School had yet to start. Already, I found myself stepping through the back gate and walking up the hill. Jessica, a fourth grader with long lashes and a sassy mouth had left through that gate, and my job was to find her before I had to call police and her grandmother. I just wanted to have the day start a different way.
My first stop, a little convenience store kids called Nasty House – a crushed, stinking light-less little shop with plywood covering its only window. On that plank of splintered wood, stenciled in red, the words “Hilltop Market.” Outside, I saw two boys I knew. Hands in the pockets of their drooping trousers, they nodded with a slight lift of the chin and looked away. Why kids gave it the name Nasty House, I know not. I could imagine a thousand reasons.
I said good morning as I stepped through the door. A mechanical buzzer announced my arrive. Within, I found bags of hot chips, quart bottles, glass pipes and cigarettes sold singly. I asked a man behind the counter, “Have you seen a little girl, long hair, big sweatpants, red shirt, who might have come this way? She’s supposed to be in school.”
He shook his head ‘no’ but doubt he saw the people who came through his door. He took their change and nothing more. Meanwhile, the smell of the place shut me down. A skunk box of pine cleaner, match sulfur, and thick breath. No Jessica, I noted, so no reason to stay, but I bought a bottle of pop to pay it forward for the likely next time.
I don’t know why Nasty House sucked hope out of me, but it did. Upon leaving this vortex, I found myself shuffling and muttering as I descended toward school. I would have to call grandma and the cops, but then she would turn up. Not the first time she slipped out the back way. And with my head shrouded in gray, I became aware of something remarkable.
A boy screaming “Woo Hoo!”
Not a subtle “woohoo.” Not at all. This sound came from deep within Luis Ramirez, a brash, long-haired third grader boy, and piped its triumphant way through his throat. The pure electricity in it snapped me to attention! He sounded happy. So happy! How could anyone be so happy? Something had to be wrong!
I picked up my clip and shoved through the back gate. There, before me, I saw not only Luis wearing a backward cap and no shoes. I also saw two third grade classes doing a crack-the-whip dance across the playground, with the coach booming some major chord music and everybody clapping.
Then, I saw Jessica, sitting by herself, watching the dance, and clapping. This from a girl who had a no-smile policy. And the fact that she clapped along? Unbelievable.
Not right, but not so bad. No grandma call. No squad cars zipping up and down the hill. Instead, a little problem that might even fit in the small box on the incident form. So I left her to clap and called to the office.
Girl found. Bad start shoved aside by a fresh start. The coach nodded to me as I passed by. “I’ll talk to her,” she said. Then came a second “woohoo” and I went inside. I can’t be sure but I was smiling too.
I hope so. A once-in-a-while smile would have been a good thing.