I’m not even sure what sparked me to write this little story. I had an image in my head of this all-knowing girl who sat on the hood of a car dispensing wisdom and knowledge to the other kids at her high school. As my writing usually goes though, it did end up involving boys meeting girls and their constant wondering about what more they could make out of their passing relationships. Written in 2022.
No, she wasn’t a classic beauty, as one might say. Her beauty was understated, one might proceed to add. Certainly there was a beauty about her—those eyes a shade one simply couldn’t put a finger on, and some girls were just meant to have their hair piled up on their heads, like airy tuile atop a five-star dessert, weren’t they?—but Mason Diller, that hulking, acne’d, menthol-sucking twelfth-grader, had something else that drew me to her.
For years I’d seen her from afar, always chewing gum or smoking, sitting on the hood of that car—a rusted old babyshit-yellow ‘81 Impala—but the first time she actually spoke to me she was just finishing up taking the piss out of Chad Dingus about his new cowboy boots. What’s wrong with my boots? he asked. I’d never seen Chad Dingus get so defensive before. They’re fine, Mason Diller told him. If your plan is to hit the rodeo later, that is. The Rodeo was a drag bar downtown on the west side, but Chad Dingus thought cowboys were cool and he didn’t know a damn thing about drag bars on the west side, so he also had no idea whatsoever why the other kids were all laughing at him. I only came here to ask you for a smoke, he yelped. You didn’t have to make fun of my boots. She informed him, much to his dismay, she didn’t have any cigarettes left, and Chad Dingus cut his arm through the air at the crowd before him and clunked off awkwardly in the boots he’d never break in.
I was standing there, next in line. So, what’s your deal, Centipede? she asked me. I was wearing a faded green Atari Centipede t-shirt, so that’s what she called me. She had a nickname for everybody, and she cataloged them all in her head, remembering each and every one forever. I was a year younger than her but I knew then that I’d be Centipede even after she graduated from Franklin High. What’cha need? she pressed. Those who came to Mason Diller only came because they needed something. Cigarettes. Forgeries. Music reviews. Answers for all the big exams, and some of the little ones, too. Some said she could even see the future. And if you wanted the dirt on, well, anyone at all, she was the injudicious dispenser for all we desired. She blew the biggest bubble I’d ever seen, for someone who wasn’t a cartoon character, that is. It popped a beautiful, perfect pop—just the right amount of sugary air had swelled inside it. I finally stammered out an answer, telling her I wanted to know if Angie Crumm—the eleventh grader who hula-hooped on the football field every day—had a date for the dance yet. She pulled one end of the wad of yellow gum in her mouth, and twisted it around and around and around her finger, pointing towards her ear, in the same motion as if she was implying I had a screw loose. She asked, You mean the Starfish Dance? I shrug-nodded, unaware of any name of any other high school dance ever. Listen, Centipede. There’s a half-dozen dances happening around this town at any given time, especially this time of year. I confirmed by unfurling the balled-up photocopy of the Franklin High Starfish Dance poster. There was a childish drawing of a starfish and what looked like some krill swimming around it. The Starfish had a Franklin High jacket on for some reason. Okay then. Angie Crumm, huh? That shouldn’t be too difficult, she said with confidence. As she moved forward, the car creaked a heavy creak and the hood made that bent, hollow metal ka-dunk! sound as Mason Diller leaned towards me, close enough that I could smell the bubblegum, though I couldn’t precisely determine its flavor. Pineapple? Banana? Pear? No idea. But wouldn’t you rather know if Angie Crumm likes you first, Centipede? I mean, I can dig that info up, too. Most would want to know if the other person actually likes them first. I told her not to worry about it, and that all I needed was to know if Angie Crumm was free. Suits yourself, she said, and I wondered if she knew the expression was ‘suit yourself.’
