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Kids run away for many reasons; abusive parents, a bad environment, poverty, lack of love or respect at home. A few run away for adventure or hope to become movie stars. Others just hope to find a better life, but most discover that life on the street is cold, hungry and lonely. It's also a jungle of predators. The smarter -- or luckier -- kids usually find that no matter how bad things were at home, at least they had a bed to sleep in and a chance to really escape by going to school and preparing themselves to win life's battles. Most runaways are heard from again, days, weeks, even months later. But a few kids just disappear, and only their faces on milk cartons, or images on "missing" websites prove they once existed.
Collin Thatcher, thirteen-years-old in Oakland, California, has a reason for running away: his self-righteous Aunt Libby, a part-time social worker and full-time fool, wants to put him in a boot camp for being "lazy and obese," take him away from his "dreamer" father, who was wounded in the Army, given a wheelchair along with a medal, and survives by writing books for kids. With the help of his best friend Ralpa, whose family fled political oppression in Tibet, Collin hopes to defeat his aunt's schemes. He and Ralpa are unexpectedly aided by a homeless boy named Tyger who survives by fishing in a battered old boat. Tyger introduces Collin to the Asian innercity, a vastly different 'hood from Collin's, yet also plagued by gangs and violence. Collin's plan seems to be working. But then, he and his friends are captured by men who use kids for actors in "films about kids, but not for kids." The boys are also forced to model for comic books and VR games. Collin, Ralpa and Tyger must fight their way out of a dirty cartoon prison, and also free the other kids.
In his young adult novel, Tyger Tales, Jess Mowry makes use of the classic "parallel world" device, although his is no bucolic hundred acre wood in any classical sense. As usual, his world is dystopian, involving society's misfits and cast-offs in a reeking, dangerous, squalid wasteland. Mowry is astute, however, in his choice of settings, if not brilliant for his ability to locate his para-world just beyond the gaze of "civilized" Americans. He knows that only adults are concerned with five star dining and accommodations, and that kids are essentially indifferent to dirt and squalor, especially when "more" comes at the cost of freedom; children, in their own minds, are equal to, if not brighter than adults.
Tyger Tales derives its title from the fictitious comic book series described in the novel, notable most for its vivid cover art depicting superhero characters, in particular, that of a child named Tyger. In Mowry's novel, Tyger steps from the cover of the comic book series -- both literally and figuratively -- to join two friends, Collin Thatcher, a smart but rebellious black teen from Oakland CA, and Ralpa, an erudite and insightful Tibetan boy, who helps run an inner city grocery store in Collin's neighborhood. Collin, the clear protagonist, is harangued by an incessant aunt, who wants to remove him from the custody of his sensible father, a noble and admirable character, who must himself bear her onslaught from the confines of an old fashioned, arm-powered wheelchair. He, as a writer, seems to represent the status of all writers in some sense, bound as he is to a chair, crippled in a physical world where he is more active cerebrally than physically. Adults, even parents, Mowry is saying, are as helpless as anyone to intervene, and it is the individual who must rescue themselves. In this sense, God may indeed be dead, particularly for those trapped by circumstance or within their own skin.
The book is, for that matter, filled with symbolism, particularly in the character depictions. Tyger, a frail, pre-pubescent Asian boy of androgenous (or feline) make up who represents his namesake, quick with a knife (claws) and as uncontainable as a Burmese tiger. Collin, the panther, is dark and brooding, prowling the shadows of polite society, while at the same time conspicuous and feared for his appearance alone. The round belly motif, even in those otherwise fit and muscular characters, is familiar in Mowry's works, and these Buddha-esque characters of his seem to represent those who "eat" the world's flotsam and attain wisdom in the process, just as Tyger scurries beneath society, collecting its lost screws and loose change.
Faced with his aunt's relentlessness, coupled to his father's helplessness, Collin runs away for a seafaring, vagabond existence with Tyger, who is himself an exile, living alone on his indomitable moxie. Ultimately, Collin, along with Ralpa, becomes enmeshed in the underground world of porn and exploitation, and must himself escape from the cover of Tyger Tales. I like Mowry's method of character development in all, but found myself drawn mostly to the mysterious little Tyger, despite the fact that the story's conflict blossoms from Collin and his family situation, and, based on the book's title, we should assume that was Mowry's intent. As well, the story is filled with vivid descriptions of time and place, vivid enough that I, one who might easily be depicted as one of the white faces seeing-but-not-seeing a story like this unfold, find myself mesmerized by the clear fact that we all watch the same sunrises and sunsets, and that if God is dead for even a single child, then he is dead for everyone.
I recommend this book for its rich use of language and symbolism, and as one that appeals to the primal instincts of children, boys in particular, of all ages and wherever they exist.
