The Black Pickup
By Rachel M. Harper
Holding onto the clear plastic handle, Kyle hung from the shopping cart with his knees bent. He knew that he was too old to be playing on the cart, but it was fun to sway back and forth and try not to touch the ground. He ignored the burning in his arms and the fact that his knuckles were numb, and tried to hold on for as long as possible. Fourteen seconds was his record when the black pickup backed end first into the parking spot in front of him. It should have read MITSUBISHI, but some of the letters were scratched off so it just said: ITS B S. Kyle laughed into the cart’s metal grate, watching it steam from his breath.
It seemed like dozens of people leapt from the truck-bed, but Kyle only counted four teenage boys as they passed him on their way to the loading dock. His eyes followed their lanky bodies into the store, but soon they mixed in with the other shoppers and were lost. He looked around for his own father, who had gone back to complain about a mistake on the receipt, but he didn’t see him either. He had been waiting for close to ten minutes.
The sound of a whistle brought Kyle’s attention back to the truck. The driver pulled his large frame out from behind the wheel, a toothpick between his teeth. A few snaps on his shirt had opened up and he re-snapped them. Kyle stood up and let go of the cart, tucking his hands into his armpits to wait for the feeling to return. The man nodded at Kyle and continued to whistle. Kyle thought he recognized the song, but not well enough to follow along. His father didn’t like him to whistle, saying it wasn’t dignified, but Kyle liked the feeling of the air shooting between his lips, and he liked to imagine that he could communicate with birds.
“Daddy, wait for me.” A small girl with pigtails stood on the truck’s front seat, waving her hands for the driver to pick her up. He turned and scooped the girl up with one of his massive arms. Kyle would have thought he was crushing her if not for her squeals of delight. She was similar in size to Kyle’s sister, who before she got sick, had just completed Kindergarten.
“Throw me, Daddy, throw me!” The girl hung upside down, her legs hooked around her father’s arm, and as the blood rushed to her face, her cheeks began to match the dark pink of her soiled jumpsuit. Using both hands, he held his daughter around her ribcage and tossed her lightly into the air. Kyle watched as she soared above the horizon of cars and seemed to float back into his hands. After three successful tosses, the girl was placed gently on the curb. She laughed and teetered slightly, hanging onto a broken taillight for support.
“Whew, you’re almost too heavy to toss anymore, Janie-girl.” The driver bent over and wiped his sweaty brow. When he stood up, Kyle could read “Duff” across the front of his greasy shirt. An Exxon patch hung over his other pocket.
“Don’t say that, Daddy, I’ll never get too big.” Janie twirled a loose strand of hair around her index finger and kicked at the air by her father’s knees, her legs stiff like a soldier marching.
“Okay, Janie-girl, I was just playing anyway.” Duff leaned against his dust-covered truck and sighed. He tugged on one of her pitails, making her giggle. Kyle wondered how it was that all girls giggling sounded the same.
“Who wants some ice cream?” One of the teenagers had returned and was carrying two soft serve ice cream cones. He licked at the drips as they ran in muddy rivers down each fist. Kyle could taste the chocolate on his own dry tongue.
“I do, I do!” Janie ran towards her brother and stuck her opened hands straight into his belly.
“Hold on, Killer, don’t spill it.” He handed Janie the cone and she quickly sucked a chunk off the top. The boy laughed and imitated her until he ran out of ice cream.
“I guess you forgot about the old man, huh?” Duff cleaned his fingernails with the toothpick. From the sidewalk, Kyle could see that it did no good—the dirt seemed to be tattooed onto his skin.
“I didn’t think you’d want any,” the boy said. He swallowed hard and looked down. Kyle followed his eyes, watching as the boy killed a spider with the blackened tip of his sneaker. “We only had enough for five after paying the bill.”
Duff nodded and unlocked the truck’s back end. He lifted Janie and set her on the open lip. She hesitated, before thrusting her ice cream cone under his crooked nose. He leaned in and bit the swirl with a growl. Janie laughed as she erased the bite mark with one strong lick.
Kyle could picture his sister doing the same thing. She would eat any flavor, but mint chocolate chip was her favorite. The last time he brought her some, the doctor wouldn’t let her eat any, claiming she got everything she needed from the IV going stright into her veins. It looked like a sack of water to Kyle, so when everybody left the room he snuck back in and let her suck some of the melted ice cream through a straw. She said she couldn’t really taste it, but it still felt good to have something sweet and cold in her mouth. Three days later, she went to sleep and never woke up. Kyle wondered if that ice cream was the last thing she ever tasted.
“Kyle, come.” His father’s voice startled him, knocking him out of the dream. “Put your mother’s lamp in the back seat; I don’t want this firewood to crush it.”
His father took the bundles of firewood out of the cart, only able to carry one at a time. It was bad enough that he had bought almost a full cord of wood in the middle of August, but the fact that he could barely lift it was downright embarrassing. Weren’t grown men supposed to be strong?
