There’s a confusing place between childhood and adulthood, and Mischa Jakupcak finds it in Peaceful Valley on a night when “everything in the air was a bit off-kilter.” In a convincingly artless voice, the story captures the memories of youthful nights that teeter between wild excitement and alarming recklessness, and of where we find refuge before things go too far. — Lisa Waananen
Everybody knew Cha Cha. She lived down the block, under the bridge, in Peaceful Valley. Cha Cha owned chickens. She was a woman of few words. She had apple cheeks and her hands were rough: hands made for kneading bread, pulling weeds and chopping wood. Cha Cha’s backdoor screen was always swinging open and closed. She was a big woman, a brick house, my dad used to say. Her wavy gray hair reached down to her butt. She often wore flowery cotton skirts and worn-out aprons, dusted white with flour. And muddy black boots. She could often be seen weeding her garden, bent over, her generous ass up in the air. She didn’t care what people said. But she didn’t care what people thought, that was for sure. Depending on the season, her backyard overflowed with cabbage and squash, raspberries and carrots. Baskets of produce from her garden flowed out generously to neighbors, friends and strangers who wandered by Cha Cha’s door.
I always thought of her as part of Peaceful Valley, part of the landscape, a fixture we could count on. She was so solid she seemed to hold up the sky. Cha Cha had several kids of her own… they’d all grown up and moved away. Her husband had left her years before. No matter, it seemed like everybody in Peaceful Valley was one of Cha Cha’s. Her doors were unlocked and her tea kettle was perpetually whistling and cooling. There was an air of utility around her place. A clothesline hung diagonally across her backyard. Shirts and towels, blankets and aprons were waving in the wind as though she was her own country and they were her flags. She had chickens running around free in her backyard, and cats, a duck and a one legged dog. Neighborhood kids were always around; they’d stop by to go pee or to get a glass of water. Her house was where they’d go when they needed a band aid for a skinned knee, or had a hankering for cookies. Pretty much everybody would sling their bike on the ground or tromp on through her kitchen, as though they owned the place.
It was several years ago, on a Sunday night, when kids my age should have been home in bed. Maybe eleven thirty or so or even later. It was a three day weekend and the moon was out and everything in the air was a bit off-kilter. There was danger and excitement and you could just feel things were gonna happen. People were restless and I could sense it. There was the usual roar of the cars overhead, zooming into the night down Maple street bridge. It sounded like the ocean rumbling overhead. That was normal. But this night tires screeched, engines revved and teenagers could be heard rebel rousing, whooping and wailing from the corners of the night.
Me and Hank and Maddy had gotten into the liquor cabinet in Jude’s pantry. We sat on the floor taking pulls from different bottles. Jenny came by and had some pills from her brother who’d had his wisdom teeth removed. We all took them. I don’t remember too much after that. I was supposed to be spending the night at Maddy’s house. There was talk of sneaking out. So we crawled out her bedroom window to meet back up with some boys. I remember falling on my way out of the window, though luckily her bedroom was on the first floor. I remember tree branches and cutting my arm on some statute that her mom had in her garden. I think it broke.
Then I remember walking fast, then running and laughing. I remember Hank pushing me and me skinning my knee, but it didn’t hurt, I felt nothing. Hank grabbed my hand for a few steps and I remember feeling my legs running like propellers under my body, as though they were automatic and not part of me. Then I remember us coming upon yelling and some sort of raucous in the playground under the bridge. A group of teenage guys were standing around yelling like they were watching a football game. At first I thought it was a fight. Kids do that when they fight. They roll around wrestling on the ground ’til someone pees their pants and somebody breaks it up.
But as I got closer I realized it wasn’t a fight. There were two girls, one was Mandy Carter who was in my biology class and the other one was some girl that had transferred to our school from Walla Walla. Her name was Kristina, or Trina or something like that. The kids at school called her Special K. Mandy and Special K were on the ground making out. Willy was right up in the mess, tangled up with them too. He was ripping at their clothes and had a phone out trying to record himself with the two girls. It was violent and ugly.
