Raina doesn’t trust anyone. People either hurt you or leave you—or they die, which is the same thing, really. She used to trust her mother, until her mother chose heroin and a long series of abusive boyfriends over her. Now, sixteen-year-old Raina panhandles on the streets and sleeps in abandoned buildings with her boyfriend, Sonny. She doesn’t tell anyone the truth about her life, at least not out loud, but she can’t stop it from coming out in the poems and stories she writes for her teacher Miss Johnson.
Miss Johnson knows that Raina is smart, perceptive, and utterly locked inside of herself. The concerned teacher reaches out again and again, but Raina’s dreams have been crushed by reality too often. What will it take for Raina to ask for help?
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The White Horse
By Cynthia D. Grant
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Cynthia D. Grant
All rights reserved.
We're flying down the road in this big old car, my mother at the wheel, a Marlboro in her mouth, the windows open, hair blowing all around, her pink arm spreading out the window.
"Wanna see this thing do a hundred?" she says.
She cranks up the radio. It's howling.
I've just learned to count to one hundred in school. We're headed there now. The little arrow zooms up. Forty, fifty, sixty. The country road becomes a runway. We hurtle through a world of streaming color. The Buick shudders as if it will fly apart, pieces shooting into space; tires, doors, my heart. Seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred. One hundred miles per hour in a ton of creaking metal, the engine screaming, one hundred and ten —
"Shit." My mother's fooling with the tape deck, hunting all over for her favorite cassette, looking through stuff on the floor, the dashboard. I'm steering with my eyes. She slams in the tape. A torrent of distortion blasts out of the speakers; her theme song, the music she hears in her head when things get broken and out of control, cops pounding on the door in the middle of the night.
"Where's the stewardess?" she jokes. "I need a drink."
My mouth opens and closes. No sound comes out. Like that goldfish we had. No plants, no friends. No food, sometimes, when my mother forgot. Or sometimes it ate ten times a day because we all wanted to feed it; we'd never had a pet. I'd watch that fish's mouth open and close and wonder what it was trying to tell me.
"This baby handles great," my mother shouts, feeling in her purse for a cigarette. Usually the backseat's full of kids, poking and pinching and slugging each other, until my mother hits like a meteorite; out of the blue, and hard.
I've never been alone with my mother before. And I'm thinking: We're going to die.
The city limits sign suddenly looms ahead. She punches the brakes and the cigarette lighter. We sail into town at thirty miles per hour, our SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL POLICE DEPARTMENT bumper sticker flapping, past the disappointed cop who's waiting for speeders. She waves at him; he doesn't wave back.
We cruise the main drag to the elementary school. I'm late, again, but they won't ask for a note. If they do my mother will pound on the counter and shout QUIT PICKING ON MY KID. Nobody messes with these kids but her.
She steers that boat into the parking lot. Such a tiny little lot, full of teeny toy cars. She slams on the brakes; the engine's running, gunning itself, crap pouring out the muffler.
A woman walks by and shoots us a look, but scurries away when she sees my mother's face. She's never lost a fight, and I've seen plenty, like the one last night with the badass biker. He said she'd burned him; he wanted his money back. His friends had to carry him out.
She lets me kiss her cheek. I hop out and wave, but she's already gone, peeling rubber, like the cops are coming. They probably are. She hits the boulevard, tires screeching, as if she's just remembered something important, something crucial, like: I'M OUT OF DOPE.
I used to wonder: How can she do so much crank and still be fat? Most of the speedfreaks I knew were scrawny; skin stretched tight over skeleton bones. My mother gobbled down buckets of food: fried chicken, fish and chips, chili dogs, cheeseburgers, washed down with Coke, at least a case a day; some plain, some fortified with "Vitamin A," rum or vodka or whatever was around. She liked beer too and seldom got drunk; the drugs kind of balanced things out. She hated pot. Pot made her mellow. She didn't want to relax; she had to stay on guard because people could turn on you any second. Even the people who said they loved you. She didn't trust anyone enough to pass out.
The teacher stopped reading. From across the desk she could feel the girl's eyes on her face, like hands.
She chose her words carefully. "This is remarkable, Raina. It's even more moving than your poems."
"It's bullshit. Just a bunch of words."
The teacher's head snapped back as if she'd been slapped. But she kept coming, she was stubborn.
"Raina, why do you act like this? Why can't we talk?"
"I didn't know you'd lived in the country."
"We been everywhere. It didn't work out." She shoved a Marlboro into her mouth.
"You can't smoke in here."
Got it lit. Exhaled.
"You're a smart girl, Raina, with genuine talent. You can do something with your writing. Your life."
"This is my life. Real pretty, isn't it." She grabbed the pages, crumpled them up, threw them into the trash and walked out.CHAPTER 2
I am not cut out for this. I'm a lousy teacher. The kind who uses the word "lousy."
I am so discouraged. I want to quit. I am starting all my sentences with "I." As if what I want (I yi yi, I can't stop) matters one iota.
