First Things & Final Changes
A Short Fiction Collection
Includes Taste Lessons, Trying to Get Home and Points in Biology.
Copyright 1985-95, 2011 Katherine Anne Harris. All rights reserved.
"But I don't want anything from that page, Mom --"
"You know the rules, pick something."
"Okay then, I'll take -- the leaf-rake!
"That's cheating. You have to pick something they're selling."
"If I can't choose a prop, those red boots are least-worst. But I wouldn't wear them. Your turn."
Mary Fran debated between the boots or a belt, because every model on this particular page wore a slacks-and-top set that was out of the question. Finally she chose the gold and white belt and explained to the girl that it was garish as shown, but she could see using it with a white sundress and gold barefoot-sandals for something casual but festive like Fourth of July.
Mary Fran always looked at catalogs from back to front, so she was flipping backward to the next page when the postman came. Through the screendoor behind the sofa, they heard the mailbox open and shut. Since he was a neighbor, Mr. Jordan from two doors west, Mary Fran jumped up to say hello before he got away and the girl peeked ahead, which was really behind, in Penney's Fall 1962. On that next page -- wouldn't you know it? -- almost all the stuff was pretty.
The game was, you had to pick one thing from each page, no more and no less, which of course was extra-hard when you liked everything or nothing. Doing the Neiman-Marcus Christmas Catalog was agony and so was Sears for the opposite reason. With a really big book, the game could go on for hours, even a whole weekend, because Mary Fran persisted until every single page was decided; it was one of her mother's favorite things to do so the girl was reconciled to it.
When Mary Fran got back with the mail, though, she didn't want to go on. "No more of that now," she said. "Just mark our place, Honey."
While she finished reading a typed letter on white, Mary Fran paced the room, looking stormier and stormier, then she made a phone call and asked for Ray. "They're after the hedge again," she told the girl's daddy. "We got the letter."
Obviously the hedge war had re-erupted.
Nobody else had anything like it: a straight-out-of-Sleeping-Beauty briar hedge, evergreen and at least three stories high if you counted the oak and elm trees poking out the top of it. All along the side street, it bordered their property, towering over the house and ordinary clipped six-foot hedges on both other boundaries. Besides being beautiful, their mighty landmark hedge made a home for squirrels, rabbits, birds and, Mary Fran feared, snakes, but the girl never saw one snake during years of sneaking to play in its dark hollows. Come summertime, wild honeysuckle wound through the hedge, trumpet vines blared coral and bumpy pumpkin-colored globes sprouted from the tip ends of thorn branches. Every fall since she could remember, the girl made those into tiny jack-o-lanterns. When you punched in thorns to form faces, they oozed a sticky, bitter juice she'd often enough licked off her fingers to know that Mary Fran was wrong to call them poison-balls; they weren't nice, but they wouldn't kill you.
Despite reservations about alleged snakes and poison-balls, and the luscious trumpet vine that really did draw ants, Mary Fran let her briar hedge flourish in its own sweet style. With each growing season, it got higher and wider and by summer's end the Hedge War flared another time.
"Threatening to cut down our hedge, the gall of them!" Mary Fran huffed while Ray was reading the letter at suppertime. "I won't have it; that hedge is on our property entirely and there's never yet been one wreck on account of it. Anybody who can look can see around that corner!"
"I better trim it back a little ways, Mary," Ray volunteered.
"Not one bit more, you don't. You caved in to the City last year and took down two whole feet out front. Which is where I draw the line."
The girl remembered that day as well as a birthday. Mary Fran had authorized a little hedge trim, but when the two of them came home from church, they found that Ray had gone hog-wild. Nothing was left standing up in front but ugly stumps, so they both threw a fit about it. That part of the hedge still looked terrible and Mary Fran predicted it could never look truly right again.
Mary Fran turned to the girl and made a cross-your heart. "Don't you worry, Honey. I won't let them get away with this." Then she grabbed the letter, tore it to shreds and served sherbet with more ice-tea.
The hedge war was something of a puzzle to the girl, who couldn't fail to notice that her mother normally liked and respected "them" -- the ones who set the rules and made you mind them. "The laws were made by people a lot smarter than we are," Mary Fran was forever saying, although the girl had always taken serious umbrage with that. Even when she was very small, she'd insisted, "They may be older and know more than I do right now, but they're not any smarter, Mama."
