When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.
My brother and I read the opening of S. E. Hinton's The Outsiders every single day back then no matter where we left off. Before the accident anyway. I was in seventh grade and he was in twelfth and as far as I was concerned it was better than anything I'd ever heard. Not saying that I had heard a lot, but that didn't matter 'cause Danny read it and made it sound more special than anything in Three Rivers, Texas, population 4,043.
Better than swirly-tipped ice cream cones from the Dairy Queen or greasy Personal Pans from the Pizza Hut. Better than the maroon Chuck Taylor basketball Converse he got me for Christmas or the souped-up '76 ash and chrome Chevy he grease-monkeyed for six months, just so he could drive me two hundred miles to band camp. Even though his name shot out the mouths of every person in town at the state football finals his senior year, he said it was my voice he heard over all of them. Me, his kid sister, Mickey, who he'd made sure was sitting on the bench with the cheerleaders at every game. He never left me alone. Not for a girl, not for anything. That's when Danny was gold.
But when there wasn't a crowd. When there wasn't the town doting on Danny, or him and Roland preparing their speeches for the Heisman Trophy or all the energy around the first state football victory in thirty-two years, it really
was the two of us. And whenever Danny bent back the binding of that yellow-paged Outsiders, we both belonged to
something that felt like home and that meant a lot 'cause ours hadn't for some time.
I hadn't thought of any of that in years. But for some reason, in the sweltering heat of the gravesite, it was all I could think of. . . .
"Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust . . . ," said Minister Howard.
Because the onetime hero turned prodigal misfit--
"So that's really him?" my best friend, Christina, whispered, wiping her streaking mascara.
Had come home.
Somehow Danny Owens, the brother I'd tried to forget, had found his way back after six years of nothing.
He pushed through the crowd alongside the tent and made his way to the front, inches from the casket. Shallow sprays of straw-colored sunlight tiptoed along his mess of unwrangled chestnut hair. His busted-up faded Levi's had given up on any kind of shaping and frayed along the dirt-stained cuffs. Danny was a hard sharp edge at twenty-four and held himself stiff as the tent pole beside him. Nothing like the full-of-hope, anything-is-possible guy I grew up with before all the trouble. But he looked pretty much the way he did that night he disappeared, so for the life of me I couldn't imagine why he'd come back--especially for Dad's funeral. But there he was, across from me and half the town he'd destroyed, with his dark dry eyes fixed on Dad's casket.
People began to whisper. Chatter. Their voices buzzed behind me, sitting in the front row, like a swarm of gnats quickly clustering around my damp ears. When I turned around and looked at Mr. Jimenez, one of Dad's AA buddies, he nudged the woman beside him to hush up. A nudge wasn't going to settle something like Danny back in town. Not that I cared one bit if it made him uneasy, standing there like he'd shown up to a party he wasn't invited to but decided to stay anyway. I just didn't want it all to start up again at the funeral. Dad deserved better than that.
Uncle Jack put his hand on my knee. Giving me that look he was so good at. The one that asked "You okay?" I'd learned to be okay. I had to be.
Christina joined in with what most of the women had been doing. Desperately fanning their faces with their hands or scraps of mail pulled from their purses to salvage their caked-on melting makeup. Men loosened up their ties or wafted their polyester jackets, releasing a nauseating combo of body odor and cheap cologne. The dress I'd borrowed from Christina, 'cause I never had a need for one, clung damp and tired from the South Texas humidity. It was like the moment Danny stepped to the front of the crowd the temperature went up twenty degrees, and the smell of smoke slithered between each and every one of us, prying its boneless body into every sweat-filled pore.
Minister Howard finished his piece. People made their way to the casket to pay their final respects. And Danny ducked under the tent skirt, weaving through the crowd, keeping his head low. Unbelievable.
"What's he doing here?" I asked Uncle Jack, whose eyes followed Danny.
"I'll be right back, Mickey."
And there he went chasing after him. Just like he useta.
Minister Howard shook hands as he made his way to me. I'd somehow managed to avoid him until right then. Not that he was a bad man, but Dad and I hadn't necessarily been the churchgoing type. Still, it was Minister Howard's basement where they held the Wednesday night AA meetings, and I guess he felt it was somehow his moral duty to speak at Dad's funeral. Or so it was told to me by Uncle Jack.
"Let the church know if you need anything, Michelle." Minister Howard smiled what must've been heartfelt, but I couldn't feel it. "We can't always understand moments like this, but your father is in a better place now. Heaven is the kingdom of delight."
I didn't smile back, which I think was the expected gesture. Just about anywhere outside of Three Rivers would've seemed a better place from what I always figured. But heaven just wasn't on Dad's to do list when he left the house Monday morning for some car parts he needed from the city. The last thing he said was how he was going to bring home Kentucky Fried Chicken for dinner. He'd wanted it for over a week. Kentucky Fried Chicken and mashed potatoes smothered in creamy white gravy. Gravy we'd have to make ourselves but that was fine 'cause it was something we could do together. And he always brought those--those Little Bucket Parfaits for dessert. . . .
Was he thinking about that when--
"How you doing, Mickey?" Albert Trevino said, sitting in Uncle Jack's empty seat.
He gave me a big brother kind of hug, and I know he must've showered but I could still smell the garage on him. It was a good smell. Like Dad.
"Just let us know," said Minister Howard, still standing there.
I nodded and he made his way out of the tent.
"Thanks," I told Albert. "I didn't know what to say to him."
"You hanging in there?" asked Albert.
"I'm okay," I said.
Copyright © 2007 by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.