As far as Peter was concerned, his grandmother might be right about the taxi drivers because he could swear the one who hesitated in front of their house last week for no apparent reason smiled at him, and when the driver smiled he revealed a fang. Not two fangs, just one—on the left—but it was long enough that once Peter realized to notice it, he saw the dimple in the man’s lower lip from the pressure the fang applied day in and day out, hour after hour, while awake or at night. It seemed to him the taxi driver would be better off not smiling, and maybe that was why he was so misunderstood.
Still Peter wondered—as he spent his afternoons sitting alone in the glassed-in porch of his grandmother’s sunken bungalow—what was there to be so misunderstood about? To be misunderstood you must first be something.
Peter told his grandmother he was going to the convenience store, but to her it wasn’t a convenience store, it was and always had been the newsstand down the street from the five-and-dime and two doors up from the brick house overgrown with ivy where the nuns apparently lived.
“Franciscans,” his mother had told him. That meant they wore brown shoes not black when they came to knock on his grandmother’s door and take her to bingo, or to the grocery store, or to mass if it was Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, or Friday.
The man at the newsstand wore his baseball cap at a jaunty angle and was friendly in a way that disturbed Peter and might even have prevented him from going back to the store if that strange friendliness had not also been coupled with a Tootsie Pop. The man didn’t actually work there. He just stood at the counter all day, smiling, nodding, and holding out Tootsie Pops to every child who entered in search of comic books, Slim Jims, or a sarsaparilla.
Today, when Peter emptied his pockets of the Kennedy half-dollars his grandmother possessed in seemingly endless supply and slid his comic books off the counter, the jaunty-hatted man held out a red Tootsie Pop and smiled. For the first time, Peter noticed the indent on the left side of his lower lip.
“Watcha lookin’ at, Pancho?” the man asked, his voice hot and gravely like a country road in the summertime.
Peter’s cheeks flushed and he looked down.
When he glanced up back up, the Tootsie Pop still hovered in space. The man smiled again. His skin was swarthy and seemingly covered in a layer of grease, and a garlicky cloud filled the air, but his teeth all looked fine, even normal, if a bit brown. A healthy crop of hair populated the back of his hand. Peter snatched the candy and ran from the store.
Peter’s mother stopped by to see him. She pulled her old Subaru up to the sidewalk where he stood, but did not turn off the engine. The summer before, the two of them had spread out their sleeping bags in the back of that old Subaru and laid with their heads on the bumper, staring up at the stars together through the open hatch.
He walked around to her door and she rolled down the window.
“Take me home,” he said.
“I brought you ice cream,” she replied and handed him an Orange Push-up.
“Do you ever wonder about the taxi drivers?” he asked between orange-flavored licks.
“What would I wonder about them?”
“Grandmother says they’re dangerous.”
His mother pondered the interior roof of the car for a moment.
“They’re hairy,” she said.
This was true. Peter recalled the forearm of the taxi driver that had slowed in front of the house, in nearly the same spot where his mother’s car currently idled, and how it had been so hair-covered that he could have noticed it from the front porch. There was only one other creature he knew for a fact to be so hirsute, excluding the creepy man from the newsstand.
“Hairy like werewolves,” he said.
“No, like Slavs,” his mother replied.
His mother was Polish, but she shaved her arms.
“I gotta go, babe,” she said. She gave him a peck on the cheek, rolled up the window, and drove away. He stood on the sidewalk counting the licks of his Orange Push-up.
Peter poked at the fuzz-covered candy in the dusty dish in the foyer. The same candy that had stared back at him on every holiday visit, and now on every single day. Sometimes he grew so hungry that he’d pick one up and roll it in his hand, but his brother had eaten one many Christmases before and warned him never to follow suit. His brother had died from leukemia and Peter liked to think it wasn’t the candy, but some days he wasn’t sure.
He wandered into the kitchen and stared into the refrigerator. A half empty box of donuts. An uncovered pot full of runny home-made spaghetti. Two little pods of sugar-free pudding. He grabbed a plastic lemon from the refrigerator door, flipped the green cap, and sucked the lemon juice into his mouth. His throat burned and saliva pumped into that small space where his jaw met his earlobes. Some part of him found satisfaction in the sourness and his catharsis waned as the bite of the lemon was replaced by the suck of air. He crushed the empty lemon in his hand.