At least about the hedge, they were in total agreement. Something so special was meant to be
preserved, not spoiled.
Next day was Sunday so Ray went off early to play golf. After the girl got dressed, she did her mother's hair and, while Mary Fran was fixing her face, she put on makeup, too. Mary Fran, who was strict about some things, let the girl start wearing cosmetics when she started junior high; she was barely eleven last fall, but her brows and eyelashes were invisibly blonde and screamed for help. This year she got to wear hose and high heels, too.
At the church, pitifully short of pianists, the girl always ran from class to class to play hymns. As usual she was really disgusted in the old people's Sunday School class, where the songs they wanted to sing were bad enough -- worst of the whiny ones about rugged crosses and saving wretches -- and on top of that they dragged the tempo down to nothing, no matter how she tried to pick it up. She had a better time in the little kids' classes. Their teachers chose happy hymns, thank goodness, and her own class, once she got around to getting there, sang whatever she wanted to play at the speed she wanted to play it. Once she finished upstairs, she had to hurry down to the sanctuary and play two or three quiet classics while the congregation was coming in. When the organist arrived and took over, the girl
generally walked on home , rather than staying for the service.
Today, because a Sunday School teacher was sick, two children's classes combined and she arrived early at the chapel used by junior and senior high kids. The youth sermon was just winding down, then there'd be prayers before the regular music time. Enduring all that wasn't only dull, it was dull-dull, same as Mary Fran differentiated between tacky and tacky-tacky. On this occasion, self-righteous Ronald Galloway was holding forth at the pulpit, a slightly miniaturized undertaker in his black-and-grey suit.
Like him, quite a few kids in the pews also suffered from what the girl called premature dignification: Bony Carolyn King dressed like her grandma, for example, from her shapeless spot-dotted dress to a clamp-on hat with tired daisies; all her taste was in her mouth, as Mary Fran would say.
In her new-from-Dallas sheath dress, ice-blue silk, with a wide square neck that was especially
becoming on her, the girl was conscious of looking Tennessee Williams-ish, summery-sexy -- very different from the church crowd. Wishing they'd get on with the show, she fiddled with the chain around her neck and Jeff Travis' going-steady ring that dangled from it.
After Ronald had prayed on for an inordinate time, he got to amen and the girl stood to head for the piano, but then Ronald wanted other kids to add prayers onto his. The girl slipped into the back pew again and paged around in the hymnal, barely half-listening. Dowdy Carolyn piped out a plea for God's mercy upon the poor and suffering, Steve Ames asked for guidance and forgiveness in general, which wasn't how forgiveness and guidance came, then shy Mary Helen McLean stammered out some platitudes on gratitude. That pompous Ronald, the girl realized, was actually calling on people by name
and they were responding like a bunch of trained seals. It was so embarrassing she kept expecting the real minister to cut Ronald off; besides, time was running out for hymns. They'd be lucky to squeeze in one, so she got busy deciding between "This Is My Father's World" and "All Things Bright and Beautiful" -- the sort of bouncy pantheistic church songs she enjoyed -- and the next thing she knew, she heard her own name being called.
The girl, who'd never prayed aloud since baby bedtime prayers except with a group reciting liturgy, shook her head no, but Ronald wouldn't be gracefully dissuaded by this or the quiet, "No thanks," she said next.
That overbearing stuck-on-himself high school junior thought he could make an eighth-grader do
anything. Even after she explained, "Praying is private to me; I don't pray out loud," he kept ding-donging at her about how everybody was waiting and it would turn out fine, it would be good for her.
"Don't give me that," the girl laughed, "I'm not some dumb patient who changed her mind on the
A major scene then developed with Reverend Michaels urging, "Come on, you can do it," and every head twisting to look. Except for the preacher's used-to-be-a-model wife, who kept her face serene as a soap ad, they were all staring sourfaced like she was a criminal unless she complied.
When Ronald exhorted her, "Just say what's in your heart," she did: She told him he was way out of line and what was in her heart was nobody else's damn business. Then she got up and left.
