Hustler's Diet -- short, short story

Every morning that freaking baby woke with a cry that could splinter glass. Jett didn’t like babies. They were cute in pictures at the doctor’s office, but then all the mothers in those pictures were cute too. None of them had red faces and none of them looked like they used food stamps. The babies in the magazines were fat and the mothers were skinny, but they were all happy, that’s for sure.

Jett lay on the mattress in the Big Kid’s room and tried to find her dream again. Impossible once that brat started crying. Something about a tiger...a swimming tiger pushing through dark water, a pool beside some ancient temple in India. It had been an excellent dream. Kind of like that Jungle Book cartoon, but without the stupid parts. More realistic. Maybe more like the Discovery Channel. She tried to get back to that cool water, tried to make the sobbing baby into one of the villager’s kids. 

She was almost there, about ready to make those villagers run screaming from her striped, yellow majesty. Then Marshall woke up too. He slept in the bed under the window, the one everyone wanted, and when he woke up he liked to make sure the day began for everyone else too.  

On his way to the bathroom Marshall kicked and poked the other kids and began singing rap, like always. Mostly he sang Ghostface Killah, off the CD that his Real Dad gave him for his birthday. Tamitha, in the bunk bed, always woke up smiling, all crooked white teeth and soft brown eyes. No matter that the bedroom smelled like dirty dish rags, no matter how ugly the old frog decals were that came peeling off the walls, even when she got an F at school, no matter what, Tamitha always woke up smiling. Now she was sitting cross-legged on her bed singing “Hustlers Diet” along with Marshall. Emily, on the top bunk never woke up, no matter how loud Marshall sang. She’d stay up there, wrapped in her pimply yellow blanket until Miz Marco came up to get her.

At least now there was no school. Jett wouldn’t have to get the little kids into their clothes and help Miz Marco pack up the lunches. In addition to babies, she hated peanut butter, fake Cheerios, canned spaghetti, and bananas – all staple in Miz Marco’s kitchen.

This morning Jett reached under her pillow where she had stashed half a package of Zesta Saltines. They weren’t as crisp as they had been yesterday when she swiped them off the countertop, but they were still better than Premium. Since she slept in her shorts last night she could make a dash for the stairs while Marshall was still in the bathroom. She was out the front door before anyone could make her share.

A little way down the street there was an old boxwood hedge, full of holes and perfect for a fort. She liked to sit in there and make up stories about what she was going to do when she grew up. Used to be, she’d imagine her future life as a rodeo clown. She’d wear a green frizzy wig and a big red skirt and save all the cowboys when the bulls got real mad. But, lately she’d been thinking that she might want to be one of those people that put the tags on polar bears, so the scientists could see who they were eating. That was a good job where you got to fly around in helicopters and shoot tranquilizer guns. 

On a July day in the delta, a job on an ice floe sounded pretty good. Jett was considering what to do next. Better to get stuff done before it got too hot. Maybe she could borrow Marshall’s old bike to ride to the library or maybe she ought to check out the permanent garage sale down on Casper Street. Sometimes the lady that sat out there in the lawn chair would give her a book to keep, just to get her to shut up. Trouble was, it took a lot of talking to get to that point, and today Jett was kind of out of things to say.

She crawled out of the hedge and went to sit on the edge of the sidewalk. The sun was so hot that you could smell your skin cooking. It was a good smell, dry and sweet, kind of like fresh saltines. Jett rubbed her nose along her arm, squinting so she could see the little blonde hairs catch the light. 

Then there was a new sound. Drowning out the lawnmower whining down by the tracks and the squealing of the cicadas along Balthazar Street was a brand new sound--a grinding and a coughing, and it sounded just about as hopeless as Tamitha’s winter croup. Jett raised her head from up the crook of her arm and looked around. Nothing much new ever happened on this street, unless you counted the ice cream truck, which almost never came this far south of the depot.

A shiny green taxicab drifted toward her down the blacktop. Although she’d never seen a taxi before, Jett know what one was because a lot of people used them on Law and Order, which was Miz Marco’s favorite show.

The taxi coughed again and squirted blue smoke out of its tail. Then it came to a stop right next to her. Jett froze, arms wrapped around her knees. Anything could happen now. A few minutes passed while the driver talked on his cell phone. Jett could see a lady sitting in the back seat. She thought it must be strange to sit in the back seat, when no one was sitting in the front seat. At Miz Marco’s, Marshall always called shotgun.

The old lady had silver hair, in little waves all over her head and wore a tiny hat, like a crescent roll on top of her hair. Somehow she looked just right sitting by herself in the back.

Then it must’ve gotten way too hot in that car, because the driver got out to smoke a cigarette. The lady got out too, struggling to make the door handle work.

The lady was old. Real old. She smoothed down her shiny blue dress, and adjusted a large white purse over her arm. Then she looked right at Jett. They looked at each other and for some reason Jett remembered the tiger in her dream. The old woman stepped towards the curb. Then she turned around and sat down slowly, using her freckled white hand for balance. She sat down right next to Jett.

“What’s your name?” the old woman said. And all Jett could think of was the faint blue of ice sheets, the deep white coats of polar bears, and the smell of honeysuckle. 


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