Just before I bust out of the old folks home, I walk over to the far corner where Joan of Old is sitting all alone facing a wall, which she thinks is a window.

“Joan?” I say.


“What do you want, Ms. Hopeful? Come to gloat? Come to rub it in?”

“Do you want to pet my dog before I go?”

“That filthy beast? Ha!”

“You almost made me cry back there. That bit about no boys liking me. That really cut to the quick, as you old people like to say. You couldn’t see it—because you are blind—but my bottom lip was quivering. True.”


“Yeah. It was a close call. I felt the tears coming.”

“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“I’ll probably cry about it later tonight, when I’m all alone.”

“You don’t have to say that,” Joan of Old says, “but thank you.”

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“You really are pretty mean and depressing, JOO.”

“Well, I try. And I really hate to admit it,” Joan of Old says, “but you’re pretty hopeful and funny, Amber Appleton. But that kiss was a cheap trick, and I’m going to protest the battle, just so you know.”

I catch her smiling again, but I don’t call her on it.

The smile vanishes like a flame in the wind, and Joan of Old says in this very sad voice, “Do you know that you are the only person who has ever made me smile since my Lawrence died back in ’82?”

This is depressing news, even though I realize it is a weird sorta compliment.

I sigh. “I wish you were the only person who ever made me feel like crying, but I can’t give you that honor, Joan of Old. Sorry.”

“ ‘Simply by being compelled to keep constantly on his guard, a man may grow so weak as to be unable any longer to defend himself.’ That goes for women like us too. Remember that, Amber. Remember that.”


Joan of Old nods once and then says, “I hope I don’t die before I make you cry, Amber. I’m going to beat your young little hopeful butt one of these days.”

“May we have many more battles,” I say, and then go collect BBB from the lap of Agnes the Plant Talker. Agnes talks to any old plant and pretends it’s her son, who lives in California and never visits.

As I put on my jackets, Old Man Linder gives me one more shoulder squeeze and says, “You were brilliant up there, kid. You keep us feeling young with your youthful ha-has and your skylarking.”

“Can I get a hug, Old Man Linder?” I ask.

“Is the Pope Catholic?” he says, and then gives me this very long hug, his nasty breath making my neck sorta wet, which I tolerate, because he’s got oxygen tubes up his nose and is probably going to die any day now, plus I really like hugs.

“See you next week, Old Man Linder.”

“If I live that long!” he says, and then gives me a wrinkly wink.

“ ’Bye, all you crazy old people!” I yell across the common room, and then BBB and I walk the depressing hallways with the dusty fake plants in the corners.

“How’d you get that little dog in my building?” Door Woman Lucy says to me when I walk past her, which makes me laugh.

“How’d you like the hot chocolate and Snickers?” I ask her.

“I don’t even know what you’re talking ’bout.”

Door Woman Lucy and I share a smile. She’s good people. Truly.

I retrieve Donna’s bike from the bush, put BBB in the basket, and begin my ride back to Donna’s house.

As I pedal, I start to get a bad feeling. I start to feel like I have everything all wrong, and that everyone—all of the many people who are not like me—everyone else is right, and all my hopefulness is just childish bullcrap.

I mean, yes, there are a few people who like to watch me do my thing—taking on the school board and Prince Tony, singing with The Korean Divas for Christ, defeating Joan of Old on a weekly basis—but it really doesn’t mean anything, because there is only one of me and so many of the people who are not like me, and maybe I’m just an amusing distraction for those other people. Maybe I’m just a freak. A sideshow.

Speaking of sideshows, here’s all-time Amber-and-her-mom moment number three:

When I was a little girl Mom always took me to see the circus every year, whether we could afford it or not—all through elementary school. There were years when we couldn’t even afford to turn on the heat and had to go without eating meals from time to time, but Mom always came through with circus tickets for us, and when we were at the circus, she’d always buy me cotton candy, popcorn, peanuts, soda, and a souvenir—sometimes a stuffed elephant or monkey, sometimes a T-shirt or a hat or a poster of someone being shot out of a cannon or walking the tightrope or a million clowns getting out of a tiny car.

I didn’t even really like the circus particularly, but I liked to look at my mother’s face when we were there watching all the acts, because she always looked like a kid. She got so excited whenever the guy got in the cage with the lion, or the motorcycle guy rode around the inside of a metal ball super fast on his bike, or the trapeze artists swung and did flips. All that stuff amazed my mom—she’d be on the edge of her seat the whole time, and if you looked at the faces of all the kids around us and then looked at my mom’s face, you’d see that same sense of wonderment.

I remember when I first really understood that my mom was a kid at heart—it was the last time Mom and me went to the circus when I was in sixth grade and was sorta outgrowing the circus and other little kid things too. I didn’t really want to go to the circus that year, but since it was a tradition, I didn’t say anything to Mom. And then we were there in the middle of it all, in the big tent, seeing the same tired acts, and I was bored out of my mind until I noticed how into the circus Mom was—how much going meant to her. You could tell just by looking at her face—Mom frickin’ loved the circus.

