I stood there in the doorway as she shifted papers from one end of her desk to another, opened a new folder, and then looked up something on her laptop. She tapped her head absentmindedly and then looked searchingly at the desk.
"You're wearing them, Mrs. Cole."
Reaching up, she touched her glasses and smiled awkwardly. "Thank you, Mr. Kirschbaum. Please sit down. This is your," she looked at the folder, "Lunch period, correct?"
"Yes, ma'am." I took one of the two chairs in front of her desk.
"Okay, and you're interested in the school with the best musical program possible that will give you a scholarship. Is that also correct?"
"Yeah, we, uh, we don't have that much money."
She smiled, glasses on the edge of her nose. "I understand, Gus. I'm not being nosy, it's just that there are scholarships available from many sources for students in difficult situations. May I ask if there are any extenuating circumstances?"
I've never liked questions like that. They seemed designed to make my life more difficult. Parsing what people meant was always tedious. I guessed at her meaning. "Uhm, no. I guess not. We just don't have a lot of money."
"All right. Both parents work?"
"My mom, she... well, she died when I was seven."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, Gus. I had no idea. So, it's you and your father?"
"Yeah. And Pop. We live in his house. Mom and Dad sold theirs when Dad lost his arm."
"Your... your father lost his arm?"
She smiled softly. "Gus, that's what we call an extenuating circumstance. What branch of the military was your father in?"
"He's a Marine, ma'am. So's Pop."
"Two generations of Marines. We can work with that. I'm sure there's scholarship money out there that we can tap into. So, why UC Boulder?"
"They have the best music department and they've got an ROTC program. I plan on enlisting as soon as I graduate from college and serve in the Marine's Drum and Bugle Corps and CU Boulder has a leading brass and percussion department."
"CU?" She smiled. "You've done your homework. I guess you've visited the campus. But the Drum and Bugle Corps? Really? You're the first student I've had with that ambition. Have you... Is that something you think that you'd be suited for?"
It was CU, not UC. I knew that people thought I could be pedantic but it's one thing or another. It's either CU or UC and in this case, it was CU. Usually, I just pushed it down and kept quiet when someone was blithely wrong or imprecise.
It bothered me that my issues seemed to bleed into every part of my life. I knew what she meant by my being suited for something and appreciated her trying to be discreet. "We talked to some specialists and they said the structure would help me."
"Okay, well, I'm sure we can work towards that. You seem very goal-driven, Gus. Your grades are solid and your testing shouldn't be an issue. You seem to be a little light on extra-curricular and community activities."
"I work part-time to help out."
"Okay, can you carve out a few hours a week to do something for the community outside of school?"
"Uhm, yes, ma'am. I can cut back on something."
"Excellent. Do you have any hobbies?"
"I like to run."
"For the school? On the track team?"
"No. Just for... you know. Exercise. I also draw a lot."
"What type of drawing?"
"Uhm, stick figures. But it's more than that. I use an open-source program to animate them, like a flip-book."
"Great." She looked at her laptop again. "Can we get together at the same time on Tuesday? I'll look into grants and scholarships and you see what you can find about community interaction."
She gave me a pass for my next class so I could go grab something to eat without having to worry about being late. I used the opportunity to get most of my homework done and got to the repair shop by three.
Mr. Progietti owned the shop and I'd worked there for four years. He moved slowly and his white walrus mustache was almost permanently stained from the coffee that was never far from his hand. We worked well together. He loved talking to people and I preferred to work on concrete issues; things where there was a definitive right and wrong.
"Hello, Gus. Learn anything new?" It was his standard greeting when I came straight from school.
"No, sir. Not really. Had a good meeting about college. Uhm, would it be okay if maybe I worked late on some Saturdays if I had something to do early in the day?"
"I guess. You already have the keys. You can just lock up and leave when you're done. Speaking of which, we have a weed trimmer and three mowers in the back. Heading there now?"
He spoke a little louder, as if his Echo Dot was hard of hearing. "Alexa, play songs from my Dizzy Gillespie playlist."
Lost in the music, I didn't notice the time slip by. By seven I had all three mowers running and was working on the trimmer. I told Mr. Progietti, returned to the back and did 150 push-ups.
"You sure you don't want a ride, Gus?"
"No, sir. Thanks. I need to stay in shape."
He shook his head. "You need to have more fun. You just go to school, play that horn, and work."
