Valley Girl

Next door, that skank Isabella is at it again. Four o’clock on a Tuesday night, by which I mean Wednesday morning, and she’s crowing to Jesus while she gets plowed to high heaven. Bad enough her bedsprings creak. Bad enough her headboard slaps the wall separating our studios like a fishmonger slapping his wares against a rock. The worst part is I know damn well who’s hoeing her rows, and that’s my brother, Tony Romero, born at San Francisco General and raised on 47th Avenue in the Sunset District, just like me.

            “Some of us have to work.” I fling a platform at the wall, knocking the dead zinnia off my bookshelf. I’m five-one, but my Danskos add a few inches. The fifth graders at the remedial school where I teach give a person no quarter, and if I don’t get my shuteye, I’ll be in deep doo-doo. Hotshot freelancer Isabella has time for a roll in the hay on a weeknight.

They knock it off, but they’re giggling.

“Take it easy, Julie,” my brother says, “willya?”

The small humiliations my brother has visited upon my head over the years seem mild in comparison to the fact he got my neighbor’s digits the other week when he was helping me move my bookshelves, and now he’s got her open like a Quik Stop. My brother waits tables at one of those places on Fisherman’s Wharf that sells tourists chowder in bread bowls, so he doesn’t have a real job, either.

“I hope you catch a yeast infection,” I yell.

That shuts them up, but after a few minutes, the bedsprings start again.

I pull the pillow over my head and squeeze my eyes shut so tightly I start to cry, wishing chlamydia on both of them.

Isabella’s a Valley Girl, but she’s no bimbo like in Clueless. She’s from Visalia, a cow-town south of Fresno that might as well be Oklahoma, or so I learn next day when I lift her mail. The locks on the boxes are broken, and the place stinks of mold, but I’m paying through the nose to live here since the city demolished the overpass, and the neighborhood started to change. Pretty, successful, a sweet contract gig with The Gap, men lining up to fill her bed, Isabella is everything I wish I was, so I hate her. She doesn’t even kill her houseplants, or so I can tell from peeking in her window, spying on her perfect life with her two calico cats.

“Hi Julie,” she says when I pass her walking up Hayes Street with a bottle of kombucha and her yoga mat under her arm. I’m buying Tilex. I snarl.

Looking smug, Tony shows up late to Mother’s Day brunch. At the buffet, I grab his hand, sniff.

“Been dipping your fingers in that fish chowder?” I say.

“Very funny.” He slurps a canape. He’s in his waiter pants and a leather jacket. “Maybe if you got someone to unclog your pipes, you wouldn’t be so concerned about me.”

“Doing Isabella later?” I ask, wide-eyed, like I don’t already know that’s over.

“After work.” He grins.

A class act, my brother. When we were younger, his meathead friends joked about resting their beer bottles on my head, but he never defended me. He still doesn’t know he loves me best.

His phone rings, and his face lights up—it’s her. But something’s wrong. He doesn’t have to tell me what she’s saying, or what she found in that apartment.

He pockets his phone, points at me. “Someone broke into Isabella’s place. They wrote her parents a letter. What do you know?”

I bat my eyelashes. Those houseplants didn’t escape my fifth graders, the best young B&E men west of the Cascades. The cats didn’t, either. Now that her strict Jehovah’s Witness parents know the details, it’s kaput for her and Tony. He’ll be mine forever.

“It’s for the best,” I tell him.

“I loved her.” He’s crying.

Oh, please.

Wait till she drinks the kombucha spiked with Tilex in her fridge. “You weren’t the only one.” I shrug. “You know how those Valley Girls get around.”


Warning Shot

Three o’clock the rain started, and by 3:15, I was watching Bienville Street flood, water backing up the storm drains, sloshing over the curbs. My uncle Max’s white trash girlfriend Loretta, who’d once been my daddy’s girlfriend, was singing along to Rihanna in the bathroom, “Kiss It Better.”

Uncle Max had just gotten home, and he came in wearing his NOPD uniform, black boots shining with rain, Glock strapped to his hip.

“Still moping about your daddy?” Max chuckled when he saw me reading a Spiderman comic in the corner. “Six weeks isn’t long enough for you to cry? Just like a girl.” He took off his belt and dropped it on the marble-top coffee table, sipping from my daddy’s old silver hip flask and wiping his lips with the back of his hand.

“You’re not my daddy,” I said.

“How can you be sure?” Max sat in his leather chair. Like everything else in that Midcity shotgun, it had once belonged to my daddy. “I might’ve fucked your mama, for all you know. You home, baby?” he shouted at Loretta. He winked at me. “Daddy wants some love. The attention-meter is running low.”

“Just a minute, sugar,” Loretta said in the other room.

Take it back all night, Rihanna sang.

Sugar.

How she could’ve opened her legs for Max, I’d never know. The two of them went at it like dogs, boning at all hours.

With the rain coming down and the street flooding, we were trapped in that house. I’d never get a better chance. I picked up the gun from the belt on the table and pointed it at Max.

“My mama’s been gone these sixteen years from the cancer,” I said, “which is the natural consequence of living downstream of all those refineries in Baton Rouge when she was a kid. She gave everything for Daddy and me, and now you’re spitting on her grave.”

Max laughed.

“What’re you gonna do, you dyke bitch?” he asked. “Waste me?”

I tried to hold the gun steady. I’d never shot anybody in my life, but there was a first time for everything. “Yeah,” I said, hoping it sounded like I meant it.

“Gonna put me down like I did your old man?” Max whispered.

I’d been there that night, and I’d seen him do it, seen him put this same pistol to Daddy’s head and pull the trigger, so that wasn’t news to me—but it might’ve been news to Loretta, who’d just walked out the bathroom in her red robe, the one with the dragons my daddy had bought for her 28th birthday. He’d also given her a.22 to fend off rapists and burglars and suchlike. I was betting she still had that someplace.

Her eyebrows lifted when she saw the gun. She put her hand on Max’s shoulder.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Kid thinks she’s gonna pop a cap in me,” Max said.

“Why would she do that?” Loretta’s voice was flat, like she knew the answer—after all, she’d heard everything, even if Max was too stupid to know it.

“Don’t know,” Max said. “But she better not fire a warning shot.” He leaned toward me. “Better get me the first time because you won’t get to squeeze off another round.”

Loretta took the .22 from the pocket of her robe and put the gun to Max’s head, red nails curling around his neck. Max’s eyes popped, like he was surprised, but he shouldn’t have been. If you looked at it a certain way, he was just what Daddy had given her the gun to protect herself from.

“Been waiting for the chance,” she said, “letting you climb on me every night, you disgusting, sweaty, hairy son of a bitch. But I had to hear you say it before I believed you’d killed him.”

“I only did it for love.” Max might’ve cried, or it was the rain, or he was sweating.

Loretta didn’t fire a warning shot, and neither did I.

I’d never been able to forgive her for bedding down with Max.

Just like that, I was done with both of them, and I had Daddy’s house to myself.