In the world of high school, the summer between junior and senior year is a three-month interval of massive, massive change. Also, it’s the first time I’ve ever suspected that I might sort of be flailing my way toward adulthood.
The first major change is the fact that I’ve been hanging out with my school-friends almost every day. Which has never happened before. Before, my School Life and my Real Life have always been distinctly separate—these two independent worlds that rumbled along next to each other, but rarely ever touched.
Now, Wit calls me all the time. We send each other long, rambling emails about society and relationships and God. We talk for hours, and on the weekends, I spend the night at Catherine’s, or go to the midnight cult-classic showing at the college movie theater.
Another thing that’s different is, I have a summer job—not the erratic, free-form job of helping my dad on remodels and construction sites, or a standing appointment to babysit my cousins, but a job like normal people have, where I have a work schedule and a pay-stub and sometimes have to actually talk to strangers.
The way the real job came about is another one of those reflections of how my general personality is becoming different or more proactive or less antisocial or something.
There is a terrible little bar up near my parents’ house, right above the reservoir. I mean, on an objective level, it is just pretty awful, but working there is sort of a local rite of passage. All the neighborhood boys have been dishwashers or prep cooks at one point or another, due to the bar’s convenient location and also the fact it pays above minimum wage. (Barely.)
For the last year, JD has been my acquaintance-friend—one of those people where you nod to each other in the halls and maybe talk on the bus sometimes or pick each other for partners in class, but you never really hang out. Also, I spent the first few months of junior year being scared of him, because even though he’s a grade younger than me, he’s self-assured and outspoken in a dark, gleeful way that lets everyone know right out of the gate that he is pure trouble.
He’s incredibly tall, with bony hands and electric-blue eyes and dark hair and a black T-shirt that says Bad M*****f***** on the back. Because this violates the dress-code to its fullest extent, he’s put a strip of electrical tape through the last part. The tape is three quarters of an inch wide. The word is still completely legible.
The first time I actually talked to JD was in Intro to Art because he sat at the same table as TS and me. Even though we saw him every day, we didn’t really pay much attention to him until the middle of the still-life unit. Our particular assignment involved a giant cardboard canister, a checkered tablecloth, and a wide selection of kitchen implements.
“That teapot is really a pain in the ass,” TS said one morning, poking at it with her paint brush. “Goddamn that spout.”
JD didn’t say anything, just unfolded himself from his chair and yanked teapot out of the still-life.
Then he lifted the edge of the checkered cloth, dropped the teapot down inside the canister, and turned to me. “Is there anything you don’t like?”
“The grater,” I told him. “It has too many openings. It’s fussy.”
He put the grater in the canister on top of the teapot and after that, we weren’t really friends, but we weren’t strangers anymore either.
I see him around the halls with two other, shorter boys, also in profane death metal shirts, also with black hair, both named Tony. Little Sister Yovanoff went to junior high with all of them, so she knows them in that way of general impressions and familiar faces. When referring to them as a unit, she always calls them the Devil Boys.
(Also, for anyone who keeps track or is interested in writing trivia, I don’t usually base characters in my books on real people, but I have to admit, you can find more than a few shades of the Tonys in Drew and Danny Corbett.)
JD knows everything and everyone. He can tell you all the gossipy, unsubstantiated things that people whisper about, like who set Mr. Clark’s door on fire that one time, and who sold Sideshow that acid that made him freak out at school and have to be taken to the hospital. He knows which teachers are sleeping together, and how to fix a carburetor. Even though he’s only sixteen, he owns three cars—two Gremlins and a grim little beater of a station wagon.
He is an expert in acquiring things—all kinds of things—so when I mentioned on the bus one morning near the end of May that I needed to find a real job that wasn’t scrubbing down walls or watching my cousins, he said, “I can get you one.”
And he did.
And that is how I become the proud possessor of my first real job.*
It’s weird to have a form of income that doesn’t come from mulching trees or covering light-switch plates with industrial-grade vinyl. I feel marginally responsible, and also like I’m living in a crime movie. There’s a knockdown, drag-out bar fight at least once a month, and some of the line cooks sell drugs. I wash dishes in a tiny, filthy kitchen that’s a dependable hundred and ten degrees, to the soundtrack of JD’s Pantera and White Zombie CDs and the rattle of an ancient swamp cooler that never seems to actually cool anything. Sometimes JD makes me dinner. Sometimes we sit on the roof and watch the boats on the water. No matter what, we laugh a lot.
