by Erin Halfelven
“Do you want a job or not?” Judith asked him again.
Harold tried to scowl, but he felt so near to tears that expressing any emotion seemed likely to result in a cloudburst. He moved his head in what might have been a nod, a shake or a shrug.
Judith sighed, looking around. They sat in her car, a small silver Corolla in the parking lot of the fifth strip mall they had tried. A Mexican restaurant anchored one end with an auto parts place at the other. In between sat various shops: a nail salon, a cellular store, an insurance office, a Subway franchise and a shop that sold model airplanes, drones and other RC toys.
“I’m just tired of…,” he didn’t want to say it. Rejection hurt.
Judith sighed again, glancing at her brother. “Well, we can’t do this with you so upset. I mean, right at the moment, you look about eight, not sixteen.”
That did it. Harold began to leak tears and make little hiccough noises.
“C’mon,” said Judith. “I saw a Tastee-Freez down the street, we’ll get a dip cone and plot a new strategy.” She restarted the car and backed out of the space.
“I’m sorry,” Harold blubbered.
“Yeah, well, it’s not your fault,” said Judith. “Half of these morons thought you were my kid sister, even with you dressed in long pants and a button down shirt.” She smiled crookedly, “Maybe we should paint a mustache on you?”
Harold hiccoughed a laugh. “Probably wouldn’t work. I’d look like the year you went out on Halloween as Charlie Chaplin.”
Judith squinted sideways at him. “Well, probably no one would think you were Hitler. Your problem is you are too darn cute. Cuter than I ever was.”
“Hic,” said Harold.
“You’ve practically cornered the market on cuteness,” Judith went on. “There’s probably a lawsuit in your future for having a monopoly.”
“Stop it,” Harold managed to say between higgles, which are what it sounds like when you giggle at the same time as you hiccough.
“It’s what saves you every time,” said Judith, pulling into the drive-thru at the Tastee-Freez behind several other vehicles. “Wanna corn dog or an ice cream?” she asked. The heat bouncing off the pavement predicted a bull market for the cool stuff.
“What is? A dip cone, like you said.”
“Hmm,” she examined the colorful menu. “They have vanilla, strawberry and chocolate soft-serve with chocolate, caramel or banana dip. Wow. Your sense of humor. What kind you want?”
Harold dried his eyes on the backs of his hands. “Strawberry with banana dip?”
“I think I’ll have the same, it’s not something I’ve ever had before,” Judith agreed. “I’ll get us a cup of water, too.” When the box squawked at her, she placed their order and pulled forward behind a large SUV.
“Not so close,” Harold warned. “The exhaust stinks.”
Judith hit the button to roll the window back up, stopped with some distance between her and the offending tailpipe, and switched the air conditioning to internal. “Doesn’t stink quite like New York. In the winter, downtown, the city smells like the garbage trucks actually run off burning garbage.”
“Recycling,” said Harold. “What do you mean about my sense of humor?”
“It’s silly,” said his sister. “You have a silly sense of humor, and it eventually kicks in and gets you out of being in the dumps.”
“Hmm,” said Harold. “Not a talent I can market, though.”
“Yeah, but all I have to do is say something absurd, even if it’s a bit insulting, and you grin and giggle and stop feeling bad for yourself.”
The SUV pulled forward and they cautiously advanced, too.
“I wish I didn’t giggle,” said Harold.
Judith shrugged. “You’re a soprano, so am I. Any small laugh from either of us is going to sound like a giggle.”
After getting their cones, Judith pulled around to park in front of the bodega two driveways down. Away from the traffic, they rolled down the windows and turned the A/C and engine off.
Harold licked a pink runner of melt off the cone before it reached his hand. “Good.”
“Mmm, hmm,” Judith agreed. “Of course, nobody with any sense drives in New York. I didn’t have Bess with me,” she patted the steering wheel, “and it was just as well.”
“You going to sell her before you leave this time?” he asked.
She looked at him sideways. “I thought I would leave her for you. You’re old enough now to get a license if you take the courses.”