© 2010 Mark Dennis: author of Song For A Summer Night
In Tyger Tales by Jess Mowry we meet Collin Thatcher, a 13-year-old African-American boy who lives in West Oakland, Cali. Some people might call him a computer geek or a fantasy gamer. His Aunt Libby, a 4th grade teacher and part-time social-worker, calls him "obese and lazy" and thinks he is rotting his mind in cyberspace instead of "going out to play" in the hood where kids get shot in the park. She wants to take Collin away from his dad, who is confined to a wheelchair because his legs were paralyzed when he was commanding a tank in a war on terror. Collin's dad is a struggling writer who has just sold a book for black kids. But Aunt Libby is not impressed. She wants to put Collin in a "healthy boot camp." Collin's best friend is a Tibetan boy named Ralpa whose family escaped from Chinese-rulled Tibet. They now pass as Korean people and run a small market. Collin goes to tell Ralpa about his problems. Then a small Asian boy named Tyger comes into the store. He is from the country that used to be called Burma. He looks just like a kid on the cover of an Asian comic book called "Tyger Tales." It is funny that the cartoon boy's homies in the comic book look a lot like Collin and Ralpa. Tyger makes a plan to help Collin defeat his Aunt Libby by running away, which will make her look bad because she was the reason he did it. Collin lives with Tyger on an old boat in the Oakland Bay for about two weeks and helps Tyger fish, which is how Tyger makes money. Things look good. Aunt Libby has given up on her plans to take Collin away from his dad. Collin will go home, and Tyger will come to live with him. But on the last night, Collin, Tyger and Ralpa are caught by some men! They are drugged, locked in the back of a van, and taken to Chinatown in San Francisco. These men make movies "about kids, but not for kids." They keep their "actors" locked in a basement and make them work long hours in their movies. If the kids behave themselves and do what they are told they might get rewarded with Happy Meals. If they don't behave they might get "put to sleep." Collin, Ralpa and Tyger have to fight their way out of this dirty cartoon prison and also free the other kids who are trapped there.
There are many things going on in this book. You learn a lot about why you should be careful on the internet, and what might happen to some kids who just disappear and are never heard from again. You also learn about Asian gang life. But the book is really an adventure story. Even though some of the subjects it deals with are shocking there are funny parts too. There is loyalty and friendship that crosses all color lines. It is also a story about learning how to solve your own problems.
© 2009 Rowfy: A Reader
© 2011 Jess Mowry
"Boy! Are you lookin' at porn?”
Collin turned from the screen of his ancient Mac to find Aunt Libby invading his space. The huge woman filled the doorway, her striped cotton dress like a small circus tent. She glared around like she owned the house... which she did, as a matter of fact. Collin hadn't seen her in weeks, and he'd missed her as much as a virus.
"I think I am now," he sighed.
Aunt Libby shot him a scowl. "Is that any way to be talkin' to ladies?”
Collin didn't see any "ladies" on or off-screen at the moment. He glanced at his computer, wishing he could delete his aunt by something as simple as tapping a key. “I'm kinda busy right now," he said. “Havin’ browser hangs.”
Aunt Libby was about as computer-literate as a average bulldozer. To her the web was a playground of porn created for the corruption of kids. She came rumbling in as if running on tracks, the floorboards creaking beneath her bulk, and stabbed a finger at the screen. "That looks like kiddie-porn to me!”
Collin sighed again. "It's a T-rated fantasy game.”
"Those kids are almost naked!”
"They live in a jungle," said Collin.
Aunt Libby snorted. "The best I could say it’s a waste of your time. I heard about kids gettin' hooked on those games. They're just as addictive as junk-food an’ crack!" She glowered around. "An’ look at the unhealthy mess in here!”
Collin followed Aunt Libby’s eyes as they roamed the room like a web-crawling spider programmed to find and report any porn. Maybe it was a little messy: the bed hadn't been made in -- he wasn't sure when -- and the sheets could have told a few fantasy tales that his aunt, at least, would have called porn. A huge pile of comics fanned over the floor, while others overflowed plastic milk crates. Board-and-brick shelves looked about to collapse beneath a ton of adventure books, while fantasy posters and anime pictures were taped or tacked to the cracked plaster walls. Most of his clothes -- T-shirts, jeans, and religious socks -- lay scattered wherever he'd thrown them. There were pizza boxes, burger wrappers, potato chip bags, bottles and cans. As if on cue to complete the scene, a rat scuttled out from under the bed.
Aunt Libby glared at the rodent. "That's what comes from livin' unhealthy!”
Collin sighed once more. "No, that's what comes from livin' here.”
He watched the rat make a bust though the window as if Aunt Libby was Rodent Rid. "The basement an’ attic is full of 'em." Then he smiled. "But they all look healthy.”
"Don't get smart!" retorted his aunt.
"One of us should.”
"Don't sass me, boy! ...Just look at yourself, like a half-naked savage in that dirty game!”
Collin glanced down at himself: he was only wearing boxer shorts that had once been white but now matched the rat. He turned to a mirror above a dresser cluttered with anime magazines. The glass showed a panther-black boy of thirteen sprawled in a battered old swivel chair he’d salvaged out of a Dumpster. “I live in a jungle, too," he said.
