I only cared about getting away as I slammed the screen door shut and blocked out my mom’s screeching voice. Like usual, she was cursing and threatening to call the cops. I knew she wouldn’t bother them; she was just fussing about the jacket. She’d cool off by tomorrow and give me some cash to try and make up for it. I hated when she gave me cash like it would make up for cussing at me.
I shoved my fists into the pockets of the leather jacket. It was Lou’s. Now why’d she have to work herself up into such a fuss about a jacket? I was cold and Lou had given it to me. I’d forgotten to return it was all. Mom just thought it was a bad sign for me to be wearing a boy’s clothes. I wasn’t doing anything else. Besides, Lou was just one of the gang.
The gang wasn’t a real gang like in the big cities. We were just a pack of kids who stuck together. There were six of us: me, Sandy, and the boys. Sandy and I, we were just your ordinary girls, without all the cussing. At least without as much. Sandy looked like the blond, California model, dressed in a short skirt, a tight-fitting t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and Chucks. Every boy in town had his eye on her. Most of the time boys stared straight past me at her. They’d stand there on the street, and every time I watched I could just see the drool hanging out of their mouths. Shoot, I was nothing compared to Sandy. My only comfort was I had high cheekbones, which Sandy said looked regal. Other than that I wasn’t much to look at.
The boys in our gang were Lou, Dallas, Bob, and Dean.
Lou was tall and had a good build. He normally wore a tight shirt to show off his muscles. His height and muscles, along with his leather jacket, made him look intimidating. But to the gang, he was nice enough. His dad ran out on him and his mom; and his mom didn’t really care what happened to him, so I guess the gang was all he had. Not that he cared much about his folks. Lou was the harshest of the gang. He was jailed lots and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ever killed somebody. Still, he was nice enough.
Dallas, or Dally as we called him, got into the most trouble of us all. Lou was tough and scary looking; Dally just couldn’t help but be arrested. He had dark brown hair that he greased back proudly. You see, Dally was proud to be who he was. He wasn’t ashamed to wear his jeans and t-shirts all rolled up, his jean jacket, and Chucks. His blue eyes kept him from looking too mean but he sure scared the socks off anybody when he got angry, which happened a lot. He had the handsome, careless, Paul Newman kind of look; and every girl thought he was the best looking boy in town. He got run in by the cops lots, but mostly for goofy stuff. Like when he went roaring down the streets on his motorcycle at half past one in the morning. Leave it up to him to get arrested for something like that. His dad was boozed most of the time and his mom died years ago. After she died, Dally’s dad started drinking more and Dally started smoking. It calmed his nerves, I think, and kept him from blowing up.
Robert and James, Bob and Dean as we called them, were twins. They were identical — sandy blond hair, brown eyes, and muscular builds — except that Dean had a slice in his ear from being jumped by some other gang. Those two fooled around so much, you just couldn’t take them serious. With parents as strict as theirs you’d think they’d be better behaved, but they weren’t. They stumbled in at night before twelve o’clock and left again in the morning. I guess the curfew of twelve doesn’t seem so strict to most people, but on this side of town if your parents gave you a curfew at all they were real strict.
I suppose you could say my mom was strict then, seeing as I had to be home by twelve like the twins, but it wasn’t as simple as that. My dad left when I was young. Back then, I’d just switch houses every now and then when my dad wanted to see me; but now that I was older it was more that I went to whichever one’s house I wouldn’t get cussed at. Or more like the house I’d get cussed at the least. That meant I was mostly at dad’s house because he was either out partying all night or boozed and sleeping it off. During the day I just didn’t stick around home. Switching houses was easy because my folks lived on the same side of town, only a few blocks away. So on nights like tonight I’d just walk on down to the other parent’s house.
Dad lived in a boarding house. It was brick and three stories high, but real run down. I guess that was good because it meant my dad could make the rent easy enough. I didn’t like the other boarders but I didn’t run into them often because I only usually came over past twelve at night like tonight.
I was just turning down my dad’s street when I saw Lou standing in the shadows. His face lit up as he lit his cigarette with a lighter. He started walking with me. “Smoke?” he asked. I shook my head and he stuck the cigarette into his own mouth. “Figured you’d be coming this way,” he said.
“I forgot to give your jacket back,” I said. I didn’t need to say how my coming to my dad’s place and the jacket were connected. He understood.
“Keep it on until we get to your place,” Lou said when I started to take it off. “Looks good on you.”
I punched him on the shoulder. It was about a million sizes too big on me, and it was probably even longer than my skirt.
We reached the boarding house and sat down on the steps. Neither of us said anything for awhile. I just stared up at the sky thinking.
“You know,” I said finally, “I heard that in the country the sky lights up with stars.”
Lou looked up at the sky and didn’t say nothing.
I watched him for a minute then looked away.
All of us in the gang had it rough. We all had parents who drank, who didn’t care, and who left. Sandy’s own dad started her smoking at age nine. I guess the rough life was what we all were used to, but was there somewhere it wasn’t this rough? I’d always wondered that, though I never told anybody. People, especially on this side of town, didn’t think that way. Nobody would understand if I said something like that. We were supposed to be tough. Still, I really wished for a place somewhere else.
“You ever been to the country?” I asked.
“Naw,” Lou said, blowing smoke. He lifted his cigarette into the air and motioned at the buildings that surrounded us. “This is where I belong.”
I was quiet.
“You’re different than other girls,” Lou said after awhile.
“I know,” I said kicking a rock. “Mom wasn’t a looker either.”
“Not like that,” Lou said. “You don’t smoke. You swear sometimes, but not as much as other girls; you just don’t talk dirty. Other girls hang on boys, asking for attention, but you don’t. And other girls talk. I’m not saying you don’t, but you don’t say the kind of things they do.”
I didn’t answer. I guess I was different from other girls. I didn’t smoke that often; I didn’t talk dirty; and boy’s just weren’t for me. I’d realized early on that they weren’t in it forever. Dad did a good job of showing me that. I knew all that about myself. It just seemed kinda funny Lou thought it too.
“Just pretend you’re out there in the country, lookin’ up at those stars. Now why do you think they’re there?”
Lou didn’t say anything. He stood up, dropped his cigarette, and crushed it under his heel.
I shrugged off his leather jacket and handed it to him, thinking maybe I was real different.
“Night,” Lou said and started to walk away. He stopped a few feet away and slowly turned back. “If you ever go,” he said, “you know, to the country, look up at those stars for me. Those kind of things don’t make sense to a guy like me. But you-” He stepped closer. “If you take a good enough look, you can come back and tell me why they’re there.”
I stood, looking up at his face, and in the dim light I almost thought his eyes looked wet.
He turned and walked away.
I watched him go.
It was cold without Lou’s jacket. I pulled the apartment key from my shoe and unlocked the door. A streetlight shone through the window ahead of me as I quietly climbed the stairs. I could just imagine it was the light of the stars. I wondered again if there was someplace better, and as I drifted off to sleep that night, I just knew there had to be.
Short story taken from the 2019 edition of Artos, the literary journal of Bethlehem College & Seminary students. Photo by Z. Woodyard, BA ’19.