Harold sniffed and said nothing for a moment, then noted, “How would I pay for the courses, let alone insurance and gas if I don’t have a job?”
“Hmm.” They both licked industriously for a moment.
“You didn’t get your license until you were eighteen, four years ago, which is when Mom gave you her car before she bought the new one.”
“Yeah, and Dad paid for the courses and insurance for a year.”
Harold nodded then stabbed another runaway drip with his tongue. “It won’t kill me not to have a car for another two years. But there sure are a lot of other things to use money for.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Judith bit into the top of her ice cream; she always got impatient with just licking, well before Harold did.
Finishing off her cone, she took a sip of the water and watched her brother savor the last bites of his treat. “Take a drink of water,” she offered him, “then we can use the rest of the cup to wash up.”
“Sticky,” agreed Harold. “No one can eat an ice cream cone without getting a bit sticky. Why is that?”
“Ye kinna change the laws of physics,” said Judith.
“Laws of physics, laws of physics,” said Harold, dampening a corner of a napkin.
They cleaned their hands and mouths and put the detritus in the plastic bag Judith kept in the car for trash.
“Well, feel better?” Judith asked as she restarted the car.
“Buckle up. Ready to try my new strategy?” She signaled before pulling back onto the street.
“I guess. Where we going?” He refastened his seat best.
“Home. Tell me again how bad you want a job?”
“Pretty bad,” said Harold.
“I guess, yeah.” He looked out the window at the suburban sprawl. Sixty miles east of downtown L.A. and subdivisions, strip malls and industrial parks filled the valleys and reached halfway up the mountains in a tide of mortgages and capital investment. Harold didn’t think of that. Southern California was all that he knew and building up the hillside was how things worked.
“Pretty desperate?” she asked.
He looked at her. She was grinning at him and he smiled back. “I guess, yeah, pretty desperate.”
“I’ve got an idea you might not like.”
“Already I hate it,” he said cautiously.
She shrugged. “We’ve spent three days looking and you haven’t found anyone willing to hire a sixteen-year-old boy who looks eleven.”
Judith took a right hand turn to get back on the freeway toward home. “I can make you look your age, or closer anyway….”
“I thought that was what the shirt and pants were supposed to do?” He gestured at what he was wearing.
Judith sniffed. “Didn’t work. Almost half of the people you asked even thought you were a girl.”
“Yeah, well.” Harold squirmed.
“Why not use that?”
“You’re cute. Cute people get breaks ugly people don’t get.”
Harold sniffed. “Can’t prove it by me.”
“I know it for a fact,” insisted Judith. “I’ve gotten a lot out of life by being cute.”
Mumble, grumble, from Harold.
“What?” she asked.
“Yeah, but you’re a girl. You’re supposed to be cute.”
Judith kept grinning. She accelerated up the ramp onto the 210 freeway and merged into traffic. “What if you were a girl?” she asked him.
“But I’m not!”
“Remember when we played dress-up with my old clothes?”
“I was four! You were ten!”
“You were so cute!”
“Arr!” Harold’s growl sounded unfortunately like a kitten with a piece of string.
Judith laughed. “I could use makeup to help you look your age.”
“No,” said Harold.
“I bet I could get you a job in two hours if you dressed as a girl.”
The kitten growled again.
Judith laughed. “You’ll be so cute!”
“We can call you Carol.”
“Arr! No, Judith. Just no!”
“Okay, I guess you really don’t want a job.” She took the exit toward home and stopped at the light at the bottom of the ramp.
Harold stayed silent until they had parked in front of their own garage and started around through the gate to the stairs up to Judith’s room.
He sighed noisily.
Judith stopped on the first step upward and turned to look at him.
“I’m not going to look ridiculous am I?”
“Of course not!” Judith beamed at him. “You’ll be so cute all the boys will want a date with you!”
“Arr! Not helping!”
Judith reached down to take his hand. “C’mon! You’ll see, this will be fun!”
Harold let himself be pulled into climbing the stairs. “It will not,” he protested, a bit weakly.
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