Aunt Libby snapped, "You're a dirty, sloppy, unhealthy mess, just like this dirty unhealthy room! Sittin' there on your butt all day eatin’ unhealthy food, playin' unhealthy games an' fillin' your mind with unhealthy junk 'stead of goin' out an' gettin' active!”
Collin turned to the window, open because of the late-August heat. Tattered curtains swung in a breeze like the breath of an oil-burning dragon. Drips of tar like licorice whips hung from the eaves of the house next door as West Oakland toasted beneath a mean sun. Garbage cans baked in the alley below where the only things active were newly-hatched maggots. A gunshot popped a few blocks away, and Collin raised an eyebrow.
"'Bout the tenth one today, but I think I lost count. ...Livin' here in my unhealthy world.”
Aunt Libby glared at Collin again. "There's plenty of good healthy physical stuff a boy your age could be doin'. 'Stead of rottin' your mind with comic books an' nasty perverted computer games. You're wastin’ away your childhood, boy!”
Another gunshot answered the first. "One more childhood bites the dust.”
Aunt Libby sniffed. "When was the last time you took a bath?”
"That's called a non sequitur," said Collin. "Means a comment not relevant to whatever preceded it.”
"Don't sass me, boy!”
"You said that already.”
The computer spoke through a boom-box speaker that Collin had rigged... his desk looked like an electronic junkyard. "You have been inactive a long time. Do you want to continue this session?”
Collin tapped keys, then turned back to his aunt. "My room is an unhealthy dump, my mind is as rotten as your nasty house, an' I’m a half-naked savage who smells. Now we agree about somethin’, right? Wanna hold hands an’ sing We Are The World?”
He faced the flickering screen again, hoping his aunt would beam out. When she didn't, he added, "I know you don't understand computers, but this one’s stressed to the max an'... Shit!”
"It froze again dammit!" Collin stabbed keys, though knowing it wouldn't do any good. The only way to get out of a freeze was to kill the power and start again, which could flat-line the hard drive. "Shit!”
"Oh, go to healthy hell!" roared Collin.
That froze his aunt for a second, but she had an automatic restart. "I'm gonna have a talk with your father!”
"We heard it all before," said Collin, still trying to break the freeze.
"But this time you're gonna listen!” Aunt Libby dropped her hands to her hips in a comic book combative stance. “I've stood by for almost ten years now, watchin' the both of you mess up your lives. It's time your father got a him a job. ...A real, genuine, J.O.B.! An' you're turnin' out just like him, a lazy, no-account, dreamer!”
Collin's eyes narrowed to ebony slits as he swung around to face his aunt. "My dad ain't lazy! An’ he does count for somethin’ in this world... somethin’ good! ...An' you never had a dream in your life that wasn’t a nightmare for somebody else!”
Aunt Libby couldn’t resolve that page so of course she only ignored it. "You're encouraging each other's unhealthy lifestyles, an' I been enabling you!”
Collin rolled his eyes. "Try tellin' me somethin' you didn't hear from some phoney-ass TV health show.”
Aunt Libby searched her arsenal for the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. “And you’re obese!” she thundered.
Collin broke out laughing. “Want me to help you look?”
“...For what?” demanded his aunt.
“Your mind,” said Collin. “You finally lost it. But, I guess that’s no surprise ‘cause it was the smallest thing you had.”
Aunt Libby tried to look dignified. “I have large bones.”
“So does a hippopotamus.”
Aunt Libby swung her bulk around and Caterpillared out of the room. The house seemed to shake as she tromped down the stairs.
Collin toggled the power switch, hoping the stressed-out CPU -- an electronic rat on a rusty treadmill -- wouldn't have a heart-attack. Then he sprawled in the chair with his arms hanging down and his legs spread under the rickety desk. The old computer flickered to life and began to check its feeble functions. Its clock showed 6:17 PM. It would probably take at least half an hour to navigate back to where he'd been before the attack of Aunt Libby. He could hear her “engaging” his father downstairs; not a smart move since he'd been at work at his own computer with a deadline to meet on his book.
Collin sighed as the weary old Mac prepared itself to plow through the web at the pace of an unhealthy snail. He snagged a bag of potato chips and munched them while sipping a can of warm Coke. He considered going down for a cold one, but he didn't want a re-boot with his aunt.
Broiling breeze invaded the room, bathing his body in oily stinks of oozing asphalt and stewing garbage. There were two more shots from the neighborhood park, but otherwise the streets were still. Collin leaned forward over the desk as the screen finally cleared for new commands. Sweat ran down from under his arms, dripped from his face and spattered the keyboard. He checked himself in the mirror again: only a rabid health-nazi would have called him “obese.” His chest was a pair of proud oval shapes, but he did have a cartoonish basketball belly that rolled out over his legs.