This sort of thing would never happen at First Methodist, where she visited sometimes with her neighbor Hilary. Over there everything was much higher-toned: They had a grander building, a better-quality minister who even had his doctorate and lectured like a professor instead of sermonizing, excellent music and nicer-looking people, a lot of whom were rich. They weren't disposed to squabble, either, unlike the men's group at her own church which had some brouhaha so bad Ray got totally exasperated and never darkened the door again, aside from church services on Easter and Christmas.
From time to time, Mary Fran talked about changing their membership; she fully realized her church had gotten second-rate, but she stayed loyal because Gran helped to start it back in nineteen-ought-something.
The girl went on down to the sanctuary and played Brahms until the place was fairly well filled-up. As she was going out, she waved hi to some of the old blue-haired ladies who liked her and 'bye to Mary Fran, who gave her a shame-on-you-for-leaving look which the girl figured was nothing compared with what she'd see on her mother's face later.
She was in the front yard practicing her baton twirling when Mary Fran arrived home seething. "So you said 'damn' right in Sunday School. You told Reverend Michaels to mind his own business --"
"I was talking to dumb Ronald Galloway, not the preacher --"
"But he was asking you to cooperate, too, so it's the same thing."
"It is not! Anyway, they weren't asking; when you're asking, you let somebody decline."
"Swearing isn't declining --"
"I said no in at least three different ways, very politely, but they wouldn't stop badgering me."
"Stop twirling that thing when I'm talking to you."
"I can listen and twirl at the same time." She did a thumb-toss and caught the baton under her knee.
"Put that down."
"I've got a lesson in two hours, Mom, I have to practice."
"Put it down! This minute."
The girl threw the baton high again but this time let it fall.
"You're going to have to apologize, young lady --"
"They should. It isn't right, forcing people to pray. What's in your heart about God -- or anything else -- is private property."
"I don't disagree on that, but how you spoke to them was indefensible."
"How they spoke to me was indefensible."
"What they said didn't involve foul language."
"What they did was in the foulest taste!"
"Well, you won't be welcome back there until you apologize."
"I have no intention of going back. I'm only doing them a favor anyhow, playing the piano all over."
"Wherever did you come by such an attitude?"
"Page four hundred three, maybe page two eleven --"
Mary Fran didn't get that reference to the catalogs, a compliment, or she wouldn't have barged into the house without any acknowledgment. Nobody was born with taste, the girl thought while working on spin-tosses, and Mary Fran had done a lot to develop it in her daughter. If she knew what clothes went with what and how to make a room look its best, not to mention the principles of polite conversation like not asking too-personal questions and keeping quiet in public about religion and money, she had Mary Fran to thank. In those areas, her mom's taste was impeccable. Of course she didn't know much about literature, music or art and as a cook she was lousy, but who could master everything?
Several times, the girl went through the new dance-twirl routine that Mrs. Delamain made up for her. There weren't many really hard tricks in it, but it looked good and flashy with leg-splits and pretzels to show off her flexibility. By spring, when they had the majorette tryouts, she'd be doing it in a more difficult version sure to get her on the squad.
Mary Fran was still ticked off and snippy when she came outside; she stomped by without a glance, saying, "Time to go now. I need to stop on the way to type a letter at the bank and drop it at the City.”
"About the hedge?"
"Of course about the hedge."
While Mary Fran was in the bank doing the letter on her electric typewriter because she got
murderous trying to use the manual at home, the girl waited in the hot black-and-white Buick, fanning herself with a map. There wasn't much to see on Main, not on Sunday, nobody interesting-looking to make up a story about, the way her gran used to have the girl do when they waited in the car together. All the people she saw were part of the same one story: They'd come from church and were going in to eat at Anderson's Cafeteria, or they were coming out of Anderson's to go home and change their church clothes for the afternoon. No suspense, no mystery.
Mrs. Delamain didn't look like she'd just gotten out of church; she looked like she'd just gotten out of bed. So did her daughter, Charlene, only a sophomore in high school but already the best first-line majorette. The girl found them in the garage-turned-studio, where Mrs. Delamain taught all kinds of dancing. They were working out a tap routine in a bleary sluggish manner, with their hair not even combed yet and yesterday's mascara smudged into raccoon rings around their eyes. Both Delamains were a bit too heavy, but had on the shortest of short-shorts and T-shirts with the sleeves ripped off –
the perfect getup for serious twirling since you need bare skin to do proper arm, leg and knee rolls.