"Yes, sir. Have a good night." I headed towards the door.
"Gus, hold up a second."
"Sure." I walked back to the register.
"Alice, she, well, you know how she likes to shop. She, uh, she saw these and it was a sale and she couldn't resist."
He pulled a box with a pair of Asics out from behind the counter. "It's got some gel or something."
I smiled. "Gel nimbus. That's... Thank you, sir. And please, thank Mrs. Progietti." His wife was a hugger and was very sweet, but that made me nervous. It was nice that he gave them to me instead of Mrs. Progietti being there to do so. I changed on the spot, slipping on the new running kicks.
"Remember that flip-booky thing you made for Alice? The couple on the bench in the park? She still watches that all the time. You know, Gus, I'm uh, I'm not getting any younger. I understand what you're doing and why and I admire you for it, I really do, but if you ever change your mind, there's an opportunity for you here."
"Thank you, sir." I knew that I should say something. "I'm uh, I'm not really too good with this sort of stuff, but I appreciate the two of you. More than just for giving me the job, but for that too. You... well, thanks. And please tell Mrs. Progietti that they fit great. Uhm... Yeah, I guess I should take off." I lingered.
"Gus, something on your mind?"
I looked at the display mower while speaking. "Uhm, when, I guess you were younger, before Mrs. Progietti, did you ever get, like, really nervous talking to a girl?"
He smiled gently and sat back on the stool he kept near the register. "Son, there's not a man born that hasn't been made nervous by one girl or another. Are we talking about a specific girl?"
"Yeah. She... well, she's a musician. Plays the violin. She's sort of, I don't know. She's out of my league. Really pretty, one of the rich kids. She, man, I feel stupid even saying this. When I try to talk to her I feel like my tongue is too big and my hands get sweaty. I've dated another girl, so I don't get it."
"And you want to ask this girl out?"
"No, she... well, we're not really in the same groups outside of music. If I want to get into CU Boulder, I need to have more community activities. She and her father play at a lot of charity events. I was hoping they may let me play with them some Saturdays."
"Okay. Well, I'm biased, but you have nothing to worry about. You're a smart, talented, good-looking kid. I'm not dismissing what you're saying, Gus. Every man's been there at one time or another. The only way you'll get past it is by talking to her. Suck it up. If you want to be a Marine, you've got to have what it takes to do what makes you uncomfortable. Keep it to playing the events. At first. Just use that as a... a bridge, I guess. Let things grow from there."
My ears felt hot. "Oh, no. I mean, I'm not going to ask her out or anything, we... well, she has her friends and I have mine and they... I don't know. Whatever, I guess. Okay, thanks. You're right. I'll just stick to the gigs and talk to her about that."
He was smiling at me. "You do that."
The new sneakers felt great as I turned into the driveway. I walked back and forth a bit, cooling down. When I dropped my backpack off on the porch, I heard Mrs. McLarty.
"Gus, is that you?"
"Could you come over here for a moment?"
I walked next door and she met me on her porch. "I have some Frito Pie for my men. Spicy, I know you like your spices."
"Oh, that's, um, really nice of you. Thank you, ma'am."
Going inside, I followed her to the kitchen. She pulled $5.00 from her purse and put it on the tinfoil that covered the casserole.
"Don't think I didn't see you mowing my lawn Sunday. You put this towards your college money."
She was a sweet old lady and was always cooking for us. I didn't have the heart to refuse her $5.00. I did the mowing and snow blowing. Dad did the carpentry for her and Pop helped her with her bills and drove her to the doctors and grocery.
"Thank you, ma'am. That's very kind."
"You're one of the good ones, Gus. Give me a hug."
"Mrs. McLarty, I'm a sweaty mess."
"Son, I'm 84 years old. How many more hugs am I going to get? I can't afford to be picky."
I stuck my arms out and let her do the hugging, while I patted her back. Reminding her to call if she needed anything, I took the casserole back home.
Pop yelled out from the den. "Frito pie?" That man has a nose like a bloodhound.
"Your father and I ate. It's all yours." He paused, then continued. "If you wanna save me a slice for breakfast, I wouldn't argue with you."
"Okay. One sliver for breakfast."
"I said slice."
"I got you. One small slice."
"If it's too small you're gonna start paying rent."