It is basically a kind of noisy, sweaty, disreputable heaven.
The last big thing that changes is that over the summer, my mother gets a new car, which means that Little Sister Yovanoff and I inherit her Volkswagon.
The Volkswagon is about the most uncool car you can imagine. It’s a Vanagon bus, which makes it one step up from a minivan. By which I mean, it looks like a giant navy blue guinea pig.
The Van part of the plastic emblem above the bumper is missing, so it just says agon. Which Little Sister Yovanoff finds absolutely hilarious. She starts referring to it as Dragon, and then Blue Dragon.
The ignition switch is broken, which means I have to start it with a screwdriver. It chews through fuses like candy and after a spate of roadside breakdowns in 100-degree weather, I learn to always keep a box of 8-Amps in my glove compartment. The side-door doesn’t open and there’s no A/C and even though there technically is a heater, it totally doesn’t work, and the radio is … selective about reception.
It’s sort of the best thing that’s ever, ever happened to us.
Blue Dragon is cheerful. It’s clean and spacious and starts most of time, and there’s a certain intoxicating freedom to just being able to get in the car and drive into town without having to schedule or plan or ask for a ride.
Having the Blue Dragon means I can stay out as late as I want (which is late, even by the standards of someone who doesn’t really sleep). I pick up Wit from the trailer park and we go sit in the Safeway parking lot and eat ice cream together, or climb into Catherine’s room through the window and watch movies on her bed until 2:00 in the morning while Little Sister Yovanoff sleeps curled up in the recliner.
This new mobility is so novel that it doesn’t really matter that the car doesn’t match us or suit us, and looks suburban and kind of middle aged.
The day before the start of my senior year, I’m cleaning the kitchen. (I don’t remember why. Perhaps I was acting on by my new sense of maturity, cultivating an aura of Responsible Daughter.™ Or maybe my dad just asked me to pleaseplease clean the damn kitchen because it was starting to resemble one of those deserted shanties in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.)
For whatever reason I’m being uncharacteristically domestic, and when I go to take out the trash, I find Little Sister Yovanoff standing on the front porch with a hammer. She also has a six-inch framing nail, a plush smiley-face soft-toy that her Secret Sister gave her for soccer, and a plastic tray of red paint.
I stand with the garbage bag in my arms and the dog leaning casually against the backs of my knees, watching Little Sister Yovanoff drive the nail into the soft-toy’s head. She paints a trickle of blood running from the smiley’s mouth, and another trickle from the nail at his temple. More blood at the back where the stuffing pokes out.
I think about how if someone didn’t know her very well, they might leap to the conclusion that she’s deranged.
“Now that we have a car,” she says, holding the smiley tenderly in both hands, “we can hang him from the mirror. What should his name be?”
“Something ominous,” I say. “What about Edgar, like Edgar Allan Poe, or that Frog Brother in The Lost Boys?**”
She sighs and wrinkles her nose. “No, not Edgar, not ominous. It needs to be something happy, like . . . Eddie!”
She nods briskly to herself, waving the soft-toy at me so his arms and legs flop. Then she ties him to Blue Dragon’s rear-view mirror with a shoelace.
With the new and irreverent mirror ornament in place, Blue Dragon is kind of transformed. It goes from Someone’s to Ours, simply by virtue of having a mascot. It doesn’t matter how ugly or uncool or aggravating it is, or how much automatic transmission fluid it drinks—I find myself becoming irrationally loyal to it. Hell, I love it right to death!
What about you? Do you drive? Did you feel a thrill of independence when you first got your license? What was your first car? Also, early jobs: what kind? Are they cinematic, or just painful?
*Also, Little Sister Yovanoff has the exact same job. We turn in twin applications. We interview for the position together. We alternate weeknights and share Fridays and Saturdays. Did I mention that we rarely do anything without each other? Well, we don’t.
**And yes, we are ludicrously familiar with all the supporting characters in The Lost Boys. Which is a terrible movie. We have seen it approximately 87 times.