It’s time to dive into your next read! Laura Moe’s Breakfast with Neruda hit shelves last month, and we are so lucky to have an excerpt for you today.
In Breakfast with Neruda, Michael Flynn wants to survive his community service. After everything that’s happened, he’s learned to hide everything – but when he meets Shelly, who also has a secret past, he might need to reshape himself into a guy worthy of her love.
It was green, the silence, the light was moist; the month of June trembled like a butterfly.
The hallway is dark and abandoned except for the clanging of metal against tile. Earl, the head custodian, fills a giant bucket near the janitor’s closet. He looks up at me, nods, and keeps filling the pail.
“How come it’s so dark in here?” I ask.
“I look better in the dark,” Earl says. He laughs and reveals a gold front tooth. He’s a raggedy guy of about sixty who always has a cud of tobacco in his mouth. “Power’s still out from the storm.”
“Oh yeah,” I say, nodding, as if I know anything about the power outage. It had stormed like apocalypse last night, so yeah, it probably knocked the power off. I hold out my hand. “Michael Flynn, reporting for duty.”
“I know who you are,” Earl shuts off the hose and looks me over. “Listen, kid, I know what you did to get stuck here all summer, and I don’t put up with any crap,” he says. “We clear on that?”
“Yes, sir,” I respond.
He wheels the bucket into the hallway and I follow. “First thing you’re gonna do is start cleaning out the lockers.” He snorts. “Kind of ironic for you.”
My face reddens, and Earl gestures to the end of the hallway. “Start at that end and work your way back. Take a big trash can with you.” He indicates one of the enormous wheeled tubs next to the elevator. “The first thing you’ll find is backpacks. When you get a full one, open it up, and if you don’t find any explosives,” he sneers at me, “take the books out and lay them on the floor, along with the bag. Throw out anything else that’s junk, like used notebooks, food, or dirty clothes.” Earl reaches for a spray bottle and a wad of rags. “And if you find coats, shoes or semi-clean clothes, put those on the floor, too. “
“What do you do with it all?”
“We donate it to the homeless shelter.”
“Anything else that looks valuable, like calculators, toss on the floor, too. We’ll separate all that out later.”
He hands me the bottle of cleaner and rags. “After you get all the junk out, spray the inside of the locker and wipe it down.”
I wait for any more instructions. “Get moving, kid.”
I wheel a giant trashcan to the end of the hallway. It’s been months since I’ve been inside the school. It may be the darkened hallways and the lack of students, but I feel like I’m in a whole new universe. I reach out to open the first locker, but a lock dangles from its handle. I notice several of the lockers do. “Uh, Earl?” I shout. “This may be a stupid question, but how do I open lockers if they still have locks on them?”
“Oh, hell!” He disappears into the janitor supply room and marches toward me holding bolt cutters. “Hess was supposed to cut these off last week.” He snaps the locks off like they’re twigs.
I open the first locker and it’s stuffed. “Wow. How can people leave all this crap behind?”
“Beats the hell out of me. You kids have no sense of value anymore. My folks would’ve hog tied me and hung me from the rafters if I’d left anything valuable at school.”
Earl grumbles to himself as he walks back to his end of the hall. I pull out a black book bag. It’s like lifting an SUV. I open it up and pull out three textbooks, two library books, a hoodie, and a fairly new pair of shoes. I set them on the floor. Inside the zippered pocket are a calculator and an assortment of pens, pencils, packs of gum, and a full can of Dr Pepper. I shove the pens and gum in my back pocket and stuff the Dr Pepper in the leg pocket of my cargo pants. The rest of what’s inside I empty into the bin. I place the bag on top of the hoodie and move on to the next locker. I spot Earl at the opposite end, swabbing the floor, whistling. He’s been working here since the Pleistocene. A lot of kids think he’s a jerk because he’s not exactly a warm fuzzy, but I’m grateful he agreed to let me work off my community service. Better than wearing a neon orange vest, picking up trash along the freeway or painting rest stop outhouses.