More homework got done as I scarfed down half the casserole. If he saw me, Dad would have half-heartedly told me to use a plate. Going up to my room, I placed the foam under the door and played my trumpet for a couple of hours, did some sit-ups, and watched some videos before going to sleep.
There I was, standing by the door after band class, waiting, nervous and pathetic. She approached me and I wiped my hands on my pants. The voice came from behind me.
"A problem, Mr. Kirschbaum?"
I turned. The teacher stood there with a bemused look. "No, Mr. Kendal. Everything's good."
"You seemed distracted earlier."
"I, uh, yeah, just had a lot on my mind."
"Understandable...once in a while. Don't make it a habit, Mr. Kirschbaum."
"No, sir. Thanks."
When I turned back, she was gone. I was frustrated and a little relieved.
My free period was spent studying and researching for a paper on Hawthorne and the Romantic Movement. When school was out I headed to the gym and worked on pull-ups and everything else that would be part of the Physical Fitness Test in boot camp.
The football players were there and I tried to stay out of their way. As usual, their voices got louder when I entered the gym.
"Hey, Bill, we going to your place tonight, sir?"
"Sir, yes sir."
I'm not the quickest picking up on social cues or understanding implied hierarchies, but after getting pushed around a few times I realized that the athletes, especially football players, had priority when it came to equipment. It got to the point where I avoided the equipment entirely. I'd use free-weights to mimic the 30 lb ammunition box lift, do my crunches and pull-ups, and leave.
They seemed to get irritated when their bullying didn't work, so they began making fun of the way I spoke. Everything was sir and ma'am. I zoned them out, which wasn't always a great idea. I'd focus on what I was doing and when I concentrated on blocking them, everything else went with it. I'd ignored a couple of people that were just trying to be polite a few times and that didn't help my reputation for being weird.
It wasn't too bad, but it was frustrating. There were other people in school that were on the autism spectrum who were worse off than I was. It's called a spectrum for a reason. I was definitely "high functioning", but that didn't mean that there were no difficulties. Girls like guys who are in shape, but they like them better if they were an athlete. And girls like guys who can pick up on hints and feel their way through things. That wasn't me.
After taking a shower, I grabbed my backpack, threw in my new sneakers for the run home, and went out to wait for the late busses. The regular busses are pretty strict, but the ones for after-school activities aren't picky. You can take any one you want and I usually took the one that would get me closest to the repair shop.
While waiting for the bus, I was listening to "The Scarlet Letter" again when someone slapped my shoulder. I popped out one of the earbuds.
Emily Peterson was to my left, looking up at me with an amused look. She was a short girl, but curvy. We never really spoke in spite of her being a serious pianist and our being together for so many classes and concerts.
"I said, you need a haircut."
Reflexively, I reached up and brushed my hand through my hair. "Uhm, I guess."
"Where do you usually go?"
This was really strange. "For my hair?"
"Yes, Gus, for your hair. That's what we're talking about."
"Wherever. No set place."
"You ever go to Urban?"
"On, uh, 29th? No. That's for women, right?"
"They're unisex. Urban is pretty close to Tinseltown. Like, a mile or two. You're into movies, right?"
"Good. When you're done with Urban, I'll meet you at Tinseltown. 2:00 on Saturday good for you?"
I had no idea what was going on. Emily was crazy hot and we'd spoken less than 50 words in the four years we went to school together. She was dating one of the football players and now she wanted to go to the movies?
"Gus, I asked if two works for you."
"I, uh, I work until 2:30."
"Okay. I'll see you at 4:00." She slowly ran her hand through my hair. It looked clinical, and she seemed to be evaluating my haircut, but all I had going through my brain was that Emily Peterson was running her hand through my hair. I got goosebumps. "Do something with this first. See ya Saturday."
After watching her walk away, I stood there, staring at nothing. My earbud still hung down and I almost missed the bus.
When we finished up for the day at the shop, I slipped on the new sneakers.
"Can I give you a lift home, Gus?"
"No, thanks, Mr. Progietti. I need to get some miles in."
"Everything okay? You seemed distracted today."
"I, uh, yeah, I mean no. It... Maybe a little."
I smiled. "Girls."
After my shower I stood looking in the mirror, turning my head this way and that. I always told the barber to just shorten my hair and keep it neat. What was I going to tell a stylist? Eventually going downstairs, I threw some oatmeal in the microwave and grabbed the three bananas. Two went in my backpack, one was for the oatmeal.
