March 2, 2008


David and Josephine weren’t the only Gangmembers who had decided to go swimming that Saturday evening. A few blocks away, Robert sat with his feet dangling off the side of his family’s pool, wearing damp swim trunks and a snug V-neck t-shirt. He’d pulled himself out of the water about an hour before, when the first wave of his sister’s slumber party had shown up, and now he was all but dry. The sun had just gone down, but the evening was still bright and warm. The automatic pool lights hadn’t yet kicked on, but they would soon.

Floating in front of Robert was an inflatable tray, bobbing occasionally in delayed reaction to the aquatic antics of the five 14-year-old girls scattered around the pool. It was intended to hold cocktail glasses and was therefore oasis-themed, with a miniature inflated palm tree on each side. It had probably never been used to hold a drink, though, as Robert and Miranda had confiscated it almost immediately for pool-based chess games.

Robert rubbed his bottom lip with an idle index finger, a gesture of his father’s he’d innately copied almost since birth, and stared down intently at the magnetic board as it swayed in the current in front of him. It was still anyone’s game, but Robert was on the defensive, where he hated to be. These girls were aggressive.

Robert played a fair amount of chess; it was his main past-time. (It had been a long time since he’d considered his guitar a mere “hobby.”) For awhile, he’d studied the game, poring over books of strategies and openings and gambits. He would set up the fancy board in one of the downstairs studies and work through famous matches in history—The Immortal Game of 1851, Paul Morphy’s Opera Game—but he found the more he studied the less he enjoyed playing. Eventually, he made the un-Robert-like decision to give up his chess regimen in favor of just playing the game, though he knew this would never make him a grandmaster.

His only consistent opponent in the Gang was Andre, but Andre wouldn’t focus the way a good chess player needed to, and Robert almost always beat him. (Recently, though, he had let Andre eke out a victory after Michael had declared that he would play the winner.)

Robert frowned and leaned forward over the floating chess board. This was the third game he’d played against his sister and her friends. He’d barely won the first game, and the girls had rallied in the second and won a war of attrition. He took hold of his remaining rook, turning it sideways to break the magnetic seal without lifting the board off the tray, and moved it four squares to the left. He kept his finger on the piece as he examined the move, finally relinquishing it only after he was satisfied with his decision.

The five girls were scattered about the pool. Two of them, a blonde and a brunette, floated in the deep end on rubber rafts, slowly drifting around each other and talking in a low voice, apparently about a boy that the blonde liked. Neither were interested in playing chess, though the brunette had gotten out of the pool at one point to fetch two Diet Cokes and had taken a turn moving for the girls. His sister and the other two girls were across the shallow end from Robert, laughing and splashing each other. Occasionally one would slip under the water and do a handstand, and the others would inevitably push her over.

This was the earliest wave of a slumber party that would eventually leave Robert stranded in his room for the night. There would be more girls showing up later, after a debate team practice finished up. These girls were a year behind his sister and the other girls in the pool, and they would be staying at St. Odo’s next year instead of moving to Beaumonde or Parvenu. “The debate team practices during the summer? On a Saturday evening?” he had asked them, incredulous, and they had looked at each other and rolled their eyes as though he would never understand.

Apparently a lot had changed in the three years since Robert had attended the junior high. From what he could tell by accompanying his parents to Open Houses and Quiz Bowl tournaments, a small group of aggressively academic girls had taken over the school and transformed the student body. Suddenly all the girls at St. Odo’s began competing fiercely in extracurricular activities that, when Robert had been a student there, had barely existed: Model U.N., the chess team, math competitions. As far as Robert could tell, the junior high had become a forbidding matriarchy—the boys of the school, in response to the girls’ dominance, had become sub-literate and aggressive—and the architects of this transformation were apparently scattered around his pool.

Satisfied with his rook’s move, Robert picked up a small brass bell he had beside him and rang it a few times. Halfway through the first game, he’d grown tired of yelling to get the girls’ attention whenever he moved, which he found exhausting and uncivilized, and had gone inside to get his chess clock. However, on the way up to his room he passed by the cat bowl and the bell they rang every time they fed her, a tradition dating back to Miranda’s fourth-grade science fair project on the Pavlovian response. He brought the bell outside with him, and used it to signal to the girls that he had moved. Unbeknownst to any of them, every single time he jingled the bell a fuzzy white head would appear in one of the upstairs windows, looked crazed and excited at the prospect of a meal.

