White Whale Review: An Online Literary Magazine Untitled Document
Sandra Hunter
Sandra Hunter’s short fiction has appeared in the New Delta Review, Zyzzyva, Talking River Review, the South Dakota Review, Glimmer Train, and others. Her novel Leaving to Come Home placed as a semi-finalist in the 2010 Dana Novel of the Year Award and the 2010 Southwest Writers Contest, Literary Novel Category.

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Sandra Hunter


It was the dream that did it, dragging its wild dirty tail all through that last day. Got so I couldn’t tell if it was the dream or if I was really in the back room of Hempi’s house, staring out the screen door with its crazy dot-to-dot puzzle of dead flies.

Hempi’s my best friend. Was. That’s another thing that dream did. Used to be Hempi and me hung out all the time. We met in first grade when Shavonne Daley, fifth grader, sat out in the school-yard, her big old butt hanging off the edge of the swing, cutting her eyes at the muddle of first graders standing back. Hempi looked at me and I looked at him. Then we rushed her. Took the bitch down in the middle of a bunch of screaming kids. That was it. Best friends. But now I wonder if that was just a dream, too.

Each morning, before the others are awake, I go around the room and touch everything. This is the folding metal chair. This is the thin mattress that I listen to the dream-world through, the scratchings

and whispers that stop when I lift my head. This is the wall next to the bed where the paint is a darker green than the other walls. This is the wall with the door. Sometimes I go out of that door and sometimes I stay in. Sometimes I hold that door handle and wonder if I am leaving or if I’ve already gone.

The dream, the first one, started at the screen door at the back of Hempi’s mom’s house. Even though Hempi’s mom washed that screen door down every morning it was always filled up with flies. That’s what I was looking at in the dream. But then I could tell something was moving beyond the screen, even though I kept right on staring at the dead flies with their little stiff legs and their crinkled plastic wings. And I kept staring at the screen because I didn’t want to look at what was coming.

And I’m counting fly legs and some of them are bent up like they smashed into the screen. And then I can feel it right outside the door, hot stinking breath, and I know this thing is big, like monster-truck big. And then I feel this shaking all the way through my body as it grabs hold of the door and I’m hanging on and it’s breathing itself through the

door and any minute now I’m dead. Just a dream. That’s what Hempi said. Always was too sensitive.

I’m tall, skinny, with big hands. Never played basketball though that’s what some people think. Basketball’s a waste of time. At La Puente High School, guys played all the hours in God’s day thinking someone’s going to come along and scout them for the Bulls or the Heat. Some of them think they’ll get a scholarship and maybe they will. But what happens? They fail their classes, drop out, come dragging back or end up in L.A. dealing five-dollar hits to hookers. That’s just the way it is.

That’s one thing I never done. Number of times I been stopped by some police officer just-doing-my-job-I-see-you-got-a-record. I don’t know why they call it patting down. Roughest pats I ever had. But I always come up clean. Got no sympathy for people who get arrested for walking down the street with a baggie in their pocket. You know? Just smoke indoors.

That’s the trouble. I know what people think. See a black kid wearing some baggy designer jeans and a cap, they think he’s trouble. See a black kid in

cotton pants and no cap they think he’s desperate; better cross the road.

But I dressed good. Dark pants, nice shirt, comb in my back pocket. I learned that from Hempi’s mom. You look clean, folks’ll respect you and leave you alone. I’m still waiting on the respect part.

Stayed over Hempi’s a lot. My mom went back inside for something. Dealing, probably. She never was that careful. I didn’t mind staying by myself at the house. I was used to it. But Hempi said his mom wanted me to come over directly. One of her words. You tell Malik to come over directly. So I did. Left the house to my dad for whenever he came around looking for somewhere to lie still before the next crazy-attack got him.

It wasn’t easy at Hempi’s. There was a lot of questions. Where do you think you’re going at nine o’clock in the evening young man? Did you finish your homework? Where is your report card? Why did you get an F in Math? My dad rolled in and out of our lives like a plastic bottle in surf, mainly when he somehow knew Mom had a little money. They’d get wild and I’d spend mornings sweeping up

broken stuff. But they never asked me anything, no where-you-going or where-you-been business.

Hempi’s mom, now, I never got used to all the questions, but I liked her anyway. She made dinner every night of the week except Sunday when we went out for chicken. We all sat at the table, her telling Hempi and me to mind our language and work hard at school. She made everything settled, like when everyone gets out of the swimming pool and the water goes still. I liked that.

