Joseph slouched down in his desk at school and scowled at anyone who dared make eye contact with him. Not that anyone could, with his unkempt hair flopping in his face. Not that anyone wanted to.
His English teacher began reviewing the book they'd been reading, but Joseph didn't listen. He'd read the entire book in one evening. It wasn't like he had anything else to do. They didn't have a television since he'd knocked it off its stand one day playing football in the house. And he wasn't old enough to drive yet. Not that having a license would help him, since the family only had one car and his dad used it to drive to his burger flipping job.
His father had lost his good-paying union job when the local factory closed. Most of his friends moved away. But his parents decided to stay. He couldn't understand it.
The only friend he had left was Matt. They'd been neighbors since kindergarten. Then Matt's father had gotten a better job in the city and commuted two hours a day. He earned loads of money managing a bigger and better factory. So Matt had moved to bigger and better neighborhood. But they'd been friends since kindergarten, and they weren't going to let little things like ratty jeans and B.O. get in the way.
A few weeks before the factory closed, when his friends were talking about the new cities they were moving to, Joseph had tried to convince his parents to move, too.
"Don't you realize this is going to ruin my life?!" he'd yelled at them.
But his parents didn't seem to care.
"Son, we've got God and we've got each other. We'll be fine," Joseph's dad said.
Joseph couldn't believe his ears.
So now, Joseph sat in his classroom, ostracized because of his ratty shoes with the flippity-floppity soles that made kids snicker in the hallways. His hair hung over his eyes in greasy strands because the water had been turned off for the third time and he couldn’t shower with bottles of water. He tried keeping his stench down with cologne during those dry times, but Axe would only go so far.
Just thinking about his poverty was depressing, so he closed his eyes behind his curtain of hair and snoozed until the bell rang.
He hadn't made it ten feet down the hall after class when Matt fell into step with him.
"Hey, you want to come over after school?" Matt asked.
Joseph figured it would be nice to play rich for an evening, so he agreed.
After school, Matt drove them out to his gated community in a new candy apple red Corvette. He tried not to grimace too much as Matt described its horsepower and handling.
Matt parked on the brick driveway and led Joseph up the steps to the stately double door and let them in. They walked back to the kitchen, where Matt's mother stood cutting up onions.
At first, Joseph thought her eyes were wet because of the onion fumes. But then he saw the purple and black discoloration around her eyes, and noticed that she never quiet looked up at him or at Matt.
He looked at his friend, and saw that Matt wasn't quite as happy any more. They exchanged awkward pleasantries and headed up to Matt's room.
"What happened to your mom?" Joseph asked.
Matt busied himself setting up a video game on his flat screen TV.
"Did she fall down or something?" Joseph pressed.
"I don't think so," Matt paused. "I heard her and Dad yelling last night."
He stopped and stared off into the distance. Then he took his shirt off and Joseph gasped. Matt had the same purple and black discolorations on his ribs.
"Dad just gets stressed lately," he shrugged. "I forgot to take out the trash and I thought he was going to break my ribs."
Joseph thought he could see tears in Matt's eyes, but he didn't know what to say.
That night, Matt stopped in to say hello at the little cracker box on the old street, the one they'd shared PB&J sandwiches in and his mom and doctored their knees in. The boys walked inside and saw Joseph's parents sitting together on the couch, holding hands and reading a Bible. They looked up and smiled at Matt and Joseph.
Matt smiled back and then whispered, "Wow. I wish I could have your parents."
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