An Indian-American girl held her breath and swam underwater towards him, surfacing just in front of the board and blinking the water away. For years Robert had known this girl as Heather, but within the last six months she had decided to start going by her middle name, Sanjuta.

“I moved my rook,” Robert said, sliding his finger across the board.

“You don’t say…” Sanjuta mumbled, not quite sarcastically. Even though the water was shallow enough for her stand up comfortably, she chose to tread water as she stared across the board. “Has it ever occurred to you that maybe you’re just not cut out to be a chess player? There’s no shame in admitting it, you know.”

Robert ignored her. The girls had been trash-talking their way through three games now, and no matter what move he made, it was clearly the product of an inferior intellect that deserved a solid mocking.

Sanuta put her finger on a bishop for a moment, but then moved her hand away. “Have you ever played Go?” she asked, in a different, less-confrontational voice.

Robert looked up at her. “Not yet. I’d like to, but I don’t know anyone else who plays. The online players can be pretty daunting.”

“I prefer it to chess. We play at school, and-”

“Really? There’s a Go club at St. Odo’s?”

“It’s not a club…we just play over lunch, usually the 9x9 board. I don’t get to play that often, but a lot of the girls are really into it. It’s like a clique, I guess.”

Robert found himself in the unlikely position of wishing he could go back to junior high. “Fascinating. Miranda never mentioned this to me.”

“Oh, she’s not one of the Go girls. She has more important things to do over lunch.”

Robert’s cell phone began beeping out the Beaumonde Academy school song before he could ask her what exactly Miranda had to do during lunch. He pulled his shins from the water, careful not to nudge the board, and pushed himself up. On one of the patio tables near the edge of the concrete, Robert had—without consciously doing it—created a still life out of a perfectly folded beach towel, a Treo not quite centered on top of the towel and at a slight angle, and a water bottle that was three-quarters full and covered in condensation. Normally this tableau would have been joined by a pair of vintage aviator sunglasses, but Robert had forgotten them in the car earlier that afternoon.

He reached the table just as the song was cycling through for the second time. It was Litta'Bit calling, and he anxiously grabbed at the phone.


“Hey, babe, what’s up?”

“Is everything okay?”

On the other end of the line, Litta'Bit laughed. “Everything’s fine. I can call you just to talk, can’t I?”

“Of course, of course. How are you?” Underneath the table was a pair of black sandals, which Robert only ever wore from the house to the pool and back again.

“I’m fine. A little bored, maybe. Are you busy?”

“No, not at all.” Behind Robert, Sanjuta picked up the little bell and began ringing it at him impatiently. He nodded quickly at her and turned away, putting a finger in his ear. She rang the bell a few more times, then swam back to her friends. “Why, what’s up?”

“I don’t know…I’m in your neighborhood, I thought maybe you’d like to hang out or something.”

“Right now?” Robert looked around his backyard, as though he’d see Litta'Bit walking in.

“Yeah, of course right now. Why? Do you have a girl over?” She laughed again.

“I do, actually. Four of them…and with more on the way. Miranda’s having a slumber party. Where are you?”

“I’m pulling into your driveway. Come let me in.”

Robert hung up and looked around for a second in a daze. He ran his hands over his stubbly scalp, then tugged at his t-shirt. He didn’t like walking out to greet her in a pair of soggy swimming trunks, but what could he do? He put the phone back on his towel and hurried around the pool, walking as quickly as his loose sandals would let him.

Miranda taunted him as he passed them. “We’re gonna take your queen…” The other girls giggled.

“What?” He looked across the water at the floating chess game. He couldn’t quite see what move Sanjuta had made, but his queen still stood on the board. “Okay, wait…I’ll be back in a second.”

Around the front of the house, Snoopy’s Head was easing carefully into the driveway. Robert’s house had been built a century before the Automobile Age, and even the gate in the fence pre-dated the SUV era. Litta'Bit had to back up a bit to straighten her tires before pulling fully into the driveway.

“What a nice surprise,” Robert said, opening her door for her as she turned off the ignition.

“Look at you…so casual. You look sexy.”

He chuckled. “I do? Okay.”

Litta'Bit climbed down out of the driver’s seat. She was wearing a short tennis skirt and a low-cut top, with a pair of oversized sunglasses that made her look like a sexed-up larva. “Modesty is a sin, Robert.”

“I don’t think it is, actually.”

“Whatever.” She poked at his belly, then let her finger run down the front of his shirt. “You wanna go for a drive?”