“Peter!” his grandmother yelled. She stared at him from the living room entryway. “If you drink too much lemon juice your blood will dry up. Not to mention, the penguins are gathering.”
He shut the refrigerator and frowned at her.
“I don’t see any penguins.”
“That’s your loss then, isn’t it?” she replied and hobbled back into the living room.
A moment later the stereo blasted. Her bad hearing was her excuse for the music always being so loud, but he knew it was a pretense. An opportunity age presented her, that she pounced on, as a valid excuse for clearly inappropriate behavior.
Peter got down on his hands and knees and crawled to the edge of the living room. He peered around the doorway. As much as he disliked her noise and her prophesies, he loved to watch her dance. And dance she did when the music arrived, though she could barely walk the block without it. Today, Janis Joplin was her chosen escort. An odd selection for an old woman with a fear of gypsies, but there it was. Like a wicked marionette his grandmother danced around the room, her knees bent, wrists limp, spinning as they all did but with so much more freedom than the rest of them. Come on, come on, come on, come on.
Last spring his mother had splurged and bought him a marionette kit he’d coveted in the craft shop window. A bag of foam bits, string, and Mason jar lids, googly eyes, fabric balls, and blue feathers. Within an afternoon he’d assembled an almost-bird—not quite a peacock, not quite a flamingo—and walked it back and forth in front of the television until his mother could take it no more and banished it to his room lest she never get a chance to hear the questions to Alek Trebek’s very important answers.
Last fall his mother had dropped him off here, signed him up at the local school, and sent him an Amazon gift card at Christmas time. He’d bought himself a sweater as he imagined a boy in a normal family might get a nice sweater from Santa on Christmas morning.
Go ahead and take another piece, Janis.
Peter stood on the sidewalk and waited for something to appear. His mother, the ice cream truck, the taxi driver. All different and all the same. Transient influences taunting him with transient emotions, some more desirable than others, but still fleeting.
A light rain began to fall. The cold drops splashed against the part in his hair where his heavy locks fell to the side and exposed his skin.
“A boy like you could use a haircut,” his grandmother had told him that morning, but in truth a boy like him could use a lot of things and a haircut was not the highest thing on his list.
A drop slid down the back of his neck and sent a shiver down his spine.
He and his brother used to love the rains that came in fall. The three of them had all lived in the same house then. The old ranch-style house with the two-car garage. A wide driveway that he spent his summer break sweeping over and over again until the blacktop was shiny and bright. Until the next time his mother returned from work, or errands, or wherever it was she went.
“Why are you standing there with the broom?” she had asked him one time from the safety of her driver’s seat as he stood like a sentry in the grass at the edge of the driveway.
“It looks better without your tracks,” he responded.
She squinted at him, then pulled the car into the garage and shut the door behind her.
When the rains came the clean driveway was the best. He and his brother would get the two biggest umbrellas from the foyer, dress in their raincoats and rubber boots, and build a fort in the middle of the driveway. It was not so much a fort as simply two umbrellas propped on their sides, big enough for their two small bodies to huddle beneath and keep each other warm and dry. The blacktop would darken around them—turning even blacker, slick and shiny with rivulets of water—while the ground beneath them stayed dry. They would pull chocolate bars and Skittles from their pockets and imagine themselves sailors lost at sea, adventurers crossing mountaintops, explorers deep in the jungle, but with each other and four pockets full of candy to sustain them. What more could they need?
And then it was just him.
The next time he’d hidden under an umbrella was at his brother’s funeral, as he held onto the corner of his mother’s rain jacket—its purple color glowing inappropriately in the misty spring light, but it was the only raincoat she had—and yet she darted about, from one person to another, grasping for their hugs and their cooing words. No matter how tightly he pinched at the purple vinyl, it slipped again and again from his hands.
Peter stared at the convenience store candy display. Yesterday, he’d purchased a box of Good & Plenty, and while it had seemed like a good idea at first, he’d spent the rest of the day with the bite of licorice in his mouth. As he ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth, trying to cleanse the flavor away, it seemed to stick to his incisors in particular. The solution was obviously more candy, but he was torn between methodologies—Red Hots to burn away every flavor other than their own sizzle or Laffy Taffy, the eating of which would be lucky to leave anything including his teeth remaining. He held a box in each hand, shaking each one alternately as if the sound might assist his decision.
“You don’t want either of those, Pancho,” a voice growled and suddenly all the candy smelled like garlic.
