So it was that, full of curiosity and dread, Mack Street passed the next four years, living as if it were always summer, passing back and forth between the world of concrete, asphalt, and well-tended gardens in Los Angeles, and the wild, rainy tangle of the forests of Fairyland.
In the one world, he went to high school and learned to solve for n, the causes of the Civil War, how to write a paragraph, the inner structure of dead frogs, and how and why to use a condom. He dropped in on neighbors and ate with them and knew everybody. He took Tamika Brown out in her wheelchair and walked her around to see stuff and learned to understand her when she tried to talk.
He broke up fights between neighborhood kids and carried things for old ladies and watched over things, in his way.
In the other world, he wandered farther and farther, climbing higher into the hills, using the tools he brought with him to shape wood and stone. For days at a time he stayed, and then weeks. He built an outrigger canoe and took it out into the ocean, thinking to sail to Catalina, but the currents were swift and treacherous and he used up all his drinking water before he was able to work his way back to shore, south of the barking seals and cruising sharks and killer whales of the rocks around Palos Verdes.
He climbed mountains and wrote notes on the terrain and marked on topographical maps of Southern California. He drew sketches of the creatures that he saw. He traced leaves. He drank from clear streams and looked up to face a sabertooth tiger that merely looked at him incuriously and padded away. He learned that the fauna of Fairyland was impossible. Creatures that could not coexist passed each other on the forest paths or fought each other over carcasses or slept ten yards from each other in the dark of night. Yet whenever he needed to sleep, he lay down in a likely spot and was undisturbed through the night. He was always a visitor here, and even the animals knew it.
His outrigger, which he abandoned on a rock-strewn beach where crabs as big around as basketballs were so thick underfoot that he could hardly find a place to walk, became a drug-runner's speedboat that inexplicably drifted to shore, filled with cocaine but with not a hint as to what happened to the crew.
The canvas-roofed shelter he built for himself against the frequent downpours became a roofed bus stop shelter on La Brea where there had been no bus stop.
The melon and bean seeds he planted in a clearing did not grow in Fairyland, but in Koreatown they became a maddening series of ONE WAY and DO NOT ENTER and NO OUTLET signs that made traffic snarl continuously.
His cache of hand tools turned into a huge banyan tree that lifted and jumbled the sidewalk and street at the corner of Coliseum and Cochrane, along with protest signs demanding that the city let this
"beloved and historic tree" remain standing. When he took the hand tools out of Fairyland again, the tree remained, but soon died and was cut down and dug out without protest. And when he took the tools back to the same place, instead of a tree, this time there was a seepage of water from a natural spring that caused sewer workers to dig and patch and redig and repatch through Mack's whole junior year in high school.
The one time he tried to carry fire into Fairyland was entirely by accident. Miz Smitcher had taken him to dinner at Pizza Hut and on a whim he picked up a matchbook. He forgot it was in his pocket until he stepped off the brick onto the soft mossy ground of the path in Fairyland, and all at once he felt his leg grow warm, then hot. He tugged at his pants, thinking maybe he'd been bitten by some insect, a spider or fire ant that got into his pants. Then he felt the square of cardboard through the denim and tried to dig the matchbook out of his pocket. It burned his hands. Only then did he realize he had to leave, take the matches back out of the place, back to the patio, where he tossed them on the ground.
He ran back out of Skinny House to the street and then ran around the block to make sure the matches hadn't caused a fire in the real world. He watched the Murchison house for a while, just to make sure. No smoke, no flame. But that would have been too logical. The next day, the story spread through Baldwin Hills about how the Murchisons came home and found that their dog Vacuum, chained up in the back yard, was now missing a leg. Only the vet told them that the dog had obviously never had a right hind leg, since there was no bone, no scar, and... the Murchisons quickly realized that the vet thought they were insane and they stopped arguing. At first nobody argued with them about how normal their dog had been the day before, but within a few days it seemed like nobody but Mack remembered that Vacuum had had four legs his whole life until some idiot accidentally carried fire into Fairyland.
Unpredictable. Uncertain. No rules. Mack feared the uncertainty but loved the profusion of life, and wished that he could share it with someone. Ceese did not want to go back there, though. And besides, what kind of companion would he be, towering sixteen or twenty feet in the air? Or taller, for all they knew—maybe Ceese would never stop growing the farther he got from Skinny House, until at the Santa Monica shore he would be so tall he could see over the mountains to the north and look at the Central Valley, or turn eastward and see the Colorado, no longer a thread of silver through a desert, but now a wide stream like the Mississippi.
As he got older, he also got taller, so each stride took him farther. He grew so tall so fast that for a while he wondered if maybe he was becoming a giant like Ceese was in Fairyland, only slower, and on both sides of Skinny House. It wasn't like he knew of any blood relatives who could show him how tall he was likely to grow. But eventually it slowed down, and while he was tall enough that his loping stride carried him far and fast, nobody would mistake him for an NBA star. Well, maybe a point guard.
His feet were callused so they felt like the skin of the soles didn't even belong to him, they were like hooves. He hated putting shoes on at school—it felt to him like he was in prison, wearing them.
