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Chapter 6: Meeting the Guys


ThinkLink: Do you prefer to get up early in the morning or to sleep late?

       I stare out from my bed across the almost dark room. Eight beds on my side, eight on the other. I hardly got any sleep at all. Every time I'd doze off, Randy, in the next bed, would flop around or make some disgusting noise. Once, when I was sound asleep, I swear he kicked me. Anyway, something nearly knocked me out of bed. Finally, Randy's worn himself out and is snoring too steady to be faking it. I look up at the high little windows over the beds in the row across from me. The sky looks dark gray instead of black so it must be almost morning. Somebody coughs and there's a low moan down toward the front. I lift up on my elbow and look around, but it gets quiet and the humps in the beds around me are still.

       I sink back down on the pillow and try to remember waking up at home. Most mornings I'd sleep as long as I could, so I'd just make the school bus. Sometimes, though, as soon as there was enough light, I'd go out and walk across the fields. It'd be like I was the only person alive. Down in a draw a couple of cows and their calves would be nosing around in dry stubble along the fence. The hay was already cut and we'd piled it into mounds that looked like huge loaves of fresh-baked bread, gold-colored and round on top. Pete, Red and I covered each one with a bright blue tarp . Then Red came in, soaking with sweat and grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator . "Pete rode me hard and put me away wet," he'd said.

       A voice bellows in my ear. "Up and at 'em, men."

       I jerk awake, wondering for a second where I am.

       Down at the end of the beds a staff guy I haven't seen before barks out orders for today. He has to talk loud because there's lots of grunts and groans and bodies coming up from under gray blankets. "Make those beds. Showers for A-wing. The rest of you line up for the john ."

       Randy snickers , "Yeah, Johnny-pot. We'll line up for you. Spray you good."

       I lean over my bed, pulling hard on the sheet. Don't let that guy get to you. Don't lose your tag. I'd promised myself, when they showed me that board with the colored tags, that I'd go up on that tag board faster than any guy they'd ever had. The tags get you your privs , meaning privileges . I can't let jerk Randy make me lose mine.

       Tony comes by and gives me a poke. "Get a move on. We got kitchen duty this morning." He grins. "You get to be my helper."

       In the kitchen, I dodge around a kid with a tray of pitchers full of juice. I duck in behind the serving counter next to Tony. He hands me a paintbrush and a pan of melted butter. "Start painting," he says and shoves a plate of dry toast at me. Then he goes off to talk to somebody, and I see what he means by helper.

       Behind me an old woman, at least she's got gray hair, is making pancakes at a six-burner stove. She says to call her Mom Trent. Yeah, like Taylor Cottage's going to have a mother. Randy stands next to her, waiting for her to pile some pancakes from the griddle onto the tray he holds out. "Ma Trent," he says in a fake whisper loud enough for everybody to hear, "we got a real celebrity here. Baby-face Hanson. The assaulter . He howled all night, crying for his ugly mama." Randy dances around with the tray, shows a finger to me and a grin to Mom Trent. I want to paste him one, but I tell myself tags, tags.

       Mom Trent just rolls her eyes at him. "Randy, settle down and let me get the rest of these pancakes off the stove before they burn."

       Pat comes into the kitchen to fill his tray up with cartons of milk. He brushes close to my back. "Don't let Randy get you going or he'll never let up."

       "I didn't cry. And my mother's not ugly."

       "Shee-it," Pat says, "that's the big game here. Ya mudda this, ya mudda that . You think up something rottener about his mother than he says about yours. That's the way to play it."

       "I was yelling 'Mom' in my dream last night. Maybe I said it out loud and Randy heard."

       " Nightmare ?"

       "Sort of. I was standing in the middle of a road."

       "A car hit you?"

       "No, the road was empty except for some woman I didn't recognize. She was coming straight toward me, looking for someone, only she walked right by me like she didn't see me."

       "So what'd you do?"

       "Nothing. I woke up. That's when Randy kicked my bed. Now he'll..."

       "Don't sweat it. Randy'll give you trouble no matter what." Pat lifts his tray up on his shoulder and pretends to stagger out of the kitchen into the eating area.

       Tony comes back when all the work's done. He gives Mom Trent a charm-boy smile and a pat on the shoulder. He sure knows how to work the crowd . He points out the middle table. "Sit over there, next to Pat and me."

       "Not enough room."

ThinkLink: Did you ever avoid a fight in the lunchroom? Were you successful?

       "Those wimps'll move." He leans over and pokes a small kid's chair. "Go over there with the weenies, little boy. This is where the big guys sit." I'm not surprised when the kid gets up and skitters across the floor to another table. Tony calls him back. "Bring me some butter, kid." The small guy opens his mouth, like he's going to argue, but he snaps it shut and goes over to the counter. He brings the butter back, sits it in front of Tony, and skitters off again.

       "Demitri's in Howard," Pat says.

       "What's Howard?" I ask.

       "They didn't tell you about Howard?" Tony says. "That's where I go for a little vacation when I want to get away from the weirdoes and soak up some quiet."

       "It's the jail cottage," Pat explains. "Call it lockup . Cells and everything. They strip your tags, though, if you go there. Have to start all over."

       Another new kid, Hi-Lo, tall and lanky, with shiny black-walnut skin bangs up against the back of Tony's chair. "Hey, bro, this dude your new man? He's the right bro for you. I bet your daddy was a white john ." He laughs and goes to sit down next to Randy at the next table. But not before giving Tony a jab in the back.

       Tony jumps up, whirls around and puts his fists up. His cereal dish slides down, the tray milk spilling out. He sweeps his eyes around the room. Mr. Ferguson is across to us in two steps. Mom Trent moves over to the phone on the kitchen wall.

       "That's it, Hi-Lo. You lose your first tag." Ferguson uses his shoulder to steer Tony away from Hi-Lo without getting between them. He edges Hi-Lo back toward Randy. "It took you nine months to get into a low security cottage. It won't take nine seconds to get you busted out of here, doing stuff like this. Hear?"

       "Sure, Mr. Ferguson, I hear you." Hi-Lo's voice turns low and has a singsong sound to it, like he's soothing a little kid, but there's no smile on his face. He aims his eyes like black bullets at Ferguson.

       I look at Tony. He's got sweat on his upper lip. So maybe he's not top boss in Taylor and somebody's out to get him, too. Tony turns and slaps himself back down in his chair and pushes his tray away from him.

       "What did he mean? Your dad named John, too?"

       Tony groans. "I can't believe you're so dumb, country or not. A john's a trick a hooker pulls off the street."

       I stare at him.

       "You know what a prostitute is, or don't you know nothing"

       "Yeah, I heard."

       "Her customer, her trick , is the john , as in John Doe, the nameless man. So I guess you could say my dad's name's John. John Doe." He mops at the milk on the table with a paper napkin.

       "Hey, I'm sorry. I mean, I didn't..."

       "Just shut up about it. Here, you're Cowboy. And remember to do what I do when some ape tries to start something. Look around. Make sure staff is watching." Tony's voice rattles on faster and faster. "Don't throw the first punch. Don't never throw the first punch. Don't let them think you're backing down, neither." He taps his spoon against his bowl and jabs at what's left of his cereal. "And watch your back. Sometimes there's more than one."

       I push my tray away. It happened so fast. I didn't even see Hi-Lo go for Tony. How'll I stay out of their way if I can't even see them coming?

       Ferguson whistles. "Time to clean up."

       I line up with my tray.

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 Updated on 9/30/03

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