MARISELA NAVARRO | The Game of Kenny Laurel
I am a vengeful girl at thirteen. Thick eyebrows. Self-cut hair. Brown and narrow eyes that hunt from the gut. Dinky breasts jouncing underneath a t-shirt. I love my mother and my grandmother in a full and unalterable way. I am a torturer.
In an interview with my grandmother, recorded on cassette tape weeks before she passed away, she says:
I don’t like the color white because it reminds me of the milkman.
My father, your great grandfather, handcuffed the children when they misbehaved.
My mother, your great grandmother, was a stone woman.
My favorite color is green.
If I could be any animal I would be a honeybee.
She says: Mi bruja, say something into the microphone. My lips hover close to the tape recorder. I say: Mom, you should go on a mission to Mars. A small group is going and never coming back. You’re tired and don’t like people and don’t like worrying about money, so this is perfect. You can retire, walk around Mars, collect dirt and rocks, eat, sleep, barely have to say a word. I will miss you, but you can watch TV to your heart’s content.
I don’t want to accuse Kenny Laurel of stealing my tape, though he did. I don’t want to notify an adult. I could rely on my physical strength to beat the boy up, but I won’t. My grandmother wouldn’t have approved.
He stole the tape at camp this past summer. I had escaped outside to the lake after being coerced into a t-shirt renovation party. I plopped down on the dirt and turned on my Walkman. I watched a pair of brown robins dance to Prince. Side A: Purple Rain. Side B: My grandmother and all her pulp. I bounced my foot, bobbed my head. I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I’d seen Kenny around but never spoken to him. He was two years older. He wore a pair of bright blue running shorts, Adidas, and a yellow t-shirt.
Can I listen? he said.
I removed my headphones and lowered the volume. No. Aren’t you supposed to be making wind chimes?
Give me your Walkman.
I lifted my pelvis and shoved the Walkman down my underwear. I readjusted my headphones.
His hand reached down into my shorts. His eyes stretched wide and his mouth hung slightly open. He looked dumb, like an oversized plush rabbit. I grabbed his wrist but was not strong enough to stop him. He fumbled around and pulled the Walkman out. He blew me a kiss and disappeared into the trees.
Ever since my grandmother died, I’d listened to the tape in bed. I needed the audio to put me to sleep. I rewound all her secrets.
She ran away from home for three days to go train hopping.
She loved a boy who came to her window.
She married young, a different boy, just to move away.
She drank coffee in the middle of the night in her pajamas.
She answered all my questions, even the ones I didn’t ask. Mi bruja, she said, as if I was her special ally. Her voice was a clubhouse I crawled into, underground, and felt comfort. My voice didn’t sound like my own on tape and I pretended I was many people.
I convinced my mother to stop sending me to camp.
Mom, place your hand over my heart. Repeat after me. I will never send you to camp again. She said it. I did jumping jacks beforehand so that as she promised she could feel the throb of my heart.
I spend a whole year developing skills they don’t teach at summer camp. I turn my mind into a missile. I trick my mother into thinking I am a curious girl.
I learn how to steal a bike. I swipe a pair of pliers from my mother’s garage and stash them in the back pocket of my jeans. I believe in my legs. Everyone owns a bike, so when I get to Kenny Laurel, that’d be one easy thing to take from him.
I learn maxims, axioms, and idioms with George Wink. Mr. Wink is an Englishman who bags my mother’s groceries. Red-eyed, a white dove. Wispy hair styled with a soft-serve yogurt machine. A girl who knows the language of ol’ is a girl to be trusted.
If the stone hits you, I threw it.
Sell me a prick and I’ll kick you a dime.
I curse like a sailor. I learn Japanese and French and strengthen my Spanish. I drill myself on flashcards:
I cultivate a poker face. I play cards with my friend Hal and his father and his father’s friends. I call Hal out on his pocket aces. I bluff a flush draw with my eyebrow and my bottom lip. I convince Steven Sr. into whipping up mac and cheese for all the players, even though no one is hungry, even though it isn’t even his house.
I learn how to sleep with my eyes open.
I can lock my eyes on anything and pass out discreetly.
I sit at the end of my driveway and focus on a cloud the yellow-gray shape of a seahorse. It changes into a monk. Then a ship. Then it is lost.
I sleep upright for a whole hour. During the nap, I have a conversation with Mrs. Peterson, our neighbor. We talk about geography and music and a few other things. Later, my mother recounts what those other things were. She says Mrs. Peterson approached her, concerned I might be taking drugs. Mrs. Peterson claimed I had addressed her as Mami Wes and that I’d blathered something about a virgin. Being one? Seeing one? Not being one? Mrs. Peterson wasn’t sure.