The voice came from the den. "Did you leave any bananas for your father?"
I snuck one out of my backpack and left it on the counter. "Yes."
"I don't know how the two of you eat so many of 'em. We must have a monkey in our family tree."
"Lots of potassium, Pop," I called back.
"Yeah, all that running. I get it. Just drink a Gatorade like most kids."
"Get some Gatorade and I'll drink it." I smiled and mouthed along as he replied.
"What am I, made out of money?"
After putting three hard-boiled eggs and a salt packet I kept from the diner in a Ziplock, I stopped in the den on my way to the door. He was reading the paper.
"Dad at work already?"
"Yup. Left about an hour ago."
"He's working a lot lately. Maybe... I don't know, maybe we could do something together one day? We could go bowling or something?"
"Are you kidding? He needs all the hours he can get. You know how expensive Gatorade and bananas are?"
I stood there a second and I thought he looked sad. I was afraid that it was because of me. Pop ran his hand over the black and white stubble of his crew-cut before he continued.
"Gus, I'm joking. I'll talk to him when he gets home. Maybe early next week, okay?"
"Okay. Uhm, what are the chances I can use the car on Saturday?"
"You know I go fishing Saturdays. You like the Sunday fish-fry's? Not happening if I'm sitting on my ass here." He smiled. "I gotta be sitting on my ass there."
"Yeah. Okay. I'll... I'll figure something out. I gotta get the bus."
"Learn something new."
I was a few houses down when I heard the bellow. "Gus!" Some neighbors turned and stared. To me, he was always just Pop, but even at 58, he was a big intimidating guy to many people. I jogged back.
"What did you need the car for?"
"A, uh, a girl wanted me to take her to the movies."
"Yeah? You like this girl?"
"I guess. She's..." I paused.
"Get it washed Friday. I'll get a ride to the boat on Saturday."
It wasn't something I do often, but I stepped in and hugged him. Hugging people just set every nerve on edge. It felt... unnatural, but I knew what it meant to him. When I was younger, I actually kept a journal counting how often I confided in Dad or how often I let Pop hug me. If I wasn't doing it enough, I'd try to step things up. I was getting better, but it was still difficult.
"What's the matter with you? It's just a car. Get offa me. Sheesh."
I would have, but it was him holding me. He was smiling as I turned to hit the street.
Flat out running was the only way I could get to the bus on time. I'd known Charlie Zelnick since we were five. Kids from our area weren't guaranteed to have a car to take to school like the rich kids. We weren't exactly friends, but we were friendly. I started shelling the eggs and noticed him looking at me.
"What's up with the eggs?"
"Protein. I get real skinny if I don't get enough protein."
"You're skinny now."
"Uhm, I guess. I mean like, I lose muscle and get to be skin and bones."
"Dude, all you do is run. Slow down and you won't have to worry about it."
"I can't. I need to go into boot camp ready."
"But, don't you like, beat all the numbers they want now?"
"Yeah, but I want to keep it that way. Hey, you know how much it costs for a haircut at Urban?"
"Urban Hair Stylists? My sister goes there. My brother-in-law's got money. I think it's like 80 bucks."
"Yeah, it's crazy. But, she's got like long hair and they do all sorts of stuff, so maybe it's cheaper for a guy. Why don't you call them?"
"Good idea. I'll call from the shop."
My first few periods went by quickly and then I saw her standing with a few friends. My hands started sweating and I almost turned around and walked away. I kept telling myself that it was nothing. People talk to each other every day. Not a big deal. I put one foot in front of another, walked up and started speaking.
"Shannon, could I talk with you for a minute after band? It... just for a minute... I need... Well, we can talk then."
When they stopped talking and started staring at me, I realized I'd interrupted whatever conversation they were having. I could feel my neck and cheeks getting hot and knew I was flushing. Feeling like an idiot, I turned and walked away. One of the girls started laughing.
Sitting outside during lunch, I leaned against the wall while trying to get some studying in. It felt like everyone was staring at me and I had "loser" branded on my forehead. I couldn't remember a thing that happened between lunch and band. I tried to be as inconspicuous as possible and thankfully I was pretty sharp. There was no need for corrections. I played my parts, played them well, and tried to fade into the background.
