Triskaideka I: Keep On Truckin'

Written by Luna

NOTE: The title and opening quote come from the 1973 song of the same name, by Eddie Kendricks. At the end, Meldrick sings "The World Is A Ghetto" by War, which charted the same year.

*I'm the redball express of lovin' -
Diesel-powered straight to you, I'm truckin'
Ain't nothin' holdin' me back, nothin' -
I'll keep right on, right on truckin'....*

The classroom smelled of peanut butter, chalk dust, and sweat, and it resounded with as much noise as a carnival.

"It's June, already! Why can't we eat outside?"

"I forgot my lunch ticket today. Can I borrow two dollars to get something to eat after school?"

"Miss T., I ain't coming back to seventh grade again next year even if you do flunk me."

"Close the window! Mosquitoes keep coming in here!"

"Leave it open! We're all gonna get heat stroke."

The girls clustered in the front corner, desks pushed together in a tight circle. The boys sprawled across the back of the room, arguing about baseball. A few loners and outcasts ate alone at their seats.

Gary Johnson nudged his best friend, Meldrick Lewis, and glanced over at the group of girls across the room. "She's so fine," Gary said.

"Who?" Meldrick replied, trying to sound casual.

"Don't be stupid, Mel! Darlene Shelby. You've been staring at her for a week."

"Shut up!" Meldrick hissed. "I have *not* been staring at her. And besides, she hasn't noticed."

"Are you ever going to talk to her, or are you just gonna sit here looking sad?"

"I'm working up to it."

"Well, there's only a week of school left, my man. Work faster!"

Gary chuckled, and Meldrick glared at him. He picked up his carton of milk and his sandwich, and put them back in the brown paper bag with the bruised apple. He started confidently, smoothly, across the room, thinking, *I'm cool; I can do this,* and narrowly missed walking right into a chair as he made his way to the front of the room.

"Ladies," he greeted them, thankful when his voice didn't crack.

Darlene looked up at him shyly.

"Hi, Meldrick," Ginny Tucker, the class flirt, said, drawing his name out in a teasing voice.

"Would y'all mind if I join you?"

"It's a free country," Ginny answered.

Meldrick pulled a desk over so he could sit next to Darlene. Sporadic giggles circulated among the girls. Ginny nudged Darlene slightly, and she blushed, a rosy tinge under her smooth brown skin. "I like your shirt," she said, softly.

His mother had picked it up at the Salvation Army store, but he wasn't about to admit that. "Thanks. Want a bite of my apple?" He offered her the undamaged side. She took a small bite with her pretty -- *perfect,* he thought -- mouth.

Meldrick had been practicing what he'd say to her, rehearsing lines in his head, but they seemed silly and awkward in front of all his female classmates. He'd clowned around in class before, and they'd never fazed him, but this was different. There was no way he could talk to Darlene the way he wanted to in front of an audience.

"So, uh, you busy after school today?" he asked her. She shook her head, blushing again. "Can I walk you home?"

Ginny hooted, and the girls' high-pitched laughter made Darlene's soft reply almost inaudible. But she said yes, and she smiled at him.

His heart pounded, but he kept his cool. "Meet you after class," he said, and stood up. He ignored the near-hysterical titters from the other girls, barely even hearing them as he picked up his lunch again and crossed back to his seat.

"Way to go!" Gary congratulated him. "Man, she is definitely hot for you."

"Of course she is," Meldrick said, cockily. "Girls can't resist the world-famous Lewis charm. I'm just too cool."

"You're just too full of it," his friend retorted, and before Meldrick thought of a comeback the bell rang, signaling the end of the lunch break, and they had to straighten up their desks, settle down, and pretend to pay attention to an hour of math lectures. Meldrick wondered why they even bothered teaching that stuff. There were more problems in the real world than in any textbook, and they were a lot harder to solve.

After what seemed like a few hundred hours, the dismissal bell rang. Meldrick and Darlene walked down the front steps of the school together. He carried her notebook for her. Striding through the deluge of junior high students with this cute, pretty girl at his side made him feel grown-up, inspired, free. She seemed nervous, so he horsed around to make her feel comfortable, imitating bits of the movies he and Gary sometimes sneaked into the theater to watch. As they approached her building, he even tried a few karate kicks like the ones he'd just seen in *Enter The Dragon*. She laughed, and he quoted the movie, mimicking Bruce Lee's accent: "My style, you can call the art of fighting without fighting!"

Darlene grinned. "I have got to see this movie!"

