Like it or not, Imogene was under his thumb, a wayward girl far off her path and seeking comfort in the face of torn buildings. Her hair she’d dyed pink and blue in places and left blond elsewhere. Her head was a crown of confetti, chopped fronds you couldn’t even call mop or rag. Panteen didn’t want anybody else wanting her. She was his on the dead grass out by the levee, in the alley back up against the bricks and under the eaves of his third floor flat. There were ways a girl could be marked, and Imogene was marked Panteen’s property, hands-off to anybody with designs on slithering in his place.
She had dodged the cars summer-cruising Scott Street to Panteen’s apartment. That first time she felt firmly in charge of her actions as she skipped the broke sidewalk, climbed the stairs, her wretched breath, sweat accumulating underneath her bangs. She felt summoned and chose from Panteen’s first lazy wink communicated from his apartment window across car lanes to where Imogene sat in her mama’s seat at the window to catch whatever meant for Mama came her way. What came her way was Panteen.
And once there, wherever he said she should, she put her mouth. Had Imogene been up to then waiting for orders? Of course not, but his pleading made it her joy, and how his eyelids fluttered like a flirting girl’s as Imogene unhinged her jaw. The sun ironed four o’clock onto the slanted roof. Tar paper curled where weather had shucked the hundred year old slate.
“Who else has what I give?” he said, though he promised Imogene nothing and his dope-fueled fugue narrowed her to a pinpoint.
The neighborhood was a place for leaving, Mama said so and she was right, even carted to jail, she was right. The whole street watched her lifted off her feet by the police, everybody looking on speechless, nobody with questions or defense.
She used to say, “A stick in your eye at least brings you company.”
Without her who would funnel jokes, who would blow breath on the pilot, who would slap them silly? Without her, Danny and Imogene had their feet in the trees. They lost their shoes.
Panteen’s hand gripped Imogene’s shoulder so maybe the cops thought he was a relative. He nodded as they bent Mama into the back of the cruiser, and they must have interpreted this his move of taking responsibility. He was just giving the “go-ahead” to Slo Mo, who, on his orders, opened the fire hydrant.
The last thing Mama yelled out was “My children!” but the kids raved in the burst water, its concussion dumbfounding the street. Braids were bouncing; spray shot off skins. Splashes clung to Slo Mo’s wiggidy crown like stars. Somebody pumped the volume in a nearby car. The bass drummed connection through everybody’s middles. Sewn together with one big needle and a ball of noisy twine, they were paper dolls, set to fall together, but they did not collapse. The water spray and the back-wind from the departing cruiser lifted them an extra foot off the ground.
Mrs. Fishbourn would buzz the Fire Department to shut it down, but for a few minutes the parties collided–kids and dogs and dopers and fat mamas and the skinny jeans all slick and drinking it, the asphalt steaming, even the weeds in the curb tar bending like churchers on their knees.
Next to Danny on the sidewalk the school counselor, Bettina, said, “Your Mama loves you; no matter what, she’s all along loved you,” but Bettina couldn’t see a turd in the toilet if she looked in between her legs.
Imogene burred to Panteen’s side and hooked her one foot behind his jeans’ flappy hem so the rash she got from the truancy ankle monitor learned some relief. She blinked in the sun and the heat and the spray. Panteen called her his little guinea pig. When she pushed her glasses up her nose, Danny looked away. Sometimes what his sister did scored him, and other times he revered her with fiercer feelings, he believed, than Panteen could ever dredge up from inside his rivet-studded bell-bottoms. Danny held Ima balanced in a bowl on the top of his head, sacred. The sky shone off the oily sheen of the street. Its beauty burned Danny’s eyes. They’d mock him for crying, but he didn’t care. Mama and Ima, they melted the ground where he stood, without them he couldn’t even swallow.
Panteen had to corral and remind them, “You think your mama’s got your back? Sheeeit. Baby, she’ll have you standing in jail, fed on a farm, pulling your own water to drink, stone to bash in your head just because it’s there.”
Danny jerked street-wise to break Panteen’s gaze on him. The bone in his throat went on calcifying, the boil in his belly burned deeper toward his spine.
“Get you something to eat,” Panteen said to Ima, drawing her close, rubbing his goatee into her hair, walking her off, making the scene just him and her. He nodded, loped and nodded, Zulu and Street Jesus combined, and with the dreads and his neck chains you’d think he’d be dragging, but no, he practically floated across the parking lot to the Chicken Joint. “Some gizzard therapy make it all right,” he said.
Danny quit the street party and followed. Sidling next to Panteen, he passed across his most anxious-eyed look.