“That would be nice. Uh, let me get changed. My sister and her friends are in the back, you wanna hang out with them while I get ready? Or you could come inside and say hi to my mom.”

“I’ll just wait in the back.” At just the mention of Tabitha Johnson, Litta'Bit pinched the shoulders of her top and self-consciously pulled the front up slightly. “You’re not going to be long, are you?”

“No, no at all.”

By now they were on the side of the house. As with most houses in New Orleans, though the front and back yard was large, there was very little space on the sides. The last light of the summer evening still glowed in the back yard, but the walkway leading around the side was already dark.

“Hey,” Litta'Bit said, tugging on Robert’s hand. “Hold up.”

He turned towards her. “Oh, sorry. Of course.” He leaned over and presented his cheek. Litta'Bit kissed it deliberately, but then moved her head around and softly kissed his mouth, surprising Robert with a quick hint of tongue against his bottom lip. He softened against her and pulled her closer. She put one hand against his stomach and another, still holding her keyring, pressed into his side. Her hand slipped under his shirt for a second and pressed a warm palm against his tummy.

Robert broke the kiss first, with a guilty glance up towards the windows of his house. Litta'Bit laughed at him and pulled away. “I haven’t heard from you all week…” she whispered.

“I know, I’ve just been busy.” But in fact he had been forcing himself to not call her. He was carrying out an experiment to see how long she would go without calling him. It had made sense at the time—he had idly imagined confronting her: “You haven’t tried to call me in a week!”—but now that she was here in his arms, with her mouth warm and hungry against his own, the whole business seemed childish and petty.

“I thought you didn’t love me anymore,” she said, pulling an exaggerated pout. It was meant to sound playful, but there was an edge to it, too.

“What? No, are you crazy? That’ll never happen.”

“You promise?”

“I do.” He kissed her forehead. “I promise.”

“Hmm…okay. I believe you.”

With a laugh, he led her back to the pool. Amanda and Karen, the two girls who had been meandering around the deep end, had abandoned their floats and joined Miranda, Sanjuta, and Heather. The girls were talking intently as they treaded water. The sky beyond the backyard was the color of a safety vest.

The soles of Robert’s sandals slapped with every step, and Litta'Bit’s heels clacked against the stone tiles of the walkway. The girls looked back at the sound of the extra footfalls, and Miranda waved tentatively at her brother’s girlfriend. “Hey, Litta'Bit.”

“What’s up, bitches?” Litta'Bit asked. The girls in the pool glanced nervously at each other, not sure how to respond, but Litta'Bit didn’t notice. She had just taken off her large sunglasses for the first time in hours, and was glancing around at the world with wonder. “Oh wow, it’s still really light out. I thought it was, like, almost dark.”

Robert picked up his phone and his towel. “Okay, I’ll be back in five minutes, if not sooner. There’s some water here, if you want it.”

“Thanks.” Litta'Bit lowered herself smoothly into a chaise lounge, keeping her short skirt tight against her thighs with her free hand. The girls in the pool were observing her cautiously, occasionally staring quickly at one another without a word. “You girls are in my brother’s grade, right? Jason Huynh?”

None of the girls spoke, but all of them giggled nervously and cut their eyes towards Karen, whose cheeks were suddenly deepening into red.

Inside the house, Robert quickly changed into a fitted shirt and a pair of light trousers. He glanced in the mirror and thought it looked too formal, so he slipped on a pair of white canvas loafers without socks. He wasn’t crazy about how it all looked together, but he didn’t want to leave Litta'Bit waiting.

After a quick detour in the bathroom—mouthwash, deodorant, cologne, all applied at roughly the same time—he found his mother reading in what they called the original downstairs study, sitting back in his father’s beloved overstuffed leather chair. An empty teacup set on the small table by her side, with a lemon slice mangled on the saucer. Her posture was usually so precise, and it was odd to see her stretched out in his father’s easy chair.

Robert’s father, Jerome Johnson, was out of town that night on business, in Baton Rouge to attend a special memorial ceremony at a large African-American Baptist church and then meet with members of the State Legislature the next afternoon. He could have come home that night and driven back the next day, but Miranda had been wanting to have this slumber party for weeks now and had to wait until her father was out of town.

Robert thought this precaution was unnecessary, but his mother explained that with all of Lucas Budd’s troubles, Jerome Johnson didn’t need to be in a house full of teenage girls. The media was hungry, she said, and even the appearance of impropriety was too much. All of them needed to be on their guard.