I wanted to be able to light up my mother’s face like the circus did.

It was an important moment for me.

So maybe that’s when I started trying to be something more than I was, but truthfully—five years later—no one really takes me all that seriously. At best, I’m just an interesting blip in people’s lives—an amusing footnote. Which is probably why my dad split and my mom can’t stay sober and all of her boyfriends ditch us after only a few months or so. Sometimes I wonder why I try at all. What’s the point?

In an effort to prep for my battles with Joan of Old, I did some research on Nietzsche at the library. He was an atheist like Donna and Ricky. And he once wrote: “What is it: is man only a blunder of God, or God only a blunder of man?”

That statement made me mad at first, because I am a Catholic. But it also made me think. How do we really know that we didn’t just make up God? What proof do we really have of God’s existence? And if God doesn’t exist, is there really any reason to be hopeful at all?

I asked Father Chee these questions a few weeks ago, and he said this is what faith is all about—not knowing for sure. I would sure say that was a BS answer had it not come from FC, because my Man of God sorta has something cool going on. He seems enlightened, and not just because he’s Asian. I believe in FC (and God) so I kept and keep holding on to hope for some reason, even though it does get harder and harder the higher you climb toward life’s summit—like Joan of Old and Nietzsche both say. True? True.

All these thoughts have me down—so I really don’t feel like cooking dinner for Donna and Ricky. I can’t even think up one recipe anyway.

Maybe I should skip dinner and go to Private Jackson’s house?

His pad is on the edge of town close to the ghetto. It’s where I go whenever I am feeling blue.


I met Private Jackson last year when my history teacher assigned us real live local veterans. We were supposed to write these dudes on Veterans Day for homework points. We were instructed to echo this form letter that Mr. Bonds had typed up and handed out. Basically, he wanted us to copy the words in our own handwriting, so it would seem like we thought up the carefully constructed sentiment. It was all about how we were proud to be Americans and were thankful for whatever our fill-in-the-blank veteran had done in whatever fill-in-the-blank war in which they had fought, and that while we would never understand what they endured for our country, we appreciated the benefits of American citizenship—what they fought to protect.

So I was assigned Private Paul Jackson and was told he fought in Vietnam. I copied my letter and filled in the blanks, but it made me feel sorta funny. I mean, how did I even know he did something good in the war? Maybe he was a crappy soldier who did more harm than good, and here I was thanking him for doing it. How would I even know? I felt sorta mad about this when I was made to write the letter, but truthfully, I forgot all about it after it was written, turned in, and sent—especially since most of the kids in my class got kick-ass thankful response letters, and I didn’t get jack crap.

About a month later, after the holidays, Mr. Bonds had some of the Vietnam veterans we had written come talk to our classes. Private Jackson didn’t come, but the four dudes who did told us some pretty wild stories that made most of us students cry, because the vets talked about their friends being killed in horrible ways and the anti-war hippie people spitting on our soldiers when they came home to the US of A and how much every Vietnam veteran hates Jane Fonda, who is an old-lady actress and is also known as Hanoi Jane because she posed with the enemy for pictures during the war, which is so whack. Word. When I saw these four dad-aged men fighting back tears—in front of a bunch of teenagers—still suffering from a war that happened so many years ago, I realized that our letters were pretty damn important to them, and I started to think a lot about Private Jackson and why he never wrote me back.

So I wrote him another letter, telling him about the men who had come to speak with our classes, asking him if he knew these dudes, only I did not call them dudes in the letter. And then I told him all sorts of stuff about my life: how my dad took off on me before I could even speak, and how I sometimes get lonely, but I am very loyal and would make a good pen pal if he were interested in writing someone who appreciated the sacrifices he made for our country back in ’Nam, but understood if he didn’t want to talk about all of that—I just wanted him to know that Americans like me welcome him home now, and shame on anyone who made him feel otherwise, back in the day. The letter was very formal and heartfelt, but it was also pretty kick-ass too.

When I asked Mr. Bonds for Private Jackson’s address, he wouldn’t give it to me, but told me that he would read my letter and if it were appropriate to send, Mr. Bonds would mail it for me. I told him that was unacceptable, and we sorta got into a fight about censorship and freedom of speech, which is protected by the first amendment—one of the very things Private Jackson fought to protect. Finally, Bonds agreed to listen to me read the letter aloud and then—if the letter were appropriate—I could watch him address the envelope, after which we’d drop it in the mailbox together, so I’d know that he’d mailed it, but he wouldn’t be forced to reveal Mr. Jackson’s personal information, which was not listed in the phone book or anywhere on the Internet; I know, because I checked in the library. Word. The deal was that we students wrote the veterans introduction letters, and if they wanted to write us back, then we were free to write them whenever. Since my veteran hadn’t written back, I wasn’t supposed to get a second shot.

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