What’s he even doing? Bettie Jo sneered inwardly.
She stared over at the boy kicking his feet against the traffic barrier in a slow rhythm. Then he’d stop suddenly and look up, kick a little faster picking up the tempo while waving his arms. Catching bugs in the air. Bugs only he could see Bettie Jo thought.
They were both underneath the freeway with the cold and loud with traffic wrapping them in sound. It’s always cold she thought to herself pulling the too short skirt down a bit more and hunching her shoulders up, dropping her slender body deeper into the old sweater. Not cold enough to be fun and an attraction like in Colorado where people are ready for it. No. This was the rainy, icy cold of a small dirty midwestern city. Wet cold. Unremarkable just like the city where the people that did talk, talked of how it used to be versus how it is now.
Bettie Jo flicked her eyes back over to the boy again. Her mind briefly acknowledging that it was, in fact, her little brother.
They both had the same mom and all. Bettie Jo never met her father. She had only known Kirk’s dad who had been in and out of their lives. He seemed to appear when he was happy and doing well. Had some money and bought some extravagant things that mom would grumble about but accepted with a smile.
That was his name. Her mind seized on it again grabbing it from the recesses of her memories and turning it around a few times to be sure. Bettie Jo pulled the sleeves of her sweater down over her hands, her concessions to teenage fashion outweighing comfort. She remembered how Fletcher would be there then he’d go out and wouldn’t come back. Mom would be quieter, and Kirk would act like it he had not been there at all. Just get noisier than usual for a while. Kirk’s way.
To Bettie Jo, the years of never knowing why or when and doing without had worn her mother down to a frail nub of a woman. Worn Bettie Jo down too in the cold unremarkable city that used to be something, back in the day. Back in history, never today.
Where was the kid at now?
Bettie Jo recentered suddenly not seeing Kirk spinning like a hamster on a wheel as usual. The traffic above her drowned out thought as well as other sounds. The traffic barrier that had been occupying him before still stood with traces of graffiti and salt stains tracing the veins of cracks in its surface. Kirk simply wasn’t there, and he wasn’t anywhere near where he had been, she scanned the broad area of parking lots, mud mounds and gravel.
Kirk was not a small child, but he was simple and naïve and twelve. Doing things without concern for danger or common sense. She spun around the back of concrete pillar into the parking lot proper, beyond the guard rails and concrete barriers that served as separation from the street. Bettie Jo thought of Kirk as a smiling, laughing freakishly animated thing. He was driven to constantly look, touch, taste, and smell everything around him no matter how repulsive, beautiful, or dangerous. With that thought, Bettie Jo stomped out into the parking lot reluctantly, feeling fresh chills embrace her with each movement. The school was very wrong about Kirk…he is not “normal,” at all. He should be in one of those programs for the special ed kids and on the short bus where someone else, anyone else, would have to watch him. Anyone other than her. Watching him was destroying her senior year.
Mom was just like him in a more normal way with her old hippie songs that didn’t sound like songs at all just someone talking with a guitar and drums doing whatever independently and off key. Songs that drifted on forever. Twenty minutes defining “forever” as songs go. Mom would just smile at her, start singing along again to whatever was playing softly in the house and wave to the ceiling, occasionally embracing the air around her.
She’d heard it just before a truck hit a repair plate in the freeway exploding with noise sharply and distinctly.
“I’m over here.”
Bettie Jo heard it again and saw the hands fluttering in the air just above a pile of mud and trash near the sewer creek below just where the elevated freeway ended. She felt relieved and pissed all at the same time now that she knew he wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be blamed, and she was left with just being pissed as she realized he was digging around in trash.
Pieces of trash were raining on the side of the mud pile. Bits of clothing, metal, a hat and belt. Bettie Jo was thinking about her shoes and the semi good sweater she had on as well as how soon mom would be there to pick them up when a bundle of rags and dirt hit the ground in front of her.
“Kirk! Dumb ass! You nearly hit me with that mess. You don’t even know what could be in this mud. It stinks like the sewer creek and oil. There’s nothing here anyone would want.” She explained to the air.
“Look at it Bettie Jo. It’s money..” She heard Kirk’s voice over the traffic and occasional yells from drivers.
Money. That centered her on the pile of rags at her feet. Bettie Jo slowly walked over to it not really believing it but not willing to not believe either. Bettie Jo wanted to believe. Wanted to see a pile of money in the dirt.
She shuffled over and kicked at the cloth undoing the strap that held it rolled together and there it was. Wrapped up in clear plastic was money that appeared to be protected and still had bank wrappers around each stack. Kirk was still on the mud hill tearing away at it in his demented manner tossing more bits and pieces of trash around.
