When they made New Orleans, Tommy said he wanted to go to college as soon as he could—and they needed to stay put so he could say he was living under a tarp behind a shut-down canned fish factory. That was why a college would want him.
“I’m a minority.”
“You’re a white kid,” Maybeth said.
“No, the homeless are a minority. We’re discriminated against. That’s my pitch.”
He tried Tulane. They brushed him off: go take these tests, fill out your application, write your essay, send it all in. A scholarship came last, if at all. Next, he wanted her to go with him to the University of New Orleans.
“Why should I?”
“Help me figure things out.”
“I don’t know anything about going to college.”
“Neither do I. Come on.”
She worried things would change between them if he got in, but she could see how determined he was. She said all right.
They found the Privateer Enrollment Center in the Earl K. Long Library of the University of New Orleans. Tommy explained he needed a full scholarship and work on campus or some kind of extra grant so he could get his degree and go to law school. The girl at the counter said they could join a campus tour in an hour. Tommy said they’d already walked around. He wanted to talk to someone who could make a decision, yes or no. The girl said it didn’t work like that, but he could talk to a counselor when one was free.
Ms. Agnes Hoppy, the counselor, wore tortoise shell glasses and had a purple needle through her hair bun. She settled into her chair and let Tommy tell her the story of how he ran away when he was seventeen, how he made it to L.A., how he met Maybeth, how L.A. sent them back to where they’d come from—him to St. Louis, her to St. Paul. So, he went to St. Paul and found her. From there, they took off first to Memphis, now down here. He needed a scholarship and a campus job since he still lived on the street and didn’t have any money. But that meant he’d add to the university’s diversity.
Ms. Hoppy took this in like she was watching a TV program different than any she’d seen before. “Why law school?”
“I want to defend people who can’t defend themselves.”
“What about you?” she asked Maybeth, the gray-green-yellow spindles in her eyes tightening around her pupils.
“I’m just here with Tommy.”
“You don’t plan to go to college?”
“I don’t have a G.E.D.”
“She could get one on-line same as me,” Tommy said. “Just doesn’t want to.”
Ms. Hoppy turned back to Tommy. “Where are you staying?”
He told her about the canned fish factory.
“You’ve been there how long?”
“Maybe a week.”
“Coming from Memphis?”
“Why stop in New Orleans?”
“I guess because you can’t go any farther without getting wet.”
Maybeth said, “He’s a great skateboarder, but he doesn’t know how to swim.”
“Is that true, about skateboarding?” Ms. Hoppy asked.
“I don’t even have a board right now.”
“Do you miss it?”
Maybeth wondered if Ms. Hoppy was fucking with Tommy, but Tommy pretended like she wasn’t. Yes, he missed it. He missed going nowhere all over the place, he missed being weightless up in the air.
“And the camaraderie of other skateboarders?” Ms. Hoppy asked.
“I guess you could put it that way. If you don’t know where they are, you don’t know where you are, either. That puts you in danger you might sabotage each other.”
Maybeth saw in Ms. Hoppy’s widening pupils that Tommy had passed his college interview when he took in the word camaraderie and responded with the word sabotage. Meanwhile, she felt no camaraderie at all in this office, in this building, on this campus, which put her in danger.
Ms. Hoppy said she needed to consult with someone. When they were alone, Tommy asked Maybeth how it had gone so far. Maybeth said Ms. Hoppy probably went to get security to throw them out. Tommy said come on, how had he sounded, what about his pitch? Maybeth said people on the street wouldn’t be on the street if they fit, and they didn’t fit here, either. But what about him saying he planned to be a lawyer and defend people who couldn’t defend themselves? Tommy asked. Maybeth said if he became a lawyer, maybe he’d turn out like his father, leave his family, cut off their money, and move to another city. Tommy said no, he wouldn’t. He was part of an economic minority fighting back, that was his value, not skateboarding. Why did she want to know about skateboarding?
Maybeth kept what she really thought to herself. “Come on, let’s go. She just walked out on you.”
“No, let’s play it, like you always say.”
That was what she said. Wherever they were, the only alternative was to be hustling somewhere else, so what was the hurry? But she turned that against him. She said if he got into college, he wouldn’t ever be somewhere else. He’d have a schedule, he’d have classes, he’d have to study, write papers, take exams. He’d be trapped.
They looked across the snaky plants on the windowsill toward the buildings around the Earl K. Long Library. Tommy said he wished they could see some water and boats. What if that’s where they ended up, living on a boat? She said she’d rather live in a trailer again, the Mississippi irritated her, the way it kept following them. He said it wasn’t following them, they were following it, and the water by the university wasn’t the Mississippi, it was Lake Pontchartrain. He went back to talking about living on a boat, being Tommy again, and it amused her, listening to him speculate about what kind of boat it could be and what they’d do on it and where they’d take it, technically not on the street anymore, probably with a gas refrigerator. Gas was the kind of refrigerator you had on a boat. How did Tommy know that? He hadn’t known anything when he showed up in L.A., too scared to be smart.
Ms. Hoppy came back and said that Tommy could take the ACT test right now. If he got a good score, he could fill out his application, no essay needed.
“But my essay might be my best part,” he said.
“We can do this without it.”
“What about money?”
“We’ll get to that. First things first. What about you, Maybeth? There’s a workstation for you, too, if you want to use it.” Ms. Hoppy didn’t have a bun anymore. Her brown hair was loose down over her neck. She looked younger and friendlier, as if while she was gone, she had decided to swallow the both of them.
“I told you I don’t have a G.E.D.”
“If you got a high enough ACT score, we could work with that.”
Tommy said come on.
Ms. Hoppy said why not just give it a try.
Maybeth said she’d just walk around outside until Tommy finished. That upset Tommy—when she went walking around in L.A., sometimes she didn’t come back for days—and she knew it upset him, but everything about the University of New Orleans upset her. She felt like she had no idea where she was. She felt like Tommy and Ms. Hoppy were the pair.
She went outside and headed toward the lake, big as the ocean but without waves, only a watery shrugging along the shoreline, sailboats here and there, and some speedboats you couldn’t live on, and some fat dark boats with long poles and big winches on the stern for fishing. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe she’d rather roll with the Mississippi out toward the delta instead of parking on that lake. But then what? Islands? She didn’t want to think about islands. Her on one. Tommy here.
A cool breeze was blowing. The sun drifting west was turning the sky a peach-tinted blue. She didn’t like that. She didn’t like anything about New Orleans. When it wasn’t gaudy, it was rotting.
She sat down on the grass and leaned back against a palm tree. She knew she’d made him feel bad and wondered if he’d screw up the test on purpose and come out looking for her with that disappointment in his face he always carried around in his chest, threatening to surface when something else didn’t work. It was what she wanted, not him defending people who couldn’t defend themselves, the two of them defending each other, not sabotaging that.
With more than 100 stories in U.S., Canadian, U.K., and Australian literary journals, Robert Earle is one of the more widely published contemporary writers of short fiction. Vine Leaves Press published his story collection She Receives the Night in 2017. He also is the author of a nonfiction book about Iraq (Nights in the Pink Motel/Naval Institute Press), a novel (The Way Home/DayBue) and was contributing editor of a book of essays (North American Identities/Stanford). He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.