I remember I had to go pee, so I went over out of sight. I sat there swaying in a squatting position, eyeing the long blades of grass near the sidewalk. I felt the cold autumn wind and noticed how the streetlights from the bridge cast an orangish tint on the shapes below. Suddenly I didn’t want to be there. Suddenly and for that moment I felt an emptiness and I didn’t want to be anywhere at all. There was a hollow dead ache inside and I wished I hadn’t drank that liqueur. I wished I hadn’t snuck out. I wished I had not seen those girls making out or the group of boys yelling and cheering them on. I wished I was snug and warm in my own bed at home. I wished I was a little girl.
As I pulled my pants up, I saw my shoes had gotten splatters of pee on them. I shrugged it off and quickly zipped up my pants. I couldn’t feel my teeth. I pulled my coat up close to my neck and scanned the playground for a focal point, a friend I could go to. But I didn’t recognize any of the kids there anymore. That’s when I heard this loud thumping steps behind me. It felt like a deep drumming, almost like the earth was shaking. A long shadow cast itself from behind me. Cha Cha came up on me in one swift motion. She passed right by me and came into the group of teenage boys. She pushed right through and quickly assessed the group and the happenings. She scanned the boys and yanked the loudest one, Willy, who was holding up the iphone recording the girls on the ground. She yanked him up by the scruff of his neck, like a mama kitten might snatch up her baby. With one big swoop the girls untangled, clothes were snatched back on and the group dispersed into the dark corners and back into the night. Willy flailed from her arms, like a chicken with a broken neck, pulling up his jeans to cover his bare parts. I faded back into the shadows and sat on a swing where no one could see me, concentrating on how the freezing cold metal chains felt in my hands.
Cha Cha had Willy by the scruff of his neck. She dragged him up the staircase to the bridge. They walked up to the top of the bridge. I don’t know if anything was said between the two of them. I watched them look over the edge of the bridge and it was too far away to see if their lips were moving. After a few minutes I saw the two of them walk back down the staircase and cross the playground. Cha Cha held Willy by the shoulders and this time I could see she said something to him, right in his face. She had her hands open palmed on either one of his cheeks, almost like she was gonna kiss him and she was speaking to him real close up. Staring in his eyes. When she got done, he turned, somewhat deflated and flimsy and walked away. He looked smaller than I’d ever remembered him before. Cha Cha returned across the playground and back into her house. I heard her back screen door bang shut.
I couldn’t make myself get up off that swing. And I was too scared to go home, on account of my mom finding out I snuck out of Maddy’s house. I knew I couldn’t get back into Maddy’s house without waking up her parents and getting her in trouble. All my friends were gone and the park was empty. There was a silky hot pink bra that lay on the cement under the basketball hoop, the only evidence of all that had gone on earlier.
I sat there on that swing, frozen. Paralyzed. After what felt like a very long time I realized my clothes were damp and I was chilled to the bone. I walked toward a warm yellow light shining from Cha Cha’s front window. Without thinking too much, I watched myself open up her heavy wooden gate and walk, step after step up to her back door. I knocked softly. Then louder, as I imagined the reality of sleeping outside all night.
Then Cha Cha was there, in a nightgown, with hair braided into a long, fat braid on one side. She swung the screen door open and ushered me in silently. She took me to her couch and I laid down on it, shivering. I rolled up into a ball. Something inside me broke and I gave up trying to contain this weeping that erupted from my throat. The release felt right. I let it go. I wailed and tears and snot came flowing. I didn’t think there would be an end to the tears, but eventually there was. Breaths were like hiccups and l gasped for each one and the crying slowed. I focused on the ticking of a clock upstairs. I breathed in warm cinnamon air. I felt a few afghan blankets being pulled up over my shoulders, like the tide of the ocean covering an edge of land. I felt the skin on my face burn, then warm and dry against the worn velvet pillow on her slouching sofa, that seemed to hug me in an embrace until I fell asleep. ♦
About the Author
Mischa Jakupcak is a filmmaker who lives in Spokane. She has produced several feature films, including The Off Hours, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011. She has a production company in Spokane with her husband, that is currently releasing their first feature film, The Immortal Augustus Gladstone. “Cha Cha” is the first piece of fiction she has had published since she won a writing contest in the sixth grade.