"Oh, hi," Charlene grinned. She wasn't snooty like most high-school girls. "Come try this with us. Or have some pizza first." Charlene waved her baton toward a large pizza box in the corner.
"There’s plenty,” Mrs. Delamain said. “I'm afraid it's cold, though. We like it cold in the morning."
Never mind that it was afternoon and the girl hadn't ever tried pizza cold, she figured why not and helped herself. Definitely different but nicely edible, it was pungent with onions, olives and peppers and slick-sweet with tomato sauce on flat chewy cheese. Soon the Delamains sat, too; they were all cross-legged around the greasy box as if it were a campfire.
"Charlene wants to work with you today, okay?" Mrs. Delamain informed her between chomps.
"I need to draw up some snowflake and tulip costumes for the baby-girls' mothers to make."
"That's fine, Mrs. Delamain."
"Aw, call me Ginny."
Before she got married and divorced, Ginny Delamain was a professional dancer in New York and glamorous photos all over her studio walls proved it. Sometimes, while the girl was waiting for a class to break up, she studied those pictures. The outfits were fabulous: Some were satiny and ruffled; some were billows of tulle; others oozed around her figure, which was perfect then, and sparkled. As Ginny was leaving to design recital costumes, the girl took in the pictures again, thinking it was a terrible waste-and-a-shame for people to go around wearing things that weren't wonderful. Why didn't everybody dress like Ginny and her New York partners and look breathtaking all the time? Why inthe world couldn't they, honestly? Mary Fran would call such fancy outfits impractical, but what was practical about clothes anyhow, except for winter coats and capes to keep you warm? No matter what you wore, it had to be washed or dry-cleaned and usually ironed and sometimes mended. So stores and catalogs should all be full of dancing-costumes, not the same old stuff that told the same one story.
The girl ran through her routine twice for Charlene, who suggested how to make it showier with extra leaps and a glitzier ending. When they began adding tricks to make it harder, the girl was bashing fingernails left and right, which Mary Fran would sigh over; hands were the first thing that registered with her about anyone.
Charlene, just like Ginny, never made the girl feel she'd screwed up when she missed a trick. "It took me forever to get that one right," she said, or, "You'll have it next week." When they finished, she told the girl, "You'll be out there with me next year, if you keep working like you are. You're already better than several girls we've got in second line."
Mary Fran was running late, but Charlene stuck around to talk; she saw Jeff's ring and asked the girl about her boyfriend, then she came up with some excellent ideas for a tryout costume.
The minute the girl got into her mom's car, she could sense that the trouble got worse instead of blowing over. This was not the time to ask Mary Fran if she'd make some very special-looking dresses.
"I am aware of what you've been reading," Mary Fran said in a tone that would do justice to Edgar Allen Poe. "Filthy trash."
"What?" The girl had a D.H. Lawrence out of the library and the other day she'd bought a Norman Mailer paperback. "I never read trash."
"That is a matter of opinion."
"A major author's a major author, Mom. An important work's an important work."
"Those books aren't fit for you to read."
"That's silly! It's not like knowing whether pink suits you better than yellow or when the season's right to wear white shoes --"
"The library book's been taken back downtown, because it's theirs, but the other one that you must've bought -- I can't believe you spent my hard-earned money on it -- believe me it's gone for good!”
"You threw away 'An American Dream'?"
"I burned it up. Now I know where you're getting such foul language --"
"You burned a book?" The girl had seen film of a Nazi book-burning and other horrible things the Nazis did before she was born, hurting and killing people like the Goldsteins who had the best jewelry shop downtown. When she was upset from movies about the war, Mary Fran told her yes, it was true; in fact, the Goldsteins still had numbers on their arms but now they had normal lives and jobs and families and Mary Fran promised that what the Nazis did could never, ever be repeated. But here she was talking like one.
"A book as filthy as that only deserves to be burned."
"Who are you to say what other people should be reading? Hitler?"
