Bootsie, tall for her age, with skin the color of iced tea, stood at the top of the hill, waiting. The sun was starting to go down, and the evening light made her peach-colored hair look like dandelion fluff.
"Girl," Bootsie said, when June finally arrived, "you're always late." She took June by the hand, and as they ran towards the lot, June's feet practically dragged behind her, unable to keep up.
June loved this place. The houses were close together like friends and all the people sat outside. Once, her family had to drive through here. Her mother leaned over and locked all the doors. June started to roll down the window, but her mother shook her head, no.
"It's hot," June said.
"I don't care," her mother told her, "just leave it."
June remembered that at a red light, they could hear a phone ringing in the house on the corner. A woman with a baby on her lap sat on the top step. The woman reached inside the door for the receiver and started talking. She had a finger hooked into the back of the baby's diaper. He squirmed away from her, got down the steps, and ran toward the car, laughing. The woman reached down the steps in one long motion and snagged him.
"Poor thing," June's mother said, "poor baby. Look how he tried to come with us. It's as if he understands."
Her mother and father shared a look which meant that they were glad they had escaped all this, glad they could give her much more than that baby would ever have.
When Bootsie and June came to the lot, they played Red Light-Green Light and then Statue with some other girls. June was still poised like a ballerina when a few boys arrived. The boys went up to Bootsie and whispered something in her ear.
"Oh, that Darryl," Bootsie said, and took off after them with June and all the other girls at her heels.
Down the road, there was a field of abandoned cars. Laughter came from one—-a rusted pink Rambler. The back doors were torn off and a large oily green blanket was draped over the sides where the doors had been. A cardboard sign was propped against the windshield so no one could see inside. There were two words printed on it. To herself, June read, Free Pussy, and then stopped.
Bootsie cocked her head to one side as she read. After the meaning of the sign struck her, she burst out laughing and then shouted the words at the car over and over again.
"Darryl," she called, laughing. "Are you in there? I'm going to tell Mama what you're trying to do."
"Go away!" came a voice, muffled, and then laughter from the boys inside.
"Come on, Bootsie, let's go," June said. Everything was dull and heavy now.
She tried to coax the other girls to go inside, offering them money as if she really had some. They all shook their heads, stood with their arms in front of them. She grabbed June's wrist and tried to drag her to the car, saying, "Here's one for you!" to the boys inside and laughing. June pulled away from her, fast and hard, and felt ready to hit her if she had to.
"Girl! What's wrong with you?" Bootsie said, her face becoming harder and meaner than June had ever seen it.
June was going to leave when another, much younger girl, dressed in shorts and a frilly band of cloth across her top, came up to see what everyone was doing.
"What's in there?" the little girl said. June could see she wanted to be accepted, wanted them to love her and keep her for their own like a doll baby.
Bootsie stepped forward. "If you go in there, we'll let you play with us. We'll give you some of our candy."
The girl looked at June for some reason, as if she knew her and could trust her. She smiled a trusting little smile and with this smile, June thought the girl seemed very small and weak beside all the others. For some reason she did not understand, this made June angry. Suddenly, she realized she hated the girl, and she felt her hate rising like the heat from the sidewalk. She wanted to see the girl smashed and broken, and this made her feel ashamed, but still she waited to see what would happen. A rush of excitement went through her that made her shiver.
"Go on," Bootsie said to the girl. "Go on inside." She made her voice pretty and her face pretty, too. "They'll give you a kitten if you go inside. See the sign?"
The girl stared at the sign for a long time as if she were sounding out the letters, then she smiled. She started to get into the car, then hesitated, looking from one girl to the next. Each girl made her face as bland as a blackboard.
"Go on," Bootsie said. "Go!"
From inside the car, one of the boys began to meow softly.
Just then, a car pulled up, and June heard her mother's voice which froze her into place.
"June! Get in here this instant! Get in!" And, as if that weren't bad enough, June felt her mother's hand on her arm, more roughly than she'd ever been touched before, as she dragged her to the car where her father waited, his mouth a line.
All the way back home, she heard words from the two of them: "bad," and "reform school" and "useless." The back of her neck was hot with shame.
But later that night, after dinner, as if pulled by an invisible thread, June went back. She made her way through the streets and the alleys, to the lot, looking for Bootsie. Instead, she found the car and the frilly piece of material that had been the girl's top. June turned the scenes over and over in her mind: her father's look, her mother's temper, the words, and that piece of material, lying in the dirt as if it had been stepped on by the shoes of boys.
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