And in Fairyland they were more trouble than they were worth, the laces always snagging on something, the soft soles cushioning his feet so that he couldn't feel the earth and learn what it was telling him about the land he was passing through. One pair of shoes was sucked off his feet in the swamp and became a suitcase full of nearly perfect counterfeit hundreds found by a couple of skateboarders in Venice. The newspapers speculated that the bills were part of a terrorist plot to destabilize the economy. No sane person would ever believe that they began as a pair of Reeboks that were sucked off his feet in a mudhole.
And from time to time Mack climbed down into the ravine and up the other side and walked to the clearing where it was always night, and the two globes sparkled with the only lights Mack saw in Fairyland that weren't in the sky. He sat and contemplated the globes, not knowing which was the captured fairy queen, not knowing if she went by Titania or Mab or some other unguessable name.
Sometimes he thought of her as Tinkerbell from the Peter Pan movie—a scamp too dangerous to let out into the world. But sometimes she was a tragic figure, a great lady kidnapped and imprisoned for no other crime than being in somebody's way. Titania had saved a changeling from Oberon's clutches. Titania had saved a boy like Mack. So she had to be punished, at least in Midsummer Night's Dream. Was it possible that her imprisonment now had something to do with Mack?
"Do I owe you something?" he asked.
But when he spoke aloud, the panther always grew alert and stopped its prowling. If he kept talking, even if it was to the panther and not to the captured fairies, the panther began to stalk him, creeping closer, its muscles coiled to spring at him. So he learned to be silent.
The corpse of the ass-headed man was a collapsed skeleton now, and grass grew over it, and leaves had scattered across it, and before long the ground would swallow it up or rain would carry it away. That's me, thought Mack. Dead and gone, while the fairies live forever. No wonder they don't care about us. We're like cars that whip past you going the other way on the freeway. Don't even see them long enough to wonder who they are or where they going.
Sure enough, there he was in the living room, building a house of cards. Looking like he always looked. Not even bothering to glance up when Mack came in.
"Tread lightly," said Puck.
"Where've you been?"
"Did we have an appointment? Your feet are filthy and you're tracking it all over the carpet."
"Who cares?" said Mack. "As soon as you leave, there won't be a carpet."
"You know how this works, Mack," said Puck.
Mack sighed. "Some woman in the neighborhood's going to have to shampoo this carpet."
"It's nice when you're tidy," said Puck. "I try to have some consideration for the neighbors."
"You got towels and soap and shit in your bathroom?"
"Oh, are you suddenly all hip-hop, boy, saying 'shit' like it was 'the'?"
"Nothing hip-hop about 'shit,' " Mack murmured as he headed for the bathroom. There was soap, but it was a half-used bar with somebody's hair all over it, and the shampoo was some smelly fruity girly stuff that made Mack feel like he was putting candy in his hair. Couldn't Puck steal this stuff from somebody who kept their soap clean? Rubbing somebody else's little curly hairs all over his own body.
He couldn't stand it, and stood there in the shower picking hairs off the soap and then trying to rinse them off his hand. By the time he got the soap clean the water was running tepid, and it was downright cold when he rinsed.
When he stepped out of the shower, Puck was standing there looking at him. Mack yelled.
"What are you doing? Can't a niggah get some privacy here?"
"You picking up that 'niggah' shit at high school? You grew up in Baldwin Hills, not the ghetto."
"What are you, my father? And how come you get to say 'shit'?"
"I invented shit, Mack," said Puck. "I'm older than shit. When I was a boy, nobody shit, they just threw up about an hour after eating. Tasted nasty. Shit is a big improvement."
"I saved your life, asshole, and then you ran off and hid for four years."
"Statute of limitations run out so I'm back," said Puck.
"There's no statute of limitations on owing somebody for saving your life."
"Ain't no lawyers in Fairyland," said Puck. "That's one of its best features."
"We aren't in Fairyland," said Mack.
"Well, your mortal cops and courts sure as hell got no jurisdiction here," said Puck. "But tell me what you want me to do for you, and I'll see if I want to do it."
"I want to know about the queen of the fairies."
Puck shook his head and clicked his tongue three times. "Ain't you got no young girls in high school? Why you got to go looking into a woman older than the San Andreas Fault, and a lot more troublesome?"
"So she causes even more trouble than you do?" asked Mack.
"Some people think so," said Puck. "Though maybe it's a tossup."
Mack wasn't going to let the fairy distract him. "Is she named Titania or Mab?"
"I thought we settled that years ago. I don't tell names."
"Then I'll ask the house."
"She ain't here," said Puck. "Won't work."
"I think you're lying," said Mack.
"I'm gone four years, and you call me a liar first thing. You got no manners, boy."
Mack leaned his head back and talked to the ceiling. "What's the name of the queen of the fairies?"
Nothing happened. Mack went back to drying off with the towel.
"Told you so," said Puck.
"Maybe the house just trying to figure out how to show me her name. Her name isn't a word, like yours is."
"Easy," said Puck. "Show you a tit with a tan—plenty of those in Brentwood—then a knee, then some dumb kid standing there saying, 'Uh.' "
"So her name is Titania."
Puck made a big show of looking aghast. "Oh, no! I let it slip!"
"So her name isn't Titania?"
"Come on, Mack. I'm not going to tell you because it ain't mine to tell."
"All right then, tell me this. Why don't I ever see any fairies in Fairyland?"
"Because this part of Fairyland is a hellhole where nobody goes on purpose. Why else would he exile her here?"
"A hellhole?" said Mack. "It's beautiful. I love it here."