Sometimes I wonder if I'm helping these kids. Independent Study doesn't amount to much, but it's better than dropping out. Half of them don't show up for our weekly meeting; they're too busy getting stoned. Sorry, Miss Johnson, I forgot. Or working full time, because their parents kicked them out, and they're trying to support themselves. And their babies.
Out of sixteen students, five already have kids. Babies having babies. And on and on. While so many people who desperately want children can't have them. No matter how hard they try. It's enough to make you crazy.
Janessa's having a terrible time with math. She says why does she have to figure stuff out when she can use a calculator? I tell her it's important to understand the concepts. What if there's a worldwide battery shortage? She just looks at me with those big, blank eyes. Anyway, she says, I'm not going to college.
Joe's working more and studying less; his rent eats up most of his salary. He can't go home; his father's made that clear. I've got to find him another book; he can't relate to Shakespeare.
Sam wants to quit so he can work full time; his mother needs more money. Gee, I want to say, has she thought about getting a job? I'd strangle some of these parents if I could ever get them here.
I'm tired tonight. Maybe that's the problem.
I've got to remember to:
1) Test Luis and Carl.
2) Call the JC re: Scott's transcripts.
3) Check with the American Legion re: Sara's scholarship application. We should've heard something by now.
4) Get the custodian to do something about the ants. I realize we're not the biggest school in the district but we're treated like a problem stepchild, a distant relative. The District Office can't spring for a can of bug spray? Is that so much to ask?
5) Buy bigger panty hose.
6) Quit whining.
I met with Raina today. If looks could kill, the ants would be gone and so would I. She talks to me on paper but not in person. She's locked inside herself and won't come out. Toby told me she's homeless; maybe living with her boyfriend? She keeps coming back here. I don't know why. She shows me these beautiful poems she writes, then opens her mouth and blows my mind. She looks like a little girl but she's not. I've got to keep that in mind.
Ricardo says Brenda is carrying a knife. Something about her stepfather. I've got to check that out.CHAPTER 3
He was the most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, even now when he was so skinny. She'd watch him sleeping and think: He's mine. His chest was pale and smooth, not hairy, with a tattoo here, and here, on his arm.
They were lying on the floor, legs walking all around them. It was time to get up. The room was cold. She nudged Sonny's shoulder. He woke up foggy, reaching for a smoke, but the pack was empty.
"Cigarette?" she asked somebody passing by. One dropped in her lap. She and Sonny shared it.
Miraculously, the bathroom was empty. The door wouldn't lock, so she held it closed. She rubbed her fingers across a lump of soap and washed her face. Dried it on her sweatshirt.
Someone pounded on the door. "Come on! I gotta go!"
Kimmy came in and flopped on the toilet. It was her apartment and Rita's and Caleb's. "You guys got any money?"
"No," Raina said.
"I'm starving. What time's the Food Pantry open?"
"Don't know." She went there only when she had to; they gave you dirty looks with the day-old bread.
"There's gotta be something around here to eat." Kimmy zipped up and they went into the kitchen, but everyone had scarfed up the crumbs like ants.
Sonny stumbled over to her, holding his head, skinning back his long white hair with his fingers.
"How you feeling, baby?" she asked him, knowing. His face was pinched. They had to do something quick. Every day it got harder to feed Sonny's pet.
He'd been busted several times. Got out right away. Told people his dad had pulled some strings. His father was a bigshot lawyer for the city. She knew he wouldn't even take Sonny's calls. When Sonny was sixteen and still at home, his dad came into his room one night, looked down at him lying in the bed, and said, "I wish you wouldn't wake up tomorrow."
She figured Sonny walked by turning names. He'd be dead if people found out.
Last night they'd sat on the roof and talked. Sonny told her everything was going to change. He always did that as soon as he got high, feeling in control, no muscles screaming. "We gotta quit this stuff and get healthy," he'd said. "Start over. Get jobs and a place of our own."
She knew better than to ask him how. He'd left school in tenth grade but had no trouble getting work; he was so blond and friendly and good-looking. She'd seen pictures. But the jobs never lasted; he'd show up late. He'd oversleep. He'd call in sick. Forget to call. Not show up at all. Come in stoned. Skim money from the till. He needed it, see; he was strung out, hurting.
The years were carved on his face like scars. Wouldn't nobody hire Sonny now.
"You can go to college," he'd said last night, flying. "Get loans or something. You can do it, you're smart."
Usually he thought school was a waste of time. Made fun of her when she wrote in her notebooks. Got ahold of one and read a poem out loud. People laughed, he made it sound so stupid. She tried to grab it back but she was too small. When he finally gave it back she tore it up. He'd ruined it.
On the roof last night he'd talked about their future. Things were gonna change. Sometime real soon. But not this morning, not today; he needed a fix and he needed it now. And he needed new shoes; his were falling apart. Nobody in the place had any money or dope. Everybody started arguing.
Luckily, Stevie Joe dropped by. He was a real nice guy. They called him Robin Hood. When you were broke he'd float you dope to tide you over. He bought groceries and diapers for people's kids. He rode a big Harley and wore black leather and mirrored shades, if it was day or night, like he was starring in the movie about his life and everyone was watching.