I dropped out of La Puente when I was sixteen. All that history and chemistry. And that Elements of Style? I thought that might be something useful, like about music, but it’s not. Disappointing, that’s what high school was.

Hempi’s mom tried to persuade me to finish high school, and what about the prom. Said she had distinct and fond memories about her high school prom. Maybe it was different when she was at school. But she eventually gave it up and agreed for me to get a job.

Hempi left early, too, headed off to auto mechanic school. He wanted me to come with him

but it looked like a lot of work. And anyway, I was all right at C&J Warehouse. They let me drive the forklift. I learned the different kinds of racks and pallet jacks and stackers and shelving and barriers. I took home a hundred and eighty a week. I gave half to Hempi’s mom and she got me to put the rest into a post office account. After I bought my lunches for the week, and a few beers on a Friday night, there wasn’t much left, but Hempi’s mom was all about my future, so I did it anyway.

Hempi and me went to the racetrack most Saturdays. He had this idea of building a muscle car and winning. I was happy to hang around the cars, like big noisy animals just tame enough so they wouldn’t take your leg off. Hempi wanted me to put money in with him, but I didn’t see how. Hempi’s mom didn’t like the muscle car idea anyway.

I had my eye on a 1965 Dodge pickup that Hempi said he’d look at for me. I didn’t have any big traveling ideas. Just a truck to run around in, maybe take Hempi’s mom to the grocery store, hang out with Hempi and his friends, take the 60 west to Legg Lake, about half an hour out of town. Thought it could be nice to sit out there in the

evening, maybe even some girl to talk to, smoke a stick of weed, look out over the lights in small dazzles on the flat black water, see if any ducks were floating around. What do ducks do at night anyway?

They wanted fifteen hundred for the truck. I had almost nine hundred saved up in the post office when the boiler broke at Hempi’s house. So me and Hempi put a couple hundred dollars in for a new one. Then there was a storm and the usual blackouts, and the fridge never did work okay after that. We got this end-of-the-line one for $500. Hempi borrowed his friend’s truck and we hauled that thing home. Took us half an hour to get it from the truck into the house. To hear Hempi’s mom you’d think Hempi and me got it delivered straight from heaven. We had to listen to her going on about the crisper and the glide-out freezer drawer, and on and on.

So I was down to about $550 and even further away from buying my truck. I knew I could always save up again but then they did the lay-offs; hundred and forty-three of us. Everyone angry as hell but didn’t do us any good. Gave us two weeks’ salary and that was it.

I even thought of trying to find my dad but what could he have done? Probably didn’t remember what a job was anyway. And then I saw the ad in the Wait and Watch magazine from Hempi’s mom’s church. Need money now? Easy, part-time work with flexible hours! Full training provided! Chance to travel! Looking for motivated, responsible, articulate young people who have a pleasant manner, good communication and organization skills and are energetic and enthusiastic. Hempi said there were too many exclamation marks. Smelled like a con. But it was in a church magazine, so I folded up the ad and put it in my pocket.

Man on the other end of the phone said he was Willie. Told me to come in and he’d get me set up. His office was in his front room. I liked the casual effect of him sitting there on his lime-green velvet sofa. Said his office was still being “modernized”.

Willie asked a lot of questions. It was almost worse than Hempi’s mom. Where you go to school? Where you live? Who takes care of you? You got a job? You been in jail? Just checking, heh-heh.

Then we got into training. Just talk to the people at the door and sell the magazines. Good morning

ma’am, how are you this fine summer’s day? Tell them you’re a church kid. Get them to talk about themselves, like how’s your garden. Tell them you’re earning money for college. White people like to feel they’re helping the poor black brothers out.

I said I didn’t need college, but Willie just laughed and said not to worry about it. The main thing, and he was extra-clear about this, was to get a credit card number or a check. He leaned forward and did a lot of this old guy telling the young guy how the world works, how whitey puts you down and black brothers need to fight together.

I didn’t finish high school but I’m not stupid. I knew Willie was doing a full-on ID scam. I didn’t say anything because I wanted the job. And it was his business what he did. I just signed up to sell subscriptions.

Willie said I’d make $12 an hour. Seven hours at $12. I could almost smell that truck. I went back to Hempi’s with a truck-shaped smile on my face.

That night was when the dream came at me. Me staring at the screen door, that whatever-it-was coming for me and nothing I could do to stop it. At

first I thought it was Mama sending the wrath of God directly from her jail cell. But I knew it was just nerves. New job and everything. Your fears are written in your dreams. I heard that somewhere. Dr. Phil, maybe.

