Sweetheart by Marilyn Horn

Kyle had a sweetheart, his friends knew that much, but he refused to give them details, despite all their grilling. Hair, skin, eyes; boobs, legs and ass — they wanted to know about all that, and most importantly: Did she give out? But Kyle stayed mum. Let them imagine. Kept the details safe.

The interrogating usually started as the four of them — Kyle, plus Augie, Russell and Johnny — dodged the cars and headed over to the park after school, took their usual places on the usual low brick wall under the usual old weepy tree, and lit up their cigarettes. Today Kyle stood while the others sat, itching to check his watch but stopping himself, knowing that, as soon as he did, one of them would start up.

Taking off so soon?

How come?

She that good?

So he kept his hands behind him, his watch out of sight, and drew a word in the air with his free hand, very discreet. The word today: fire.

Fire at the tip of the cigarette. In the trash cans under the overpass, keeping the bums warm. Fire on the news, clearing out the Viet Cong.

Fire: Not an easy one to draw, even if only four strokes. (Short right, short left, big sweep down, short sweep to the right.)

Remembering the feel of brush on paper and forgetting to be discreet, he checked his watch without meaning to. Augie saw him and started right in.

“There he goes. Checking the time. Can’t wait to get going.”

The other two — Russell and Johnny — emerged from a deep discussion, something about auto shop, something about a carburetor, to see if it was true: Kyle couldn’t wait to get going. The three took long drags off their cigarettes, watching him. Waiting for details.

Kyle grinned and, now that the cat was out of the bag, took a longer look. 3:10. Five more minutes, then he could go. He’d get to her by 3:30. That gave him and her a full hour before he had to head to work. He’d have left for her place straight after the bell rang, but he had to spend at least some time with the guys. Otherwise —

He wasn’t sure exactly. All he knew, he’d be crossing a line if he left early like he wanted. Hell, they’d given him a hard enough time once he ditched the buzz cut and started letting his hair grow. “Dirty hippie!” they said, not always kidding, even though the hair fell barely below his ears.

“When we get to meet this sweetheart?” Augie asked. The other two had forgotten about the carburetor and waited for Kyle to respond, but he barely noticed. It was Augie he looked in the eye. His best friend. Both of them only 17, but Augie had old eyes now. Old and suspicious. Kyle remembered him young-eyed. Sparked. Ready to play any sport, try out for any team. Dreaming of being a baseball player someday. A helicopter pilot. A horse trainer. But a lot had happened since then, and now Augie was a bitter old man. And Kyle suspected that Augie suspected that Kyle was drifting away.

“Maybe he don’t want to share,” Russell said, and Kyle shifted his gaze, up into the weepy old tree. “That true, Kyle?” Russell hardened his voice, pretending to be tough. But Kyle wasn’t fooled. Russell was an ox on the outside — six foot two, 200 pounds ever since the 7th grade — but a rabbit within.

Rabbit: Eight — no. Nine strokes. Complicated.

Ox: Much easier. Only four. (Down, right, right, down.)

They started to tease him, there under the tree, Russell and Johnny mostly, asking what he and this sweetheart did every day. Kyle smoked, shrugged, tried not to hear, drawing ox with his hand behind him, not wanting the thought of her mixed up with what they said. Their talk got ugly, and Kyle breathed deeply, feeling the stream of breath whistling up into his nose, and deeper, all the way down to his lungs. He thought of Cat — the stray that climbed up the fire escape to her window ledge every afternoon and meowed for a saucer of milk.

Cat. (Stroke left to right, top to bottom, top to bottom.)

“Maybe there is no sweetheart,” Augie said. His a tone brought Kyle back to the here and now. That tone — it said Augie was tired of secrets. That this had gone on too long. Three months now — or three that they knew of. Actually nearly five since Kyle’d been sneaking off to see her, only getting caught when Augie discovered him not busing tables at Denny’s as he’d expected. Augie’d waited in a booth until Kyle finally showed up. Demanding details. Demanding the truth. “I got a sweetheart,” Kyle admitted, blurting it out, embarrassed by such an old-fashioned word, but refusing to say more, keeping quiet about it since then, making them all speculate.