"I'm your mother, that's who." Mary Fran stopped the car by the side of the street and slapped her before the girl could finish getting out."All right, you walk home and see how you like it."
The girl kicked rocks along the sidewalk, swinging her baton, and wondered what Ray might say about book-burning. Although he never actually killed anybody, he joined World War II on purpose and couldn't even stand to see Volkswagens on the road. You'd naturally think he'd be opposed, but her daddy's reactions were beyond the girl's ability to forecast; they didn't visit often enough for her to predict much. The only sure thing about Ray's opinions was he hated for Mary Fran to be upset by anything. She didn't have long to puzzle about Ray, as it turned out, because she'd covered less than a mile when he drove by, heading home from golf, and picked her up.
When she began at the beginning and told him what happened at church, Ray laughed. He had no
earthly use for Reverend Michaels, whose gory Easter sermon made him walk out. For weeks afterward, he and Mary Fran both went on about how inappropriate it had been for the preacher to set up a life-sized cross behind the pulpit and detail the specific physical process of crucifixion, exactly how it worked to make you die. There were people turning green all over the place. After Ray got the chuckling out of his system, he said she'd have to apologize for Mary Fran's sake, but it could be in a note and there was no reason she ever had to go back there.
The girl felt very satisfied with that compromise and went on to discuss the literary issue. Ray wasn't so broad-minded about that and wanted to talk to Mary Fran about the books before he committed himself. When she told him about wanting to wear dancing-dresses all the time, he said he wished that Mary Fran would, too. Then he took the girl for a cheer-up Coke with vanilla syrup at the JacksonBurger and confided a secret. A lawyer he played golf with, Ray said, had assured him today that the City
couldn't touch their hedge with a ten-foot pole, as long as the front part stayed reasonably low, the weeds were kept down along the side and he kept picking up the cans and bottles low-class people threw out there. Ray added that that same lawyer told him the same thing, year-before and year-before-that, and was always offering to straighten out the City Council once and for all. Ray never let him, though, because Mary Fran had too much fun fighting them herself and because he liked the chance to see her full of fire and then so proud she'd made them back down, singlehanded.
"Don't you ever say I told you that," Ray cautioned and stood up to go.
The girl was reluctant. "I want an ice-cream first, please. She's just going to light into me again, the second we get there."
"She'll light into me, too, for smelling like beer from the golf course."
Ray got her a soft cone that alternated chocolate squiggles with vanilla and while she licked it, she tried bringing up the book problem again. Ray shook his head, which was mostly bald and sunburned. The girl often said she got her red hair from her daddy's red scalp. "You'll have to go along with her, Princess. I will, too. It's the only way."
Since morning Mary Fran had been overcooking a brisket and didn't care for it one bit when the girl said she'd already had pizza and ice cream. "That Delamain woman! I don't know why I let you go over there, and her girl's just as tacky. She hardly had a scrap on when I saw her."
"Well, I'm learning what I need to," the girl said and left it at that.
Before launching into tales of the girl's misconduct, Mary Fran began bragging about what she'd put in her letter to the City, about how the hedge made a significant contribution to the beauty and value of their property and it did not represent any proven traffic hazard and, besides, you can't let something that unusual and outstanding go.
When her parents sat down to eat, the girl said she should practice her new tricks while they were fresh in her mind, but once she got outdoors she did a different thing. For the first time in several years, she crept through the best hedge-doorway and waited inside while the twilight came.
In the never-stopping crackling of twigs, the softer swishing of dense leaves and moody bird and animal sounds around her, the darkness was alive, breathing like jazz and growing brighter. It was too beautiful, too strange, this hedge; of course it tempted the gods, those authorities. She thought next about her aunt Cara and the wild darkness she lived in, probably because last week she'd wrapped presents for Cara. When Mary Fran was going to the hospital, the girl never got to go along but it was her job to decorate the gift-boxes now, because she was much better at it.
Mary Fran adored the hedge and Cara, but didn't want her child too close to either one. When she called the girl to come out of the hedge, she always got practically hysterical, and she defended it year after year just as frantically -- not because of those practical purposes named in the letter but because it was gorgeous and hers and needed protecting. In one of Mary Fran's childhood stories, she won a grade school Charleston-dancing contest Cara coached her for and wore a dress not handed-down from Cara or Bootsie. When Mary Fran talked about the dress Gran made, a dancing-dress with butterflies all over that lasted just the dancing-day because school ink splashed on it, the girl could tell her mom would rollerskate around the top of a water tower if it would fix that dress and bring it back to her.