He fingered his father’s Army dog tags that hung on a chain around his neck, then glanced in the mirror again. His bushy dandelion-thistle of hair hadn't been cut for at least six months and shadowed a face with gentle cheekbones and a wide but almost bridgeless nose. His lips were full and expressive, tending to rest in a half-open pout and displaying a pair of big front teeth. His eyes were large, midnight black, and slightly tilted up at the corners. His shoulders were wide and solidly squared despite a usually sloppy posture; but his belly had grown a lot this summer. He grinned at the cartoonish boy in the glass. “Trapped in a world I never made. Just like Howard The Duck.”
A siren suddenly screamed down the block, and there were sounds of running feet. Collin got up and went to the window, his belly bobbing with every step and seeming to lead while he trailed behind leaning backward a bit to balance its bulk. He saw two boys dash into the alley. They were both around his age, shirtless and muscled like young superheroes, and looked as if they were enjoying the chase. A cop car roared past, losing its prey, and the boys disappeared up the alley, one vaulting over a garbage can as if for added exercise.
The computer made a sonar sound, and Collin plopped down in his chair again to stack some new commands. He sprawled like a prince on a junk-salvage throne, sipping Coke and munching chips while waiting for the machine to catch up. Dust-bunnies drifted across the floor in the dragon's breath from the window. Cobwebs and curtains swayed to and fro. From below came the roars of his dad and Aunt Libby, like a hippo engaging a lion. Their battles were nothing new; stirring up shit was Aunt Libby's hobby. Her profession was teaching fourth-grade... badly. She also counseled "at-risk kids,” which might have been why they were.
Collin woke up to find the room dim in gray evening light and his monitor gone to sleep. He glanced at the clock: 7:03. His belly made an animal sound. His dad hadn't called him for supper, and it was Collin's turn to cook. Then he heard his dad roar a frustrated curse. Was Aunt Libby still here?
The breeze was still tarry-smelling and hot, but now also scented with oncoming rain. Collin shut off the computer. Was it wise to go down with Aunt Libby still ranting? That would make it a three-way fight, and nobody ever really won. He turned on the desk lamp and picked up a comic. The book was in Japanese, but he liked the style of the drawings, and the story looked exciting even if he couldn't read it.
His stomach demanded attention again with another animal growl. He glanced to the open window: he could climb down the vent pipe and go to the market, thus avoiding his aunt. He had twenty dollars somewhere, commission from selling graphic novels and comics on his site. He got up and reached for his jeans on the floor. A spider had hopefully webbed them, and he waited for it to abandon ship before checking the pockets and finding the money. The jeans would only button halfway somewhere under planet belly... he’d have to get new ones before school started. It was still too hot for a shirt, and all his socks were dirty. He pulled old sneaks on his dusty bare feet, then glanced at the rumpled nest of a bed. Maybe he'd do some laundry tomorrow; those sheets were telling too many tales.
The market was on the next corner, a shabby wooden two-story building with rusty bars on its street-level windows. It felt like a spice-scented oven inside as Collin came in through a squeaky screen door, and was small and incredibly cluttered, its narrow aisles like canyons of cans with tottering shelves on the brink of collapse. Some of the stock was Asian stuff, and Collin passed a snack food display of “Dried cuttlefish with minority flavor.”
Seemingly trapped behind a small counter and overflowing an old wooden chair was a mammoth fat boy of thirteen. He wasn't any taller than Collin but weighed over 400 pounds. His upper arms were massive, as big around as Collin's thighs, and his chest was a pair of water-balloons that looked about ready to pop. His belly avalanched over his lap, and his small button nose was engulfed by his cheeks in a triple-chinned face as round as a moon. His eyes were secret obsidian slits half-hidden by hair that was shaggy, oily, tangled and thick like the rusty-black coat of a yak. He wore no shirt in the store's stuffy heat, only clean but ragged jeans, their side seams spilt on his massive thighs, and old-school black-and-white sneaks. His light-brown skin was shiny in the glow of a small bare bulb overhead as if he'd been polished with baby oil, and he gave off a sort of musky scent, not funky but very pungent and strong that carried above the store’s spicy smell.
"Yo, Ralpa," said Collin.
The huge boy had tensed when the door sensor bonged, one chubby hand slipping under the counter to grasp the butt of a sawed-off shotgun. But he smiled when he saw it was Collin, his rosebud lips as cute as a baby’s, and tilted a thumb at the big flat screen of an almost-new Hewlett-Packard PC. "I was just sending you a message.”
"Syncronicity, man,” said Collin. “I was just thinkin' ‘bout you.”
The huge boy smiled again. "Our souls penetrate the illusion, chela.”
The computer sat on a small board shelf below a rack of cigarettes, and the space was piled with junk-food wrappers, potato chip bags and soda bottles. There was also a game console, and Ralpa wore a headset atop his shaggy mane. His gun hand went back to work on a jumbo bag of barbecue chips, a steady stream from fingers to mouth that filled the air with crunching.
