The Girl on the Unicycle

Autofiction by Jay Parr

CN for racism and hate speech.

Me and Jimmy was riding bikes first time I seen her. It was last weekend of summer break, school starting back up in a couple days hanging over our heads like a goddamn prison sentence, so we was living life, reckless, desperate, like we ain’t had nothing to lose. We ain’t have all that much to lose anyways, riding them bikes what come out the trash heap, mine rattle-can painted gray on top about four other colors, prolly stoled from the guy stoled it from the guy stoled it. Dad done run off on Mom and us when we was livin’ up in D.C., left her with two kids and somehow no child support, in the house belonged to the church where he was “The Reverend” before they kicked his ass out. They was nice enough to let me and Mom and Jimmy stay in the house through the end of the school year, but after that the rent would be more’n Mom’s paycheck, cause even if the house was right by the corner of a busy four-lane street and another busy four-lane street, and even if we could see a strip club from our front porch and there was another one right around the corner, Shepherd Park was still a desirable neighborhood where we was the poor folks, surrounded by Black folks and brown folks and foreigners all with PhDs and endowed professorships and Top Secret clearances and corner offices looked over the Potomac and their own private offices in the White House and their own private dressing rooms at the Kennedy Center and shit like that. And Mom ain’t have nowhere else to go, so when Dad told her about this fisbo three doors down from the apartment he was renting down Roanoke where his mistress-slash-girlfriend lived, that was where we ended up, cause I guess Mom thought us kids should be close to our dad or some bullshit. It was run down and ain’t have but a old oil-burner heater with one big grate under the hall, but they was selling it cheap and willing to take payments no interest, so we ended up here, with drunks for neighbors and teenage hoodlums and others growed up to be the same-ass hoodlums only gray and bald, and where anything weren’t chained down was gonna walk off, even if it was just the old milk canister Mom liked to use for a end table on the porch.

Anyways me and Jimmy done rode down the big hill on 17th like it was the big drop on a rollercoaster, blowed through the stop sign turning onto Chapman, and we was angling to turn down 18th toward the tracks when I seen her. She was on the front walk of this brick house that had this big-ass U-Haul crammed in the driveway, and she was on this chrome unicycle, and she was hopping up and down the step from the front walk to the sidewalk like it was what she was borned to do.

I couldn’t get a good look at her without wrecking my bike and probably taking out Jimmy too, but what I seen she had kinda medium brown skin, dark eyes, and long, long black hair tied in a ponytail went all the way down past her ass almost to that wheel underneath her.

Jimmy and me blowed on down onto 18th Street, him just about bouncing off the front of a van that was coming out the General Sales warehouse and screeched to a stop blowing his horn and cussing at us out his open window, but we roared on down the hill to where the tracks crossed the road and there was a coal train rumbling across like they do all day every day, and Jimmy skidded to a stop almost up under the train and dared me to rip one of the stapled tags off one of the coal cars, so after a couple tries I done it and got hold of one, and we went on with our last couple desperate days before it was time to go back to our fate.

Wun’t but maybe a couple days later when I was in bed in my little 8-by-10 bedroom, trying to sleep in the heat, wishing I had a fan, cause even though there was no glass in the transom and the door didn’t fit the frame and it had these big old gaps and it was just a hook & eye latch held it closed there weren’t no air in the room even with the big screen propped in the window, and that was when I heard a big ol’ clunk and a clatter out front and I looked out the screen through the overgrowed tree branches and it was this high school dropout, dude named Robert, who was older and bigger and meaner than me and who stoled shit all the time just cause it weren’t locked up and then ditched it somewheres else when he got bored with it, and he was picking hisself up off the ground beside my mom’s beat-up old Bug, and then he reached down and picked up that girl’s chrome unicycle like it belonged to him or some shit, and he tried it again, leaning on the Bug, getting up on the seat and shooting that unicycle straight out from under him again to clatter out into the street, grabbing on the side of Mom’s Bug and breaking the goddamn mirror off like we could afford to fix it or some bullshit. I don’t know why he was leaning on Mom’s Bug to begin with when there was the light pole right on the corner with the fire alarm box that he done yanked half a dozen times just for the hell of it, right there where he stabbed old Troy Hill the first goddamn night we moved in this house, but whatever. Anyways, after that he give up, picked up that unicycle and slung it over his shoulder like a shotgun and walked on down the street. And I know it was that girl’s unicycle and I know he stoled it from her and I also know he ain’t know I seen him or he’d a threatened to kick my ass if I ratted him out.