The job was one day a week, Saturday. They loaded us into a van and drove us into all these rich neighborhoods where the only brown people you saw were holding leaf-blowers. That was the travel part of the job.

I did everything Willie told me. Handed over the sign-up sheet with all those magazine names, Vanity Fair and Sports Illustrated and National Geographic. Nice glossy names they could hold while I gave them the patter about college. Even threw in how I was hoping to head to Cal State Long Beach, yes ma’am. That was my idea. It’s not like a UC, where they send their own kids, but respectable enough so they can hand over their money and feel righteous.

Willie just laughed when I asked about Beverly Hills or Bel Air. Too obvious, he said. You never heard about gated communities, boy? Got orders

to shoot black boys like you on sight. We stick to the suburbs.

Yeah, but some of those suburban women look like they knew their way around a handgun. The ones that made my blood go cold just looked right through me, didn’t say a word, closed the door. That’s when I walked away fast.

I did five Saturdays and got eleven credit card numbers but Willie only gave me fifty dollars. Said he was going to pay me in full at the end of the next month. Said if I didn’t bring in more numbers he was going to cut my pay. I could see that truck slipping away from me. That’s when the dream started coming every night. Every night I woke up sweating, my hands in tight fists. Sometimes I’d find myself on the floor and once I ended up in the back room right opposite the screen door and that scared me. If I was sleep-walking what was next? Hempi’s mom said it was just stress and to take a warm bath.

The next week they drove us right out to the San Fernando Valley. I’d heard how they beat up black kids with skateboards. Willie said just to keep it cool, keep it nice. Ron would be in the pick-up van

cruising around and we had the Wal-Mart cell-phones for if something came up.

We had to leave at seven o’clock. Hempi’s mom didn’t understand why we had to go so far to sell subscriptions. I said something about how you had to switch up the demographic, just something Willie said. She looked at me. Don’t try any of that on me, Malik Percy. I felt bad about lying to her but I couldn’t see myself sitting down and explaining about the ID scam.

That Valley is the most weird-ass place I ever seen. Streets as wide as a football field almost. And every damn one of those places looks exactly the same. Sherman Oaks, Encino, Balboa. You’re driving and driving on the freeway and you get this feeling you’re still in the same place. By the time we pulled off the freeway I was thinking I shouldn’t have got into this. Should’ve just signed on for unemployment. At least they don’t come at you with a skateboard.

Must’ve been around eight when we pulled into a parking lot with a Blockbuster and a Rite-Aid. Ron said to stay in the van. He went into Rite-Aid. I wanted to check out the vibe. Only action on

skateboards were these little punks jamming off railings and yelling crap at the old ladies coming out of Rite-Aid. Made me feel more relaxed. I walked over to the other big building, Henry’s. Jumped-up grocery store with wooden floors. Give them a month before they put in tile. Floor’s got to take a lot of spills. C&J had vinyl. Looked clean and the cushion underlay was easy on the foot.

You can tell a lot about a store from the back, how they stack their pallets, stuff like that. Back of Henry’s was okay, but their dumpsters? All busted open. Rich folks in the Valley still got dumpster-diving. I got back to the van just as Ron was coming out of Rite-Aid. He didn’t say anything, just handed out a bottle of water and one package of donuts to each of us. That was lunch.

I was the last to be dropped off. Ron turned around. Willie said this place here is probably the toughest. Mostly white. If you see anyone looks Arab, Jewish, you back off. No pitch, nothing. Just an apology. Sorry, wrong house. Something like that. Got it?

How was I to know who’s a Jew? They all looked

the same to me. Even the Arabs look white, some of them. Ron said he was going to be around and if something went bad, to walk down to the main street. He’d pick me up.

It wasn’t even nine and it was already hot. Always did think August sounded more dusty than the other months. I thought of calling Hempi but Willie kept track of the phones and I didn’t want to lose this job. Like Ron told us, I stashed the bottle of water and the donuts in the paper bag at the corner of each driveway before I walked up to the house. I didn’t want to look like a kid holding on to his sack lunch. You were meant to look professional.

It felt like I was going through the same thing over and over. I’d make my pitch and they’d close the door. Some of them did it with a smile. Some of them said it was a bad time. Some of them said don’t come back here, said it with a mean note in their voice. A lot of it was uphill. I was wearing a white shirt with big black embroidered circles on. Willie got it from the Goodwill. Said it made me look like a college kid. It looked nice enough to start but soon the damp moved through my armpits and along my

back. I tried not to notice it. Just kept that smile coming. Man, it was hot.