Kyle took the lamp from the cart and walked it carefully to the back of the sedan. It looked out of place on the vacuumed seat, just like Kyle and his sister used to every morning on their way to school, her pink backpack sticking out like a paint spill. Everything fun was too vibrant for this modest car, which felt stale and impersonal like a hospital room. Which was maybe why his father like it. Kyle placed the lamp behind the passenger seat. The crisp floor mat looked like it had never seen a spilt soda or a muddy shoe. Kyle ran his finger over the unsullied plastic and remembered all the Saturday mornings he’d spent making sure it stayed that way.
Kyle backed butt-first out of the seat and knocked one of Duff’s sons. The boy carried a dining room chair in each arm and snapped his gum with gusto.
“Sorry, kid.” He lifted a chair over Kyle’s head and into the back end of the pickup. Some of the chairs stacked on top of each other, but a few were forced to lie down on their backs in order to fit within the walls of the truck’s short bed. Kyle peered into the dark nooks between the chairs and wished that he could play hide-and-seek; he knew he would win.
“Hey, watch your head,” Duff advised, but the second chair sailed easily over Kyle’s pint-sized body. Kyle ducked anyway, enjoying a few seconds of feeling like he was big enough to make a difference. He caught a glimplse of his father’s slight frame struggling with each bundle of firewood and quickly turned away from the car.
The truck was overflowing with a full set of dining room chairs when the two oldest boys came out of the store, balancing a large dining room table between them. They laid the plastic-covered table on top of the chairs while the gum-chewing boy jumped into the truck to stabilize it. One end rested against the cab, tilted toward the sun like a giant surfboard. Kyle stood behind the remaining three pairs of Levi’s and watched them tie their inheritance to the roof.
“Boy, that’s a nice finish.” The tallest boy reached inside the plastic cover and caressed the dark wood. “Won’t Mama be surprised?” He smiled as if he’d sanded it himself.
“I can’t wait to see her face,” the gum-chewer said, pulling at his dirty Bazooka. “That picture’ll be worth all the years on TV tables.”
The two blondes nodded in agreement and piled into the truck. They looked like twins, and Kyle wondered which one of them had brought the ice cream. He could only tell them apart by their sneakers, which he could no longer see.
“I’m bringing this tissue, just in case she cries.” Janie folded the napkin from her ice cream cone into a tiny triangle. She tucked it into her pocket before letting Duff lift her onto the front seat, where she kneeled backwards to face the table like she thought it might disappear if she wasn’t keeping an eye on it. Kyle saw her through the smudges in the window, tapping softly on the dirty glass. He smiled, and thought he saw her smile back.
“You just better hope she doesn’t have a heart attack or I’m blaming it all on you, Junior.” Duff laughted as he punched his replica in the arm and settled in behind the wheel. Junior crossed in front of the truck and got in on the passenger side, sticking his arm through the window to help hold the table to the roof of the cab. Even Duff held on, resting his open palm on the table leg tied to the mirror by his window. With the exception of Janie, who held the brand-new table in her eyes, each one of them was touching some part of the wood.
“Let’s go, Kyle.” His father slammed the trunk and walked to the driver’s door without looking up. He opened his door and pressed the unlock button to open the passenger side. Kyle glanced at his father’s car, sparking in the sunshine, but could not bring himself to get into it. Throuth the window he watched his father adjust the radio, tuning in the classical station, before setting the air conditioning to a perfectly cool sixty-eight degrees. A few bars of Mozart hovered in the air, but the only sound Kyle heard was a low whistle echoing off the wood table in the back of the pickup truck. He closed his eyes, still trying to place the song.
When his father started the engine, it was the overflowing Mitsubishi that Kyle walked towards, not the empty sedan, still and hollow like a new shoe. He didn’t even hear the honk of the horn as he grabbed onto the rusted hinges and swung his body over the side of the truck bed. His legs knocked the table as he slid into a fallen cahir, sitting with its back against the floor. Turning his body around, Kyle sat properly in the chair; he crossed his legs under the table, trying not to kick one of the other boys, who looked on in amiable surprise. And then he saw Janie, pointing at him through the rear window; her mouth was moving but he couldn’t hear anything she said. Like his sister the last time he saw her, when her lips would move but she couldn’t make a sound.
As the truck roared out of the parking lot, Kyle closed his eyes against the sun. He felt the engine’s vibration like a song, which he whistled to the birds flying above, the ones he could see along with the ones he could only imagine.
Copyright © Rachel M. Harper
Rachel M. Harper teaches at Spaulding University‘s MFA in Writing program and is the author of Brass Ankle Blues (Simon Schuster, 2007) about a young woman of mixed race, Nellie Kincaid, who is “about to encounter the strange, unsettling summer of her fifteenth year.”
Ms. Harper is also one of the contributors in Prospect Park Books‘ upcoming Literary Pasadena anthology, which will be released on April 15th.