He'd brought a box of doughnuts for people to share. Then he and Sonny went into the bathroom. When he came out Sonny was smiling.
"Let's go down to the Plaza." He kissed Raina's cheek. "There's always lots of tourists there on weekends."
She'd tell them she was a runaway and needed a quarter to call her mom. I've changed my mind! she'd sob. I wanna go home! The tourists always gave her more, she looked so young and scared. Sonny waited for her around the corner. Most people were nice, but a few were sharks, cruising for little kids. She could've made lots of money that way. But she and Sonny were engaged.
The other day he'd said something weird. He knew he was asking a lot, A LOT, but couldn't she just do it once in a while? Not with perverts. And nothing strange or dangerous, but just so they'd have some money, honey?
What are you saying? She was shouting, drunk.
Look, he'd do it himself, he explained, but the guys who want to sleep with guys have AIDS, and the guys who sleep with women don't.
ARE YOU SO FUCKING STUPID? OR DO YOU JUST NOT CARE? She socked him. He smacked her. They got in a fight, then things got blurry and they forgot. He hadn't mentioned it again.
Stevie Joe laid out some lines. People crowded close. Someone bumped his elbow. "Watch it, man," he said, frowning. The guy apologized, almost crying. "No worries," Stevie Joe said gently, letting the guy go first, then everyone else. Soon everybody was talking and laughing. Then someone said, "Shit, it's the landlord," an old drunk but he wasn't drunk now.
"You kids gotta get out of here," he said. "Too many people not paying."
"We're paying!" Kimmy shouted. "It's our apartment! We can have friends over if we want to!"
"The neighbors been complaining —"
"You should see what they're doing!" Kimmy's nose holes were ringed with white powder.
"Look at this place. It's a goddamn dump."
"It was a dump when we moved in!"
"You listen to me —"
"No, you listen to me!"
She was just showing off. People packed up their stuff, blankets and trash bags full of clothes. Someone asked Stevie Joe could they crash with him. He looked sad and said no. Nobody knew where he lived.
Out on the sidewalk the sun was too bright. Sonny looked bad. She could smell herself. Maybe they could sneak another shower at the health club.
There was a guy at the door now. He said forget it. She could go to the Y, but that was a hassle; they always tried to get her into counseling or the teen shelter when all she wanted was to wash her hair.
They headed downtown, the traffic thick. Sonny did this thing he always did: stepped into the crosswalk, not waiting for the light. People slammed on their brakes so they wouldn't hit him, then hung out their windows, screaming. Sonny grinned.
"That's so stupid," she said.
"No worries," he told her. He believed that he had some kind of good luck. So why were they sleeping in boarded-up buildings, in unlocked cars, on people's floors? So many people crammed into the apartments, you didn't know whose it was, but it didn't matter; they took care of each other. And ripped each other off. She'd done it herself, taken clothes and stuff. She had to; there wasn't any money. She tried to get jobs, but people looked at her like she and Sonny were wearing matching sweatshirts that said I'M WITH THE JUNKIE. And when she did get work, some jerk got in her face and she had to tell them off.
She wasn't a little kid anymore. She wasn't taking shit from anyone.
The main thing she had to do was stay in school. She couldn't say why that was important. Maybe because Sonny and her friends thought it was stupid. She didn't like doing what people wanted. Didn't want anyone thinking they knew her, thinking they had a map to her mind. School was the place where Miss Johnson waited, telling her: Raina, this is a wonderful story. You should submit it to a literary journal. Maybe the —
She'd cut off the teacher: "Does it pay?"
Well, no, but —
Screw it. She'd walk away, the praise a burning nugget in her heart.
The tourists weren't biting. The weather was too good. People felt sorrier for them when it rained.
"Fucking tightwads." Stevie Joe's treat had worn off, and Sonny's hands were shaking. They walked down to Macy's. He waited outside. She could steal some stuff, then try to return it. That worked sometimes, but probably not today; today she looked too dirty.
She rode the escalator up to the ladies' lounge. Washed her hands for a while. The soap smelled good. Women came and went, some with babies in strollers, some with big white bags full of purchases. Raina rummaged in her pockets like she was hunting for something. Her timing had to be perfect.
The lounge door opened. An old lady came in, followed by a couple of younger women. The old lady was wrinkled but she was wearing a suit, and big rings sparkled on her fingers.
She took the last stall at the end of the row. The young women took stalls beside each other. Laughing and talking, they finished their business, then washed their hands and put on lipstick.
At the end of the row the old lady sat frozen, her handbag between her feet.
The young women left the lounge, the door closing behind them. The room was silent. Raina sat real still. She could feel the old lady waiting, listening, until she thought she was alone and no one would hear her go.
The next thing she knows, a girl's head's under the door. They stared at each other, not saying a word. Raina snatched the purse and was back on the street while the old lady was still struggling with her girdle.
Excerpted from The White Horse by Cynthia D. Grant. Copyright © 1998 Cynthia D. Grant. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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