Panteen kept up nodding like they were his brood to care for, and maybe they were. He’d manage it all, cruising the ozone, crushing the whole damned day in his fist. For a minute they forgot the police. “What’s good?” he said to the girl.
Cardina, at the counter with her hair dyed red and shellacked high as a rooster’s said, “Look here at the Three Stooges come in.” Her fingers poised above the computer buttons each had saber nails, her mouth puckered. She was Panteen’s old girlfriend.
Imogene had hold of Panteen like a life boat. She ate one-handed, she kept her good ear to his mouth. At night when they slept, sorrow she couldn’t trace the why of leaded down her arms and she set them on either side of Panteen’s bare broad chest, two anvils to cement him.
Danny slurped the last of his Coke and Imogene smiled across the booth at her little brother’s big dumb head.
Back at ninth grade, come winter, with Mama taken in a second time, Bettina would call Imogene to her office, stack both her hands inside hers like they were teammates ready to storm the playground. “In time you’ll come to know the ways she hurt you,” Bettina will say. The school called this guidance. The stars will fall out of Imogene’s eyes and Panteen will be the bad tooth causing her head to ache, but for now dusk was crooning the way it did all summer, a thousand million bugs here today and gone tomorrow, so much buzz to be ground out and endured.
Imogene said, “Why’d they take her?”
Panteen narrowed his eyes at her. “Who?”
Danny leaned in, his jaws chomping chicken.
“Child dangering,” Panteen said, shaking his drumstick at them. “Youse all.” He talked around the meat. “Your mama fucked up. Careless. I told her they’d be watchin’. But she’s greedy.”
Danny said, “I heard ‘em say Imogene, and I heard my name. It was us, something about us.”
Imogene said, “And absentee.”
Pantene sucked grease from each his fingers, which elongated time and drew their gazes to his goatee, to his gold front tooth he’d got to replace the dead one. “Believe what you want. She’s gone for now.”
Danny said, “What’ll we do til she gets home?” His legs had the jumpies and he stomped them, marching in place sitting.
Imogene said, “You’re jiggling. Quit.”
Panteen crushed his cup with ice under foot while he slid out of the booth, his hand inside Ima’s elbow to drag her with. “Lots of ways you get even.”
Danny wasn’t with Panteen but he could make it look like he was.
From over by the counter Cardina called out, “You gonna fuck that girl with the hearing aid now?”
Imogene felt the hard breathing down her neck. The button in her ear was singing and turning things hot there.
“What you say, bitch?” Panteen growled, dragging Imogene with him in his abrupt jump and lean to Cardina so his face stoned hers.
Cardina’s hairpiece slid; her makeup ran from her eyes with her tears while Panteen accused. “You take my half dollar? You stealing besides spreading your legs?”
Chicken clients started taking sides and shouting, but they all ducked to shush when the manager stepped from the kitchen, Panteen still going at Cardina.
“You cashiered my good-luck half dollar!”
“I never seen your fuckin loose change!”
The manager rushed Panteen to the door with a baseball bat. “Your ass is outta here.”
Panteen said, “Oughta fire that one there. She shorted me.”
Cardina wailed, “I ain’t done nothing wrong.”
“Get the hell out,” the manager shouted, raising his stick. “And I don’t mean the next minute.”
They blew the Chicken Joint, Imogene and Danny giggling, then Danny whooped way out front of them, heat up his collar and veering down the first alley. The street had gone in to supper. Slo Mo sat alone on the crumbly wall next to Yung’s Market, facing the ground, smoking and picking his teeth with the corner of a card.
“Hey!” Panteen graveled, two blocks of sidewalk now between Danny and him.
Panteen would never catch up and rein Danny in unless he set free of Ima, and he was holding her to him strong. Ima twisted Panteen around, clothes on a clothesline. Panteen called out, “Later, man,” gave Danny the go-on-ahead sign, Panteen nodding like the big-headed puppets the school had in for Arts & Media Week.
The Kennedy half dollar ate into Danny’s grip. Danny counted to fifty, then he counted it again, thumbing the dead president’s face fifty times and then likewise the eagle. He was nimble as a raccoon.
Imogene refused granting too much meaning to Panteen trucking his shit into Mama’s room, but the way he commenced to living in the apartment with her and Danny while Mama did jail stretched absence into bubble gum’s biggest thinnest bubble.
Panteen, with his lope-a-dope arms, ambushed her and her little brother in the hallway and said, “Look who’s the respectable parent now.”
“Injected himself straight in here,” Danny mumbled to Imogene, and Panteen sent him twenty feet sprawling. One more scuff on the wall.
