Noe Valley Voice September 2008

The Last Page: Shifty

An excerpt from the forthcoming novel

by Lynn E. Hazen

Summer is just starting and I'm getting into trouble without even trying. Just like the summer I got sent to juvie. Only none of that was my fault. Now it's happening all over again. I park the van for just a second in the bus zone on Mission Street. I need to buy me a burrito after the last day of school. I look first--and there's no bus coming. But cops are always looking too. Looking for guys like me.

When I come out with my burrito the cop is gone, but the ticket is right there on Martha's windshield. At least no one wants to see my driver's license--the license I don't have.

"Expensive burrito," Martha says when I get back. Two hundred and seventy-five bucks Martha has to pay for that ticket. She says I owe it to her now, and I got to repay her--one way or another.

"Why'd you get a burrito anyway?" Martha asks. "We're going to Hong Sing's tonight."

"I was hungry," I say.

Martha usually splurges on Friday nights with Chinese takeout. Sissy holds the door open at Hong Sing's for Martha and the baby. I'm already inside, checking out the specials and taking a number so we won't have to wait all night. I like the steamy windows in this crowded place, the sizzling garlic smell, and the yelling back and forth.

"The Hong Sing special ribs look good," I say.

"I know, Soli," Martha says. "But I've still got some food in the fridge at home."

Martha must be worried about that expensive bus zone ticket because she only orders half as much as usual--just pot stickers and the green bean garlic chicken. Back at Martha's the pot stickers are perfect. The garlic chicken and Martha's leftovers aren't bad either. One thing about Martha is, she doesn't skimp on meals. The food might not all match up, like tonight's Chinese takeout, leftover hot dogs, and canned beans--but for the ten months or so I've been here, there's always been plenty of it. Not like some places I've lived, where they put locks on the refrigerator and cupboards and you got to listen to your empty stomach grumbling all day and night.

Sissy eats head-down, silent as usual, with one hand in her sweater pocket. But she perks up a little at the fortune cookies.

I open mine first.

"What's it say?" Martha asks.

"A sly rabbit has three openings to its den. Whatever that's supposed to mean."

Sissy looks at hers but it's got too many words. She hands it to Martha.

"Keep a green tree in your heart and a songbird will come." Martha pats Sissy's hand, then gives the fortune back. Sissy tucks it into her pocket.

"You both did better than me," Martha says. "Listen to this: You will come to the attention of those in authority. I hope not. That's the last thing I need."

Martha crumples her fortune and tosses it in the trash. I should have paid more attention. Because Martha and me, maybe we got our fortunes crossed.

A few days later, I'm minding my own business, staying out of trouble, looking for another parking place--this time at that new Mission shopping center. You'd think it wouldn't be so crowded on a weekday morning. You'd think a big city like San Francisco could create more parking spots.

I look for a parking space while watching out for "authorities." I see a cop in front of the Jamba Juice a couple of stores down from Toy Mart and Rite Aid. So Sissy and me, we're stuck driving around and around that lot with no place to park. It's not my idea to take Sissy shopping. But Sissy's never been to any birthday party and all of a sudden she's invited--Sissy's so nervous about it in her no-talking, no-smiling, watching-everything, seven-year-old-self kind of way. And Martha says I have to take my little sister to the store to help her choose a present for her new school friend. Well Sissy, she's not my real sister. And Martha, she's not my real mom either. But I have to do it because "we got to help each other out," Martha says, and now she's so busy with that new crack baby.

"He's not a crack baby," Martha tells me. "He's a baby first. A baby born addicted to drugs."

Pitiful, the way he shakes and all, and I doubt he's got a chance in this world, but no use telling that to Martha. Martha believes in lost causes like Sissy and that scrawny little baby-first crack baby.

Sissy is not her real name, but she wants to be called Little Sister or Sissy all the time. And according to Martha, Sissy and I are not "foster kids" either. We are "kids first." She makes us repeat her "people first" language, and now it's starting to stick in my brain. Sissy and me, we are "kids living in a foster home." Not foster kids. Nope, not according to Martha.

There's still no place to park. But that cop finally disappears, so I pull into the handicapped zone in front of Toy Mart. We're only going to be here a few minutes, and besides, I'm staying in the van. Martha told me and Sissy to walk to one of those cheap stores on Mission Street and "hurry back." But walking would've taken too long. The fastest thing to do was borrow her van. Plus, I want to look at the radar detectors at the auto-supply store on the way back. Martha lets me drive her old van, especially when I'm late for school, or her knee is sore, or that jittery baby won't stop crying. Of course, she usually comes along for the ride.