"That's because you got protection," said Puck. "In case you forgot, I almost got my ass chewed off in there."
"I saved your chewed-off ass, remember?"
"How can I forget, with you always bringing it up like that?"
"I haven't mentioned it in four years!"
"Oh, yeah, congratulations on being a senior. Got AP English this year, too. Not bad for a boy can't figure out how to tie his shoes."
"Are you going to get out of the doorway so I can go out and put on my clothes?"
Puck stepped aside. Mack went into the bedroom and pulled on his jeans.
"Oh, you go commando," said Puck. "No underwear."
"What's the point?" said Mack.
"You ready for anything," said Puck. "Except your pants fall down in the mall."
"I wear underwear when I remember to wash it."
"Good thing you buy tight jeans instead of letting it hang off your butt like those other kids at high school."
"I don't care about being cool."
"Which means you even cooler."
Mack shrugged. "Whatever."
"You want to know why I'm back?" asked Puck.
"I want to know about the queen of the fairies," said Mack.
"I'm back because he is about to make his move."
"What do I care?"
Puck laughed. "Oh, you'll care."
"So tell me his name, then."
Puck was silent.
"No guessing games?" said Mack.
"Don't even think about his name," said Puck.
"I can't. I don't know what it is."
"Don't think about thinking about it. You might as well have flashing lights and a siren."
"What, he doesn't already know where I am?"
"But you don't want him to notice you in particular."
"I've been tramping all over Fairyland and just asking you his name is going to make him see what he hasn't seen till now?"
"Do what you want, then," said Puck. "Just giving you good advice."
"I'm not afraid of him like you are," said Mack.
"Cause you dumb as a muffler on a '57 Chevy."
"I wouldn't be dumb if you'd answer my questions."
"Boy, if I answered your questions you'd probably be dead by now."
"What happened to you, when we took you to the hospital—he did that, right?"
"Birds did it."
There was some reason Puck was so scared of him. "His birds, right?"
"Who else's? That place is Fairyland, and he king of Fairyland."
"Bush is President and American birds don't do what he says."
"President ain't king and America ain't Fairyland."
"Don't you have someplace to go this morning?" asked Puck. "Like school?"
"Plenty of time to catch the bus. Specially since I didn't have to go home to shower."
"You don't ride with any of the other kids from Baldwin Hills? They all got their own cars, don't they?"
"Not all," said Mack. "Not everybody rich in Baldwin Hills. And even some of the rich ones ride the bus so they don't have to take any shit about their fancy ride when they get to school."
"All about money in your world," said Puck. "Money be magic."
"Yeah, like you're the great social critic," said Mack. " 'What fools these mortals be.' "
"Oh yeah. Will Shakespeare. I loved that boy."
"I thought he was an asshole. According to you."
"Even assholes got somebody who loves them."
"I'm still wanting answers," said Mack. "You going to be here when I get back?"
"I be somewhere. Might be here."
Mack was sick of the dodging. It's not like he was longing for Puck's company the past four years. "Be here when I get back, you got it?"
Puck just laughed as Mack headed out the door.
As Mack knew, it wasn't even seven yet, and his bus wouldn't be by for another fifteen minutes.
He had time to stop by the house and pick up his book bag, which would make the day go easier.
Miz Smitcher was eating her breakfast. "Where do you go in the early morning?"
"Exercise," said Mack. "I like to walk."
"So you always say."
Mack pulled up his pants leg and moved his toes up and down so she could see the sharply defined calf muscles flex and extend. "Those are the legs of a man who could walk to the moon, if somebody put in a road."
"A man," she sighed. "Has it really been seventeen years since the stork brought you."
"Not a nice thing to call Ceese." Mack poured himself a glass of milk and downed it in four huge swallows.
"How tall are you now?" asked Miz Smitcher.
"Six four," said Mack. "And growing."
"You used to be smaller."
"So did you."
"Yeah, but you didn't know me when I was little." She handed him ten dollars. "Spending money. Take out a girl for a burger."
"Thanks, Miz Smitcher," he said. "But I got no girl to take out."
"You never will, either, you don't ask somebody."
"I don't ask less I think she say yes."
"So you have somebody in mind?"
"Every girl I looking at, she's on my mind," said Mack. "But they always looking at somebody else."
"I don't understand it," said Miz Smitcher. "Whoever your daddy and mama were, they must have been real good-looking people."
"Sometimes good-looking people have ugly children, sometimes ugly people have beautiful children. You just shuffle the cards and deal yourself a hand, when you get born."
"Aren't you the philosopher."
"I'm in AP English," said Mack. "I know everything now."
In the distance, Mack could hear the whine of a high-powered motorcycle.
Miz Smitcher shook her head. "Some people don't care how much noise they make."
"Wish I had a bike made noise like that."
"Now, Mack, we been over that. You want to drive, you have to have a job to pay for insurance. But if you have a job, your studies will suffer, and if you don't get a scholarship you ain't going to no college. So by not driving you're putting yourself through college."
"Just don't ask me why I got no girlfriend."
"I don't care, anyway, Miz Smitcher," said Mack. "It's fine as it is." He leaned down and kissed her forehead and then strode to the door, slung the backpack over his shoulder, and started jogging down the street to the bus stop.