Augie pierced him with a look. “You know what I think, Hippie? I think you’re working at the Chinese place again.”

That was a serious charge. Kyle working at the Jumbo Lotus hadn’t sat well with Augie and the others. They hated the Chinese. Called them gooks. Said Kyle stank from just being around them. Visited him once at the Jumbo Lotus and made a scene. Made him quit.

His hands behind him, Kyle widened his stance, ready for defense, like Coach had taught him in football. “I don’t work there no more.”

“You sure?”

Kyle nodded. Augie waited a beat, giving him one more chance to tell the truth.

“’Cause I’m pretty sure I saw you heading into Chinatown.”

Kyle felt his heart stop, then start up again, cautious and jittery, like a rat. “When?”

“Yesterday.”

Kyle thought hard, thinking back. Had Augie followed him? How? Kyle was always careful, sneaking his way through the maze of streets like a wanted man. This had to be a bluff.

“I work at Denny’s now. You seen me there.”

Kyle and Augie kept their eyes locked, faces grim. Russell didn’t know the ice was thin. He thought they were still having fun and so kept at it. “I know — Kyle has a China girl.”

Kyle and Augie stayed quiet, staring each other down, while Johnny bantered with Russell. “Yeah, that’s it. Kyle has a China girl. Watch out, you’ll get yellow fever.”

“Maybe that pretty little waitress at the Jumbo Lotus.”

“Nah, he won’t have no luck with her. Not with her ugly old granny sitting in the corner, watching from behind the register.”

“Stay away from that girl, Kyle, she’ll end up looking like her old granny.”

“That ugly old hag — with that big ugly mole on her chin.”

“And them squinty eyes. Damn — I know gooks have squinty eyes, but that old lady, she can’t hardly see out of hers.”

Kyle smiled slightly, the way he did when pretending not to care, and finally looked away. No sense, he decided, in staying any longer. He smashed his cigarette butt into the pavement and checked his watch again. 3:15. “Gotta go.”

They razzed him as he took off, Russell and Johnny did, but Augie kept quiet, drilling holes into the back of Kyle’s head, until he finally turned the corner. He hurried down the block and turned onto another, picking up his pace, planning his route, tossing glances over his shoulder, keeping an eye out for Augie — tall skinny kid. Jeans and a white t-shirt. Almost an exact match for Kyle himself, except for the hair.

What would Augie do if he knew the truth? Kyle had a pretty good guess. Probably remind him that their friendship came first, like it had ever since 4th grade. Especially now, with graduation coming up, them all heading into the big cold world, as if the one they lived in now wasn’t cold enough, Johnny’s mom in and out of rehab, Russell’s dad in prison, Augie’s big brother all whacked out after Vietnam. “Stop seeing her,” he’d say.

But Kyle couldn’t do that. These past five months, he felt something new. Like a big wide world was opening up. Not see her anymore? He felt the new world collapsing just thinking that.

He turned down Clay Street and headed into Chinatown, feeling hidden for good. Even if Augie had tried to follow him, Kyle knew enough twists and turns that he couldn’t follow for long —

Bullshit.

If anyone could find his way through these streets, Augie could. Back in middle school he’d dragged Kyle to Oakland, taking the bus to get there, wandering through downtown, checking each alley, behind each dumpster, Augie (determined, tenacious) showing his brother’s picture to strangers on the street, asking “Hey, you seen this guy?” — Saturday after Saturday until they finally brought Bobby home. The shell of him, anyway.

Augie’d already lost a brother. He wouldn’t lose his best friend. Not without a fight.

