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Too Cool (Duff Brenna)


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  Triple E is broke. He cruises the streets of Gunnison searching for someone to roll. Jeanne has a buck and some change. Ava has two dollars. Tom has three. The car is almost out of gas. It has been a jittery day moving through the mountains, the tires skidding on patches of ice, slipping toward guardrails, jagged canyons. The radio has warned of another storm coming. They need to get gassed up and out of the Rockies, get to the plains of Utah before the storm hits.

"What should we do?" says Jeanne, trusting Triple E to have an answer. "Should we just get as much gas as we can and keep movin? Maybe we can find someone to roll in Utah. There are rich Mormons in Salt Lake, Triple E." She shivers and looks away from him. "God, it's cold. I can feel the cold pressin on the glass." She touches the window. Leaves the imprint of her fingers on the moist glass. "I should've stopped and got me some pants," she says. "This skirt is dumb." She tugs at the hem. Her kneecaps poke out smooth and brown. She is wearing a fur jacket. She has on ankle-top boots made of white suede. Her gaze wanders to Triple E, her eyes seeking assurance. He turns the heater up and she turns back to the window. "So cold," she says. "We gotta get outta here." She is not in her element. She is playing at being bad, doing her best to measure up to him, her love, her Triple E.

From the back comes Ava's tiny voice. "This isn't workin," she says. She and Tom have been arguing and now they are both slumped at opposite corners of the seat, glaring out the windows at the ghastly snow. Tom says she is smothering him, why can't she lay off? Their lives at stake and all Ava wants to do is suck-face. Doesn't she know there's a time and place for everything? The goddamn car jerking all over the ice, six inches from death, cops looking for them, money running out, and she wants what? to make out? wants to talk about love and babies and shit?

"What the fuck wrong with you, girl?"

Ava has taken the hint. She has squashed herself up, her arms crossed, her face turned away, and she says it again, "This isn't workin."

"What isn't workin?" says Triple E.

"Me and Tom nor nothin," she says. "I don't know why I come. We don't know where we're goin, we don't know what we're doin, cept running round creation with you, Triple E. You're the one fought the law, you're who they want, not me, not us guys."

He can't argue with her. He nods, his eyes on her in the mirror--petite bit of a thing, fragile as a sparrow. She is fourteen years old and his cousin and he should be looking out better for her; but there is this thing she has about Tom Patch. And when he jumped in the car at school and said he was going with Triple E and Jeanne, Ava hopped in with him, eyes bright, ready for adventure. Triple E knows he should have made her get out of the car right then. But he didn't.

"Nobody's makin you stay," he tells her. "I'll let you out anytime you say, Ava. You can go on home."

"Like how?"

"Like, just call your mom. She'll come get you."

Ava is quiet a second or two, then she tells him to forget it, she is staying.

Parking next to a grocery store, Triple E watches as customers come out and get into their cars and drive away. A woman, hunched in a heavy coat and carrying a grocery bag in her arms, comes out of the store. Her purse dangles at her elbow. She walks past the parking lot and keeps going up the street.

"There," says Triple E. "You guys wait here."

He gets out of the car and walks behind her. The street is packed with houses on both sides, but just a few blocks away is white prairie wilderness. The sun is setting. Distant mountains huddle shoulder to shoulder like conspirators, their peaks lost in ashen clouds. Bitterbrush and trees and sage meander over the slopes fanning out beyond the town. Trees are scattered over yards and terraces. The sidewalks are gray, icy. Snow hardens along the curbs and against the wheels of parked cars. Icicles hang from the edges of peaked roofs. Lights in windows glow in a yellow haze of frost.

Past a streetlight on the corner there are shadows beneath the black trees. When she enters the shadows, Triple E will go for her purse. He watches her carefully as she crosses the street, then moves into the gloom. He can see she is being careful, trying not to slip on the ice. He, too, is unsteady. Salt grips the soles of his shoes, but he feels like he might bust his ass any second. Hurrying close behind the old woman, he is about to snatch the purse from her arm, when she turns around. Looks at him.

"My-my," she says, her voice raspy, "isn't it just freezing to death out here? Where's your hat, honey? You should have a hat on."

"Uhnnh," he mutters.

"You'll get frostbit ears."

"Ummm," he says.

They walk together across the street. He sees a wrinkled patch of face bunched inside a knit cap and a scarf tied beneath her chin. He takes her arm and helps her up the curb. She is shaky and leans on him trustfully. His fingers are inches away from her purse.

"Thank you," she says. And then she says, "You're Masterson's boy, aren't you? I thought I knew you. You're Billy Masterson."

"Uhhh," he says.

"It's me, Ida."

"Oh, uhhh."

"How's your dad, Billy?"

"Okay."

She looks him up and down. "You been to military school or something?" she says. She has a crooked lip. It lifts at one corner and slopes downward at the other. Lots of vertical lines encircle her mouth. Her breath steams. His too.

"Uh-huh, military school," he says, running his hand over his buzzed hair.

"Those are parade shoes you're wearing, aren't they." She points at his shoes. The shoes are buffed a very shiny black, the edges are laced with snow.

"Yes, ma'am."

"I know parade shoes when I see them. Wilfred was thirty years in the army."

Ida talks fast, like she is afraid he'll go away if she doesn't keep talking. She says she knows military school is hard on boys, but it's good for them in the long run, builds character, gives a boy proper American values and self-discipline. If she had her way all boys would go to military school soon as they turned twelve. "Too many boys running on the streets where they're nothing but trouble. Denver especially," she says. "I'm glad I don't live there no more. What those people do to one another, it's criminal. Give me the country, give me the mountains. How old are you now, Billy?"

"Sixteen."

"Ah-yes," she says. She settles her gaze on him. "It's what I like about Gunnison. Nice kids like you. Been taught the values." She pauses a moment to clear her throat. She keeps squeezing Triple E's arm, yanking lightly on the sleeve of his jacket as they walk along. "The worse thing Nixon ever did, you know, was take away the draft. Young men and all their excess energy, they need a place to burn it off. Draft them in the army. Give them pride in themselves and pride of country, that's what Wilfred always said."

"I guess," says Triple E.

"I miss my Wilfred," says Ida, her voice small. She turns at the walkway in front of her house. The house is pillowed in snow. It looks rumpled, homey, like something from a fairy tale. The porch light is on. Smoke rises from the chimney. "Nice seeing you again, Billy," she says. "Tell your dad hi from Ida."

"Sure will, Ida," says Triple E. He watches her mount the porch, her gloved hand carefully gripping the rail. After she goes inside, he stands in front, stamping his feet, trying to decide what to do. The kitchen light comes on, and he can see her moving around, putting groceries away. The sky lowers around him, and he finds himself wishing he could go inside Ida's house, not to rob her, but to sit with her beside the fire, warming his feet, watching TV, safe from winter and everything.
 
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Excerpted from Too Cool by Duff Brenna. Copyright © 1998 by Duff Brenna. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.