Panteen said, “She said I should sit on you two until she gets back.” Then Panteen let his mouth droop into the sad grooves he most times hid. He said to Imogene, “Makes things easier for us.”
He had sleepy eyes and an iron grip. She didn’t know which she loved more. When Mama got back from jail Imogene would have to work her magic over Panteen if she wanted to crush her own mama.
Bettina, in her school-talk cadence, said, “She’ll be home soon, I assure you.”
Mama had always had a loose hand, she stayed out of things. Mama let them be, and Danny’s friend Cutler said, “You’re so lucky your mom don’t butt in your biz,” but Danny ached for a stick beat on the back of his leg just once.
“Ya got ninja dreams, ain’t ya?” Panteen said.
Danny wouldn’t give the yes the dude demanded, but sure, yeah, his dreams crowded with ninjas.
Panteen sat sideways at the kitchen table when they came home from school, his dark eyes like the cow’s eyes in a glass jar passed around in science class.
Danny tripped up in Panteen’s pipe-long legs. “Watch yourself,” Pantene said, laughing, coughing. Danny shrugged free his book bag and puffed up in his already puffy coat to fight. His legs twitched so much he twirled.
“So you think you can dance?” Panteen sputtered. Another hilarious fit. He wished Slo Mo was in the apartment to riff on this wit. Slo Mo would appreciate; Slo Mo always appreciated. Slo Mo was out standing guard on the street corner ushering flies to the web where, hairy and fang-filled, Panteen lingered.
“Now we’re all fat and happy here in the belfry,” Panteen said, rubbing his belly, lazy-lifting his shirt to reveal and then hide his black-mat belly. He was part bear, part drug head, the neighbor watch, the connection. To Danny’s incredulous look Panteen said, “What? We discussed it, your mama and me.” Panteen, in aside to Imogene, said, “Bitch would sell the cow if her only child needed the milk.”
Because of things he said like this Imogene couldn’t tell who he belonged to. But he was one to talk of Mama that way when he had all he wanted in the close circle right there, cinching the rope tighter as it pleased him.
Danny said, “Ain’t this our place?” and Panteen backed down. The guy had a gleam in his eye, he smiled and his gold tooth absorbed the gleam.
“We’re family,” Panteen said. “She ain’t here and I’m meanwhile accepting the job, doin’ the job. It’s me keepin us a’float, keepin’ the calm, payin’ rent, gettin’ you two off in the morning.”
Panteen sat slick and satisfied, running the table, with Ima crunched over in the end chair, face above her seventh grade math.
“You’re tougher than her,” Imogene said, squinting at the numbers. Quadratics quadratics quadratics. What did that word even mean?
“Sure I’m tough. Gotta be.” The lighter flame a’licking Panteen’s eye, him dropping his head to the bubble rack, his eye in fact one big fire. He sucked hard and the entire kitchen pitched on its side. Wah-wah-wah, battery run down. Their moves were pantomime, took a minute just to turn your head a quarter-way round. Danny’s legs caught up in the oleo, too. Couldn’t run, couldn’t stay, couldn’t kick. He was used to letting loose but instead they drifted, they dozed into the next day, Danny’s legs sticks and stuck in quicksand, the room high and restful on fumes, Imogene and Panteen eyeing each other.
No one could tell them when they might get Mama home, and Panteen was in ascendance. He kicked Short Morty’s ass when he came by. He set Slo Mo on the corner of Thirteenth and Bird, panhandling and tracking time.
Imogene gave a report at school on the damage of Coke. Bettina showed her how to google on the library internet and did you know if you put a raw pot roast in a bowl of Coke it will dissolve the meat? It breaks it down so what do you think it’s doing to your stomach? Imogene got an “A.” She showed the paper to Panteen, and he patted her head.
Danny couldn’t cut the guy’s throat with the potato knife even though he wanted to.
“Tell me how I can do better,” Imogene said to Bettina. Bettina maintained colorful options pinned to a corkboard outside her counselor’s office where the two of them sat, Imogene not caring for closed in small spaces so Bettina met with her in the ante-area, with the whole middle school changing classes squealing about the girl with the hearing aid on the office side of the divider.
“I liked doing that Coke report.”
Bettina grinned and her cheeks turned red and shiny. She said, “Because you have ambition.”
Imogene could hear her mama weigh in from wherever they had her jailed: “Fat lot a good, ambition.” Mama might as well be an angel in the sky.
Imogene flattened her hair, felt the bump of her hearing aid, spied Panteen on her mama’s bed a’snoozen, his dreads like iron pilings cast on the pillow. The sight of him sharpened the arrows in her belly. Erase Mama’s bad teeth and she could be a ninth grader too, pale as the Goth kids, the way she scratched where her necklace bit and her skinny jeans twisted around her twig legs.
