Spring 2012, Volume 12

Fiction by Briandaniel Oglesby

Pursuit of the American Dream

The fosters don't offer me iced tea. Usually the wife carries out a pitcher of sweetened Lipton, a jam of sugar clinging to the bottom of the Tupperware. Iced tea would not be appropriate; they are too angry. They blame me, the social worker who brought you into their home because I'm easier to blame than each other. They can't blame you, of course, they need you to be a mysterious force of nature. It's no use blaming — or hating or loving — earthquakes and hurricanes. I'm on the edge of the chaise lounge and they share the wicker loveseat that cracks as they lean together. The husband's wedding banded hand is on his wife's knee, and she holds his wrist like a toddler clutching a stuffed bear she's afraid will be stolen.

“Nate's job –” I begin.

“Nate's job? Miss Hatcher, what do you mean, his job?” the man's eye socket is puffy and discolored, his nose ringed with crusted blood.

I haven't smoked for ten years, but I'd set fire to the remaining wisps of his hair if I could smoke it now.

“His job –”

“What job? The kid doesn't know how to work.”

I keep my patience. I always do

Fighting. That was his job.”

“Fighting? What do you mean, fighting? What did you not tell us? Miss Hatcher, you come clean with us.” The woman's accusation. I brought the earthquake into her house. I rattled her windows, broke her china, split her floor open. I remember when I brought you, We have so much love to give, they chirped. We don’t need to look at his file. We want him to have a fresh start with us. How nice to pretend you were an orphan deposited on their doorstep. They were relieved you were white and you could pass as theirs. Then, earlier today, a phone call: “Get him,” was all she said. So I came.

Boxes of your clothes are stacked like beige Legos on the lawn. I wonder if, inside these boxes, the clothes are pressed and folded, the kind of gesture a kid never notices but a mother does anyway.


If the fosters would shut up, I'd tell them that your parents, and I'm loathe to call them that, were management. It’s all in your file, the one they wouldn’t look at. You and your siblings were employees in a well–diversified family business. One brother stole, I'd tell the fosters. He'd smash car windows and pluck CDs and Ipodia and purses. He was branching into B and E, invading unlit Victorians in midtown for DVD players and laptops. Another brother sold, I'd go on to say. He ditched high school to sit on the curb in front of the RC Laundromat on 3rd and exchanged pills and pot for grimy wads of bills.

And then there were your sisters whose bodies were displayed like twin supermarket fish on soiled and crusted sheets; theirs was the worst job.

And you, you were the fighter. Under freeways, in basements and overgrown backyards, surrounded by hollering drunks, tweekers, and various other forms of human decay. Between cockfights and pit bulls tearing open rottweilers, Pops sent you, this wiry kid puberty hadn't even started to sniff, to battle hulking sweaty men. Pops picked you to fight because you're a ginger and Pops was superstitious. If you drew blood, he collected.

I want to see the look of horror and relief and maybe guilt as I take you from their lives and make your family's business no longer their problem.

What I wouldn't even try to tell the fosters is that you were the lucky one. I don't know what happened to the sisters, and I don't want to know. There's only so much pain I can make mine. The one who stole is in juvie. CPS disrupted the family business after one of the junkies pushed the brother who sold in front of a Buick. The octogenarian at the wheel did what she could to brake the tank of a vehicle, and it was enough to put the brother in diapers, not enough to kill him. You haven't forgiven the octogenarian, probably never will. Maybe you wish she'd missed him. Maybe you wish she'd sped up.


We stop at Mag's Cookies, a pastel cut–and–paste shop that smells of burned chocolate. We usually come here after therapy or court. Today I need to pretend I'm not angry with you for getting kicked out again, and this is better than a cigarette.

We stop at Mag's Cookies, a pastel cut–and–paste shop that smells of burned chocolate. We usually come here after therapy or court. Today I need to pretend I'm not angry with you for getting kicked out again, and this is better than a cigarette.

There's a line in front of us. We're out of place, Nate Bell and Nylda Hatcher, the social worker and scowling ginger kid behind a group of Asian students in sweatshirts from the junior college, a heavyset family with three giggling kids in t–ball uniforms — the Jets — and a white woman in a jogging suit pushing a stroller loaded with a pacifier-sucking toddler. We don't fit in, and the wait is getting to you. The fattest kid exploding from the Jets uniform whines that he wants a chocolate milkshake, and he stumbles backwards, almost into you. You tense, a fist clenches.

“Hey,” I say to distract you.  Your angled nose points a little left of me. God knows how many times that nose was broken. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

You shrug. “Rich,” you say. The boy is out of range. Your fist releases.

