When he found out, the details of it eluded Marty. He only knew that his daughter, Hannah, was playing hooky while he was in up to his elbows at work, struggling with costly repairs to the building at the video rental shop, the death of Beta-formatted tapes, and red ink in the books. It infuriated him that the Longwood boy, no-good Nick, got Hannah to wander along the scrubby paths between the train tracks and the banks of the grayish-green Nashua River, to the old mill across the town line, a good five miles from their house and the synagogue, to roll joints and munch on fried pork rinds or other traif, to stray the farthest she had ever been without Marty.
Hannah repeatedly replayed the details in her head. She’d been hanging out with Nick and her neighbor Sheryl in the rec room in Sheryl’s basement. Nick grinned and nodded, meeting Hannah’s eyes. “You’re not half-bad for a little twerp,” Nick said to her the first night Hannah saw him with his newly shaved head. It looked creepy, but she liked the feel of the stubble against the palm of her hand, when he let her feel his scalp. That evening, Sheryl’s mother answered, “not tonight,” when Sheryl asked to have friends for supper. She had shepherded Hannah and Nick out the door and closed it behind them.
“Wicked lame.” Nick shook his head and kicked a rock in the driveway. “Looks like Cello’s Pizza night.”
Whenever Hannah’s dad parked in the little lot so they could take out a cheese pie at Cello’s, he’d tell her, “Stay put and lock the car door.” She’d sit in the Cordoba listening to the radio and fearing the greasy-haired boys who leaned on the phone booth between Cello’s and the package store. Sometimes she opened the window. She could hear them plunking change into the vending machine to buy cigarettes and begging anyone over eighteen to buy them beer or Boone’s Farm.
“How ‘bout you come?” Nick asked Hannah, as he climbed onto his dirt bike. When he rested one foot on the pedal, a worn spot on the knee of his dungarees exposed a mesh of hair similar to that on the chest of the hunky lifeguard at the lake. Nick patted the bicycle seat. “Climb on. I have enough to buy us pizza.”
Hannah didn’t see any harm in sharing pizza with a friend. She rode on the back, holding onto his beltloops with white knuckles and breathing through an involuntary grin. They wound up together, sitting on the yellow-painted curb by the phone booth in Cello’s parking lot.
A banged-up jalopy that looked like a weird cross between car and truck pulled up and parked at the yellow curb.
“Hi, Mr. Foley.” Nick waved.
“Hey, kid. How the hell are ya?”
“I think the yellow means, no parking,” said Nick.
“I’ll just be a minute.” He pointed to the entrance to the package store next to Cello’s. “Pack of Lucky Strikes, and I’m off.” He stood there for a minute blinking and rubbing his scruffy whiskers. “Maybe some Schlitz too.” Elmer Foley gave a smarmy wink and said. “Did you hear about the trouble down at Crosstown Video?”
Hannah had a lump in her throat. She couldn’t tell whether Foley’s wink related to the beer or her dad’s shop.
“Yup. That place’s days are numbered,” said Elmer Foley.
Elmer Foley disappeared into the package store for a few minutes. He returned with a paper bag. “Days. Are. Numbered,” he said as he climbed into his car/truck thing. He drove away, leaving Hannah with a knot in her stomach.
“What the heck did he mean by that?” she asked.
A local cop car pulled into the parking lot.
“Numbered? What the heck, Nick?” she asked.
Nick fiddled with something in his pocket. “Oh shit,” he said under his breath. Hannah saw Nick throw a baggie of weed behind the telephone booth.
The cop said, “Told you last time, no loitering here.”
Nick shoved hands in pockets and looked at the officer’s shiny boots. “We’re just getting pizza. Something wrong with that?”
“It’s never just pizza,” the cop said, staring in the direction of the phone booth, as if he knew where Nick threw the dime bag. “Fat chance it’s just pizza, now.”
Hannah had always thought of police as protectors of the peace. Her gut twisted. Was he protecting others from her and Nick? She fought tears, and her face contorted into something that looked like a sneer. The cop looked into her eyes. “Put your hands where I can see them and stand over there.”
Hannah raised her hands above her head like she’d seen surrendering bad guys in movies do.
Nick said, “We weren’t doing anything wrong,” but he removed his hands from his pockets too. Under his breath, “Wicked lame, man.”
The cop said, “That’s enough from you.” He opened the back door to his cruiser for the kids to climb in, when Milt Bergman, on his way to the package store, came on the scene.
“Does your father know you’re this far from home, Hannah?” Mr. Bergman said, taking a cigar from his mouth and pointing it in her direction. It surprised Hannah that Mr. Bergman, President of Temple Beth Israel, called her by name. At services, the old man with gray bushy eyebrows sat next to the rabbi’s podium in a throne. As far as she could remember, he had never uttered a word to her.
The cop turned to Mr. Bergman and asked, “You know these kids?”
“I’ve known this one since her naming,” Mr. Bergman said, taking the stogie out of his mouth and waving it. His cigar smelled like a cross between melted plastic and her clogs, after wearing them without socks. The old man shuffled so he stood between Hannah, Nick, and the cruiser door. “Kindelah, what are you doing hanging around here?”
As it turned out, the officer took Bergman’s word that he’d never again find Hannah loitering out there, up to no good, and that her father would find out about this as soon as he got home from work.