I’m surprised to find book bags in lockers since I heard they were banned after my stunt, and it is kind of ironic I am cleaning the lockers I almost blew up. I didn’t mean to blow up the building, only my ex-best friend Rick Shraver’s car, but in a moment of freakishly bad judgment, I carried enough explosives in my book bag to detonate the whole west wing of Rooster High.
I got off light, though. I had no criminal record, and had never been in much trouble other than a few detentions. And Rick didn’t want to press charges since nothing really happened, so they gave me community service. The judge felt I could be “rehabilitated.” I was, however, expelled for the rest of the school year, and I was banned from public school for the rest of the year, so I will be repeating senior year at Rooster High.
It takes all morning to go through the west hallway on the first floor. Hess, the assistant custodian, and another student helper (aka. juvenile delinquent) are working on the second floor. I can hear them clattering and banging above me.
By the time I reach the end of the hallway, I have excavated twenty backpacks, too many books to count, several pieces of jewelry, a pair of glasses, some cash (which I pocket), and an iPod with a charger and ear buds, which I also nab.
I come to a locker I know well, next to what used to be my own. Inside is a leather band jacket. Rick’s. I glance down the hall. Earl is clear at the other end. I toss the jacket in the trash, along with the textbooks inside the book bag. Let him have to pay for them. Then I feel kind of guilty and dig it all back out. Rick did kind of half forgive me from trying to incinerate his ride. He didn’t want to press charges, but the school did. I set the jacket on the floor, but I keep the Speedway gas card I dug out of one of the pockets.
Earl glances at the mess of stuff on the floor and shakes his head. “You kids act like money grows on trees. You don’t know the value of a dollar.”
I’m pretty careful with my money, and I don’t tell Earl my home is a 1982 Ford LTD station wagon I call the blue whale, and the only reason I go to school here is my last known address is in this district.
At 11:15, Earl says, “it’s time for lunch, kid.”
“How long is the lunch break?”
“Half an hour.”
“I guess I’ll go home and eat.”
“Suit yourself,” he says. “Be back at 11:45.”
I go out to my car and count the cash I palmed from locker cleanup. A little over eighteen bucks. I pull a plastic grocery bag out from under the passenger side seat and scrounge for some change, which means I now have almost twenty-three bucks to last me for the next five days. until pay If I plan this right I can get some gas, have enough cash left for a drive thru lunch, and buy a few groceries.
I stop for gas and get the eleven-buck’s worth left on Rick’s Speedway card and pull into Wendy’s drive thru to order a single cheeseburger, fries, and water. My two-dollar splurge. I park in the lot to eat. I fiddle with the iPod, but the battery is dead.
I finish eating and lob my crumpled wrappers in the trash bin on the way out, but I save my cup.
Back at school I find Earl in the teacher’s lounge. I’d never seen the inside of the teacher hangout. I half expected it to be dark and comfortable like an actual lounge, but it’s a miniature version of the school cafeteria. They have the same gray metal tables and plastic chairs.
Hess is there, too, along with a girl I don’t know, one of those Black Haired Girls: natural blondes and brunettes who dye their hair black. On most girls it makes them look like they’re dead, but on this chick it kind of works. She has navy blue eyes and pale skin, so the hair is an interesting contrast even though she wears zombie eyeliner. She’s thin in a not-quite-starving way. Still, she’s not my type.
“Hey kid,” Earl says. “Have a cookie.” A plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies sits on the table.
I never turn down free food. “Thanks.”
“My wife makes them.”
I take a bite and my endorphins go into overdrive. “This is the best cookie I’ve ever eaten,” I say.
Earl chuckles and slides the plate my way. “Dottie will be glad to hear that. Eat up, kid.”
“She keeps us well fed,” Hess says. He pats his massive belly. “Wait til you try her banana cream pie.”
I sit down and take another cookie. I glance at the girl, her long black hair bound in a loose braid halfway down her back. She looks sort of familiar but I can’t quite place her.
“Hey,” she says. She reaches for a cookie.
“This is Shelly,” Hess says to me.” Shelly, meet Michael.”
“The Unabomber.” She bites into the cookie. “Yeah, I’ve heard about you.”