I have no recollection of speaking with Mrs. Peterson. I tell my mother I’d been offered drugs by a boy at school named Hal but said no. Because I inherited your health complex, I say.
My mother asks if I am still a virgin.
Mom, I’m only thirteen.
I was thirteen going on fourteen when I first had sex, Mom said. With your dad.
I can say thirteen in four languages and fake seven foreign accents. I’m not the same kind of thirteen you were.
My mother believes me.
Mom, I’m sorry I wasn’t mature enough when Dad left to know to hug you when you cried.
Dad, you should go on a mission to Mars. You can be funded. You should die, when the time comes, with dignity, a surgeon turned astronaut, because to most of the world you are a good man. There are just a few of us who you weren’t kind to. We are the most special. We are the ones who have grown numb to heroes.
I hire a private detective to track Kenny. I find Cheaters Private Eye of Boston in the yellow pages. The ad claims to know it is a difficult time for me. The agency tells me to watch out for strange receipts, misplaced condoms, inordinate amounts of questioning regarding my schedule. I pay them my life’s allowance, in twenties, to find out where Kenny lives. Money is money, I tell them in my hard-earned voice, and they take a minor’s cash, easy.
Tell me where he spends his days.
The private eye photographs Kenny at the mall. He is holding a cup of lemonade, riding the escalator up. His other hand rests on the rubber railing. He has moussed brown hair, large glasses, and bigger lips than I remember. Marooned pimples on his cheeks and forehead. A striped t-shirt, appropriately sized, and taupe pants, also well-fitting. White socks show at his ankles. Overall he looks harmless and nourished. Next to him is another boy about the same age, long hair, a holey tank top, elastic white jeans, mean smile, a goon off its collar.
The private eye discloses Kenny lives in Salem with his parents. The house is clean white with green shutters. Bright tassels of grass spot the lawn in the photo. A thick branch supports a tire swing, frozen in a twist on its chain. Suspended from another branch, a red birdhouse. These backyard tenements, unoccupied, make the space seem lonely.
The private eye finds the crumpled results of a magazine personality quiz Kenny had taken: What type of coffee should you be drinking?
Kenny had thrown the paper in the park trash and walked away holding the hand of a half-Korean girl wearing tie-dye leggings and an oversized sweatshirt.
Kenny should be drinking mochas—he’s a complex individual who likes things his way.
The private eye takes dozens of photos with Kenny and the half-Korean girl. In most of them, they walk hand in hand, but in one, the girl balances on one leg, holding her shoe upside-down. She grips Kenny’s shoulder with one hand as her socked foot dangles in the air. Kenny has his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face.
The private eye dines at the ice cream restaurant where Kenny works. The private eye sits in Kenny’s section. Kenny recommends the Rum Raisin Sundae with Seagull Doo as a topping. The private eye gives him a good tip. Kenny refilled his water glass often, the private eye tells me.
The morning of my fourteenth birthday, I pack a backpack and write my mother a note: Mom. Don’t worry. There’s something I need to do.
My backpack contains a dictionary, train tokens, $30, a gun, a sandwich, and expensive photographs. The gun lives in Hal’s father’s sock drawer. People tell me things, like where weapons are, because they trust me. I plan on returning it. The gun isn’t loaded. I practiced holding it in different types of lighting. I was most scared when I held it outside in the daylight.
My mother has piled presents on the kitchen table. One in pink foil, twinkling, gigantic and wrinkled like a glacier. I’d asked for so much. A kit to build my own robot. A telescope. A video camera with a tripod. A musical instrument, Mom’s pick. I don’t care about these things. She is still asleep.
I take the 7:13 train to Salem. I sit in a window-seat. The city rolls by. Gray buildings, weight-bearing pillars, birds fluttering on billboards. I focus on a cloud the yellow-gray shape of a thousand biceps until it disappears from my view.
The restaurant opens at nine in the morning. Ice Cream by the Sea. Serving ice cream all day. Breakfast until eleven. A quick two hours for motivated diners. The building is a construction of old boat wood painted light blue. Fish-head lanterns with wide open mouths hang from the entryway.
I sit in an idling taxi in the farthest corner of the parking lot. I hand the taxi driver cash. The taxi driver gives me his card. If you need anything, anything at all, you call Bo. Bo will come get you. Bo will be here in minutes. I thank him.