Tabitha looked up and, in one fluid motion, took off her reading glasses, slid a thin wooden bookmark into the pages, and set the book aside with the glasses on top. He couldn’t make out the title from where he stood, but there was an artistic photograph of a young woman’s naked back on one side of the cover, and the curve of a cello on the other, forming one symetrical shape. “Robert,” she said, with a smile. “I thought you were swimming.”

“I was, but Elizabeth showed up out of the blue.”

His mother looked past him, into the darkening hallway. “Is she here?”

“She’s out on the deck with the girls. She wants to take me on a drive.”

Tabitha Johnson raised her eyebrows. “A drive?”

Robert had no response, and years of living with his mother had taught him what to do in that situation: he said nothing.

“How pleasant,” she said at last, with a playful smile. “It’s going to be a lovely evening.”

“What are you reading?”

Tabitha looked over at the side table as though surprised to see a book there. She slipped her reading glasses back on and picked it up. “Oh, just something for Valerie’s book club. Grandma’s diary, Prague in the 30s, a Jewish cello instructor.” She held the cover at arms’ length and squinted at it. “A Symphony Of Stones, by Timothy Sobotka.”

“I bet love wins out in the end.”

“Either that or ‘the redeeming power of art’…at least that’s what it says on the back.” She set the book back on the table, but left her reading glasses on. “Have a good time with Elizabeth. Be careful out there…lots of drunk drivers tonight.”

“I will.”

“And Robert…stay out as late as you want. In fact, why don’t you call one of your friends and see if you can spend the night when you’re done with Elizabeth? I saw David on Thursday at Valerie’s boutique, and he said you should come by sometime. And didn’t you tell me Andre was a night-owl? The two of you could have midnight movies.”

“Well, Mom, I don’t-”

“It was just an idea. I thought that since all these girls are going to be here…I think Miranda invited half the school, and maybe you might like to be somewhere else tonight. What with all the makeovers and pranks and who knows what all. I bet your Uncle Tony would love to hang out with you. You’re an adult now, you don’t need a permission slip from me to spend the night wherever you want. All I ask is that you show up on time for Mass tomorrow.”

“I will.” Robert cocked his head at his mother, but she just smiled at him and picked up her book again. “Okay, I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Have fun.”

Robert started to leave, and was almost out of the room before he turned back towards his mother. “Mom…” he began.

Tabitha Johnson didn’t even look up from her book. “It’s a whole new world we live in these days, Robert.” She turned the page crisply. “All it takes is one lie, one rumor. None of us are safe right now.”

Before going back outside, Robert stopped by his room and packed an overnight bag. Alexander would have been appalled at the sloppy manner in which he folded his suit, and in fact Robert wasn’t too thrilled about it either, but he was suddenly in a hurry.

Outside, it was almost fully dark. The pool lights had switched on, throwing watery shadows against the sides of the house. All five of the girls were lined up by the edge of the water, at Litta'Bit’s feet, listening intently as she described Beaumonde Academy. The chess game, now forgotten, drifted out towards the dark center of the pool.

“Let’s see,” Litta'Bit said, “first-years take Life Sciences, which is either with Ms. Kern or Mr. Jenkins, but I think maybe Mr. Parker might teach one class of that, too. Kern is a total lunatic, so try to get in Jenkins’ class. Oh, and don’t take your choice of lab partner lightly…do you guys know Adam Sidd? He’s gonna be a senior this year? Well, anyway, take my word for it, he’s beyond cute and he was the odd man out in my class so he had to do all his lab experiments by himself…and all because I said yes to the first girl who asked me because I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”

Robert stood over her, trying to will his overnight bag invisible so that his sister wouldn’t see it. “I’m ready.”

“Speaking of beyond cute…” Litta'Bit said, smiling wickedly up at him. “But you should have seen this guy as a first-year. I’ve really cleaned him up. He had cornrows, a platinum grill, and a tear tattoo’d on his cheek…”

Most of the girls, especially Miranda, giggled at this, and Robert, who was suddenly in a very good mood, threw back his head and laughed louder than he probably should have.

(“He did?” Amanda asked incredulously, but the other girls just ignored her.)

With one hand held out for Robert to hold, Litta'Bit stood up from the chaise lounge with a graceful unfolding motion. “That totally reminds me: you guys have to call yourselves ‘first year students’ or just ‘first years.’ You can’t call yourselves freshmen, because Dr. Hayes is a stickler about that. She says it’s sexist, like only men get educations. Whatever. If she gives you any grief, just find me. Her daughter has a mad crush on me.”

