—Fiction by Joy Norstrom

           I wriggle my fingers in the pretzel bag and search for the salty bits trapped in the bottom. The salt is the very best part and I’m glad Charlie doesn’t want any more. “I think we might be moving,” I say. I’ve been thinking about it all day, all night, since I saw what mom brought home.
            Charlie’s eyes scrunch up behind his smudgy glasses and he bangs his heels against the metal electric box. “No you’re not. You just moved in last year.”
            I shrug and lick the salt off my fingertips. It’s true. We’d moved in on a scorching hot day last summer. The long rows of brick apartment buildings had surrounded me. Window after window, identical metal-railed balconies, and beaten up downspouts enclosed the heat and asphalt. I was suffocated on all sides.
Until I noticed the Star Wars curtains. They hung in the window next to our new apartment. Mom said it was a bedsheet, not a curtain, and I said who cares? It’s the Millennium Falcon and Galactic Empire Starfighters and that’s all that matters.          
I run my tongue over my bottom lip. Although the cold is seeping up through the metal electric box and freezing our backsides, we stay. That’s because there isn’t anywhere else to go: The cable’s out in our apartment and there are too many shitters and spitters in Charlie’s. That’s what we call all the little kids, including Charlie’s four little sisters.
But never when his mom’s around.
            “I’m hooked on salt,” I say, and lick more of it off my fingertips.
Charlie nods as though this makes perfect sense. “All mammals are. Besides, salt is practically responsible for building human civilization.”
Charlie knows lots of things I don’t. He’s a whole two grades ahead of me at school, but only thirteen months and one day older. And he likes reading books—real ones—not just comics.
             “You’ve heard of salt licks, right?” Charlie’s got his look on. It’s the excited look and I nod, even though I’ve no idea what he’s talking about. “They’re these big rocks and they’re full of minerals and stuff. The animals find ‘em and they lick and lick and jeez I saw this picture of mountain goats up the side of this crazy slope and they just kept licking at the rocks.
“It turns out these salt licks are full of stuff the animals need. That’s why they keep going back. They keep licking the rocks—just like you’re doing with that pretzel bag.” Charlie gives me the once over. “You’re probably depleted or something.”
“Am not!”
“Well anyway, the animals go back so often they make these trails through the grass. Back in the old days humans following the trails and found the salt licks.”
            I pull my hand out of the bag. “That’s gross. People wouldn’t lick rocks.”
            “Not my people. We were surrounded by the ocean. Plenty of salt in the ocean.” Charlie points to my paler skin. “But your people started hanging out and settling down near those salt licks. They formed villages and communities, and before you know it,” Charlie stretches his arms out wide, indicating the apartments all around us, “civilisation.”
            “That’s sick. Licking rocks.” I rub the salt off on my pants, then crumple the bag into a ball and threw it at the car parked in front of us. It bounces off the windshield and lands by the curb. “I’m serious. About moving. Mom brought boxes home from the Hi-Low last night.”
Charlie scowls.
Everyone around here knows there are only three things you get from the Hi-Lo Liquor Store on Twenty-Sixth Avenue: Liquor. Beer. And boxes. Adults buy the liquor and the beer when the cheques come in, when there’s something to celebrate, or when life’s gone completely sideways and can’t get any worse.
But not everyone buys booze. Charlie’s parents don’t. It seems they do babies instead. Fat, healthy babies with brown skin and puffy cheeks, and Charlie says another shitter and spitter is on its way and he hopes this one’s a boy. Me and Charlie still won’t want him tagging along because little kids always cry when they get hurt jumping bumps and we get blamed.
Even people who don’t buy booze still go to the Hi-Lo, and that’s because of the boxes. They’re free. They’re sturdy. And they’re just right for packing.
“How many boxes?” asks Charlie.
“Just three.” I bite on my lip, which is swollen from the salt and tastes funny.
“You can’t move with just three boxes,” says Charlie. The wrinkles smooth out of his forehead and he dismisses my worries.
Although it’s true, you can’t move with only three boxes, I know there will be more. When I first saw those three cardboard cubes, the air had gone out my lungs, and I remembered last time and the time before. I don’t tell Charlie that or how I was up last night thinking about it. That’s because boys don’t talk about being scared. I know that, even though no one’s ever told me before. Some things you don’t need to be told.
“Want to shoot boards?” I ask. Charlie loves shooting boards. We use pucks and a hockey stick I got from mom’s cousin, Frank. We wind up and hit the fence with the pucks. You get a point if you hit a loose board and it bumps up and down. You lose two points if the angry Iranian lady comes out and yells. She doesn’t like shooting boards because we use the fence closest to her apartment unit.
            “Or we could jump bumps instead.”         