He knew the bus driver saw him, but she never waited for anybody. They could have their hand inside the door, she'd still take off when the schedule said. "I run a on-time bus," she said. "So you want a ride, you have yourself a on-time morning."
So he'd jog to school. He'd done it often before. He usually beat the bus there, since he didn't have a circuitous route and a lot of stops, and he could jaywalk so he didn't have to wait for lights.
Only this morning, as he ran along La Brea, the whine of the motorcycle got close enough to become a roar, and then it pulled up just ahead of him. Riding it was a fine-looking black girl in a red windbreaker and no helmet, probably so she could show off her smooth henna-colored do. She turned around to face him.
"Miss your bus?"
She turned off the engine. "I said, miss your bus?"
Mack grinned. "I said:" And then shrugged again.
"Oh," she said. "So you're not sure?"
"So I don't mind walking."
"I'm trying to pick you up. Don't you want to ride my bike?"
"That what you do? Pick up high school boys who miss the bus?"
"Big ones like you, yeah. Little ones I just throw back."
"So you know where my high school is?"
"I know everything, boy," she said.
"You call me boy, I get to call you girl?"
"So tell me your name, you don't want to be boy."
"I said your name, not your address."
He started to explain, but she just laughed. "I'm messing with you, Mack Street. I'm Yolanda White, but people I like call me Yo Yo."
"Not yet. It's Yolanda to you."
"What about Miz White?"
"Not till my gee-maw dies, and my mama after her."
"May I have a ride to school, Miz Yolanda?" asked Mack in his most whiny, obsequious voice.
"I thinks you owes me a ride now, since you stopped me running and now I be late."
"What a Tom," she said. "Next thing you'll be carrying mint juleps to massuh."
For all his bravado in talking sass to her, he wasn't sure about how to hold on, once he was straddling the bike behind her. He put his hands at her waist, but she just grabbed them and pulled his arms so sharp around her middle that he bumped his head into the back of hers and his whole front was pressed up against her back. He liked the way it felt.
"Hang on, Mack Street, cause this is one little engine that can."
There was no conversation possible on the way there, because the engine was so loud Mack couldn't have heard the trumpets announcing the Second Coming. Besides which, Mack couldn't have talked, what with all the praying. She took corners laying over on her side and he was sure she was going to put the bike right down, a dozen times. But she never did. Her tires clung to the road like a fridge magnet, and she let him off in front of the school before half the buses had arrived. He kind of wished there were more kids there to see him arrive like this, riding behind a woman so fine. Only it wouldn't matter—they'd just make fun of him because she was driving and he was the passenger. Not that he minded. Those who didn't resent him because he studied hard and got good grades made fun of him because he didn't drive and took long walks and didn't dress cool. "Your mama buy those pants for you?" one boy asked him one day. "Or she sew that out of one of her own pantlegs?"
"No," Mack told him. "I thought you recognize it—these pants your mama's old bra."
Brother wasn't even his friend, he had no right to start talking about his mama. So when he gave Mack a shove, Mack casually shoved him into the lockers hard enough to rattle his teeth and make him sag, and then walked on. Whole different story if he hadn't grown so tall. Lots of things missing in his life, but God was good to him about his size. Guys wanted to get in his face sometimes, cause they thought he was a likely victim, dressing like he did. So he showed them he wasn't, and they left him alone.
You can't have everybody like you, but you can make it so the ones that don't, keep their distance. Not that Mack ever fought anybody. They'd call him out, he'd just ignore them. They say, Meet me after school, and he says, I ain't doing your homework again, you're on your own now. And if they lay in wait for him, he just run on by. He was fast, but not track team fast. Thing was, he could run forever. Nobody ever kept up, not for long. Guys who pick fights, they aren't the kind to do a lot of solitary running.
So Mack Street had a name for himself, and the name was, I'm here for my own purpose, and if you ain't my friend, leave me alone. Senior year, it was okay now, none of the kids his own age would try to pick on him. Anybody taller than Mack was on the basketball team. But even so, there was nobody who'd be all impressed if they saw him on this bike with this woman. Wasn't that a shame.
But you got to live out the life you made for yourself. High school was a dry run for the real world, the principal said at least once per assembly. Mack figured in the grownup world, people wouldn't resent him because he was a hard worker and did good. They'd hire him because of that. He'd make a living. And then he'd get the right kind of girlfriend, not the kind that went for flash and strut.
"You said that just like Martin Lawrence," he said.
"You too young to be watching shit like that," she said.
"Old enough to get a ride from a babe on a bike," he said.
"No, you did that cause you 'crazy, de-ranged.' "
They both laughed. Then she said it again. "See you when I see you, Mack Street."
She peeled out and was gone. Everybody turned to look, but at her, not at Mack. She might have dropped off anybody.
Why am I suddenly so hungry to be famous at high school? Famous at high school is like being employee of the month at the sanitation department. Famous at high school like being the last guy cut from the team before the first exhibition game. Nobody seen you play except at practice.
But the smell of her was on his shirt. Not a perfume, really, like some of the girls dumped on themselves every morning. Nor a hair product, though her hair had given his face kind of a beating, to the point where he wanted to say, You ever think of cornrows, Yo Yo? only the bike was too loud so he kept it to himself.
