Johnny America


On the Side


I’ve nev­er seen this one be­fore. She’s short and blond and chub­by. It’s Oc­to­ber, too chilly for shorts, but she wears them any­way. Pink bas­ket­ball sneak­ers and a St. Brid­get’s sweat­shirt. Too much make­up and a cam­ou­flage backpack.

“Hi, cutie,” she says. “Pro­fes­sor Jan­net­ti around?”

I start to say, No, he was called away on an emer­gency, when he walks up be­hind me.

“Come on in, Marie,” he says, all busi­ness. “I see you’ve met my daugh­ter Leah.”

My adop­tive mom is away. She’s a book­seller, and right now she’s in Utah ad­dress­ing peo­ple from the Na­tion­al Park Service.

“How old are you, Leah?” Marie asks as she clos­es the front door and un­shoul­ders her backpack.

“Yo ten­go diez años,” I say.

“She’s ten,” my fa­ther translates.

“She speaks Span­ish?” Marie asks.

“Her lat­est pas­sion,” my adop­tive dad tells his student.

Marie bends in close to him to con­fide. “But she’s Chinese.”

“Es ver­dad,” I say.

“We’re go­ing to be work­ing in the den,” he tells me. “You can find some­thing to keep you occupied?”

I shrug.

“On­ly be an hour or two,” he says.

This is not that un­usu­al a thing. My fa­ther has been tu­tor­ing stu­dents on the side ever since I can re­mem­ber. But when my mom’s away, they’re all girls. When she’s home they come to the door smelling like Fritos and Red Bull. When she’s not, they smell like the soap in the guest bathroom.

It’s a Sat­ur­day so I flop on my par­ents’ bed and watch an old Saved by the Bell. I’ve seen it a mil­lion times, but suf­fer through an­oth­er half-hour.

Marie comes up look­ing for the bath­room. Ap­par­ent­ly, my dad’s us­ing the one down­stairs. She wan­ders in­to my par­ents’ room, sees me stretched across the bed. She smiles and says, “¿Dónde es­ta la baño?”

“El baño,” I cor­rect her, and point to­ward the open bath­room door.

When she comes out, I’m watch­ing Sponge­Bob on Nick­elodeon. “This show is awe­some,” she says, then stands there wait­ing for me to make a com­ment. Even­tu­al­ly, she catch­es on and leaves. I hear her go­ing down the stairs, but she does­n’t fall and crack her head open. One more wish unfulfilled.

That night my dad — as he usu­al­ly does un­der these cir­cum­stances — plays Fa­ther of the Year. We or­der piz­za and I get to call the top­pings. We de­frost a Sara Lee pound cake and cov­er it with straw­ber­ries and Red­di­Wip. We guz­zle Pep­si and burp out loud.

The bribes are un­nec­es­sary. It’s not as if I’m go­ing to tell my mom. Be­cause what is there to tell? Dad had a stu­dent over? She knows this. She en­cour­ages it. It pays for the groceries.

He lets me stay up late and watch two hours of Saba­do Gi­gante on Uni­vi­sion. At ten, as I put on my pa­ja­mas, he peeks in­to my room.

“A lit­tle pri­va­cy?” I say. “¿Un poco de privacidad?”

“Sor­ry,” he says and clos­es the door.

Ten min­utes lat­er he knocks. I’m al­ready in bed with the light off, but nowhere near asleep.

“Want me to tell you a sto­ry?” he whispers.

And I fight back the urge, in both Eng­lish and Span­ish, to say, You’ve al­ready told me one.

Filed under Fiction on November 10th, 2008

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Reader Comments

bill wrote:

I think the last word here is sup­posed to be “one.”

Jay Holley wrote:

You’re cor­rect. Thanks for the catch. Fixed now.

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