And then maybe next morning, maybe a couple days later, it was time for me to get up what-the-fuck o’clock and walk down to 13th to catch the bus for the first day of my second year of 9th grade while Jimmy was getting ready to walk hisself over cross Patterson to the elementary school cause Mom was already at work at the nursing home. And me and the other junior-high kids, we’s down front of the boarded up storefront across from the Save-X waiting on the bus to come, and it’s the same spot where Beetle bullied Kenny, getting in his face and calling him punk and smacking him in the head until Kenny stepped out in the street in front of all the people driving to work and held up a whole-ass line of traffic while some dude in a old cabover Econoline or maybe a Chevy van tried to talk Kenny out the street and Kenny just kept saying “I ain’t” over and over until he was red faced and screaming it through sobs and spit flying, “I ain’t!” And then he just walked off toward his house and ain’t get on the school bus that day and he ain’t go to school that day or next few days, and that weren’t too long before Beetle dropped out and later on I heard Beetle ended up pulling some serious time, but that don’t surprise me none outta the kid who liked to sling kittens cross the yard by their tails and shoot robins with BB guns. But we was the next to last stop on the bus route, before the trailer park down in the bend of the river, the one got mostly wiped out in the big flood in ‘85, and this tough girl Jan was smoking a Marlboro and cussin’ a blue streak bitchin’ about how they was always some goddamn n— taking her favorite spot in the back seat by the emergency door, and I don’t remember most of what she said but one thing stuck was her sayin’ how the only thing worse than a n— was a goddamn n—lover, cause maybe can’t nobody help what they’s born as but the n—lover oughta goddamn know better. And that new girl going to her first day at a new school in a new town, the girl give me stink eye when I offered her a Camel filter that I smoked so’s to fit in, the girl done used to had a unicycle till Robert stoled it, she was just staring at Jan like she had three heads, and I guess Jan noticed her staring cause she turned and started in on her.

“What kinda goddam n— are you anyways, I mean you ain’t got no nappy-ass brillo head, so what is you, some kinda sand n— a-rab, or what, maybe a injun? Cause I know your damn n— ass ain’t white.”

And that girl just stood there speechless with tears welling up in her dark eyes and I felt like I oughta say something and I sure as hell wanted to say something and I hoped maybe Jan might listen to me cause I mighta been a punk-ass but leastways I was white, but nah, maybe it was cause she was same kinda mean as when my dad got mean, but my timid ass ain’t say nothing, just stood there with everybody else, and that girl ain’t come to our bus stop no more, she walked the other way up that steep-ass hill on 18th and across busy-ass Patterson like she wun’t supposed to do, and got on the bus over on Rorer and she was sitting talking Black with all the tough Black girls in the back by the time the bus come to our stop, and she sat back there with them rest of the year, and I don’t remember much of Jan bein’ on the bus or at school after that so this all mighta been right before she dropped out, and last I seen Jan was maybe ten years after that and she looked like the meth done had its way with her by then so I’d be surprised if she’s still around no more.

But here it is forty goddamn years later and here I am in a different town in a different state living a completely different life, and god damn if I still can’t get that shit outta my head, how that morning I just stood there and listened to Jan’s racist ass talking all that hateful shit, and I seen the hurt in that girl’s dark brown eyes, and me, my punk ass just stood there and ain’t say shit about it.

Jay Parr

Jay Parr (he/they) lives with his partner and child in North Carolina, where he’s an old alumnus of UNCG’s MFA in creative writing, and an NTT-for-life lecturer in their nontraditional humanities program. He’s honored to have work in Bullshit LitSugarSugarSaltIdentity TheoryRoi FainéantFive MinutesAnti-Heroin ChicDead SkunkDiscretionary LoveStreetcake, and Variant Lit.