Mack didn't eat alone—he had a lunch group he sat with—but mostly he just listened to them brag about their prowess in some game or on a date, or talk raunchy about girls they knew would never speak to them. Some of these guys lived in Baldwin Hills and he knew their cold dreams. Not one of them cared about girls or sports as much as they said. It was other stuff. Family stuff. Personal stuff. Wishes they'd never tell to a soul.
Well, Mack didn't tell them any of his deep stuff, so they were even. Only difference was, he didn't talk about girls or sports, either. Only thing he ever talked about at lunch was lunch, because there was no lying about that, it was right there on the tray in front of them. Apart from that and the weather and was he going to the game or the dance, he just listened and ate and when he was done, he threw away his garbage and stacked his tray and tossed his silverware and went to the library to study.
Usually he studied his subject, though sometimes he still went back over the Shakespeare stuff, just to see if maybe he'd understand any of it better now—and he sometimes did.
Today, though, he looked up motorcycles on the internet till he found the Harley that Yo Yo was driving. It was a fine machine. He liked the way it rumbled under him. Like riding a happy sabertooth, purring the whole way as you hurtle over the ground.
Between his long walks and his cold dreams, Mack once knew everything that was happening in his neighborhood. But now the long walks took place in Fairyland, and he had the skill of shutting down all but the strongest dreams before they were fully formed. So there were things he didn't know about. Nobody was keeping it a secret, he just wasn't there to notice it.
He knew somebody was moving into the fancy white house just below the drainage valley—he heard all about it when Dr. Phelps died and his second wife got the house in the will and sold it. And he saw a moving van come and guys unload stuff.
What he didn't know was who the new owner was. There was no hurry. He was bound to hear, especially because the house was above the invisible line—it was up the hill, where the money was, and so whatever happened there was big news to the people who lived in the flat.
He was eating dinner with Ivory DeVries's family even though Ivory was a year older than Mack and was off at college down in Orange County. Maybe they missed Ivory and Mack was kind of a reminder of the old days, when they both took part in neighborhood games of hide-and-seek. Back when there were enough kids that they could fan out through half of Baldwin Hills.
So Mack was standing at the sink, helping Ivory's sister Ebony rinse the dishes and load the dishwasher. Ebony had always hated her name, especially because she was very light-skinned. "I mean why did my parents choose each other if it wasn't to make sure they had kids that could pass the damn paper bag test. And then they go and name me Ebony? Why did Ivo get to be Ivory? They name the boy the white name and the girl the black black black name?"
"I hate to break it to you, Ebby," said Mack, "but both those names are definitely black names."
"I guess you right, I ain't never going to see no blond boy named Ivory, am I?"
Mack and Ebony got along okay, like brother and sister, not that Mack didn't notice how she filled out lately. But she was still in ninth grade and she was so short he could have fit her under his arm. And there was no sign she was interested anyway. So they did dishes together.
He was telling her about teachers he'd had and they were teasing each other about how Ivo always said Mack liked exactly the teachers that he hated most, which Mack insisted on taking as a compliment. That's when the voices in the living room got loud enough to intrude.
"You think it doesn't hurt property values to have that motorcycle roaring up and down the street at all hours?"
Maybe it was the word motorcycle that caught Mack's attention.
"It isn't roaring up and down the street, she's just going home."
"She does not just go home. She rides all the way to the top of Cloverdale and then races down and skids into her driveway. I've seen her do it twice, so it's a habit."
"Woman looks that fine on a bike, it isn't going to hurt property values one bit."
"Now that is just absurd."
"I value my front yard a lot more now there's a chance she might ride by."
"That is the most disgusting—"
"He just a man, what do you expect?"
"It's like mobile pornography, that's what it is, that girl on her motorcycle!"
"I never liked Dr. Phelps's second wife one bit, but now that we've seen this new girl, I wish we had Mrs. Phelps back again."
"She is not like pornography, she's got all her clothes on right up to her neck."
"The way those clothes fit her she might as well be naked."
"So let's get together a petition that points that out to her. I mean, if she's that close to naked, why not—"
"That's enough out of you, Moses Jones."
"Isn't there a noise ordinance?"
Mack and Ebby grinned at each other, and without even discussing it they went to the passage between the dining room and the living room and saw that while they were doing dishes, somebody convened a meeting of the neighborhood busybodies.
Ebby's mama looked at her pointedly. "This is an adult discussion, Ebby."
Ebby just laughed.
"I don't like your tone, young lady," said Ebby's mama.
"We were just wondering," said Mack, "who you talking about on the motorcycle?"
"The person who just moved into Dr. Phelps's old house just below the hairpin on Cloverdale."
"Whom I asked to keep the noise down late at night, to which she rudely replied that her bike was her only ride so how was she supposed to get home when she finished work at three A.M."
"She's one of those inhibitionists who can't stand it when people aren't noticing her."
Ebby poked Mack to try to make him laugh, and it nearly worked. To cover his stifled snort, Mack said, "Um, so she got no name at all? Just 'Motorcycle Ho'?"
"Mack Street, I'm telling Ura Lee you use language like that."
"But Mrs. Jones called her—"
"I called her a motorcycle-riding hoochie mama!"
"Her name is Yolanda White," said Moses Jones. "You want her phone number?"
Joyce Jones smacked a sofa pillow into his face. "You better not have her phone number. I got scissors and you sleep naked."
"That's more than we wanted to know, Joyce," said Eva Sweet Fillmore.