Who hasn’t? The Youtube video of my arrest went viral. “I only murdered and ate six people, not ten,” I say. “The media exaggerates.”
Shelly laughs. “There’s nothing to worry about then,” she says.
I wonder what she did to spend the summer with the custodians and me.
After I unload all the debris inside the west lockers, I move to the east lockers and clean those out, too. After I’m done removing stuff, I start forming piles by separating stuff by category. Around 1:30, Earl brings me a flat cart. “Okay, kid, start stacking the textbooks on this. Try to sort them by subject.”
I nod. “What about the other books?”
He wrinkles his brow. “Unless they’re library books, just pitch them.” He reaches down and picks up a thick book with DISCARD stamped in red on the cover. “Also toss out ones like this that the library no longer wants.”
“Can I keep any? I mean, the miscellaneous or discarded ones?”
“Sure, kid. Knock yourself out.”
It takes me about a half an hour to sort and stack all the books. I start a pile of ones I want to keep and toss the rest in the trashcan. I drop the library books in the drop box outside the library and wheel the textbooks to the loading dock at the back of the school. The rear doors are open and I notice Shelly standing outside, smoking a cigarette. “Hey, you can get in trouble smoking on school grounds,” I say.
She turns to look at me. “Ha ha,” she says. “I’m already in trouble.”
I step outside. “So what did you do to get assigned to Camp Clean Up The School?”
She nods her head at her cigarette. ” You’re looking at it,” she says. “Too many days getting caught smoking on school grounds.”
“Irony,” I say. “I like that.”
“Yeah. Hess doesn’t care. He smokes, too, so he gets it when you just need a cigarette. ‘Just don’t get caught,’ he says.”
She inhales deeply and flicks the butt on the cement. ”I’m shaking with fear.”
We both step back inside. Somehow I know there’s more to her story than just smoking, but it’s not really my business. “Well, back to the salt mines,” I say.
We walk in silence until we reach the staircase.
“See ya,” she says.
Earl is loading the clothes on another flat cart when I get back to the hallway. I notice a green book bag next to my stack of books. “Figured you might need something to carry them in,” he grumbles. “Seeing how the cops took your other bag away.”
“Thanks.” I say.
“Let’s gather up the rest of this crap and call it a day.”
We box up the homeless shelter stuff and wheel it out to the loading dock. Earl slaps me on the back. “OK, kid. Tomorrow we start working on the rooms. See you at eight.”
I shove my new books inside the bag, and head out to the blue whale.
I get in the car and realize I should have taken a shower. “Shit,” I mutter. I pull out my Tracfone and punch in Annie’s number. She answers on the third ring. “Hey, is there a clear path to the bathroom?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“OK. I’ll be over soon,” I say. “I need a shower before work.”
I drive toward my family’s townhouse. It’s kind of a crappy place, a rented two-story with a fenced in back porch. I rap on the front door and my sister yells, “It’s open!”
I take a deep breath and shove at the door, and it opens just enough for me to sidle my way inside. The place reeks of stale cigarettes, rotting food and dead mice. I cough and hold my nose. There is so much stuff in here I have to climb into what was once the living room. The blinds are open, but it’s always dark in here.
“Hey!” I hear my sister say.
“Where are you?” I ask.
“In the kitchen.”
I shuffle, carefully clutching my bag, to the narrow path leading to the kitchen. I expel my breath and take another breath. It doesn’t smell much better in here.
Annie stands at the counter, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “Want one?”
I glance at the stacks of dirty pots and plates cluttering the counter. But I notice a spray bottle of Windex and see Annie has cleaned off a space for making sandwiches. “Sure.”
My younger siblings and I all have different fathers. My brother, Jeff Nolan, is a pasty faced blond with hazel eyes, and my sister, Annie Durant, is biracial. She’s small and dark with deep, cocoa eyes. My sister and I have dark hair, but I’m tall and have green eyes. To strangers we look like three random kids, not siblings who used to curl together like puppies in strange beds every night.
We’re all close in age. Jeff and I will both be seniors together now that I have to repeat, and Annie will be a sophomore.
“You working tonight?” she asks.