Packing my stuff up, I was thinking that I just had AP English left and then I could go. I'd sit in the back of the shop, by myself, and lose myself in the work.
"Gus? You wanted to talk."
I felt nauseous. Slowly turning around, I saw Shannon standing there, violin in its case under her arm. She was about 5'3 and had long, soft brown hair, the color of coffee right after you put milk in it. Shannon had these little lines on the corner of her eyes when she smiled and when she concentrated she tilted her hip to one side. I'd spent hours watching her play throughout the years and it was always there when she put all of her attention on one thing. She was doing it now and...
"Oh. Yeah, sorry. I, uh, I didn't mean to bother you."
She waited for me to continue and when I didn't, she spoke.
"Was there something on your mind?"
I shook my head slightly, irritated at myself. "Yeah. Sorry. Listen, I spoke to my guidance counselor and she said that I need more community and civic activities to get the scholarships I need. I know that you and your dad do a lot of charity events. I was wondering if you could use someone who could play trumpet or bugle?"
Shannon smiled. "I'm sure we could, and even if we can't, there are lots of events that we can't do because we're booked. Maybe you could fill in for those."
That wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear, but she wasn't slamming the door shut on the idea.
"Whatever you could do would be great."
"I'll talk to Dad tonight. Give me your phone."
I did and without moving her head, she looked at the phone in her hands and then up at me. It was Pop's old phone, but it still worked. Dad had one from his company. He's a construction inspector for a large real estate company and he needs to be in constant contact with contractors, his office, and government agencies. I kept my minutes down and Pop hardly ever used his, so we did okay.
Her fingers flew across the phone and her own phone rang a few seconds later. She turned it off. "Okay, I'm in your phone and I have your number now. We have a Facebook page with all of our upcoming gigs. Poplin Family Jug Band. You can check out the dates there. I'll call you tonight or talk to you tomorrow. Sound good?"
"Yeah. Perfect. Thanks. I'm, uh, I'm going to Urban Stylist." I had no idea why I said that. It's like my mouth grew a dagger so I could stab myself in the back.
"Yeah? They're good. Sometimes I go there with my mom or Aunt Liz. I'm sure they'll do a good job."
"Right." I paused. "Okay, then. Thanks. I'll talk to you later."
"See you, Gus."
"Okay." I turned and walked away.
I turned back.
"I... Check out the Facebook page. It has dates and locations and stuff. And videos."
"Okay. I'll check tonight. Thanks!"
She gave a little wave, turned, and started walking to her next class.
Pop's legs were sticking out under Dad's pick-up when I got home.
"Changing the oil?"
"Yeah. Go help your father."
"Uhm, okay. Everything all right?"
"Yeah, he's got a hot date tonight. Everyone's getting some but me."
I laughed. Pop had women his age stopping by all the time. They'd bring pies or casseroles and hang out as long as he'd let them. He was retired from the Corps and worked on party boats a few nights a week. He was healthy, stable, and popular. I could reasonably hope two-thirds of those traits were inheritable.
My backpack landed on the couch when I entered the house.
I called out. "Dad?"
He was in his bedroom, trying to do a tie one-handed. I put it over my head, tied it loosely, and then put it over his and cinched it up a bit.
"There you go. Looks good, Dad. Someone new?"
"Yeah. It's a business thing, so it's going on the expense account. She's an exec for a retail chain and they may want to use some locations we represent. But... Well, there's something there. We'll see what happens. What about you? Your grandfather tells me you have a date for Saturday?"
"Well, like dinner? Do you need to get your suit pressed?"
"No, just movies. Maybe something afterward."
"Okay. Nice girl?"
"Uhm... I guess. Actually, I don't know. Maybe not."
He'd been looking in the mirror as he combed his hair, but Dad stopped and turned to look at me.
"So... she's cute then."
"I'll take that as a yes. It's fine, Gus. You're going to the movies, not asking her to marry you. Maybe you'll find out she's nicer than you think."
"You have enough money?"
"Okay. You pay for everything. Treat her right. Listen, Gus... Pop and I spoke. I know I don't get to spend a lot of time with you, but... I love you and I'm really proud of you. In a lot of ways, you're a better man than either of us. You know this, but you're going to be the first in our family to graduate from college. It... Well, I'm proud of you and your mother would be too."
He stood there looking at me and it made me uncomfortable, but I knew it meant something to him, so I stood there.