To you, I'm rich because I can afford the pantsuit and to order any cookie, any smoothie, anything your heart desires without looking into my purse, cursing, and counting change. I don't make you earn it.


My car is an old Honda that eats up Interstate 80.

“How fast can you go, Nylda?” you ask. You pump the straw of you red–colored raspberry–flavored thing and the plastic on polystyrene squeaks like bedsprings. The smell is getting to me; you haven't bathed in a while. I guess the fosters gave up in the end.

“Pretty fast,” I answer. “Don't spill on my upholstery. Please.”

"You should go faaaaaaaaaaster."

"That's not safe."

"Gotta cost a lot," you say. Lots. A hundred fights.

"Don't spill."

"Faster." Your streetfighter nose twitches. You tip the cup, this time on purpose, and a gob of red falls on the floor.

“Nate. Spill and we'll never go to Mag's again.”

“I don't want to go there. I can't get a cookie.”

“Fine. Don't spill.

You pump the straw like you're about to stab through the Styrofoam entirely. You have never swung at me while driving. That doesn't mean you won't.

“Why I gotta move?” You flick the straw and pearls of juice dot my windshield.

“You know why.” What the hell is wrong with you?


“You punched Mr. Peterson.” Bile in my mouth.

“I don't want to move again, you fucking nig––”

“Don't use negative words.” My fingers start to my purse for cigarettes I don't have.

“I said I don't want to move again, you ––”



I'm driving an earthquake, a tornado.

“Nate. You have no choice. Drink your juice. Don't get it on my car.”


“Because that's how life is.” Because you're going to bounce from foster to foster to juvie to jail, and I'll have wasted my time wiping your sorry ass, and I don't want a stain to remind me I'm useless.

And now we can both feel the quiet intensity of your anger. You want to burn me with your eyes, you redheaded hoodlum, you punk. You press a button and open your window. The wind howls. You extend your arm and hold the cup over the churning freeway.

“Don't you dare.”

The palm opens. The cup falls vertically, beautifully, gravity not having more than a moment to take it before it explodes across the grill of a Prius behind me.

I keep my patience. I always do. I scroll the window closed. I accelerate so the Prius driver won't see me. Someone else hates me today.

You squint. You're waiting for the wallop. Your body is so tense, the car seems to collapse on the gravity.  You don't turn to see the mess you've made.

“Good job, Nate. You're making progress.” I say because it might be true. You didn't hit me and you didn't open the door and launch yourself into traffic. Shock flickers across your face, your crooked nose twitches again at what I'm sure you think is sarcasm but isn't, and you turn away.

Maybe I should keep driving. Maybe we should never stop, never say this is your new home. Never say home. Maybe patience isn't what we need, and I should press the accelerator to the floor until the Honda lifts. Eventually we'll meet with a wall, a semi, a concrete pillar, a mountain. We'll explode into thousands of pieces. They'll piece us back together. They'll give you my nose, straight, unbroken. I'll take your past, your anger. How fast do I have to go to save you?


We sit at Fairmont Park on rubber swings and watch the soccer kids swarm after the ball like a school of fish. Parents holler, stomp, scream. They've bet their last dollar on the game. Their kid must win. Everything depends on it.

Below us a layer of black foam has replaced the playground's woodchips, which were deemed too dangerous for kids, which had replaced sand when that got too dangerous. I wonder what will keep kids safe when we run out of oil. Air maybe. Absence. 

A kid falls to the grass, clutching his knee and crying. A whistle shrieks and a ref holds a flag and all the players sit while a coach and ref kneel to examine the injured. The parents quiet. The parents are once again parents. No trace of the gambling monsters. The kid gets up and limps to the side and everyone claps. Then the players are bounding after the ball again, and the parents are yelling.

You watch the game and pick at the black rubber on the swing.  You are sniffling. Allergies? I still have my drink — a turquoise thing flavored what some chemist thinks is blueberry — and you are empty–handed. You don't look at me. You don't ask for a sip. You can't.

I offer it to you anyway. You don't slap it away. You let it linger in the open, an offer from whatever you think I am. Then you take it. A deep, wet slurp, and you hand it back to me. More sniffles.  Maybe it's not allergies.

So we watch the soccer game and pass the juice back and forth like a cigarette between friends, pretending to forget to wipe the straw between sips. We pretend that we are only watching the game. We pretend that the broken can be fixed. We pretend that pretending is enough.




BIO:  Briandaniel Oglesby graduated from UC–Riverside's MFA program for Creative Writing. He now attends the University of Texas, Austin, where he's pursuing an MFA in Playwriting. His fiction has been published in ZYZZYVA, Arroyo, Indiana Review, and Western Humanities Review.