Don’t let people get you down, he says. You can’t fool an old man like me, you’ve got something strong in here. He pats his chest twice. He has a wife and two little girls. The best way to stay in love, he’d learned, is to eat grilled cheese sandwiches with them every Friday, rain or shine. You’re still too young for that kind of love, but remember that for later.
He lets me practice my Jamaican accent on him. He shows me how to drop my consonants.
What does a girl like you need a Jamaican accent for? he says.
I don’t know, but I don’t want to be in a situation where I need something I could’ve easily had.
I step out of the taxi and enter the restaurant. Motivated diners are already seated and sipping on coffee. A young hostess stands at a podium twirling her hair.
I’d like to sit in Kenny Laurel’s section, I say.
The hostess turns and cranes her neck. She grabs two menus and shows me to a table in the middle of the room.
One menu lists eggs eight ways and a homemade tater tot special. The other has rows of photos of ice cream dishes arranged in the shapes of sea animals. On the front page, an enlarged chocolate-shelled banana, cut and curved into Banana Peel Eel. I lock onto its green candy eyes. I focus.
Kenny saunters over in jeans and a white t-shirt. Printed on the shirt is a chocolate scoop with round eyes, vicious lashes, and a whale’s tail, its body melting over a waffle cone.
Hi, my name’s Kenny and I’ll be your server.
I study his face. Kenny is ordinary. Kenny has a mild sheen to his skin. His hair falls over the frame of his glasses. I recognize his full lips from the photo but can’t recall them in my mind.
I had planned to address Kenny by name. He was supposed to say, How do you know my name? I was to say, Don’t you remember me? Summer camp, 1984. His face would turn white. He’d drop his notepad and run out the front door, across the parking lot. I would race after him, wholehearted and breakneck after all my bike heists. I’d catch him and push him to the ground, press my boot against his chest and say, A tree is known by its fruit, not by its leaves. Don’t taste every man’s soup, you’ll burn your mouth.
But he has already introduced himself. He ruins my effect. So I just say it.
Hi Kenny. Don’t you remember me?
He pauses and meets me eyes. I think I might explode in the chair.
No, I’m sorry.
Summer camp? Last year? You stole something important from me.
Kenny slumps his shoulders. His face does not contort like I had fantasized. His face relaxes. Wes, he says. I remember.
My name is Wes. I am named after my grandmother. Her real name was Waleska, but she went by Wes, so I do too.
I want my cassette back, I say.
Okay, he says. I get off at two. Meet me in the parking lot.
I sit on a curb outside of the restaurant and wait for Kenny’s shift to end. I eat the sandwich I packed and drink a soda. I read the dictionary until I find a word I want to remember and repeat that word silently in my mind: posthumous. The breeze picks up. It blows trees and stray paper and crumbs into my hair.
I want my cassette back. I want to humiliate Kenny. Hurt Kenny. Outsmart Kenny.
I miss my grandmother’s live voice, her bass in the weeds.
I have a moment on the curb, waiting for Kenny, that I think I might not want my cassette back. If I get it back, there’d be nothing left to do but listen to it. Listening felt like remembering. Searching felt like raising the dead. I take a nap while watching an army of ants carry an unidentifiable bug with wings.
When Kenny walks out of the restaurant, he approaches me.
It’s at my house, he says. You want to wait here while I get it or ride there with me?
You have a car? I say. I wonder if maybe he has a bike.
He pulls the keys out of his pockets.
I grab my backpack and follow him to a burgundy Buick. I throw my bag in the back and slide into the passenger seat. The interior is clean and smells of piña colada. I scan the backseat for something to steal, but there is nothing.
Kenny pulls out of the parking lot. He drives with both hands on the wheel, an elbow on a middle armrest.
So you tracked me down to get this tape? he says.
What did you do, hire a detective?
Oh. I was kidding. Really?
I unzip my backpack. The gun rests on top of my dictionary. I can take the gun out, aim at his head for fun. I have it in me to do that. Wouldn’t it be, I think, such a disappointment not to do that? I wrap my hand around the gun’s handle.
I let it go and look for the stack of photos the private eye took. I pull them out and flip through the photos slowly so Kenny can glance at them while he drives. I stop at the one of Kenny and the half-Korean girl balancing on her rainbow leg.
Kenny laughs nervously. Wow. He shakes his head. You’re serious.
Not that serious. The gun isn’t loaded and still hidden in my backpack.
I’m sorry I took your tape. You’ll have it back in a minute.
Did you listen to it?
Of course I did. He turns on the radio and a man begins to sing to us. Oh, can’t you see it baby, the man sings.
Kenny meets my eyes. There’s this part I like, where you ask your grandmother what her favorite song is.