“Yeah. I have to be there in an hour, so that’s why I need a shower.”
She grins. “You’re a poet and you don’t know it.”
I roll my eyes at her and dig through my pack. My shirt is a wrinkled mess but if I shake it enough times it won’t look too bad. It’s just the movie theater. I wear a vest over it anyway. ”So what are you up to today?”
She sets my sandwich on a napkin and hands it to me. “Scott and I are going to a concert.”
“Cool.” She’s been dating Scott, a fellow band member, since they were in eighth-grade. He’s an okay guy for a tuba player. I notice a Timbits box on the counter. “I see Jeff has been by recently.” He works at Tim Horton’s, and sometimes brings work with him when he visits. Annie passes the box to me and I fish out a couple. I hand her back the carton, but she waves them away. “Keep ‘em,” she says. “You need them more than we do.”
“Thanks.” I pop the donut bits in my mouth. “Mom home?”
Annie sighs. “She’s out at a flea market.”
“Jesus,” I say. I finish my sandwich and donut pieces and take a drink of water directly from the tap. I don’t trust the cleanliness of any of their glasses. I wipe my mouth, and say, “Hey, wait till you see what I got today.” I unzip my bag and pull out the iPod. “Look.”
Annie’s face lights up. “Wow. Where’d you get that?”
“It was inside one of the book bags. Earl said I could keep some of the stuff.” I had planned on keeping the iPod, but how would I keep it charged up? I hand it to my sister. “It’s for you.”
“Yeah, and I got you something else, too.”
She raises her eyebrows. I can almost hear her mind screaming not more stuff! “Don’t worry,” I say. “It doesn’t take up much space, and you can throw it out.” I pull out one of the books I earned from the lockers and pass it to my sister.
Her face breaks into a grin. “The Arabian Nights!”
When my sister’s dad, Bob, was still alive he used to read stories from The Arabian Nights to get us to sleep.
“Sorry it’s kind of beat up, but it was a freebie from the school lockers.”
She holds the book against her chest. “Thank you for this. I won’t throw it away. I’ll toss out something of Mom’s to make room for it.”
Our mom’s stuff has accumulated enough to start spilling inside my sister’s room. And Mom freaks if you throw anything out. Oddly enough, as much crap is in the house, she notices when things are missing. It wasn’t always like this. We used to move every few months, but about five years ago, when Mom married Tomas, we moved here. He’s long gone, but the junk multiplies.
Jeff got lucky. He lives with his dad and his new family. Since they live nearby, Annie and I see Jeff at school all the time. Rooster, Ohio, is a small enough place, and everyone goes to one of three high schools in the county. Jeff’s dad gave me my car. Not that he knows I live in it. At the time I just needed a car to get to work and back. I moved out even before I got expelled because Mom’s piles of crap had buried my bedroom.
Annie started keeping her clothes in a dresser drawer on the back porch about a year ago so she won’t smell like the inside of the townhouse. Even in cold weather she changes clothes behind a curtain she devised from a blanket.
“I started sleeping out back,” she tells me. We walk to the back door and I see Annie has rigged up a folding lawn chair with some cushions. “I can’t breathe inside this house.”
“You’re always welcome to sleep in the back seat of my car,” I say.
“I might take you up on that if things get any worse.”
I give her a quick hug. “Thanks for the sandwich.” I pick up my bag and carefully trek my way up to the bathroom. Keeping a usable bathroom and a somewhat functional kitchen were the sole triumphs my sister had negotiated with our mother. So far. I just wonder when Annie will be shoved completely out the door, too.
I drape the shirt over the shower door, hoping the steam straightens it out.
When I get back downstairs, Annie is sitting on the porch reading from the book. She looks up when I step outside. “Remember The Fisherman and the Genie?”
The Fisherman and the Genie was one of our favorites as kids, probably because it was Bob’s favorite.
“Thanks again for the book,” Annie says.
She picks up the iPod and charger and hands them to me. “Here. You don’t have any way to listen to music,” she says. “I have the radio or my stereo. Plus I already have an MP3 player.”
“Are you sure?” I say.
“Yeah. I’m sure.”