"S'up?" asked Collin, coming over to lean on the counter.
Ralpa bent forward as best he could over his gigantic belly. His shaggy mop tumbled over his face, and the orbs of his chest rolled over the keyboard. "I found a cool site," he said. "A boy named Timmy built it.”
Collin shrugged. "The web's full of kid-sites from dumb-ass to dirty.”
"This one is neither,” said Ralpa from somewhere under his tumble of hair. “Timmy is thirteen and likes photography. He seems to have friends all over the world. There is his picture.”
Collin squeezed into the tiny space behind the cluttered counter, which was almost filled by Ralpa, and peered over Ralpa's massive shoulder. Timmy was on a beach somewhere, clad in only cutoff jeans. He was obviously Caucasian, but his muscular body was deeply tanned as if he spent most of his life in the sun, and his light-blond hair was an albino Afro. Collin leaned against Ralpa's back, which was almost as rolly as his front. "Funny, it's like I seen him before.”
"I also got that impression," said Ralpa. "He rather resembles the boy in that film, The Blue Lagoon.”
"Yeah," agreed Collin. "I saw that on TV last year. 'Course, I was more interested in Brooke Shields than the dude who was with her." He studied Timmy's picture. "But, he’d be an old man by now. That movie was made a long time ago. An’ Brooke is probably somebody's gramma.”
"That is true," said Ralpa.
Collin made a face. "You think that's one of those boylove sites?”
"I found nothing suggestive of that,” said Ralpa. “No provocative poses or blatant boners beneath tented shorts in any of Timmy’s photographs.”
"Maybe he’s gay?” said Collin. “He’s almost too cute for a straight dude.”
Ralpa smiled. "I, too, was more interested in Brooke Shields... at least as she was at that age. But, surely you’re not homophobic?”
"No," said Collin. "An’ don’t call me Shirley.”
“That joke is as old as Brooke Shields,” said Ralpa.
Collin shrugged. "There was a gay dude in Math last year... ‘out,’ I mean. He was cool, an' actually read books. We had P.E. together, too. I showered with him a couple of times, but he never tried to kiss me.”
Ralpa laughed. “Did you expect him to?”
“Maybe I wasn’t his type.”
Ralpa sniffed the air. "Was that the last time you had a shower?”
Collin laughed. "I don't know what a yak smells like, but you gotta be close.”
"I wasn't complaining," said Ralpa. "I find it refreshing to smell someone who does not reek of chemical sweeteners like most Americans do.”
"I wasn't complainin’, neither," said Collin. He held up a palm that was shiny from resting on Ralpa’s shoulder. "But, don't you slide out of bed at night?”
"Many people in Tibet believe that bathing washes the natural protection off your body.”
“Maybe that’s ‘cause it’s so cold?”
"Possibly," said Ralpa. "Cultural standards and religious beliefs are often shaped by environment. And bathing has very little to do with actual health or hygiene. The mistaken belief that one must shower or bathe every day originated from the selling of soap and all the other products that Americans are taught to believe are vital to a healthy life.”
"Well," said Collin. "Ain't like we gonna meet Timmy for real an’ have to smell each other." He studied the picture again. "He looks like a Timmy, don't he?”
"He looks every bit like a Timmy," said Ralpa. "Despite being very handsomely muscled... ‘cut,’ I believe is the current expression... he has a very innocent face. One might even say a spiritual face. He sounds rather innocent, too, from what I have read on his site. A newbie on the web, perhaps. A kid who just built a personal site and does not know the possible danger of using his real name.”
Collin laughed again. “How do we know that’s his real name?”
“As you said, he looks like a Timmy. People often reflect their names, or perhaps grow into them. Even his posture is innocent. He has the type of Hollywood body that American boys are taught to worship and yet he does not seem to know it. He is not posing, you see, as if unaware of himself. Of course, the body is just an illusion in what we call the material world.”
Collin studied the picture again. “You wouldn’t think he knew how to jack-off. Like, he ain’t figured it out yet.”
Ralpa smiled. “The final moments of childhood before a boy becomes a man. Or thinks he has to act a part to join in the illusion.”
“So, besides takin' pitchers an' hangin' on a beach, what's he all about?" asked Collin.
"His uncle makes films," said Ralpa. "After-school television specials.”
"That’s kinda cool," said Collin. "But, I bet they’re all about white kids.”
"That is what I thought at first. But..." Ralpa clicked a link and pictures of other boys appeared. Even though most of them were white, there were a few of darker colors, all in swim trunks or cutoff jeans and usually on beaches. Two were fishing in boats, and one poled a raft like Huckleberry Finn.
Collin watched the seamless slideshow, wishing he had Wi-Fi, too. "Timmy ain't prejudiced anyway. But, those dudes look like actors or models. Like Timmy, they’re almost too perfect... like perfect illusions.”
"Yes," agreed Ralpa. "Few boys of that age look like Hollywood stars no matter what color or race. But, perhaps that reflects Timmy's skill with a camera? And, perhaps, his own innocence.”