All I did was walk up and down hills. I see people jogging, too, in their shorts and those bandannas around their heads. Around noon the headache was jack-hammering the back of my skull. I was still at it, grinning like a fool. Yes ma’am. Yes sir. That’s all right, ma’am, you have a good day, now. God bless you. I stopped halfway down the next hill to wipe the sweat off my face. I’d drunk the water a long way back, and my paper bag with the donuts was soft. I took the package out and split open the plastic.

Out of nowhere came two kids flying on skateboards. One of them swerved in towards me. As he flew past he whacked the donuts out of my hand, sent them bouncing off the wheat grass sprouting up from the gravel, rolling through a run-off from someone’s hose. I could hear them both laughing. Neither of them looked back as they shot down hill and around the corner.

Across the street I saw movement like maybe someone saw what happened. I was embarrassed,

but then I thought maybe I could turn it to my advantage and get a credit card number. The woman was emptying garbage around the side of her house, those tall green plants with leaves like curtains all around her like she was in a picture. Be a nice thing to do, just step out of your air-conditioned house and stand in that green shade, emptying the trash.

I headed over and called to her. Hey, ma’am. She didn’t hear. I got closer. She was cute. Dark brown hair tied back. Little round ass packed into shorts, nice white t-shirt. Before I know it, I’m calling Hey baby. Hey, you want some? I remembered the subscription. You want a magazine or something? But she just stared at me with big, dark eyes. You sure you don’t want one? I could sure give you one. She turned away and walked back along the side of the house. Lifted the latch on the side-gate and let it clang behind her like she couldn’t get through fast enough. But it bounced open a little; a narrow gap, maybe a couple of fingers’ wide, just enough to see the yellow light coming through. And behind me the dream rose up, rushing air like a hot mouth over

my shoulder, pushing me into Hempi’s house, hanging on to the screen door and there’s all this metallic screeching like big slabs of iron being dragged across thousands of nails.

I knew it was just the heat. I tried to shake off the dream and called to the woman again. Could you give me some water? Please? But she didn’t hear. Or maybe I didn’t actually say anything. Some kind of whining dentist-teeth-drilling noise. Too high-pitched to be power tools. Hit me right at the back of my skull. I couldn’t even hear the birds. A silver Lincoln came grinding up the street on big, slow, black tires, and rolled past in a silent movie. I watched it turn left and the drilling noise stopped. It was almost like fresh air to hear the car engine sound again and I sat down on the curb. A trickle of dusty water heading down the hill. Wondered if it would meet my donuts somewhere along the way. Remembered Hempi telling me about some kid who’d spent the night in a storm drain.

Stood up and the hill seemed steeper. I crossed the road, heading for the green door. White petals all over the brick driveway. Trellis with burned-looking roses. I remember being so happy when the

door opened and this cold AC blast hit me. Some woman with a small face squinted up at me. I think I was smiling. She was smiling too. Then she shut the door. I thought she’d gone to get her money. That carved tree-stump by the door looked inviting, but I didn’t want her to come back and find me sitting down. They’d done a nice job with the glazed finish. You could see the rings. I counted them twice, even though some of them were jittering, and headed back to the street.

That headache was pounding up and down my skull in rubber boots. Every time I blinked the world jumped in front of me. Was I going uphill or downhill? Had I finished with this street or had I just begun? Was it still just past noon or was it later? It was like everything turned into one of those sketch drawings where you only see the outlines of everything.

My breathing was wrong like I’d forgotten how to take in air. I knew that dream was creeping up on my shoulder. I walked fast up to the next house. I was praying I hadn’t already been there. Everything was shifting; the parked cars on the steep hill jittering, the tall pointed trees bending sideways.

Up there, the sun was spinning like some crazy little silver coin.

Someone was moving in the open garage and I walked up to him. Hey, you want a subscription? I like your garage. He shook his head. But I was scared to go back onto the street. Something was waiting for me out there. We have a lot of fine magazines. You sure know how to organize your tools, sir. Wire racks covering the walls with wrenches and hammers hung on the diagonal. A red wrench the size of my forearm right in the middle. I wanted to ask what you’d do with a wrench that big. I wanted to ask him why he thought someone like me was going around his neighborhood selling these dumb-ass subscriptions. I wanted to ask could I please have a glass of water.