“Truck Guy collected all the carts yesterday,” says Charlie. Every couple of weeks Truck Guy collects the grocery carts. Until then, they slowly gather in a haphazard mess behind the dumpster. Parents use the carts to bring home groceries. We use carts to race down the parking lot and see who can get the most height over the speed bumps.
            “Boards it is then.” I jump down from the electric box and fetch the hockey stick and the pucks from our apartment. We practice our slap shots until the street lights come on and Charlie’s mom calls him in for dinner.
            Next day we’re jumping bumps when mom rounds the corner. She’s carrying five more boxes which make eight altogether. I pretend I don’t see her and she doesn’t call out a greeting. Instead she slips into the apartment entrance and out of sight, but still Charlie’s seen the boxes. I can tell by the way his mouth hangs open and his eyebrows bunch up.
            I’ve a sick feeling myself, but I swallow it down and yell, “Are you going or what?”
Charlie grips the chrome edge of the metal grocery cart and bends his knees so he’ll be extra aerodynamic. “Go!” he says. I grab the cart and give it a five-step run-shove before pressing the stopwatch button on the side of Charlie’s digital watch. The numbers start flying as Charlie and the cart pick up speed.
            But this time Charlie breaks the rules. I see his body shift position and know what he plans on doing before the cart starts veering to the left. It’s going to be tight. I’m not sure he’ll make it over the double hump and I start running.
            “You’re an idiot!” I scream. Nobody’s ever made it over the double hump and he’s going at breakneck speed.
            Charlie thrusts his body as far over the side of the cart as he can without tipping it. It’s a sharp turn; the slope is carrying him faster and faster on just two wheels till I think he might actually tip. But he hits the double speed bump perfectly and the cart soars. It flies over both humps and lands with a skitter on all four wheels. It bumps and shimmies straight into the rain-soaked couch that’s been leaning against the dumpster for at least a week.
“I can’t believe you, Charlie! I can’t believe you!”  I stop the watch and run over as Charlie pulls himself out of the cart. There’s a small cut below his lip and he smears the blood off with his hand.
“My turn,” I say, but Charlie shakes his head.
“You’re on your own. I’m done.” He kicks one of the cart’s wheels and the metal grids jam into my stomach.
I know he’s mad because of the boxes. But I can’t say anything because he’s gone inside, and besides, I don’t know the right words anyway.
Next week Charlie’s over and we’re looking through my comics for ones we’ve not yet memorized. The cardboard boxes are stacked against the wall behind us and they’re screaming. We’re both ignoring them, but they get so loud I can’t stand it any longer.
“Let’s do something about those boxes.”
Charlie puts down the comic he’s been trying to read and looks at me. “What should we do?”
“If there aren’t any boxes then mom can’t make us move.” We both turn and look at the stacks that were once three, then eight, now fifteen. It’s a dumb argument and I know it and so does Charlie. But I’m angry, and I don’t want to move away from a place where Charlie lives next door and it’s not fair. Not fair at all.
We take the boxes downstairs and stack them against the fence. Three high, four high, and singles off to the side. We stand twenty paces back and let’er rip.
Wham! The pucks hit the brown cartons with a hollow thunk. Sometimes they tear right through, leaving jagged corrugated holes, but sometimes they only leave a soft bruise, and we’ve got to hit the puck harder. We don’t stop. Even when the Iranian lady stands on the balcony and yells murder at us, we keep at it.
When I collect our pucks I see the cardboard bottoms are soggy from all the muck that never dries along the fence line. I’m starting to feel nervous about what mom’ll do, but I swallow, collect our pucks, and slam my stick harder.
It’s not until mom’s marching across the parking lot, her arms swinging, that we put down the stick. I can see this is trouble. She grabs three boxes in one hand and my neck in the other. She yells a hot strip off both me and Charlie, until Charlie’s mom comes out onto their balcony.
She’s got a shitter on her hip and there’s a spitter trailing behind. She talks loud-fast Arabic down at her son. Charlie starts gathering boxes pronto and we carry the soggy cardboard back to me and mom’s apartment.
No one’s allowed the hockey stick for two weeks and the Iranian lady is happy.
Charlie and I dangle our feet off the electric box. Its Thanksgiving and we’ve no school. Charlie’s family doesn’t celebrate the non-Muslim holidays and mom says if I want turkey I’m welcome to go to Gran’s.
She’s packing dishes and she’s a bit frantic because would you believe the landlord won’t give any more extensions on the eviction.
I love my Gran. She cooks the best dinner and there’s always desert. But soon I’ll be seeing loads of her and none of Charlie and there’s no way I’m going to Gran’s.