"Okay, do me a favor, play some Miles before I have to leave."
Going back downstairs, I grabbed my trumpet and went to my room. There were two hundred dollar bills laying on my pillow. I could see Pop out the window, still under the truck doing the oil change instead of spending $30 at the chain place, and remembered his joking about Gatorade and bananas. I thought of Dad working 60 hours a week or more and knew that he was putting as much away as possible for me to go to college.
And I looked back at the two one-hundred-dollar bills.
As I stood there, staring and thinking about the sacrifices they made for me, I heard Dad yell from his room.
"Stop moping and put it in your wallet. And start playing some Miles."
He had no idea how annoying that was. It was as if he had some sort of paternal psychic ability. I wasn't moping. Well, not a lot. Maybe some. I put the money in my wallet and began playing "Blue in Green".
When he left, I wandered through the house while playing. Stopping in the bathroom the two of us shared, I took a moment to see if he'd left his cologne there. He hadn't. Going out on the back porch, I waved to Mrs. McLarty over the fence and continued playing. She sat down and listened, holding one of her cats in her lap.
When I was done playing I walked over to the fence. She'd fallen asleep and I couldn't just leave her there."Mrs. McLarty? The Frito-pie was really good. Mrs. McLarty?"
She stirred and a part of me was relieved to see her moving. Mrs. McLarty was the only person I knew her age and I was always a little afraid I'd find her one day and... Well, she was just sleeping, so it was all good.
"The pie was great, thanks."
She rubbed her eyes. "You're welcome, Gus. Must've fallen asleep. You have a good night."
Hanging off the deck, I did 100 sit-ups and then went back up to my room. I studied for a bit and passed my phone when I went to brush my teeth. I don't know what made me pick it up, but I saw that I had a missed call from Shannon. There was a weird feeling of dread that went through me. How could I have been so stupid? It was 9:45 and I wasn't sure if that was too late to call or not.
Sitting down on the bed, I was about to return her call when I got back up and brushed my teeth. I'm not OCD, but if I decide to do something, I like to get it done. When I picked up the phone I held my other hand up to my mouth and breathed out, smelling my breath. Immediately chastising myself, I again felt like an idiot. She wouldn't be able to tell if I had bad breath or not over the phone and I just brushed my teeth.
Getting up again, I looked out the window for a few minutes, gathering myself. Sitting back down, I called.
"Hi. Shannon? This is Gus. Kirschbaum... From school? We talked and, uh, you called, but I was out back playing. The trumpet. Not a game or something. I was... yeah, whatever. I missed your call. Am I calling too late? We can talk tomorrow."
I was rambling. Taking a deep breath, I forced myself to pause.
"Hey, Gus. No, it's fine. I talked to Dad. Are you free on Saturday?"
"Yeah! Absolutely. I...Oh, I, uh, actually, I'm not. I'm going to the movies and have to work afterward."
"Okay, no problem. We're playing somewhere the next three Saturdays and then on the following Sunday. You're welcome to join us at any of them but you should probably meet Dad first and we can work out what we're going to play."
"That sounds great. He's okay with it?"
"Yup. He thinks it'll give us something new to experiment with. Gus, you can't play a jug, can you?"
"You mean like, whistling? Like old-time country stuff?"
"I can try."
We spoke about music and their gigs and her dad and when we finally hung up it was almost midnight. I lay in bed and couldn't get to sleep until 2:00.
Shannon approached me as I was putting my books in my locker. Everyone was rushing from one class to another and the hall was filled with loud voices and laughter. Practically throwing the books in, I closed the door, spun the lock, and turned to her. For some reason, I had no idea what to do with my hands. I put them in my pockets.
"You free this afternoon? Dad thought we should get together and go over setlists and stuff."
"Uh, yeah. Sure."
"Great. He'll pick us up around 3:00 by the flag."
"Oh. Yeah. Okay, cool." For some reason, I thought it was just going to be the two of us.
Mr. Poplin seemed to be a nice guy. He picked us up in an SUV and took us to try a new TexMex place near the Pueblo Mall. It was in with a bunch of other new stores and two vacant storefronts. "Mookie's House of Taco's" had balloons out front and looked like they just had their grand opening.
A man with a ponytail, sandals with socks, faded jeans and a tee-shirt that said "Mookie's" on it was squatting by the door feeding a cat what looked to be pieces of chicken.