"I'm getting Moses some pajamas this Christmas," said her husband, Hershey. Their standard joke: When Eva Sweet found out that Hershey Fillmore was the one leaving those chocolates in her desk in fourth grade, it's like they had no choice but to get married as soon as they got old enough.
"Yo Yo," said Mack.
"What?" asked Ebby.
"If she likes you, she lets you call her Yo Yo."
"Yolanda White. The motorcycle-riding hoochie mama."
"If you children are just going to make fun!" said Ebby's mama sharply.
"We're back to the dishes!" cried Ebby and she dragged Mack back into the kitchen, though truth to tell, he wanted to stay and listen. Mrs. DeVries made sure he couldn't hear anything from the kitchen, either—she came to the kitchen, gave a child-maiming glare to Ebony, and closed the door.
"That look could dry up a girl's period," said Ebby.
"Make a man's balls drop right on the floor," said Mack.
"I seen her practice that look in a mirror, and it broke."
"Homeland Security list that look as a weapon of mass destruction."
From the living room, Mrs. DeVries's voice came loud and clear. "Quiet with that laughing in there or I come back in and look at you both twice!"
In the end, though, when the meeting was over, Mrs. DeVries came to the kitchen where Mack and Ebony were studying, made a cup of coffee, and told them everything. They were going to get Hershey to write a legal-sounding letter—Hershey was a retired lawyer—to scare her that she'd get sued if she didn't quiet down. And Hershey said there might be something in the deed that he was going to look up.
Mack listened to everything and didn't argue, but he knew—as Ebby had already said in their whispered conversation during homework—that this wasn't about the motorcycle noise. It was about Yolanda White being a single woman who might be anywhere from eighteen to thirty-five, nobody wanted to make a bet, who somehow had the money to buy a house like that.
Mrs. DeVries was incensed. "Who does she think she is, buying a house like that? You got to scrimp and save half your life to afford that house. What business a girl that age got with a million-dollar house?"
"Maybe she had a million dollars," said Ebby.
"Or maybe she has a man got a million dollars, mark my words, that's how it's going to turn out.
He'll get tired of her and suddenly she'll be left high and dry with a place she can't afford. Foreclosure!
That's my bet."
"You don't know how old she is, Mom, and she might have earned it. Maybe she invented a cure for cancer."
"Black woman invents the cure for cancer, it's going to be all over the news. Only way that Yo landa be on the news is when she ODs on drugs or holds up a liquor store or gets busted in the front seat of Hugh Grant's automobile on Sunset."
"Or gets lynched in Baldwin Hills," said Ebby.
"We're writing a letter, not finding a rope, Little Miss I-Don't-Have-to-Honor-My-Father-and-Mother."
"How do you know Yolanda White doesn't honor her father and mother?" asked Ebby.
"Because I sincerely doubt she knows who her father is."
That hung in the air for a long moment before Mrs. DeVries lost her look of triumph and gave a sort of quick glance toward Mack and then suddenly remembered she had to clean up some more in the living room.
As soon as she was gone, Ebby looked at Mack and said, "What was that about?"
"Isn't that just like grownups. It's okay to judge somebody for being a bastard, but not if they're sitting at the table with you."
"Actually, these days we prefer the term 'differently parented.' "
"No," said Ebby solemnly, "I am quite certain the term is 'paternity deficient.' 'Differently parented' means your parents are both the same sex, or there's more than two of them in the same house."
They traded politically correct synonyms for bastard till Mrs. DeVries came in and sent Mack home so Ebony could go to bed. "It is a school night, and not everybody has the stamina to wander through the neighborhood all night and still be up for school in the morning."
So people did notice him walking the streets. They couldn't know that for him, the middle of the night might really be morning, because he'd just slept the night in Fairyland. It was like perpetual jet lag for Mack, without the jet.
At the door, Mack finally asked the only question he was still wondering about. "What if Yolanda does get rid of the bike? Would you all welcome her to the neighborhood then?"
"Welcome her! What do you mean, bake cookies and cakes and invite her over? Not a woman like that! Not on your life!"
"Well, then, why should she give up the bike for you, if you don't plan to treat her decent even if she does get rid of it?"
"She won't be giving up the motorcycle for us. She'll be giving it up to avoid a big ugly lawsuit."
And the door closed with Mack outside.
Next morning, Mrs. Tucker came over for coffee while Miz Smitcher and Mack ate breakfast, which was becoming her custom now, with no kids in the house and Mr. Tucker off to work so early every day. Mack usually kept still, but today he had a lot on his mind.
"Over at DeVries they had a meeting last night."
"About Miss Motorcycle," said Mrs. Tucker.
"Motorcycle ain't the problem," said Mack.
"Wakes me up out of a sound sleep every time she goes by!"
"I mean, last night Mrs. DeVries said it didn't matter if Yolanda give up the bike or not, she still not welcome here."
"I completely agree," said Mrs. Tucker. "She cheapens the whole neighborhood." else's?"
"Got to have respect for the neighborhood," said Miz Smitcher.
"That bike is her ride," said Mack. "Since when do neighbors have the right to tell you what to drive?"
"We not telling her what to drive," said Mrs. Tucker. "We telling her what not to drive at three o'clock in the morning."
"Never woke me up," said Mack. Though he immediately realized it was probably because he was in Fairyland at the time.
