Panteen lived above the Barb-B-Q across the street. Mama first toodle-ooed to him from the window she had ventilating her cigarette.
“Look at his wicked wink,” she said, sucking in smoke and then setting it up on a saucer at the windowsill, all pleased with herself being spotlighted by this man, flipping her hair out from behind her ears so it hung down her flat cheeks, pretending at improvement.
And Imogene peeked out to see the wickedness, too.
“Plain wicked,” Mama said again, rolling around in the attention the way a pig loves its dirt. Imogene agreed, agreed with Mama every chance.
Wire connecting the houses to telephone poles swayed like jump rope, squirrels skittering across them with punched up cheeks full of chow but still managing to chee. It was windy, and opening the window relieved the third floor’s stale odor. Imogene’s bangs lifted from her forehead in a gust. The air was barbecue flavored.
While Mama bedded Short Morty, Imogene slid to sit in the kitchen window chair, in Mama’s place, Panteen’s wink wicking all over her. Surprise– she had her a light on across the street. It was burning. She faced her hearing aid ear away from the window and squinted to try reading Panteen’s lips when he called out. His voice and words were beer truck rumble. Imogene had a smile so she smiled it.
“C’mon, girl. C’mon over here. I’m lonely,” he said, scooping and waving at her, his cigarette making it six long fingers sprouting from his paw. Imogene could not wait to do so. She plugged her hearing aid in, slid her glasses on, let her legs take the steps, down down down, rounding the banisters, trailing her hands along the railings, lifted them at all the places she knew had ick or sticky or gum or bare raised nail. Panteen wore dark clothes, and he had dark skin, and the shadowy place behind him where he lived was a bear den you could easily sleep in for months and forget to get up.
The feelings that rose and criss-crossed her chest when she first stepped into his bedroom nearly crushed her. Imogene learned Panteen was not his real name.
“Everybody calls me that ‘cause of my long shiny hair.” Would never admit his other name. “Come touch it.” She had to, wanted to, did. Despite her fear in being next to him, she did, smoothed him like her long lost pet.
Panteen emblemized the street. Once, at Yung’s Market after school, Imogene and Danny sat on the step eating their cupcake snacks. Nine and ten years old, maybe. And out Panteen strode over the top of their bent heads, opening cigarettes, barking something back to Mr. Yung. Something snarky and not nice and ending with “…old man.” Threatening. You had to look up and see the problem to get out of the way of it.
Panteen laughed, sick-like at them, his voice and breath in their direction so you couldn’t mistake who he’d sited. Said, “Come on your nose.”
Danny looked up from the cake cradled in his hands he’d been snuffling into and said, “Huh?”
Then Slo Mo stepped out and over them. And then another two, three, in braids and chains, track suits the color of hummingbirds, shoes like astronaut boots. Yung’s was full of traipsers and travelers and scum. Yung’s was a pass-through.
Panteen dropped his trash, pointed down at the stoop with his cigarette, now lit, and said, “Come on your nose.”
Danny squinted, and behind her glasses Imogene squinted and she saw Danny’s eyes pinched, and she caught the crème from the cake making his nose noticeable. Shame inflamed her skin and she didn’t even know why but it did. She didn’t know what was so evil in food on Danny’s face, and why Panteen and his crowd made slimy comment about it, but she wanted to hold her brother and shield him and deflect the street’s bad vibes and make the two of them disappear, rock them both to fade in her coat and into the concrete, to have never stopped at Yung’s to begin with. But she didn’t move a muscle, her glasses her buffer.
Danny bit into his cake and chewed.
Slo Mo said, “This girl’s a jigsaw.”
Panteen said, “Ah, leave ‘em go.” Flap jack hand.And here she was pulling her shirt off over her head for the ball-buster. She wanted to say it was in this moment he looked at her different, but truth was he’d always been looking at her that way. Through her.
“The angels love your sway,” Panteen said. If he talked on this mysterious she’d do most anything and not think hard on it. Troubling, how he turned her weak-kneed. She almost ran out over the smell of his body. He waved her to the bed, “C’mere, baby,” and once she got close enough he pulled her on top of him, rolled her, trapped her like the bar on a boy’s bicycle between his legs. Face to face showed her his beard, where every single hair emerged and curled crazy, and the pores with and without hair in them all black as if they had been drilled and then filled with gunpowder. He smelled burnt. His knee, and then his hard-on parted her legs. He removed Imogene’s glasses and her hearing aid, immobilizing her.
Once the fire faded some she could finally get outside her squirrel-chee-scream of wondering what this was—what what what. This, Panteen’s funky mattress, this Panteen’s place above the Bar-B-Q. It all settled down like a quilt on a new-made bed. Her eyes felt dried out in the cracked open world. Everything familiar, anything that was hers, was across the street. Here at Panteen’s she backed up so near to bad she felt its sweet animal stink showering her.
“That’s you and me you smell,” Panteen said. It was like he could read her mind.
She’d be crippled across four lanes before the WALK light went red, and with Panteen’s arm and hand clutched like a claw into her hair, the next minutes had no intelligence in them and therefore no decisions.