"Sorry, Mr. Snuffles. No cats allowed. Department of Health, man. Not me." He petted the cat's head and wiped his hands on his shirt. "Hey, welcome! First time, guys?"
Mr. Poplin stuck his hand out. "Yeah. We've heard good things. How are you, Mookie?"
The man stepped back and held up his hands. "Can't shake, dude. Gotta wash my hands after touching Mr. Snuffles. I'm taking this real serious, man. C'mon in. First-timers get free salsa. The normal stuff. It's still good, though."
"What's the not normal stuff?"
"We got a hot salsa and a salsa verde with cannabis oil. Nobody under 18, so no worries." He held the door for us and then called out to a girl behind the counter. "Jillian, first-timers."
Mookie went to wash his hands and we ordered. The cashier told us twice that they didn't serve Dr. Pepper, which seemed odd.
Mr. Poplin smiled as he spoke once we sat down. "So, Shannon says that you're really talented. Do you play in public outside of school?"
I wiped my palms on my jeans. "Uhm, you mean by myself or like in venues outside of the school?"
"Well, I guess I meant do you ever play in public where the school isn't involved."
"Oh, um, just for family and neighbors. And my boss. Actually, his wife too. I played at a party they had once, but that's just 'cause they kept asking me to play something."
"Okay, not a big deal. We can work you in slowly. Maybe a few songs the first time, one or two more the next time."
Was he saying that I was in or was that a if we let you play with us sort of thing?
"Yes, sir. That seems like it would work."
"You can call me Ethan, Gus."
"So, Shannon says you're busy this Saturday. Does next week work?"
I felt myself smile and relax a little. Reaching over to get a napkin, my hand met Shannon's who was doing the same. She smiled and I sort of froze for a second.
We chatted about music and our influences over the tacos and Shannon said that she'd send me their current playlist. They asked for my input, which was a little intimidating, but I made a few suggestions. They seemed to play mostly country songs, so "Take Me Home, Country Roads" went over well.
Mookie came over to the table as we were cleaning up. "Hey, are you the dude and daughter that play the gigs for the old folks?"
Mr. Poplin smiled again. "Yeah, Mookie. We've met a few times. You bring down tacos for the disabled vets and the retirement communities."
"Right! Right! You guys, rock, man. Cool. You people are all right. Hey, everybody gets a free jar. What can I get you?"
I chose their hot tomatillo salsa for Pop.
Mr. Poplin drove me to the shop instead of back to school and I was able to get in a couple of hours before we closed up. I finished up a vacuum cleaner and a hedge trimmer and when I went out to the front, Mrs. Progietti was waiting for me. She wore glasses, dyed her hair brown, and somehow always appeared as if you expected her to have flour on her hands and shirt while smelling of fresh-baked cookies.
In my mind, she was always in the kitchen baking. She'd send food in for me with Mr. Progietti and always told me I was too skinny, but she said it with a smile. I was sort of their surrogate grandson and Pop said it made her happy to spoil me and I should just shut up and take it. She'd grab my bicep and tell me how big I was getting or how I had to eat more or ask me about girls and Mr. Progietti would stand back looking at her while smiling.
"Gus, sit down. I brought the two of you some stew. We need to put some meat on your bones. I may have a pie or two as well."
I wasn't going to turn that down. We sat down at the small folding table and she gave us each a bowl and placed a cast iron pot down. It smelled amazing. I had four tacos a few hours before, but my stomach still rumbled.
"Gus, if my husband reaches into his pocket for his hot sauce before he even tries the stew, let me know."
She hadn't been looking at him and I saw him slowly put the sauce back and place both hands on the table.
"I hear that there might be a girl you're interested in?"
"Uhm, yes, ma'am."
"I see. Is she nice, this girl?"
"I... I think so. I'll know after Saturday, I guess."
"You're taking her out on Saturday?"
"Charles will have your check for you when you get here tomorrow. The bank closes at five. That should give you plenty of time to get down there to cash it. He can spare you for 45 minutes, can't you Charles?"
Mr. Progietti nodded his head as he slurped some soup past his mustache.
She waited until I finished my second bowl. "Gus, there's a bag by the register. Take it and go change in the back and let me see how it fits."
"Mrs... That's really nice, but you don't have to..."
"Oh, hush. It gives me something to do. Go change."