"It's playing at the movie theater a few blocks away. Maybe..." He paused. "Maybe we could go sometime."

"You've already seen it," she pointed out.

"Oh. Yeah. But I wouldn't mind seeing it again. If you want to come with me."

"I'd like that," Darlene said.

They looked at each other, both a little nervous and tense. Somewhere in the building above them, a radio began to play. Meldrick began to pretend to sing along, but stopped when he realized what song it was. It had been playing almost constantly for a couple weeks, but it startled him to hear it at that moment.

*I've been really trying now, baby,
Trying to hold back this feeling for so long,
And if you feel like I feel,
Come on....*

"Ginny says you have a crush on me," Darlene said, suddenly. "And she also says boys are all jerks, and they only want one thing from girls."

"Ginny should shut her big mouth before a bug flies into it," Meldrick said vehemently. Darlene smiled a little, and he continued. "She's crazy, but I... I do like you. A lot. You're the finest girl in school, and...."

Marvin Gaye kept singing, soulfully imploring his audience to get something on that Meldrick could, as yet, only vaguely define. *I wonder if she'll let me--*, he thought, and then he remembered Bruce Lee saying, "Don't think! Feel!" So instead of wondering, he simply stepped forward and kissed her, quickly, on the mouth.

He stepped back, and saw she was blushing again, furiously this time, but she looked at him with twinkling eyes. She stepped forward and kissed him back, just as swiftly. And then they both moved forward at the same time, and kept kissing, and everything was a confused rush in his mind: *Where should I put my hands? What if I forget to breathe? Should I open my mouth?*

A shrill voice from above made them suddenly leap apart and look up. A teenage girl who looked like a grown-up Darlene was leaning out of a window on the third floor, holding a baby and shouting, "Darlene Ruth Shelby! Mama's gonna beat your butt if she catches you kissing some boy on the sidewalk in front of God and everybody! You get up here right now or I'll tell her!

"That's my sister," Darlene explained. "I gotta go help take care of my niece, or I'll be in trouble."

"I understand," Meldrick said, realizing that he was supposed to be at home too. "I should go home too. I'll see you in school tomorrow, right?"

"Only four days until summer break starts! And we'll go see that karate movie too, okay?"

"Sure!" he said, jubilantly. "The second feature is *Serpico*. Great cop movie. It'll be righteous."

She started up the steps, paused, darted back and kissed him, on the cheek this time. Then she dashed into the building without looking back. He glanced up at her sister, scolding in the window, and grinned before he started running, down the pavement, heading for home.

His grandmother yelled at him as soon as he walked in the door. "Meldrick! Where have you been? It's after four o'clock already!"

"I'm sorry, Grandma," he began, out of breath. "I was walking this girl home -"

"I don't care if President Nixon asked you to walk him home to the White House!" She saw that she was upsetting him, and she softened. "I need you here right after school, baby. Your moms is working two jobs to make ends meet, and I can't chase after Anthony by myself all day. I'm gettin' too old for this. I'm worn out, so I need you to take some responsibility for your brother. You understand?"

"Yes, Grandma," he said, grudgingly.

"He's back in the bedroom. See if you can go talk to him."

In the back room, Anthony was sitting on the edge of the bed, staring out the window and rocking back and forth.

"I'm home," Meldrick said, provoking no response. "I said I'm home. Don't you even care?"

Anthony kept rocking in place, and Meldrick was frustrated. "Why do I have to take care of you?" he growled, rhetorically. "Why can't you be normal and take care of yourself? Why do you have to ruin everything?"

Anthony finally reacted, by curling up into a ball and burying his face in his hands. Instantly, Meldrick felt guilty and sat down on the bed beside him. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it."

"Mad at me," Anthony said.

"I wasn't mad at you."

"Mad at me," he repeated, stubbornly.

"I wasn't. Honest. I don't mind taking care of you. I'm always gonna take care of you. Grandma's right, you're my responsibility. I -- look, I'll sing a song for you, okay? Heard it on the radio this morning on the way to school."

Anthony watched as his brother jumped up from the bed and grabbed an imaginary microphone out of thin air. He sang the lead vocal and repeated himself in a high back-up singer voice. "Wonder when I'll find paradise, somewhere there's a home sweet and nice. Wonder if I'll find happiness -- never give up now, I guess. Don't you know it's true, that for me and you, the world is a ghetto?"

Anthony sat up and cheered, and Meldrick started showing off karate kicks again. As he leapt into the air and crashed down onto the bed, the brothers grinned at each other, and their laughter echoed off the walls as the summer afternoon rolled on.