit

 

“Papa Noel? No, we don’t have Papa Noel in my family. We have Santa Claus. Really. Won’t you come? It will be fun.”

 

Connie held the phone close to her ear, stretching out the coiled cord so it reached all the way to her parents’ waterbed. Tammy Lee sighed.

 

“But Mrs. Forrester said Mexican kids don’t have Santa Claus. You guys have Papa Noel.”

 

Connie traced her finger over the velour patchwork of the bed cover, following the grid of the seams dividing purple squares from red squares from golden squares. Her mother loved that bed cover, “Autumn Sunset,” bought just last weekend at the Midnight Madness sale at Sears, and Connie loved to feel its velour fuzziness on her skin as the waterbed gently gurgled under her.

 

“Look. I know the Mexican kids talked about Papa Noel and all. But, we’ve always had Santa. I don’t know. My mom told me she had Papa Noel back in Mexico, but we’ve only ever had Santa my whole life.”

 

Tammy Lee was quiet.

 

“Come on. It’ll be fun.”

 

Tammy Lee clicked her tongue. “I don’t know.”

 

Tammy Lee Waddell was the new girl in town this year and Connie had moved to the top of the popularity index at Garvey Junior High when Tammy Lee chose to sit with her at lunch that first day of school. They’d bonded over fashion, with Tammy Lee oohing over Connie’s fringed suede bag and Connie loving Tammy’s wooden-heeled Candies. Tammy showed Connie how to feather her hair and Connie was teaching Tammy to skateboard.

 

“Come on. My dad’s friends are all coming with their kids and everything. My dad’s gonna dress up like Santa and pass out presents and stuff. There’s gonna be all kinds of food, and – oh yeah – a pinata.”

 

It wasn’t working. Tammy Lee was playing around with the radio. Connie heard the jingle for K-BOSS, “the valley’s way to rock.”

 

“… Come on, Tammy. Hey – remember that guy? Henry? The one you saw working on my dad’s truck? He’s gonna be here.”

The radio clicked off.

 

Tammy Lee had thought Henry looked just like Vinnie Barbarino.

 

“Yeah? … Well, I could wear my new Chemin de Fers.”

 

The truck club met once a month, usually over in Tulare, but sometimes at one of the homes of the dads who lived in Lindsay. The San Joaquin Stepsides. They’d met at Connie’s house, the last weekend of summer, and the Chevy trucks parked up and down Hamlin Way, their paint waxed up like glittered candy. Connie loved helping her dad get the truck ready for a meeting. She shined the chrome on the fenders and, of course, the stepsides, making them sparkle like mirrors.

 

Tammy Lee had come over to skate just as Henry and his dad, the president of the truck club, chatted with Connie’s dad to make the final plans for their next club run – a drive up to Fresno for the big valley lowrider car show.

 

Connie’s dad drove a black truck. She’d wanted him to paint it candy apple red, but he kept it black. He’d made up for it, though, by taking it over to Tito’s paint shop in Porterville and having Tito hand paint flames in red, orange and yellow onto the sides, spilling out from the front grill. It was boss.

 

Tammy Lee said she wasn’t allowed to ride in it. It didn’t have seat belts.

 

Connie’s mom would have to pick up Tammy Lee. Her mom hated driving out to the ranch. The long drive through the orange grove leading up to their house always got her Grand Marquis muddy. By the time they pulled back into the driveway, a dozen trucks were already lined up on Hamlin Way, squeezed bumper-to-bumper all the way to the cul-de-sac. A group of men crowded around a green truck Connie’d never seen before, checking out the engine as they sipped on beer. It’s hood was popped up and the big V-8 purred like rolling thunder.

 

Tammy Lee stared at the men, her face frozen between the feathered sides of her sandy blonde hair.

 

“Come on. I bet Henry’s helping string up the pinata. Wanna check it out?”

 

“OK.” Tammy Lee walked up the sidewalk, her baby blue Chemin de Fers giving just a bit of curve to her 13-year-old hips.

 

The small house was packed with kids and moms. The truck club wives were crowded into the kitchen, pulling foil off casserole dishes of tamales, rice, nopale salad, and Jello molds. Little girls crowded the kitchen, too, organzing paper plates and napkins.