Collin looked down at himself. "I sure ain’t perfect, or innocent.”
Ralpa smiled again. "A thing may not be a perfect circle, but it is a perfect whatever it is.”
"Not according to my aunt. She landed her broom a few hours ago an' ragged on me about bein’ a mess.” Collin laughed and patted his belly. “Even called me obese.”
“Ah, yes,” said Ralpa. “The latest American hate-speak in belief of the body illusion, and applied to any child who weighs a bit more than the perfect Timmys. An obsession with ‘health’ is often unhealthy, and always so if forced upon others like a religion or a regime. But, you look as if you enjoy living life instead of obsessing about it.”
"Speakin’ of which,” said Collin. “Got any double-cheeseburgers?”
"Tons,” said Ralpa. “A new order came today. Snag me a couple, too, please. And another bag of barbecue chips. I will sign Timmy's guest book in hopes of a future chat. Want me to add your screen name as well?”
"Aight,” said Collin. He watched as Ralpa tapped keys, signing his own SN -- Yakboy -- then Collin's, MidniteOne.
"Use our web-mail addresses," said Collin. "I don't wanna get spam from that site.”
Ralpa nodded. "Spam is very American, too, though I do enjoy the kind in a tin.”
“So is porn,” said Collin. “My box is full of it every day.”
Ralpa laughed. "Of course you do not check it out?”
"Only the good stuff. But, after awhile it all looks the same. Sorta like Timmy's pictures.”
“All part of the illusion,” said Ralpa.
“Wanna send our pictures to Timmy? My dad got a scanner an' cam with the money from his book advance.”
"Perhaps we should chat with Timmy first, to find, as you say, what he’s all about. ...When does your father's book come out? I will buy a copy, of course.”
"Not till next spring,” said Collin. “It takes almost a year for a book to get published. That's why a lot of books for kids always seem outdated.”
"I have noticed that," said Ralpa. "Perhaps it is one of the reasons why American children do not wish to read. Is the publisher buying his next book as well?”
"We don't know yet. They probably wanna see if this one makes any money first.”
"Always the bottom line,” said Ralpa. “He returned to Timmy's gallery and scrolled the slideshow again. "He seems to like watery settings. There are animal paintings with similar themes, as if wet creatures fulfill some deep human need. Still, as you say, he seems to like the illusion of physical young adolescent perfection. It seems doubtful if he would wish to be friends with a 400 pound Tibetan boy, as none of his subjects are even chubby.”
"Maybe he’s a fat-hater, like everybody’s supposed to be.”
“While calling themselves ‘enlightened’,” said Ralpa. “Which people who hate can never be.”
“You wouldn't tell him you're Tibetan, would you?”
"Of course not,” said Ralpa. “Governments have computers which are programmed to scan internet traffic for certain subversive or ‘terrorist’ words. 'Bomb' is one example. I am sure that Tibet is also watched.”
"So, why show him what we look like? We could snag some cool pics of ‘us’ off the web. Like, we could be perfect illusions, too.”
Ralpa clucked his tongue. "To lie to someone is like putting a virus into their spiritual computer.”
Collin shrugged. "He probably wouldn't wanna be friends with a black dude from the ‘hood neither.”
"Then he is only 'perfect' outside while very ugly and stupid within."
Collin wound his way through the labyrinth of shelves and got four cheeseburgers out of a cooler. He snagged two forties of Olde English malt and a jumbo bag of barbecue chips. Returning to the counter, he put the burgers into the oven, one of those ancient fission reactors that probably spewed out enough radiation to mutate a turtle at three-hundred yards. Then he went to the comic book rack. Like the rest of the store it held a multicultural mix for about any taste in West Oakland, ranging from American classics like X-men, Punisher, and Wolverine, to a few black 'zines like Black Panther. There was radical stuff like Kick-Ass, along with many Asian adventures like Dragonball-Z, and Pokemon.
Collin reached for a Magic Boy, but another book caught his eye: it was some kind of Asian comic. He couldn't read the title, but the cover art was kickin’ cool and he'd never seen anything like it. The picture was almost a holograph: it showed three boys of about his own age who seemed to be in a jungle. They were of different races -- at least one was definitely black -- and though the other two boys were Asian, they didn't look like the same kind of Asian. All were naked except for loincloths, and they might have been primitive kids in the past, except they were driving a big rugged truck. It looked like an oversize Army Jeep, its windshield folded down on the hood. The Asian boy at the steering wheel was obviously the leader. He was willowy slender but beautifully muscled like a delicate sculpture of honey-gold china, and wore a small, short sword. The other boys were armed with spears. The black dude was fairly muscular but had a clumsy basketball belly -- Collin noted the resemblance to himself -- while the other Asian boy was almost as fat as Ralpa.
Collin took the book off the rack. "What's this?" he called to Ralpa.