Her apartment sat above a row of small businesses — a butcher, a pharmacy, a tea leaf shop, and at the end, the Jumbo Lotus. Kyle passed the restaurant without looking, ready to turn down the alley that led to the apartment stairway when

“Hey!”

He stopped. Turned. Saw a flash of white — a t-shirt. In it, a tall skinny kid. Augie, stepping out of the restaurant. Of course. Augie hadn’t followed him at all. He’d come straight to the Jumbo Lotus and waited. Determined and tenacious. A typical Augie move.

“Where you going?”

Kyle’s words stumbled out of his mouth. “To see my lady friend.” (Lady friend? Jesus, who said that these days?) “I told you I don’t work there anymore.” He nodded toward the restaurant like it stank.

“And yet here you are. In Chinatown.”

They approached each other, slowly, like boxers from separate corners. The first time they’d ever met, back in the 4th grade, they’d fought over some girl. Funny to remember that now.

Augie said, “You come here? To this shit hole?” He spread his arms wide, indicating it all. “After what they did to Bobby?” The Bobby back at home, the one who sat on the front porch all day, wrapped in an army blanket. Drinking Boone’s Farm.

“She didn’t do nothing to nobody.” Kyle nearly looked up at her window but caught himself quick and kept his gaze level.

“So that’s how it is.” Augie lifted his chin a tad, waiting for an answer.

This was it: Kyle’s chance to backpedal. To say it was all a joke. That he’d ventured into Chinatown for a gag, knowing Augie’d be waiting for him. Ha! Slap Augie on the back then, and head back to the old world together. Go on as before. Tomorrow after school, head over to the usual brick wall under the usual weepy tree. Tell them all that he was through with her for good. Sweetheart? What sweetheart? Meanwhile, Kyle’s eyes would lose their spark; the life-light fading out.

But he didn’t want the old eyes.

Time to rip off the Band-Aid, what he’d been avoiding all along.

He lifted his own chin a tad. “Yes. That’s how it is,” he said, and gave it all away: the usual brick wall, the usual cigarettes, the usual weepy tree. The usual three waiting for answers.

Kyle waited for a push, a shove, a punch. But Augie gave him nothing. He looked Kyle up and down, scornful-like. Disappointed. His eyes even colder, harder than before. And then he turned and walked away.

Kyle watched him — the baseball player, the helicopter pilot, the horse trainer — until he turned a corner, imagining the future Augie, the one he’d never know, walking to work and walking back home again, someday to a wife, maybe some kids, years and years going by until he walked bent over, hand on his lower back, using a cane. Old and bitter then, just like now.

Kyle’s legs didn’t want to move. They stayed planted on the pavement in front of the Good Luck Butcher’s like they weren’t sure how to operate, now that such a heavy load had been lifted. But he willed them to go, one and then the other, on and on down the alley, up the stairway, down the corridor to her apartment. Number 4.

Four. (Stroke down, right-down, down, down, right.)

He knocked on her door. Heard the TV in the background: One Life to Live. She’d have already set out the supplies on the kitchen table. The calligraphy brushes, the ink stone, the paper. Before her instruction began, they would have a chat in English and drink Jasmine tea. She’d have already turned the kettle on; he imagined it steaming atop the tiny stove at the far end of the room. They would chat and he’d tell her all that’d happened. She would probably nod, probably point at his chest, probably say, “You — art school,” like she always did.

The door opened. They bowed to each other.

“Good afternoon, Kyle Miller.” She said this slowly and pronounced “Miller” “Milla,” but her English was much better now than five months ago.

“Hello, Mrs. Zhang.”

The guys, he thought, were wrong about so many things. About him, about her and about what she meant to him. On top of everything, and though they’d never know it, they were wrong about this:

She didn’t have one big ugly mole on her chin. 

She had two.

Marilyn Horn is a technical editor in Silicon Valley. A collection of her short stories called “Beyond the Fence” was published by Thinking Ink Press. See more at marilynhornwriting.com.

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