 

“Connie!” It was Natalie, Henry’s little sister. “You’re here!”

 

“Hey, Nats! Look at you! You lost your front teeth! Just in time for Christmas, too!”

 

The little girl started to sing, “All I want for Christmas…” when she spotted her mom in the living room, unpacking presents by the tree, and darted off with a “Bye!”

 

It was a late Indian summer day and a half-dozen of the dads were shooting pool in the open garage.

 

“Consuela, ven aqui,” Connie’s dad called out. “Get me a beer from the cooler, would ya?”

 

Connie turned and pulled a Bud from the ice and spun around to see Tammy Lee’s pale skin as white as the cue ball. “Hey, you OK?” Tammy Lee shrugged.  Connie reached back into the ice and pulled out a 7-Up. “Here. It’s good for your stomach.  … Come on, let’s go see if Henry and the guys are out back.”

 

Connie handed the beer to her dad and walked toward the back yard where they found Henry’s dad and a dozen boys testing out the pinata strung from the oak tree in the corner of the yard. Henry was up in the tree, straddling the branch, breaking off dry twigs that kept snagging the rope.

 

“Hey, holmes, man. Watch out up there,” Chuy, Connie’s uncle, called out to the teen. But Henry’s dad, Enrique, said to relax. “Calmate, man. He’s cool. Look at the little man, eh? You know he’s gonna be starter on varsity next year?”

 

“No shit? He’s really grown up quick, man.”

 

Connie never saw Henry that way. Yeah, he had good hair, just like Vinnie Barbarino, but skinny like him, too, and a goofball. But Tammy Lee thought he was cute and, wait, where’d she go?

 

Connie slipped back into the garage, no Tammy Lee in sight. Not in the kitchen or by the Christmas tree.

 

She went back out to the Marquis – maybe she’d forgotten something in the car?

 

“Hey, Consuela!”

 

“Yeah, Dad?”

 

“Connie – what’s up with your little friend, huh? I need to get into the bedroom to get my Santa costume on. I don’t know what she’s doing in there. But, I saw her sitting there on the bed and, well, maybe she doesn’t feel good. Go check, m’ija.”

 

Connie made her way through the crowd and down the hall.

 

As she turned into the room, Connie saw Tammy Lee sitting on the edge of the velour bedcover, the can of 7-Up set beside her. She was on the phone, slouched over with the feathers of her hair covering her face.

 

“Couldn’t someone come pick me up?” Connie heard her say. “No, not Tommy. Don’t send Tommy. … Because there’s a whole bunch of Mexicans here. The house is full of them. OK, send Dan. Dan’s good. Thanks, Mom. Bye.”

 

Tammy Lee looked up, tears on her cheeks as her blue eyes met Connie, who gasped as the can of 7-Up spilled over the velour.

 

“Tammy!”

 

“Oh, god. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

 

Connie grabbed a towel and mopped up the soda, already turning the velour fibers stiff.

 

“What’s wrong? What do you mean ‘there’s a bunch of Mexicans’?”

 

Tammy Lee kept looking down. “I’m sorry, Connie. I can’t. I, just, I don’t feel well. And, well, Tommy got in a fight with a bunch of Mexicans when we lived back in Fillmore and, well, he would freak out. I’m sorry. I gotta go.”

 

There was nothing more to say. Connie and Tammy walked out to the street, where Connie pulled down the tailgate on her dad’s stepside and sat down. Tammy stood silently, next to the shining truck until Dan, her oldest brother, pulled up in his mud-covered Ford.

 

“I… I’ll see you at school, alright?” Tammy said as she climbed into the cab.

 

“Yeah, sure. See ya.”

 

Connie sat on the tail gate, her skinny legs swinging crisscross back and forth.

 

“Hey, Connie!” It was Natalie, calling from the garage. “Aren’t you gonna come in? It’s time for Santa. Come on.”

 

“No, Nats,” Connie shouted back. “You all go on without me.”

 

“But, it’s Santa!”

 

“No,” Connie muttered. “No. it’s not. There’s no such thing.”

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