I like how Martha is all trusting of me. Not too many people trust me like that. No one besides Martha, in fact. I got a whole file full of people saying how I'm shifty and not to be trusted. But Martha, she trusts the good in people, even when the bad part is showing up more than anything else.

When I first came to Martha's house, she asked me if I had a driving permit. I said yeah. She never asked if the permit had my name on it, or if I was old enough to drive. I'm old enough. Just not according to the State of California.

So I can't exactly tell Martha that the permit isn't mine. It's not my fault I'm tall and I look older than fifteen. I was just helping out Wired at my last group home. He needed all the help he could get. I took the written test for him at the DMV and I only got three wrong. Wired never would've passed. He was so grateful he gave me a copy of his permit. Of course the permit has Wired's name on it--his real name, Franklin. The flimsy black-and-white photo is faded and doesn't look much like me unless I tilt my chin up and smile with all my teeth showing, just like Wired does. Luckily Martha's eyesight isn't all that good.

And now, with her leg bothering her, it seems a shame to all of a sudden tell Martha that I can't get my own real permit until I'm fifteen and a half. That's five months from now. I like driving and I'm good at it. Besides, Martha keeps saying she needs my help since she's so busy with that jittery baby-first crack baby. And I'm not the only one bending the rules. I looked in Martha's wallet. Her license is expired too.

I don't want to get another ticket, so I plan to take Martha's blue handicapped tag out of her glove box and hook it on the rearview mirror. With her knee swollen most of the time and the bottom half of her left leg missing all the time, Martha has a right to those handicapped spaces. Martha usually keeps her blue tag in the glove box and pretends she's just fine. Like if she pretends she's fine, no one will notice she's got a fake leg below her knee. Her prosthesis, she calls it.

"I get around," she says. "I get around just fine."

Yeah, I could've parked farther away like Martha usually does. But the way I see it, she's wasting a perfectly good blue tag, and those parking spaces are empty most of the time anyway. That's what I'm thinking when I pull into the handicapped space up front. Sissy gives me one of those sideways looks of hers, but she doesn't say a thing.

I stay in the van and send skinny-legged Sissy in with her ten dollars scrunched in her fist. I'll watch for cops--and if anyone really handicapped comes along, of course I'll move the van. But Sissy, she takes too long. And when she comes back out, she's empty-handed.

"What?" I ask her.

Sissy shrugs and slides her hands into her sweater pockets.

"Where's the present?"

She looks down, then back at the store.

"You better hurry up," I say. "Or I'm leaving."

"What if...," she stops mid-sentence.

"What if what?"

"What if...I get the wrong thing?" she says.

That's a lot of words from Sissy. She's been at Martha's three months now, and she barely says more than three words at a time.

So I tell her, "Choose something you'd like for yourself, and your friend will like it just fine. And hurry up while you're at it."

I listen to four or five more songs on the radio. But Sissy's not hurrying. She doesn't even come back out. So I have to go check on her. That's what big brothers are supposed to do, right?

I find her standing in the dollhouse aisle, but she's not looking at baby dolls or doggies or toy cars or furniture. Nope--she's got a row of little plastic mamas lined up. A brown mama, a black mama, and a white mama. She can't decide which.

I tell her, "The brown mama's good--it looks like a skinny version of Martha."

I switch some price tags around so we'll get more change and we buy it quick, but not quick enough. As soon as we're out of the store, I see I forgot to hang Martha's blue handicapped tag on the mirror. Sissy should have reminded me, because now that Jamba Juice cop is right in front of Martha's van. And she's pulling out her pad, all ready to write me a ticket.

So of course, I have to stop her.

Local author Lynn E. Hazen, 52, has been captivating young readers and listeners in Noe Valley for many years. She published her first novel--Mermaid Mary Margaret, aimed at kids 9 to 12--in 2004 (Bloomsbury USA). She also has written two children's books: Buzz Bumble to the Rescue (Bloomsbury, 2005) and Cinder Rabbit, published by Henry Holt in April. Her Amazing Trail of Seymour Snail, about a snail who keeps looking for a job in all the wrong places, is due out from Holt next year.

During her own career journey, Hazen earned a B.A. in behavioral sciences from U.C. Davis, an M.A. in education at San Francisco State University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Vermont College. But she also received inspiration from the hundreds of kids who attended her preschool, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Hazen runs the school and lives with her family in what she calls "Baja Noe Valley," where Noe Valley borders the Mission.

When not teaching or writing stories, Hazen enjoys giving presentations on her craft. This fall, she will teach a class in writing for children and young adults, in the Continuing Studies department at Stanford University. Shifty, published this month by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, is her first young adult novel (for ages 12 and up). Signed copies will be available at Cover to Cover Booksellers on Castro Street. For more information about Hazen's books, see or www.LynnHazen