“I’ve an idea,” says Charlie. We’re supposed to be watching the shitters but they’re playing in the mud and they don’t need us for that. “It’s simple. We take the carts to the grocery store before Truck Guy gets here. They’ll have to pay us instead of him.”
 “That’ll take ages,” I say. The carts are heavy and they aren’t any fun. Unless you happen to be riding them downhill, and the grocery store is not downhill from our apartment building.
“We could manage it together. Both of us pushing.” Charlie clears his throat. “And maybe we can give the money to your mom. You can tell her we’re collecting carts every week and she can keep the money and you can stay here.”
Dollar signs float in my eyelids and I’m laughing. Charlie and I do our hand slap and we don’t waste any more time on the electric box.
We haul the carts into a line and start the slow push out the parking lot. Its hard work and the carts won’t turn easy. But me and Charlie work together and we manage the nine carts just fine.
“I wonder how much money they’ll give us,” I say.
“It’s gotta be at least twenty-five bucks. That’s a hundred dollars a month. How much do you figure your mom needs?”
I shrug my shoulders. I’ve no idea. And besides, Mom says you never tell people about your money problems, not even your best friend. But I’m desperate and so is Charlie, and we’ve the simplest solution, and it’s been sitting in the parking lot all this time.
It doesn’t take long and we’re both sweating. A blister pops up on the side of my hand where it rubs on the rough edge of the cart’s handle. Charlie reeks and I’d tell him but he’s working so hard to help me and mom, it doesn’t seem right to say anything.
The grocery store is just ahead and we bang the carts along the loading dock out back. Charlie jumps up the step and bangs the door with his fist and yells, “Open Up! Cart Delivery!” until the metal door swings open and a woman stands there in her long green apron.
She gives us one look and wrinkles her nose when she catches a whiff of Charlie.
“We’ve brought the carts, Missus.” I point to the long row although I’m sure she can see them. “It’s the whole lot from the city housing complex.”
“The Truck Guy’s quitting and we’re replacing him,” adds Charlie. “You can give us the payment in cheque or cash.”
The grocery lady howls and turns away. “Nice try. If you people didn’t steal the carts in the first place, we wouldn’t have to hire anyone to bring ‘em back. Now get lost.”
The moving truck’s here. By that, I mean Mom’s cousin, Frank, arrived this morning in his cherry red pickup. Mom says Frank is a man on his own. That means he doesn’t have kids and he certainly doesn’t have a wife, and he can do just about anything he wants most of the time. One day I want to be a man on my own too.
Frank drives Mom crazy, but she needs his help. She needs his help every time we move. Mom does not like needing Frank.
            I like Frank, and his truck is cool. He calls her ‘girl.’ He says stuff like, “load her up,” and “she’s tough as shit,” and mom says, “For God’s sake, can we just get this done?”
            Like I said, Mom does not like needing Frank.
            “God damnit, Frank, you’re squishing me in here against the wall!” Mom and Frank are maneuvering my mattress out the apartment entrance. Frank’s already outside, and Mom’s still inside, smashed up against the community bulletin board. She’s trying to turn the mattress and get it out the entrance, but it just won’t go.
            “It bends, Lydia. It’s not a stiff board. Put a little muscle into it.”
            Mom curses into the folds of my mattress and I stand out of the way. I already know it’s not helpful to offer advice on moving day. Unless you want your head ripped off.
            “That’s right, Lydy-girl, just get under her and shove.”
The shitters and spitters are standing around eating bananas and watching mom try and move the mattress. Bananas must be on sale this week because Charlie’s mom always buys a load of whatever fruit is on sale. I wonder: if mom bought loads of fruit when it was on sale, would we still have to move? I don’t ask.
“Aw, Lydy, how ‘bout I come over and give you a hand? It sure looks tough, and I bet I could squeeze her through for ya.”
            Mom raises her face away from the mattress long enough to yell, “Shut up, Frank!” and gives a mighty heave. The mattress rams through the door, catches on the hinge, and finally swings through. Mom emerges from behind the freed mattress with a red face. She looks hot and she looks angry. I step out of the way quick and quiet. Quick and quiet is what Mom finds helpful on moving day.
            Frank grins and whistles a long high note into the frosty air. He gives me a wink, his face hidden behind the mattress so mom can’t see. He shuffles backward to the bed of his girl-truck, and says “hi-ya,” to Charlie’s banana-eating sisters. I do not understand what he is happy about. Doesn’t he know Mom might rip his head off?
            The sound of metal wheels sliding on asphalt grabs our attention. We look up and see Charlie racing toward us on the back-end of a cart.