I walked back down the driveway and this other guy stood there, pointing his cell phone at me. Taking pictures. He was a lot shorter than me but he didn’t back off, not even when I got right in his face, screaming that he was trying to put the black man down, that white people like him had no reason to treat black folk like this. I called him a white nigger. I said a lot of other bad stuff. He recorded it all on

his cell phone. I pushed his cell phone away but he kept right on recording. Suddenly I knew it. Off-duty cop. All that stuff they teach them. How To Deal With An Angry Black Kid. First, stay calm. Second, keep your cell phone pointed at the fucker.

I turned around and walked down the street. The tarmac was bucking under me like a bad ride. Sweat running into my eyes. Once I was around the corner, I ran.

There was some steep banked-up dirt with bushes and stuff growing in the middle of the road and I got myself up there just to breathe. I knew I couldn’t stay there. Be the first place the cops would look. My hands shaking while I tried to get the cell phone out. Pick up, Ron, pick up. I knew that cop was calling for back up and the police would be here in five minutes. That’s the way it is in rich places.

Re-dial. Re-dial. Re-dial. I’m crouched down on my butt, shuffling myself back under the eucalyptus and pepper trees, the smell of summer dust and red pepper berries. No answer.

Hung up, and that click shut the rest of the

world off. No traffic. No birds. No insects. Just silence. Couldn’t even see the skateboard kids. Looked up and down the street. Nothing. Looked up in the air. Know how weird that is to look up see nothing, like the sky just left? Hunkered down, knees pressed against my chest, and my breathing’s pushed under. My lungs felt too small and I couldn’t breathe them bigger. Sharp dust burned my throat.

Knew my shirt was getting wrinkled. Couldn’t stand up, because I was waiting for the siren or that whoosh and grunt of tires that tell you the cops have arrived. And then the buzzing started again. Cicadas maybe but, like, really big. Like maybe one giant cicada sitting over the pepper trees waiting for me to stand up. Kept shuffling backwards, away from the street. Dust on top of my shoes, sneaking into the laces, worming under the tongue. And then the ground just crumbled away, and I was falling backwards. Something sharp ripped along one arm and I was at the bottom of a drainage ditch. Any other place in the world, I’d have been lying in dirty water. Reached behind and pulled it out, nightmare snake, barbed wire the color of dirt. Dirty little points gleaming with red pearls. Blood coming through the shirtsleeve. Hands covered in dust,

pants covered in dust, shirt patched black from the sweat.

Ball bearings of dirt still following me down the slope. Nothing else. No traffic, no birds, no insects, no crazy woman screaming after her kids. Tried to stand up and that’s when I saw it on the other side of the ditch, bad tooth in a jaw-jumble. Hanging between the bleached-out wooden slats, some old screen door swaying slowly to some breeze I couldn’t feel. Open-shut-open-shut; peeling white paint hanging off like old skin. And the buzzing was loud.

Wasn’t that I wanted to see it up close. Didn’t want to see anything up close. What I wanted was a drink of water. But the buzzing kept on and I had to see if it was coming from behind the screen. And I kept going towards it, hands and knees, thinking this would be a good time for Ron to call.

Just a small tear in the screen, right near the bottom, all those perfect little squares broken apart and bleeding. The sweat or the blood is running into my eyes. I should try Ron again but the breathing or buzzing is running up and down my skin and what I need is to smash the screen door, but if I

smash the screen door whatever is back there is coming out after me and so I’ve got my hand over the small tear because if the screen is tight then everything’s okay, nothing can get through. But the breeze that isn’t a breeze is shaking me, and the dead flies are shaking like they’re about to fly off. Little dead eyes staring back; I swear they’re moving, spinning. The buzzing is all those dead legs rattling against the screen and I can see the dead eyes spinning like little blades coming at me. I’m up against the screen, screaming, while the eyes are cutting me and I can hear something thumping back in the bushes.

Screen door lifts up, rolls over, and hammers down on me and I’m pinned and the whole screen is writhing, cutting and the flies crawling over my tongue, filling my mouth, down my throat, into my eardrums, my sinuses, crinkle black eel-squirming into my lungs and my stomach and pinching its way up into my brain. My whole body’s clenched like a dead fist.

I open my eyes and the world is bad Polaroid.

Someone’s standing a way off, calling my name. Big-head guy. Fat stomach. His mouth opens and

shuts. He’s saying something.

Malik! What the fuck’s wrong with you?

Police report said I put Ron in a coma with the rock. Judge said I’d get two years and treatment. Hempi’s mom cried in court. They let me call Hempi and I told him to give my post office money to his mom. I wanted to say something about the truck, too, but he just put the phone down.











Copyright© Sandra Hunter. White Whale Review, issue 2.2

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