The bag had two pairs of Dockers and three shirts from Old Navy. She made me model them and clucked her tongue a bit as she saw how they fit me.
"Not bad. Okay, this girl is going to be with the handsomest boy there. Wear the light blue button-down. You have everything you need? There'll be enough in your check, right Charles?"
She put her hand on my arm and I didn't pull it away. "Gus, you have protection?"
"I... I... Pop gave me some... I mean..."
Mr. Progietti found his voice. "Carla, give it a rest. Let the boy be."
Well, that was mortifying.
I carried out the bowls and pot to her car and let her hug me.
"You're... Well, we're very fond of you, Gus. We think of you..."
She was tearing up a bit as she pulled back and looked up at me.
"Carla, let the boy go."
"Hush, Charles. I'm just telling him..."
She wiped her eyes and smiled. "Well, I guess he does. I'll see you on Monday, Gus. You can tell me all about it."
I saw Mr. Progietti over her shoulder as he rolled his eyes.
"Thank you, Ma'am. The clothes are really nice."
Friday was busy. I used my lunch hour to go to the gym and I ate a sandwich between three of my classes. Dad bought cold cuts earlier in the week, so they were big sandwiches. I'm never quite sure if people are looking at me because it's just normal or if it's because I'm doing something weird, and this was one of those times.
I know that most kids don't scarf down sandwiches while rushing to class, so it was probably another cumulative thing. What's weird Gus doing now? To be perfectly honest, there are times when I simply don't care what people think. This isn't new to me. I've known I was different since kindergarten. Sometimes it really bothers me and other times I shut it out and would gladly tell neurotypicals to mind their own business and live their own life.
Today was a mind your own business day.
There were some of the regular jocks in the gym and they were trying to get under my skin, like normal. I ignored them and got my work in. I'm not the best at reading things like that, but it seemed that it annoyed them that I ignored their jokes and insults.
The appointment at the hairdressers was for 7:30. They were open until 9:00, which was surprising. I had to finish school, get to the shop, cash my check, wash the car, get some work in, and then go get my haircut. I didn't have time to worry about what people thought of me.
As soon as my last class was over, I ran out of the building. My book bag was slung over my shoulder and I was trying to figure out how I could get on the bus that went closest to the shop without getting caught. I was about to try to get in the middle of a group of kids getting on while hoping to blend in when I heard my name.
"Gus! Hey, Gus!"
Pop was there with Mrs. Capshaw. She was a widow and they went out once or twice a week. Her husband had been a movie director who was eaten by a shark during the filming of a movie. Taking whatever money they had, she moved back to Pueblo and seemed happy to spend time with Pop. I jogged over and he tossed me the keys.
"Kate and I are going for dinner, she's driving. Get the car washed and get one of those air fresheners. The tank is full."
"Okay, thanks, Pop."
Mrs. Capshaw leaned over when I got in the car. "Remember to compliment her. Twice would be good. Don't go overboard. If you run into her friends, be polite. Girls talk."
Does everyone know my business?
"Yes, ma'am. Thanks."
There were four hard-boiled eggs, a packet of salt, and a bottle of water on the front seat. I drove to the shop, got my check, and rushed to the bank. I didn't realize until I was in the drive-through that Mr. Progietti paid me an extra hundred that week. After cashing the check, I brought the car to the carwash and got the deluxe package, whatever that was. It was on west 18th Street next to the Mini Mart, so I stopped in and bought some bananas and Gatorade.
Getting back to the shop I put in almost two hours and then rushed off to Urban Stylist. The parking lot was full, which surprised me. Who gets their hair cut on a Friday night? The inside was super bright and had music playing. There were no TV's, no sports playing and no smell of Barbasol.
I felt alien, like I was stepping into a place I didn't belong; a new land of soft curves, smiles, pop music, and perfume. Everyone knew I didn't belong there. I paid ten bucks for my haircut at the barbers and tipped him five. Pop thought that was a lot, but was willing to deal with that extravagance. This... was not that. Not even close. There was no ding as I opened the door, no grunted suggestion to take a seat.
"Hi! Welcome to Urban Stylist! Do you have an appointment?"
She was cheery, professional, and incredibly hot.
"Uhm, hi. Yeah. For 7:30. I'm Gus Kirschbaum."
Her teeth were insanely white. "Grab a seat, Gus. Mel will be with you in about ten."