The street’s noise and stink stuck in the apartment. The sucking sound, the amplified ugly, clatter and scream and shout even with the window shut until it swelled over Imogene, too, and she had to grab onto the door jamb. Panteen lay there like dead wood.
Imogene didn’t know if she’d be able to stomach what might be asked of her.
Bettina was no fool. She’d said, “When he presses on you make yourself scarce.”
Imogene looked at her, flabbergasted. “Where should I go? Where would I? It’s where I live. He’s where I am.”
Shouting, three stories shouting, a block of ten streets shouting: Fuck this fuck that fucking A, fuck in the blood. Fuck it floated out kitchens where things were cooked and fans whirled to no use. Fuck, that street curlicue, was so over-spoke it translated zilch, it drummed Imogene, it inflated the world. Her hearing aid worked in over-drive. She sat and crossed her arms on the kitchen table and set her head there. Sideways and sleepy, she eyed Panteen stretched on the bed like a dumb blind Doberman.
What would it be like if he kissed her in a romantic way? The times they fucked at his place, he avoided her mouth.
Behind her glasses her eyes watered as she stood in front of the open refrigerator and zipped her hoodie. Then she proceeded into the bedroom. The small light from the kitchen kept Panteen dim there, which was preferable and also annoying. Imogene knew she wasn’t the first and sure not the last of Panteen’s choices, and probably not the only one current, but what else could a thirteen year-old girl do once her own mama offered her up like she had? Imogene didn’t have a handle on much except part of her sickened each time Panteen pulled her close and another part craved his choosing her her her over anybody, her desire to flee, to be new and untouched, then her glory over being “in” with Panteen. Girls and women of all ages stacked around him in curious order. Bettina said the Arabs called this a harem. If she was nothing else, Imogene guessed she was part of a harem, Panteen had selected her, made her his pigeon.
Her hand touched the fuzz of his dreadlocks. Panteen bore the stink of weed in his hair, in his pores, in the exhale of his snore. His brilliant colored track suit hadn’t been washed in days. She pinched his grubby sleeve between her fingers, and then rubbed his wrist knob smooth as the old wood banister. He was warm. His breath would taste bad, she knew, and still she crouched and bent to take his mouth, to part his dark lips and insert herself. She imagined the kids in the school hall chanting kiss kiss kiss. And above their chugging, more than their insistence pitching her across this pink unguarded edge of Panteen, was her mama being drafted by the police and tilting in Imogene’s direction as if Imogene could change anything, almost rising from the street while her freakish baritone ground out, “My children, my children,” claiming them, as she only ever did, the times their use turned her tragic.
Imogene knelt beside the bed. She examined Panteen as an object that needed cleaning or moving or disposing. His eyebrows grew sparse and mis-matched, his sideburns curly all the way into his beard, his hair in their dreads cast back like a girl model. His pores were drilled by his dirty life and his underground status. His nose flattened into the pillow, and if you took the pillow away, remained flat. The collar of his track suit hid the tattoo that crawled his neck and into his scalp. Crazy dude, a firecracker, and a pain-tolerant motherfucker.
Imogene licked her lips. If her tongue explored Panteen, if he let down his guard, might she grow to be more Mama to him and less Imogene? Sleepy or fucked-up or wide-aware, would he sense a difference, and would that difference matter? He lay in her mama’s bed, in Mama’s place. Imogene, regardless of her responding whenever Panteen called, had a will that remained aloof. In Danny’s video games of the rat and the cheese, the cheese didn’t have a say. The cheese was inanimate, the cheese didn’t waver. The rat pursued the cheese, the rat devoured the cheese, but the cheese was blameless.
Panteen stirred and Imogene shrank so not a molecule touched the bed. His eyes opened, full of fog, then wary as a lion’s. When he rubbed his face, Imogene saw how sleep had lengthened his whiskers.
“What?” he said. “Did I nod out?”
With her hand that had been freezing since the kitchen, she set the can to his lips. “I brought you a Coke,” she said.
She clenched her cold hand between her thighs, kneeling like a penitent, grabbing herself for warmth. Before Imogene would kiss Panteen, she would kiss, she would kiss, she would kiss…Bettina! By which she meant to say she would kiss Panteen never.
Donna D. Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including PANK, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkey Bicycle, Juked, Watershed Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Contrary, Corium Magazine, Southern Women’s Review and most recently in Change Seven. Her unpublished novel FEED MATERIALS was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and is currently under agent representation. Three other finished novels wait in a trunk.