Ralpa turned from the keyboard. "Someone asked my father to order it. It arrived yesterday with the other new issues.”
Collin studied the title: the letters looked like hieroglyphics. "Is it Korean?”
Ralpa drank from a forty and burped. "I just pass for Korean, I do not speak it.”
Ralpa shrugged. “The only thing I can tell you for sure is that it is not Tibetan.”
“They have comic books in Tibet?”
“A few the bloody Chinese allow. Comics are often seen as subversive, as well as a corruption of youth.”
Collin brought the book to the counter. “This cover is off the hook!”
“It is quite unique,” agreed Ralpa. “Almost worth meditating upon. The night-colored boy looks rather like you.”
"I noticed that,” said Collin. "An' the fat dude looks a lot like you.”
Ralpa smiled. “Thank you for the compliment. I used to have more beef and less blubber. As a child I worked in a jade mine loading stone into a truck.”
Collin flipped through the pages. "Check this out, man. You... I mean the cartoon dude... just put some pirate guy on his back. I never seen a fat kid hero.”
"There are many Japanese comics that feature fat kid heroes," said Ralpa. "Cultural values differ. In Tibet fat kids are a sign of prosperity, and are loved and admired.”
Collin continued paging the comic. "This is cool! It’s really kinda like you an’ me. An' some little golden dude. An’ we're in a jungle havin’ adventures. I gotta have this! ...You said your dad ordered it for somebody?”
"Yes,” said Ralpa. “But, whoever it was did not pay a deposit to put it on hold. That is why it was on the rack. A few kids have looked at it, remarking upon the cover art, but no one seems to know the language.”
Collin studied the cover again. “Wonder how they did that? It’s like 3-D but you don’t need glasses, an’ kinda like computer cartoons where they use real people for VR models.”
"I have never seen anything like it,” said Ralpa. “Though the rest of the book is simply drawn in the usual pen and ink manner.”
Collin put his twenty on the counter. "I'ma take it.”
The microwave beeped and he took out the burgers, juggling them because they were hot. He gave a pair to Ralpa, then unwrapped a third for himself.
"You will need new jeans for school," observed Ralpa.
Collin patted his belly. "I did gain a few pounds this summer, even if that’s just an illusion.”
"The illusion loves to be complimented. In Tibet you would look quite prosperous.”
Collin took a bite of his burger, opened one of the fourties, then asked through a mouthful of meat and cheese, “You gonna keep home-schoolin’?”
Ralpa also chomped a bite and cracked the other bottle. "My illusion of body is far too fat to fit in a public school desk. But, considering the quality of American schools, where shrinking the size of a child’s waist is more important than expanding their minds, myself and my parents prefer home schooling, which also permits me to run this store.”
Collin gulped from his bottle. “I should talk to my dad about that, my school really sucks.”
“I think you are quite intelligent, Collie.” Ralpa took another bite of burger and washed it down with a swallow of malt. “There is still some knowledge in American schools. The kind that actually matters. It is rather like a free buffet, but when it comes to filling their minds most American kids are on diets. You, on the other hand, are not.”
"Dad’s always been strict about grades.”
"He is a good father, Collie.”
Collin crunched a mouthful of chips. “Too bad my aunt’s too stupid to know it. An' she's supposed to be a teacher.”
"Simply being a teacher does not always mean that one is wise or actually teaches useful things.”
"Yeah, I noticed.”
The computer announced, “You've got mail!”
Ralpa opened his mailbox. "It is from Timmy.”
Collin frowned. "I thought you gave him our web-mail addresses?”
"I did. But he must have searched for my screen name.”
Collin squeezed behind the counter to read as Ralpa scrolled the letter:
Hi Yakboy and MidniteOne! Thank you for writing to me! I
hope that we will be friends! I live in San Francisco,
California. (That's in the U.S.A.) Where do you guys live?
How old are you? What kind of stuff do you like? Please
write back and send me your pics. My uncle makes movies
and he is always looking for actors.
"He sounds pretty normal,” said Collin. “An' maybe innocent like you said, tellin' us where he lives.”
Ralpa finished his first burger and took another gulp of malt. “He gave no specific address, and there must be thousands of Timmys in a city the size of San Francisco. I would say that he is safe from all those sinister 'web-predators' that Americans seem so paranoid of." Ralpa unwrapped his second burger. "I do not think we need to worry about revealing our location. I doubt if any 'predators' would venture into this neighborhood.”
Collin laughed. "They'd meet some real predators!“ He reached for his own second burger. "Think we should answer him?”
Ralpa chomped more meat and cheese. “At least he can spell, which is rather impressive for an American kid.”
Collin took a bite of his burger. “Maybe we should send him our pics? He might blow us off ‘cause we’re ‘obese’.”
“Then he believes in the illusion.”
“Well,” said Collin. “Even if he’s not a fat-hater I don’t think his uncle would want us for actors. We sure don’t fit the illusion.”