"Might not have the right in law," said Miz Smitcher, "but we have a natural right to protect our property values."
Mack set down his fork and looked at them both in exasperation. "Can you hear yourselves?
Property values! They taught us in school that 'property values' was how white people used to excuse themselves for trying to keep blacks out of their neighborhood."
Mrs. Tucker snapped back, "Don't you go comparing racism to... to cyclism."
"Not that you were alive in those days, Mack, so you might know what you're talking about," said Miz Smitcher, "but the only reason property values went down when black people moved in was because of racism. If they just stop being racists, then black people moving in doesn't lower property values."
"So if you stop minding her riding her bike...," Mack began.
"Being black doesn't make a loud noise in the middle of the night," said Miz Smitcher.
"Neighbors got a right to have quiet. To keep people from being a public nuisance."
"So you're on their side. To treat this girl like a... like a nigger just cause—"
"That word does not get said in my house," said Miz Smitcher.
"Just cause she's young and cool. Wasn't anybody in this neighborhood ever young and cool? I guess not!"
Mrs. Tucker looked at Mack and cocked her head to one side. "I don't know that I ever seen this boy mad like this before."
"Say that word in my house," muttered Miz Smitcher.
"I guess I just made your property values go down," Mack muttered back.
"Listen to me, young man. You may be six foot four and too cool to stand, but you—"
"You don't understand anything about what it means to a black family to own a house! White people been owning houses forever, but here in the United States of Slavery and Sharecropping we never owned anything. Always paying rent to the man when he didn't own us outright."
"You never a sharecropper, Miz Smitcher," said Mack, trying to keep the scorn out of his voice.
"My daddy was. Not a homeowner in this neighborhood who didn't have a grandma or grandpa paying rent to some redneck cracker in the South, and a daddy or a mama paying rent to some slumlord in Watts. These aren't the people who made money and moved to Brentwood and pretended to be white, like O. J. These are the people who made their money and moved to Baldwin Hills cause we wanted to have peace and quiet but still be black."
"She black," said Mack.
"We want to be black our way," said Miz Smitcher. "Decent, regular, ordinary people. Not show black like those hippity-hop rippety-rappers and that girl on her bike."
Mrs. Tucker spoke into her coffee cup. "She's a little bit old to be calling her a girl."
"How do you know she isn't a decent, regular, ordinary person who happens to ride a motorcycle?" demanded Mack.
"And why do you think I didn't go to that meeting last night?" answered Miz Smitcher.
"Well if you're against what they doing, why are you arguing with me?"
"Because you judging and condemning people you don't even understand. What they doing to that girl, you doing to them. Everybody judging and nobody understanding."
"You were talking about property values," said Mack.
"I was explaining why somebody like that comes here, it makes us all feel like we getting invaded. Like the neighborhood maybe starting to turn trashy. Plenty of places for trashy people to live. They don't have to live here. This neighborhood is an island in a sea of troubles. Somebody young and loud like that, she's some people's worst nightmare."
I know what their worst nightmares are, thought Mack. Or at least what they might be, if they got their wishes.
Out loud, he said, "Well, she's not trashy, she's nice."
Both women raised their eyebrows, and Mrs. Tucker set down her cup. "Oh ho, sounds like love."
"She's ten years older than he is if she's a day," said Miz Smitcher.
"It isn't love," said Mack. "But I did something nobody else in this whole neighborhood bothered to do. I talked to her."
"They did not talk to her, they talked at her, told her what she got to do or else."
"Oh, were you there?" asked Mrs. Tucker.
"I'll tell you about Yolanda White. She sees a kid running to school cause the bus driver took off without me like she always tries to do, and she pulls up in front of me on that bike and gives me a ride to school."
Mrs. Tucker gasped and Miz Smitcher looked at him for a long moment. "You been on that bike?"
Only now did Mack realize that they might not take the right lesson from his experience. "My point is that she's a kind person."
But Miz Smitcher wasn't having it. "She's riding along and she sees a schoolboy and she gives him a ride?"
"It was a nice thing to do," Mack insisted.
"So you had your arms around her and you were pressed right up against her back and tell me, Mack, did she drive fast and hard so you had to hold on real tight?"
This was not going the way Mack intended. "We were riding a motorcycle, Miz Smitcher, if you don't hold on you end up sliding along the street."
"Oh, I know what happens if you don't hold on to a motorcycle, Mister," said Miz Smitcher. "I see motorcycle accidents all the time. Skin flayed right off their body, these fools go riding in shorts and a t-shirt and then they spill on the asphalt and get tar and stones imbedded in their bones and the muscles torn right off their body cause the pavement's like being sandblasted. And that woman took my boy and put him on the back of her bike so he rubbing up against her and she drove him along the streets like a crazy woman so she put him at risk of ending up in the hospital with a nurse like me changing the dressings on his skinless body while he screaming in spite of the morphine drip—oh, don't you tell me about how nice she is."
Mack knew that anything he said now would just make things worse. He dug into his cereal.
"Don't you sit there and eat that Crispix like you didn't hear a word I said."
"He just trying to think of an answer," said Mrs. Tucker.
"Just trying to finish breakfast so I don't miss my bus," said Mack.
"You're not to go near her, you hear me?" said Miz Smitcher. "You think you're friends with her now—"
"I know we not friends." They'd be friends when she let him call her Yo Yo.
to kill her or you or both, and if you get on her motorcycle again, I'm kicking you out of this house!"