And she sings it, I say. It’s spectacular.
Yeah, he says. Her voice. I can feel it in my stomach. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt a song in my stomach before. Maybe it’s her voice mixed with the static on the tape. But it feels like the whole song is…percolating in my ears and dripping down my throat. Then it just sits here vibrating. His palm covers his belly button.
I find my own hand also covers my stomach. Percolating is a good word to describe it. I haven’t heard it in so long, but I can, almost, hear my grandmother’s contralto.
Kenny reaches into his jeans pocket. I play my harmonica to it, he says. He pulls out a small metal instrument and poises it in his palm like an offering. He turns a shade of slight red.
The song on the tape wasn’t meant for anyone other than me. I remember the way Kenny had touched me in summer camp and imagine him reaching over and doing it again. I place my hand inside my backpack and grip the gun’s handle.
The harmonica reflects the flares of the sun and I want to steal it. I feel my body getting warm.
We ride in silence for a while.
Is that girl in the park your girlfriend? I say.
Couldn’t your detective get that information for you?
I look closer at the photos of the half-Korean girl. Somewhere, on her leg or in her hair, the private eye must have captured the mark of a girlfriend.
She’s not my girlfriend, Kenny says.
He picks up speed. He brakes hard at a red light and looks at the pile of photos on my lap. What else do you know about me?
You smoked a joint with that half-Korean girl last week on a golf course. Nancy. You sat in a small, shadowy ditch with a litter of overshot golf balls. You kissed her mouth in a stoned way. Your eyes stayed closed for a long time, way after the kiss ended.
I hold up a photo by the steering wheel so he can see.
A golf ball pressed into Nancy’s back as you leaned over her and held her with your mouth. She said ouch and smiled before she pulled you down again. You removed the ball from the small of her back and kept it. You put it in your pocket.
Your best friend is Sean. The two of you went to a party last Friday and drank beer. The two of you stick together. No one said hello to you when you arrived at the party. No one said goodbye. You slept over at his house and drove straight home the next morning.
I hold up a photo of Kenny in daylight walking away from a blue house in the same clothes he’d worn the night before.
You like to pet strangers’ dogs. You scratch the side of any dog that trots your way. If you could be any animal, you would be a dog. A celebrity dog, doing tricks in the movies, riding a skateboard, jumping on the hoods of moving trucks.
You sleep with a seashell by your pillow.
Your favorite color is red.
The private eye told me everything.
You should be drinking mochas.
Are you dangerous? he says.
I show him the bundle of pink chub elongating into soft angles by my jaw. My poker face. Yes, I say. I have a gun.
Show it to me then, he says.
My gun is the winning hand. I open my backpack wide and reveal it, as prized as his harmonica. This is only a game, I think. The game of Kenny Laurel.
I said I’d give you the cassette back, fucking lunatic. We’re even now.
This is true. But I am a torturer. I can take so much more.
Sing my grandmother’s favorite song, I say, pointing the barrel at his face.
You love it so much, so sing it.
I want to scare him. He has ruined the song, bringing it up like it’s his own family treasure. He has made himself an association.
His voice wavers, but he knows all the words, even the bits in Spanish. He stares straight out into the road as he sings. He looks less afraid the closer he gets to the end. I remember that feeling, being unafraid, underneath my covers with my headphones in the dark. He has a lovely voice. Water on rocks. This is something the detective had missed.
I lower the gun onto my lap.
You know, I planned on returning your cassette the day after I took it. But you didn’t come back to camp. Not the next day, or the next week, or the next summer.
I wish I wasn’t in his car. I want Kenny Laurel to disappear from my day, from the angry regions of my mind. Go to Mars.
It’s my birthday, I say as he pulls the car into his driveway.
I think of the gigantic pink present from my mother waiting for me on the kitchen table. What could it be? I’d asked for so many things. But my mind is blank and I can guess nothing. I try instead to think of all the things I know it isn’t. A honeybee. A celebrity dog. A space ship.
Kenny parks the car and won’t look at me.
I skim through the photographs on my lap. There is a certain photo of Kenny with the half-Korean girl leaning shoulder-to-shoulder, head-to-head, against the side of his car. They have their arms crossed and their eyes closed. They look like they are napping and sharing a dream. They look like they are prepping for an unending voyage.
This one is my favorite, I say. I hold the image up for him to see the moment is not theirs.
Marisela's fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Hobart, The Master's Review, Tahoma Literary Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. She received an MFA in Creative Writing at Emerson College in Boston. She was born in Puerto Rico and grew up in Central Florida. She lives in Boston with her husband and son.