Bettie Jo had never in her seventeen years of life, ever seen so much money. Hundred-dollar bills were a legend not a denomination. The air around her changed and the world took on a focus around the pile of rags.
“I got a watch!”
Bettie Jo was too stunned to really hear him and was now operating on adrenaline scanning the area for something to…newspaper. That was it. In the overflowing trash can was some sort of newspaper. She found it and rushed back over to the money. She was looking around now fearing other people. Moving as quickly as she could she picked the plastic wrapped stacks of bills out of the muddy rags and wrapped them all tightly into the newspaper, corners stuck out frustrating her sense of order.
Written on the money were five-thousand-dollar paper bands. Four of them. Twenty thousand dollars. An incomprehensible sum.
A car horn struck her as she clutched the paper to her chest and then again. Mom. It dawned on her that mom was there near the bus stop to pick them up in her beat-up little car that was supposed to be ecological and save the trees. Like most of mom’s life, her car was a statement. Bettie Jo thought it was just ugly and old.
Kirk had heard or seen mom too and rushed over towards her trailing pieces of dirt, carrying an arm load of treasures as he rushed by getting into the front seat of the car with mom to show off his latest find.
Bettie Jo slid quietly into the back seat of the car with the money wrapped up now underneath her sweater. She was wondering if Kirk would say something forcing her to give all the money to mom. Mom didn’t need it Bettie Jo rationalized. She was so close to getting out on her own and she needed it more. Much more than anyone else needed it.
To Bettie Jo, they never had enough but as she thought about it, mom never really talked about money. She worked temporary jobs, played in a terrible band with some of her old friends and wrote things down in little notebooks strewn about the house. Most were black but there were various colors and sizes. Bettie Jo just saw them everywhere and thought of them as a mom-ism. Something so common that it was normal to her.
“Mom, mom!” Kirk was saying breathlessly with intensity and triumph. “Look at what I’ve found!” He stated as his arms opened, and a few black notebooks rolled out from his arms one opening to pages of intricate sketches the pages stained with water, ink, pencil, and dirt smudges but easily seen and understood.
“Wow, Captain. You did find a treasure trove on this mission. Let’s get it all home and debrief. It’s cold out here.”
Bettie Jo winced to herself again about her name and Kirk’s which mom had pulled from old TV shows she had watched on the classic stuff channels. They were ancient reruns already old when mom was a kid but that was mom and she saluted to Kirk as she turned the rickety car.
“Proton torpedoes on standby.” Kirk responded smiling idiotically at his own nonsense.
The house was settling into the evening routine. Dinner had been chili and the sweetness of it still hung in the air afterwards. Mom was cleaning up and putting away the leftovers swaying to something by a band she kept calling “The Dead”. It was silly simple, meandering folk music as always to Bettie Jo as she wiped off the table and started to attack the dishes when she noticed the quiet.
Kirk had one of his new treasure books open and was quietly, precisely reproducing one of the sketches in another blank black notebook. Bettie Jo had never seen Kirk so quiet for one whole minute before. It was so unusual it was mesmerizing, and she didn’t want to say anything. Break the spell of quiet.
“Kinda cool isn’t it?” Mom startled her as she broke the moment and Bettie Jo realized that mom had been watching her watch Kirk.
“Yeah. What going on with him? He’s never like this. You know. Quiet and all.” Bettie Jo said it in a low whisper.
“Oh, I think he found his lens and he’ s lucky boy if that’s how it turns out. If he finds his lens in those pages, he’ll be different from now on.” Mom stated her low tones also respecting the moment.
Mom waved her deeper into the kitchen away from the doorway and Kirk.
“What are you going on about mom? This is crazier talk than usual…even for you.” Bettie Jo said flipping the dish towel over her shoulder.
Mom just looked at her giving her a big fake smile back and shook her head.
“Bettie Jo you don’t get it but someday you might. Kirk could be one of the lucky ones on the planet and figured out how to focus his crazy.” Mom picked up one of the books from the stacks nearby and tossed Bettie Jo one.
“You got yourself a pile of money. I know that and you’re a sensible girl, it’ll help you for a while, but it won’t last. Kirk looks like he’s found out how to contain that brain of his, focus that crazy, maybe turn it into something.” Mom explained and continued.
“You see, genius…creativity is just craziness focused into something worthwhile. Lot of people look to drugs, danger, sex and alcohol but these pages are the best thing people have to focus the crazy of being human.”
All Bettie Jo heard was that she was keeping the money.
Scott D. Smith
February 21, 2021