            “Hey kid,” says Frank. “Be careful with that shopping cart around my truck. She’s old but she ain’t--”
            “That’s Charlie,” I cut in. “He’s cool.” But seconds later the cart slams into the truck’s grill. Mom freezes and I freeze and Charlie’s off around the corner before Frank can catch him.
            “Gawdammit!” He yells. The shitters and spitters take off and Frank’s down on his knees, rubbing his girl with his sleeve, and I’m not sure what to do. I shift my weight from foot to foot and wish I could get out of there, but there isn’t anywhere to go.
Finally Frank stands up. He asks Mom if she’s got any cold beers and I can’t believe it, but that’s all he says. I’m glad because I don’t want Frank to kill Charlie.
            Mom gives me a nod and I run up the stairs to our nearly empty apartment. There’s not much left.
Most of our stuff is going into storage. By storage, I mean Frank’s basement. But we’re taking our clothes and the things we can’t live without to Gran’s. I can’t live without my comics and they’re stacked neatly in one box. Mom can’t live without her straightener, her blow dryer and her products. All Mom’s can’t-live-withouts are in a duffle bag beside my comics. The only other item is my hockey stick.
I go into the kitchen and open the fridge. It’s also empty, except for the six beers. I know Mom bought them at the Hi-Lo for Frank because Frank enjoys a cold beer every time he helps us move. I take the six-pack, grab my comics and the stick, and leave. But just outside our door, standing in the hallway with his hands in his pockets, is Charlie.
“Here,” I say, and shove the hockey stick at him. “You keep the stick so it’s here for when I come over.”
            Charlie doesn’t take his hands out of his pockets and I’m left holding the stick in the air between us.
“You won’t be back.”
“Whatever. Of course I’ll visit.”
“Do you visit the last place you lived?”
I want to rub the back of my neck, but I can’t because my hands are full. My neck is stiff and hot from packing boxes and carrying boxes and keeping quick and quiet all day. I think about Charlie’s words. He’s thirteen months and one day older than me. He’s two grades ahead in school. He knows lots of things I don’t, but this time it’s different.
“I’m coming back. Just take the stick. We’ll need it for shooting boards.”
Charlie turns away and opens the door to his apartment. He shuts it quick but still I see. His eyes are red, his cheeks are wet, and he doesn’t believe me.
I leave our stick on the floor outside Charlie’s door and I leave my box of comics too.
            When I return to the parking lot, Mom and Frank are sitting on the tailgate. I hand the six-pack to Frank and he takes it and cracks one open.
            “After this load, we’re all done,” he says and takes a drink.
            I nod. “We’re getting good. Next time we’ll probably be even faster.” I smile at Mom and hope this will make her happy.
            “Right. Next time.” Mom looks at all our stuff in the bed of Frank’s pickup.
            Frank slaps the side of his truck and says, “Yup. Out of your Gran’s at some point and then, who knows? Maybe you’ll find a place to settle down for a while. Until then, this ole girl has got your back.”
            Mom cracks open one of the beers. “At least someone does.”
            Frank gets up and scrounges around in the cab of his truck. He brings out a bag of potato chips and busts them open for us to share. I eat them one after another, the tang of salt settling on my tongue.
“Did you know salt made civilization?” I explain to Frank all about the salt licks and the animals and the people following the animals and I wish Charlie were coming to Gran’s with us.
Frank nods his head and mom drinks her beer. “That’s right,” says Frank. “Did you know that humans need salt to survive? We’ll die if we don’t get any in our diet. Unlike this little lady.” Frank rubs his hand adoringly on the bright red side panel. “All winter she drives these city streets and they’re covered in salt. Sure, the salt helps melt the ice, but I’ve gotta wash her down every week or she’ll rust up.”
            Later we drive out the parking lot and I turn and look through the truck’s back window. The long rows of balconies and windows look back at me, but Charlie doesn’t.
It turns out Charlie’s wrong, because I do come back. The apartment block is no longer brown, but a light robin’s egg blue. White paint has been slapped onto the window trim and rusted metal balconies. I sign my first lease on a one bedroom suite; I’m a part-time student, part-time grocery clerk and—according to Children’s Services—a full-time emancipated minor.
The Star Wars curtains are gone and so is my friend, but the carts are still here and so is the woman from Iran. Her name is Darya. Half the fence boards are falling off and I find a hammer and re-attach them on a cold afternoon. The wind blows the dirt off the parking lot and straight into my eyes, and I swear that’s why I’m tearing up. Darya brings me hot tea and we drink together and talk about the old days, what I’m taking at school, and how old her children are.
In the winter the landlord pours salt on the parking lot and it melts the heavy ice. We struggle with our shopping carts through the salty slush and pile them by the dumpster where they wait to be collected. The children laugh. They play road hockey and freeze tag and the cold weather does not stop them.