Story — From the July 2014 issue

To the Corner

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Sweet September up in the Boone — twenty past last bell on the first day of school and a pumpkin-colored school bus tools down Boone Street laying middle schoolers along the porch-couch weed-lot crapboard houses of West Central: the Twilight Zone, Felony Flats, the West Centy. At the second-to-last stop KJ and crew come off the bus slinging backpacks as they head straight to the corner — spot they haunted all summer — barely out the sighing bus doors when shirts come off, ribs, guts, pecs, clavicles jutting beneath beige-black-white casings, All the above, as Studio says — boys hitting the chain-link kitty-corner from the Family Suprette, where they sag-scrape-low-hang-lean, all of them eyeing the only girl gets off at their stop, name they can’t remember, inky-haired lovely seventh-grade Rah-something — who won’t even look their way — until KJ sighs a single word: Damn.



Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Then Rah-something turns the corner and four heads swing the other way in sync, like birds on a clothesline — KJ saying, Doug B, why your backpack look like My Little Ponies — Doug B’s lame comeback, You should see my dick, which might be funny except he always comes back about his dick, so Studio is ready with, Your dick? Thought that was a belly button.

Nah. All chill up in the Boone.

Summer still, says A-Sym — so called because of his one droopy eye, scar, crooked smile.

Should cancel school when the bump hit eighty.

That’s some sensible shit.

Cars go by — sleds and rides, buckets, trucks and bikes, minivans of parents picking up kids from Holmes, grade school where this crew met — these Holmes homes narrating traffic like they did all summer: I’d drive that and Imagine if your moms look like her and Put some wheels on that sled, yo and Why all Priuses look so constipated? Nah man, all chill up here in the Boone.

Across the street, old gray brocade curtains part and a head eases out, like an elephant being born: a silver-haired white man squinting over bifocals, watching the boys on the corner, grimy storm-glass window making it seem like he’s mouthed the words Well, I’ll be goddamned.

On the other side of glass and curtains: a dark living room, midcentury American (first time around), and tall, craggy Leonard Darvin pulls away from the window, repeating to himself for emphasis, breaking off each word. I. Will. Be. God. Damned. He thought for sure that when school started those kids would leave that corner, but no, here they are again. Are you kidding me? Leonard rants among relics — bookshelves bloated with dusty hardcovers, a blue sectional, two clamshell club chairs, console TV, hi-fi. All summer he watched those wastrels gather on that corner and loiter, their very existence an affront to the careful steps of his own life: Korea, G.I. Bill, junior college, marriage and kids, Squires circle counselor in the Knights of Columbus, copydesk at the afternoon newspaper, then city-desk reporter when the morning paper ate the afternoon, then back to the copydesk, and before he knew it, a buyout retirement and part-time job as a reference librarian, full retirement and full grandparenthood, all of it an easy glide until last year. There’s nothing in life he likes less than self-pity and yet he can’t seem to stop: a what-was-it-all-about refrain plays in his head. When Marjorie died he stopped going to mass, stopped fishing, stopped opening curtains, stopped doing everything he loved except the garden. And even that he gave up this summer. Maybe that’s what he hates about those boys on the corner, that they’ve somehow skipped to an ending they haven’t earned. That they seem born with the knowledge he’s only now discovered, that it’s rigged, for nothing, that we’re all just standing on corners, waiting for dirt —

No, Leonard says aloud. Bullshit. He can’t recall a single moment that he spent with the lack of initiative those boys across the street show every day, just . . . standing there. But it’s not the laziness that gets him, or that they’ll sometimes mess with traffic, or that they might be drug dealers or their single mothers might get food stamps, if Michael is correct, or any of that right-wing, phony, up-by-his-bootstraps bullshit that Leonard’s eldest spouts (Don’t forget who paid for those bootstraps, Michael). Leonard is not the sort of jackass who sees kids on a corner and worries about neighborhood property values the way his daughters do. (Oh, he sees the girls calculating their small inheritance.) No, it’s the sheer waste of time, of health, of potential. That’s what offends him. Grim determination has kept Leonard living in West Central for fifty years, through boom and bust, and bust and bust and bust, rumors of gentrification becoming stale jokes, his brothers in Seattle and Portland tripling their money while his home’s value remained as flat as the land it sat on. He was resolute through regular bouts of vandalism and theft, junk cars parked in front of his house, neighbors going the rental route with single-coat-paint remodels — through it all, Leonard held tight. For fifty years, he engaged the neighborhood kids, shot baskets with them, asked after their families and homework, hired them to rake leaves or help with his big garden. Last spring, he even tried hiring one of those corner kids, Timothy, but the boy just stopped showing up, disappeared off the corner (Probably in juvie, Michael said), and that’s when Leonard was done with them, done with all of it, done trying, done caring. For the first time his depressed neighborhood depresses him: those saggy-pants shirtless boys, that corner.

Don’t go looking for trouble, his daughter Emily said during one of his rants about the kids on the corner. If they’re harassing you, call the cops. Middle daughter Saundra, who yells as if her father lived at the end of a wind tunnel, saw it as an opportunity to move things along, Dad, maybe it’s time to think about assisted living! But the harshest reaction came from Michael, whose every solution comes from talk radio, who squinted out the window and said, At least two of them look white, as if that had something to do with it. One day Michael showed up with a small black box with two chrome latches and said, Look what I got for you, Dad, opening it slowly, for your protection, like some sacred relic.

Christ, Michael.

It’s just a .22. In case those gangbangers give you trouble.

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’s story “Thief” appeared in the March 2012 issue of Harper’s Magazine. He lives with his family in Spokane.

More from Jess Walter:

Story From the July 2018 issue

Plante’s Ferry

Fiction From the March 2012 issue


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