Ralpa washed down his burger with brew. "My father has a new digital camera. He has taken many pictures of me to send to our relatives back in Tibet.”
"Ain't that kinda dangerous?”
"He uses a double remailing service.”
"You mean, take pictures now? Just like we are?”
"We are always who we are, unless we believe the illusion, chela.”
"Well,” said Collin. “Illusion or not, most of Timmy’s friends are on beaches. ...We could go down by the Bay tomorrow. There's sort of a beach at Emeryville. My dad used to take me there on his walks.”
“That sounds like an artful illusion," said Ralpa. “Two ‘obese’ boys in a watery setting.” He took another gulp of malt, then glanced at the computer clock. "My parents have gone to a film, and my father told me to lock up at eight so we don't get robbed again, which, though also an illusion, is not a pleasant one.”
Collin looked at a picture of the Dali Lama that stood atop Ralpa's computer. "Don’t you have good karma?”
"Bad things still happen to good people, chela. The illusion of life is like an adventure and we are all avatars. Cartoon heroes in a manner of speaking, cast in roles of various sorts to overcome evil in this incarnation and acquire merit.”
"I don't wanna try an' overcome Aunt Libby no more today.”
"Then stay and we will have a party.”
"I could eat another illusion burger.”
"Try the barbecue this time. It tastes a bit like illusion yak. Get me one also, please. And lock the door if you wouldn’t mind." Ralpa relaxed in the protesting chair. "There are some sites that we can check out. ...'Teenage Bimbos Hot 4 U' sounds rather intriguing.”
Collin glanced at the Dali Lama. “I thought you were supposed to be pure.”
"Buddhist boys have hormones, too, and I still enjoy the illusion."
Rain pattered down on the dirty sidewalk and trickled from the old building's eaves as Collin opened the door to close the heavy security screen. The night air was filled with the smells of wet city, oily asphalt and sodden trash. Collin scanned the neighborhood: the glow of lights in shabby houses only made the night seem darker. Aunt Libby's old Honda was still at his house... damn the old witch to outermost hell!
He was reaching to close the security door when a small figure seemed to materialize as if beaming down from the Enterprise. Collin almost slammed the door shut. It was only a kid, but kids carried guns, and Ralpa's store had been robbed more than once by boys a lot younger than this. ...But, no, it seemed to be a girl.
Collin relaxed as the small figure paused as if doubtful of Collin’s intentions. He scanned her in the flickering glow of a dying street lamp on the corner. She was Asian and didn’t look much over twelve in ragged jeans and a brown leather jacket. The jacket was old and way too big; its zipper seemed to be broken, and though the girl was holding it closed, she didn't seem to be wearing a shirt. But, she wouldn't have much to show anyway; besides being young she was willowy slim and as delicate as a china doll. The big battered sneaks encasing her feet looked more like cartoon boots. Her hair was like obsidian silk that flowed down over her slender shoulders almost to her waist. Collin couldn't see much of her face; most of it was concealed by her hair and the low-slipping bill of a Bengals cap striped in black and yellow. But, she was too young to be jocking... that would be more like molesting. Her voice was high, yet husky, like a little kid with a cold.
"You close?" she asked.
Collin's hand was still on the handle, ready to slam the door, but the girl looked so fragile out in the rain. Collin looked over his shoulder. "Yo, Ralpa. Got time for another customer?”
Ralpa turned from clattering keys and pushed the hair out of his eyes. One hand went for the shotgun. "Money makes the illusion go ‘round... unfortunate as that is.”
Collin stepped aside, and the girl flashed a smile with startling teeth. She walked like wet-footed tiger cub in her cartoonish oversize sneaks. Collin scented wet denim and leather, and more than a hint of fish. He stayed in the doorway keeping watch as the girl padded, dripping, up to the counter, where Ralpa sat with a hand on the gun. Her back was now to Collin, but he saw with surprise that her jacket was open, as if she'd only been wet and cold when holding it shut outside, not worried about her modesty.
Too young or not, Collin envied Ralpa’s view. Yet, Ralpa's expression was cautious beneath his oily mane. Collin wanted to follow the girl, to circle around and peep her out. But maybe he should stay by the door... though if she was packing what could he do? He noted that her shoulders, even draped in the big leather jacket, seemed wide compared to her delicate build. Her jeans clung low on a tight little bottom, and her pose was aggressively boyish, feet spread apart, and her back swayed a bit in that tummy-out pose of a pre-teen kid. She hooked both thumbs in the top of her jeans, taking an even more boy-like stance, as Collin, curious, came to the counter.
She turned around as Collin approached, like a fragile tiger suspecting a trap, and the big wet jacket slipped off her shoulders. She made no move to cover herself, her thumbs still hooked in her dangerous jeans. Collin stopped dead in his tracks... facing him was a boy!
For a moment he could only stare. Not only was "she" a boy, but he could have been the cartoon boy on the unknown comic book cover.
End of excerpt. This book is available on Kindle.