Robert chuckled. “Stop lying. Let’s go already.”

Litta'Bit took his arm and waved back at the slumber party. “Good night, girls. Nice talking to you.”

“Good night, Litta'Bit,” they called, in one voice, then cracked up at how it sounded. Their laughter turned into taunting, which quickly turned into splashing and dunking.

“I feel old,” Litta'Bit said after they left the backyard. “I wish I were going to be a first year again. So full of promise.”

“You do?”

“Well, no, not really. Those girls are gonna go through hell. But it can be fun hell.” She tugged on the strap of his bag. “What’s this for?”

“I’ll tell you in the car.”


Robert carefully backed Snoopy’s Head out of the narrow driveway and into St. Charles Avenue, a maneuver Litta'Bit had never actually attempted, then he put the SUV in park. The truck was so large it didn’t have a center console, so it was trivial to slide out of the driver’s side and into the passenger seat. Litta'Bit, who was sitting in the back, hopped up into the front and they pulled off.

“So, yeah, about the bag. My mom says I can spend the night.”

Litta'Bit looked over at him. “Really?”

“Not in as many words, but I got the distinct sense that I have her tacit approval.”

Litta'Bit slowly moved away from a stop sign, crossing Prytania and heading down towards the river. “What brought this on?”

“She said she considers me an adult, and respects my boundaries.”

“Huh.” She looked over at him and grinned. “Sounds like a set-up to me.”


They were deeper in the Garden District now, where overgrown maple and oak trees eclipsed many of streetlights. In a dark patch of open street, Litta'Bit pulled Snoopy’s Head off to the side and parked softly. “Give me a second, I just have to take care of something.”

She slipped out of the driver’s seat and, before Robert knew what was happening, she had straddled him. She kissed his face and his jaw-line, with her hands on his shoulders pushing him meekly against the seat. He tried to return her kisses, but she always moved her mouth away just a second before his lips touched hers.

“I missed you,” she whispered, ducking his kiss again.

“I missed you, too.” Robert put his hands on her waist, the ring finger of each hand touching the smooth flesh between her top and her skirt. She moved her hips slowly under his touch. He knew they should be moving on soon, but for the moment there wasn’t any traffic on the side street and the houses were dark and silent.

“I thought maybe you met someone else,” Litta'Bit whispered, then kissed his temple cautiously.

“What? No, of course not.” He held her back a little and looked into her shadowed face. “There’s no one else out there for me.”

She touched the side of his face, her fingernails lightly against his cheek and her thin gold bracelet cold against his chin. “Do you still love me?”


In the dark, her eyes softened. “Say it again.”

“Always,” he repeated. “I’ll always love you, Elizabeth Huynh.”

She kissed him voraciously now, cupping his head in her hands and pushing her body against his chest. Robert’s hands slid down over her skirt and touched her smooth thighs delicately, acutely aware of the callouses on the fingertips of his left hand. Litta'Bit lowered her body against his, exploring his neck now with wet greedy kisses, and her thighs slid under his hands until he was holding her thin soft hips, and the crease where her legs met her torso. The folds of her skirt brushed against his forearms.

Robert’s phone began to ring.

She laughed softly, biting his earlobe gently. “I think they’re on to us. They’ll never take us alive.”

But the spell was broken, and with two chaste kisses she slid off of him and back into the distant country of the driver’s seat. “Making out like a couple of teenagers,” Litta'Bit mumbled, looking over at him with a giggle. She put Snoopy’s Head into gear and pulled away from the curb.

Robert had gotten his phone out of his overnight bag and was examining the screen. His Uncle Tony had sent him three text messages, one right after the other. Robert cursed Miranda for ever teaching him how to text.

  • whats up playa? Just got a call from yr mom. Wont be here if you wanna come over, but you know where the key is.
  • Leave a note or something so I know if you’re here when I get in. Id hate to put a bullet in you. Thinking youre a burgular.
  • PS if you want cereal in the morning pick up some milk. And some cereal ha ha.

Robert set his phone down and thought for a second. “How about we curtail the ‘driving around’ part of the evening, maybe just go somewhere for a little while?”

Litta'Bit looked over at him and bit her lip. “That’s the best idea I’ve heard all night. I know just the perfect place.” She turned Snoopy’s Head around, aimed for the Mississippi River bridge, and headed towards her bedroom.