She told me to come back the next morning, to find her on the hood of the same car in the same parking lot, the Franklin High faculty parking lot. I guess the school had simply grown tired of it all and had given up telling Mason Diller she couldn’t park her ‘81 Impala there. I asked her what she expected in return for the forthcoming information. Knowledge is free, Centipede. Now, keep in mind this was the pre-internet age, so what she said had thrown me off completely. I mean, who am I to strike deals in exchange for information? For what’s already out there, up for grabs? Mason Diller was a seer of sorts, but not like one of those two-bit fortune tellers in the city who was out to make a quick buck. For those of us who made the trek and climbed the mountain that was the Franklin High faculty parking lot, Mason Diller was a real, true divine oracle who wanted nothing but to give to others what they sought from her.
I showed up first thing the next morning. Mason Diller was right where I’d left her, though the rest of the parking lot was mostly empty. She had on a denim jacket that was held together by threads and heavy metal band patches, and matching jeans that must have required the Jaws of Life to remove. Her tummy poured out the top, but she didn’t care. I didn’t care either. Whether or not she actually had cigarettes for Chad Dingus the day before was also irrelevant, but she was now happily sucking on an 8:30am menthol. Hey, Centipede, she said when she saw me approaching. She cut to the chase and told me that yes, the hula-hooping Angie Crumm was indeed dateless for the upcoming Starfish Dance. I was neither satisfied nor disappointed. The truth was, I was only asking for a friend, anyway. I’d let him know later, but honestly, I don’t even remember if Kenneth Wawah ever asked Angie Crumm out. Instead, I casually asked Mason Diller what her plans were after graduating from Franklin High.
She stared at me. Other cars were pulling into the lot, Muppet-faced teachers tossing glares our way. Some seagulls made a valiant effort to shit on their rooftops from above. There was a smell of stale garbage coming from the dumpsters around the corner, where the cafeteria chucked yesterday’s leftover meatloaf and scalloped potatoes and tapioca pudding. Mason Diller considered my question, and eventually settled on the Magic 8-Ball answer of: I can’t foresee. She continued to look into an invisible space in the air with dubious eyes. I sensed fear or maybe even loneliness emanating from Mason Diller; she was legitimately unsure. I don’t know if anyone had ever asked her the question before. She snapped out of her trance, realizing she didn’t have an answer. What can I say? I guess I’m the oracle of everything and nothing at the same time. But nothing is still a part of everything when you think about it. I said I wasn’t sure. I was no expert on those sorts of things. She said, Why do you ask? I told her I just wanted to know. She said, No one has ever asked the oracle about the oracle’s own future before.
I suggested: Maybe you can tell me about mine then?
Mason Diller took as long a drag of her cigarette as she could, then tossed the wet stump into the dead garden surrounding the parking lot. Nothing would ever grow there, but there was nothing to burn, either. I get a sense, she started, closing her eyes and grasping with uncertainty at the air around her for inspiration or whatever it was that needed to be pulled at for the appropriate answer. I mean, I see an old apartment building. Not old as in dilapidated, but more like Old-Money-old, I gather. The lobby, it smells like gardenias and floor wax. You’re just outside the glass doors, beneath a forest green awning. Cabs and delivery trucks are whizzing along the busy avenue. And a girl … a woman. You hold her hand in yours, like it’s the only thing you ever needed to hold on to. Mason Diller stopped for a breath; she stopped trying to find answers in the space around her. There’s a kiss, she says with a tone that had culminated into something caught squarely between melancholy and cognizance of some greater knowledge.
But that was all she said on the matter of my future.
I didn’t really know what to make of that future vision of hers, but I said something succinctly lame like, Cool, before the morning bell rang and I made my way to English class. Hold on, Mason called out and she slid off the hood of the car—ka-dunk!—and stepped closer to me. The car’s not actually mine, she said. It’s Mr. Sherman’s. I nodded but I wasn’t really listening to her words as much as I was waiting for her next ones. So hey, Centipede. You wanna go to the Starfish dance with me?
Of course I do, I said, answering a question of hers now. Of course I will.