He couldn’t get the fertilizer stink out of his nostrils. The sacks he delivered were made from liquid raw sewage brewed locally in Bakersfield. The odor seeped into his clothing and scalp. Even his dog Beast ran away from him.
By the end of the summer, he’d figure another way to pay for community college. What girl would want to go out with him smelling the way he did, especially someone like Jenny Thurmond?
Once he got home, his sister was in the kitchen. She sliced several lemons. “Try washing with them.”
He thought she was a witch in metal braces. “You have to be kidding.” Still, Dan was desperate enough to try anything. In the shower, he squeezed lemon juice on a sudsy cloth. It stung his skin. He scrubbed. The water was steamy. He scrubbed again and rinsed. Then he put on his clothes. She sat on the living room couch reading a fashion magazine. At sixteen, she was three years his junior. Her hair was tied back with a purple scrunchie, a mark of the Purple Ponytails, the all-girl band that played at her high school.
Rhonda sniffed her brother. “Better. You don’t stink!”
“Hay is for horses.”
“Quit it. Do you know a girl named Jenny? Jenny Thurmond?”
She picked up a guitar magazine and admired the new Gibsons. “Where’d you meet her?”
“On my delivery route.”
“Oh, great.” She got another magazine and rubbed perfume from a pull-out page onto her wrist. “Jenny’s in my Spanish class. We sit next to each other.”
“Really? I happen to know that Jenny volunteers at the animal shelter. And you’d make a great pair. You both smell.”
“Actually, she did tell me that… I mean that she volunteers. I met her at Millie’s restaurant. Told me she’d lunch with her mother for the first time in years.”
She always rankled when she heard that word. Their own mother had died when Rhonda was two. Afterward, she and Dan had sat in bed for months reading comic books. Rhonda couldn’t remember anything about her, except the way she smelled. She held up a picture of a model wearing jeans with a white cut-off blouse and high boots. “D’you think this would look good on me?”
“How the fuck am I supposed to know…Look, I was wondering…”
“Or do you like this one better?” She held up another page, one of a vampire, actually a girl twirling around in a black lined cape. “It would look better lined in purple. That would be hot for the Ponytails.”
“Zip it up. D’you have Jenny’s phone number? Her email?”
“I don’t know. Maybe if you played drums in my band this weekend. Gerry has the flu.”
“You want me to play in a girl band?”
“And what’s so bad about that? You used to play with me all the time.”
It was one of the big events of the school year. The Fire Chief was going to hand out awards for an essay contest. Tables were set up outside the auditorium where local vendors were selling stuff; the PTA was pushing bowls of Five-Alarm Chile and slices of Red Hot Red Velvet Cake. She promised to hand over Jenny’s info afterward.
Being that it was such a big event, the Ponytails decided to dye their hair purple for the evening. Dan was glad to find out that the drum kit was set up behind orange plexiglass where he could hide. But he’d made one mistake: a few days before the show, he’d joked with Rhonda about wearing a purple ponytail. Leave it to her. She showed up with a clip-on extension and insisted that if he didn’t wear it, all bets were off.
Saturday afternoon, the auditorium was packed. The principal asked everyone to raise their hand if they were sitting next to an open seat. It was time for the Purple Ponytails to play their song, Little Mr. Hot Spot. Rhonda introduced the band. “We have a special guest tonight. Take a bow; it’s my brother, Dan.”
Dan stood up in his purple ponytail and recognized Jenny Thurmond sitting in the front row. Everyone laughed.
The principal got up and asked the audience to give the Purple Ponytails a hand. “Aren’t they great folks? Let’s hope Little Mr. Hot Spot doesn’t show up in our homes. He’d burn down the whole place. Isn’t that right girls?” The band members waved and gave their purple ponytails another shake before going off stage. Dan knew the song was written for the guitar player’s ex-boyfriend who had dumped her for an incoming freshman. He followed them off stage with his honorary ponytail. “And now I’d like to introduce Fire Chief Dennis Williams who is here today to announce the award for the best essay in the Mr. Hot Spot contest. Mr. Williams, will you please join me on stage.”
A silver-haired African American man in a dark blue suit with brass buttons and the whitest shirt Dan had ever seen stood up not too far from where Dan’s father was sitting. The Fire Chief made his way to the microphone, his sleeves adorned in gold braids and a silver badge pinned to his jacket. He wore a white cap with the same braid trim. Anyhow, the Chief flashed a Colgate-white smile and shook the principal’s hand while a reporter from the Bakersfield Citizen kneeled below the stage and took photographs.
“Thank you, Principal Dealey. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, grandmothers and grandfathers; all you teachers and families who have come out today to celebrate Fire Safety month. Since we began this project five years ago, we’ve cut down on the number of fires by twenty-five percent. What does that mean? That means more lives saved and more homes protected. You look like a group who understands what steps to take when there’s a fire—very large ones.” Everyone laughed. “But before you leave today, I’d like you to take a look at our special display of fire extinguishers and fire alarms—think about adding another level of safety to your home, that is, if you haven’t already. Now I am honored to announce the winner of the Mr. Hot Spot contest.” Everyone leaned slightly forward. Chief Williams tore open an envelope. “The winner is…Jenny Thurmond.”
Dan stood backstage with the band where Rhonda was trying to style his hair with the purple ponytail.
“Quit it, Rhonda. You’re bothering me.”
“Let’s give this little lady a hand. On behalf of the Bakersfield Fire Department, I’d like to award you one hundred dollars and hope you can use it to further your education.”
He handed Jenny a check. She stepped up to the microphone, eyes stuck on her paper and read about a German shepherd named Brad who’d rescued his owner from a house fire.
“We need a Brad in our department,” said Chief Williams who shook her hand and invited everyone to climb into the No. 1 fire truck that was parked outside the school. “Don’t forget to stop by the PTA tables for a slice of that Red Hot Red Velvet Cake. It’s going fast.”
On their way out of the auditorium, people stopped to tell Jenny how much they appreciated her story and wished her good luck. They heard how she loved animals, such a shame about all those endangered species of birds fluttering to the ground and dying every day, and how they enjoyed visiting the zoo in San Diego. Had she ever been there? No? She had to go. Maybe her mother and father could take her during summer vacation. They had wonderful exhibits. What a busy girl she was and good luck again.
Rhonda watched from the back of the auditorium. Her brother was drifting away from her. Maybe she’d give him the wrong phone number, but sooner or later…And how could someone who worked in an animal shelter also be pretty? One was bad enough.