The jaunty-hatted man stood next to Peter. His mouth was closed, but Peter felt as if the dent on the man’s lip, where the fang would have been, pointed directly at him. The man thrust a grape Tootsie Pop in Peter’s face. His hand seemed even hairier than the day before. Hair on the skin between his first and second knuckles, and between the second and third, too.
“What if I do want them?” Peter asked, refusing to make eye contact with the Tootsie Pop.
“A boy like you can’t know what you want.” The man lifted his jaunty cap and readjusted it back to the exact same angle. A few hairs poked out sideways from each of the man’s ears.
The bell on the store’s front door jingled. As Peter turned to look, he caught a fleeting glimpse of the taxi cab driver disappearing out onto the street. Peter glanced back at the jaunty-hatted man and thought he caught the tail end of a nod.
“Excuse me,” Peter said. He backed away, put his Kennedy half-dollars on the counter and headed for the door himself.
“Hey, Pancho,” the man said. “For the road.” He held out two purple Tootsie Pops. “One for each pocket.”
Peter grabbed the candy without thinking. It felt like vinyl and he gripped it tightly in his hand. With his free hand he held out the box of taffy and shook it in offering.
“No, thanks,” the man replied. He stuck his thumb in his mouth and with a flick the man’s front teeth landed on his palm. He smiled wide, his slick upper gum pulsing red and a deep laugh emerged from his throat.
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
Peter ran from the store but the laugh trailed after him, snaking around each house as he zig-zagged from block to block, growing fainter and falling more into the rhythm of a distant bark.
When Peter arrived at home his grandmother was burning incense and singing about the Misty Mountains with Robert Plant. When she realized he was staring at her, she hit the power button on the stereo and stared right back.
“Why are you sweaty?” she asked.
“Smile and let me see your teeth,” he said.
She looked down at the Tootsie Pops and taffy in his hands.
“I’ve told you before, if you keep eating that candy your teeth will fall out.”
He wanted to shout, Promise? He wanted to shove all the candy down his throat all at once. He wanted to rip his teeth from his gums with his own fingers. He wanted to leap into the back of his mother’s car the next time she drove by and hide himself there. He wanted to run out into the street, reach in through the taxi driver’s window and honk his horn until everyone turned to look. He wanted to run, run away, out of this town, of this world, to a place where it always rained and he could sit with his brother under the umbrella and eat from their bottomless pockets in the one place they’d ever had to call their own.
His grandmother blinked at him and laid the back of her hand against his forehead.
“You’re feeling the moon,” she said. “Let’s have some lemonade.”
Peter and his grandmother sat on the porch, rocking side by side, sipping their lemonade. As Peter rested the glass against his thigh he noticed the hair on the back of his fingers. Some between the first knuckle and the second, and again between the second and the third. He ran his tongue along his upper left teeth. No more licorice, but still something that snagged his tongue more than it had yesterday.
He looked over to his grandmother. She eyeballed him through the magnifying bottom of her empty lemonade glass.
“Do you ever wonder where you came from, Peter? Why you don’t look like the rest of us?”
It was a strange thing for a grandmother to say, even his. It was true, though. He hadn’t even looked like his own brother.
“It’s the luck of genetics,” he said, hoping against hope that the concept of Mendelian inheritance as he understood it only having recently learned it in school would hold his grandmother and her strangely pagan theories at bay, but he had a feeling she knew more than she let on. That her strange beliefs were both a smoke screen and smoke signal.
Because, in truth, at night he did feel the pull of the moon, and it waxed more of late than it waned. And what he hadn’t told anyone was that when the taxi driver had gone by last week, when he’d slowed to nearly a stop and smiled with his fang, Peter could have sworn he’d heard a bark and maybe even a howl as the car pulled away.
Peter set his hand on his grandmother’s knee. She rested hers atop his, covered his knuckles, and squeezed tight. In that moment, he knew that she told him stories about the taxi drivers for fear they might take him home.
Becca Borawski Jenkins
Becca Borawski Jenkins holds an MFA in Cinema-Television Production from USC and has short stories appearing or forthcoming in Menacing Hedge, concis, The Forge, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Syntax & Salt, and Corium. She and her husband spent the last year living off grid in a remote part of North Idaho, and now roam North America in their RV.
Artwork: Laura Makabresku, I’ll Tell You A Very Old Story