"So I'd be dead and homeless," said Mack.
"Don't make fun of what I'm telling you!"
Mack got up, rinsed out his dish, and started to put it in the dishwasher.
"Don't! Those are clean in there!" shouted Miz Smitcher.
"You're right," said Mack. "Wouldn't want a dirty dish to spoil the property values in there."
"That's exactly my point!" said Miz Smitcher. "That is exactly my point. One dirty dish and you have to rewash the whole batch."
"Well, this whole neighborhood better start rewashing, cause Yolanda White bought that house and I don't think she going to pay any attention to a neighborhood vigilante committee." He stalked off to get his backpack out of his bedroom.
Behind him, he could hear Miz Smitcher talking to Mrs. Tucker. "She already setting parent against child. She is divisive."
Mack couldn't let that go. "She isn't divisive! She just minding her business! You and me the ones getting divisive!"
"Because of her!" shouted back Miz Smitcher.
Mack stood in his room, holding the bookbag. In all his years in this house, this was the first time he and Miz Smitcher ever shouted at each other in anger.
Which wasn't to say that they never disagreed. But up till now, Mack always gave in, always said yes ma'am, because that was how things stayed smooth. Mack liked things to stay smooth. He didn't care enough about most things to yell at anybody about them.
But suddenly he did care. Why? What was Yo Yo, that he should get so mad when somebody dissed her? Why was he loyal to her?
He almost walked back into the kitchen and apologized.
But then it occurred to him: About time I stood up for something around here. Always doing what other people want, well maybe I'm ready to fight for something, and it might as well be Yolanda's right to live here and ride a motorcycle and give a lift to a seventeen-year-old man who's probably really more like nineteen anyway.
He was ten yards from the bus when the driver started to pull away. She hadn't been stopped there for two whole seconds and he knew she saw him cause she looked right at him. And today he was pissed off, at Miz Smitcher, at the whole neighborhood, and he was not going to take any shit from a bus driver.
Mack landed on his feet and ran directly in front of the bus and stood on the front bumper and yelled through the windshield into the driver's face. "Open the damn door and take me to school like they pay you to do!"
Mack couldn't see his own face but there must have been something new there, because that driver looked at him with real fear in her eyes.
The door opened.
Mack got off the bumper, hoisted his book bag over his shoulder, and sauntered to the door.
He stepped up, taking his time, and kept his eyes on her the whole time he walked up the steps and past her. She never looked at him once, just kept her eyes straight forward. She closed the door and the bus started forward with a lurch.
Mack turned toward the back of the bus, looking for a seat. All the other kids were looking at him like he was an alien. But not just any alien. He was the alien who had faced down the devil driver.
Plenty of them had been left behind, too, over the years, and Mack was the first person to make her stop and wait. So what he saw in the other kids' eyes was awe or delight or amusement, anyway.
They were all kids, so they were used to having to take crap from adults whenever the adults felt like dishing it out.
When Mack sat down, Terrence Heck gave him a hood handshake and Quon Brown called out from two rows behind him, in a voice pretending to be a girl, "You my hero, Mack Street."
Mack turned around and grinned. "That be Mr. Super Hero to you, Quon."
When they got to school, the bus driver was still fuming, and when he passed her, she muttered,
"You want a ride, you get to the bus stop on time."
Mack whirled on her and glared at her and damn if he didn't discover in that very moment that he had a look. Just like Mrs. DeVries. He could just focus his eyes on this mean bus driver and she wilted like lettuce in the microwave. "You paid to take children to school," he said to her. "You do your job or lose it."
Then he jumped down the steps like he always did, and behind him the other kids, who had heard the exchange, whooped and laughed and whistled their way past the driver and out of the bus.
I did my own little revolution, thought Mack, and I feel fine.
But that night, when he got back into the neighborhood, it didn't take long for him to hear that Hershey Fillmore had found the perfect way to get rid of Yolanda White. Baldwin Hills had originally been built as a white neighborhood, and as old Hershey suspected, there were covenants in the deeds of a lot of the houses. There was one on the deed to Dr. Phelps's house, which Yolanda White had just purchased.
"You mean a bunch of black people are going to sue to enforce a racist deed?" Mack asked, incredulous.
"They not going to enforce it, those things don't hold up in court anymore," said Ebby. "No, they going to try to nullify the sale because she didn't strike it out of the deed when she bought the house."
"They lost their minds or something? Dr. Phelps didn't strike it out either or it wouldn't have been there."
"Hate is an ugly thing," said Ebby.
"I'll tell you what," said Mack. "Somebody needs to tell that woman what they planning to do."
"And I guess that means you plan to be that somebody?"
"Who else? I already talked to her once."
Ebby was taken aback. "When you talk to her?"
"She give me a ride to school a couple of weeks ago."
"And you didn't mention that last night?" Ebby asked.
"Didn't come up," he said.
"The very woman everybody was talking about in a whole meeting and it 'didn't come up'?"
Was Ebby going insane on him? "I told you she went by Yo Yo," said Mack. "So I must have met her. If you asked me how, I would've told you."
"I thought we was friends, Mack Street." And she turned around and went back inside her house, leaving him out on the street, feeling, for the first time in many years, excluded from one of the homes in Baldwin Hills.