Standing next to the phone booth, Mr. Bergman waved his cigar toward the river that ran through the valley, across the city line, past the Hometown Video Store, and Hannah’s house. “You better go straight home without stopping. If you don’t, I’ll know,” he said to Hannah.
Nick forced the heel of his black combat boot into the kickstand. Like watching someone pop a balloon, the snap made Hannah’s heart skip, even though she expected it. His creepy new haircut like little needles threatening to poke her. Yet the feel of their legs touching made her flush as she climbed on behind him.
Mr. Bergman gave Nick a nasty look. Nick raced Hannah home. His legs spun so fast, with Hannah on the back. The speed forced cool air into Hannah’s lungs. Her hands clutched Nick’s shoulders, making his jacket damp. What if the cop called Dad before she got home? What if Mr. Berman did? On the other hand, what if Nick tried to kiss her? That might make her part of the in-crowd. Or it might make Sheryl have a conniption.
Later, when she saw him at the end of Sheryl’s driveway, he said, “That dude with the stogie put some kind of hex on me. Chicks are avoiding me like crazy.” Nick told Hannah, “It’s sick shit. What did he call us, ‘kindelah’? What is he? Jewish or something? He put the kibosh on my mojo. Can’t have that. Jews, man.”
“What?” the word came out in a whisper. She reached for the star of David on her necklace and held it out in front of his face, her eyes narrowed, lips tightened, nodding.
He never talked to Hannah again.
Hannah slammed the front door before running upstairs to her bedroom. She’d been Jewish the whole time Nick had known her. Why did he suddenly turn on her just for discovering this one detail about her? She didn’t get it. The memory of stubble from Nick’s skinhead made her palms itch. She turned the key on a ballerina music box. She then pressed play on her boom box cassette player. She collapsed on the window seat. A breeze drifted from the open window overlooking the Sheryl’s house as she listened to the jumble of “Swan Lake” tumbling over the Journey’s, “Don’t Stop Believin’.” It annoyed her because she needed them to harmonize. She turned the trouble over in her mind, trying to decide why the notes clashed. She didn’t know whether the problem stemmed from the music box song being from the olden days and Journey’s anthem being from now, or from not combining enough different kinds of music. However, her desire for courage to be different came through loud and clear. Hannah jerked the little lever. The ballerina halted mid-pirouette showing off an unflinching smile’s flawless pink lipstick. She didn’t care whether she blended in or not, and neither should Hannah.
“Wicked smart. What do you know?” Hannah shouted, mindful that Sheryl’s mom cracked open the kitchen window every day at this time to cook dinner, “You know friggin’ nothing!”
Marty took away Hannah’s bicycle for good, explaining that if she didn’t have the sense to stay in the neighborhood, she didn’t deserve to have the means to leave it. For the rest of the fall, he stopped lolling at the breakfast table, reading the Telegram while she ate her bowl of cereal and milk. He broke silence with comments like, “You should be home playing with barbies and match box cars, or climbing trees in the yard, not gallivanting by the river with that Wildwood boy.” When his daughter had the nerve to correct him about Nick’s name, the skin on his forehead turned the color of borscht and he said, “Whatever. You know who I’m talking about!”
The no-good Nick Longwood incident soured something between Marty and Hannah. The moment she arrived home, she stomped up the steps, slamming her bedroom door without a word. Marty imagined her crouched over her desk sprinkling marijuana onto cigarette paper and rolling it up. In his mind, she demonstrated expertise – tip of tongue deftly sealing it, nimble fingers twisting the ends. It was the third night of her grounding and the punishment tortured him.
He filled the pot with water. Pasta with a jar of Ragu would be simple enough. The sauce looked like a thick coagulated mess. He added some Manischewitz to thin it. The consistency reminded him of liquid cement, which reminded him of the crumbling sidewalk in front of the video store. A realtor called yesterday to discuss meeting with the Zoning Board to see about changing the retail lot to mixed use, gung-ho about the idea of converting the property to condominiums. Marty just felt numb, as if the proposal extinguished every bit of spark from his soul.
Thud. What’s that? He couldn’t take it anymore. Hannah was up to something. Hadn’t they already punished each other enough? “What is going on up there?” he muttered. He stormed up the stairs, expecting to find her smoking a joint. His clammy hand turned the cold doorknob. A suitcase from the top shelf of the closet, on the floor. A chair tipped over. Hannah at her desk, just as he suspected. His eyes widened. He inhaled. “Hannah!” he scolded.
She turned around – unfazed. The static on the boom box cleared, letting through the Grease Soundtrack.
“There are worse things I could do
Than go with a boy or two
Even though the neighborhood
Thinks I’m trashy and no good…”
His lungs expanded. He took a step closer.
“What?” she asked.
He looked for the bulging eyes, the rush to cover up indiscretion. Instead, he found on the desk a small cup of water, a tray of plastic paint pots, a paint by number he gave her for her eleventh birthday; she hadn’t touched it in over a year.
His heart may have been circulating that sludge-like spaghetti sauce instead of blood because it slowed. It ached.
“Dinner will be ready soon,” he said.
Lisa Leibow’s story “Hooky” is part of a novel-length project. Her work is included in literary journals such as, Evening Street Review, CommuterLit, Crack the Spine, and Five on the Fifth. She’s a Pushcart Prize Nominee, co-founder with Julia Alvarez of www.theScheherazadeProject.org