Despite the tidy, tasteful, every-question-answered life she tried to lead, even Mary Fran went off the rails sometimes, less than her sisters but sometimes. Like Cara, like Aunt Leila Rose who went to Fishermens' Wharf after work every day and painted ships-at-sunset badly, like Bootsie, a big sunny baby who was pillowed on money and hadn't seen Cara for thirty years because she simply couldn't stand it, like the dread Dolores who got so crazy-drunk she hurt Gran and like them all for not admitting that Dolores did it, even Mary Fran had her few specks of strangeness. She couldn't get them all off. Just when she moved a certain way or the world or the lightdid, those little bits would wink and flash dark and bright as glitter.
Staring into rabbits' ember eyes, the girl thought past her family to Ginny Delamain and Charlene, Reverend Michaels and Roger, her friends and schoolteachers, authors whom she'd read and history. Whatever else was true, this wasn't a reasonable world. The glitter was everywhere like pollen but not everybody had hay fever and, of the ones who did, not everybody sneezed at once. The glitter was everywhere like pollen or a virus, affecting people at different times to different degrees and in such different ways your mind boggled. And that glitter stuck thick and hard on some people, while it mostly
fell right off of others. And it stuck in lovely ways on Ginny and Leila, horrible ways on Dolores and Hitler and Cara, now that she was sick. How come? Could it be a taste for this or that made you susceptible to whatever? You drew it to you, maybe, like the magnet-pencil that came with an old-timey toy she had once; under the clear plastic cover there was no picture but a bald round head until you drew to pull the metal filings where you wanted.
Still, there was more to taste than that. More was going on than just wide-awake wanting; weird roaming-loose wantings made people like Mary Fran surprise themselves. Anything could happen, depending on a million-billion hidden hearts.
Through the thorn branches, the girl saw Venus pop up where Venus was supposed to be, but there wasn't a clockmaker God, just a Maker of Magnets, a Shaker of Glitter. Venus may not have noticed she was like Ray tonight, pretty damn close to where she wanted to be.
Trying to Get Home
I am climbing high mountains
Trying to get home...
~Blind Willie McTell, Blues Singer
Her daddy was outside attempting another doghouse, heaven only knew why. The first one, when he called her and her mother out to see it finished, had tilted very slowly to one side and then toppled flat as a pancake. Ray banged it back together but, for the year it sort of stood up, Buddy would never have a thing to do with it. Being very furry, he was perfectly happy sleeping in his wallow under the overhang of the big thorn hedge, the way he always had.
Mary Fran was making faces about Ray's hammer noise and the silliness of the project in general. Over the din that blared through the open back windows, she bellowed to the girl, "What a waste of effort!" The girl nodded. It was a sweet thought on Ray's part but ridiculous in practice.
"If he's feeling sorry for the dog, he should just play golf with him!" the girl shouted back. Buddy liked best being helpful. Whenever you practiced driving balls in their long back yard, he ran to gather them up in a pile, ready for you to hit in the other direction. Nobody taught him that; it was his own idea.
Mary Fran yelled again. "Are you ready to go now?" This time the girl shook her head no. "Well, hurry!"
"Please not today, Mom!"
Mary Fran scowled and set down the "McCall's" magazine she'd been reading. "You really don't want to go with me?"
Wanting was never involved. Who'd deliberately want to spend the best part of a weekend day at a grotey old nursing home way out in the country? When Gran was at the pretty one in town, the girl never minded visiting, but going to the ugly far-off place was strictly a have-to undertaking. Gran had to go there -- once she got so confused she'd wander away from Shadybook, which didn't have enough staff to be locked at night -- and now everybody else had to go there, too, to see her. It wasn't like seeing Gran anymore, either. She usually had to be told who you were and then didn't remember for more than a minute or two. Gran was eighty-six now but sometimes she thought she was a little girl and acted like Mary Fran was her mother instead of her daughter. "It's too depressing, Mom!" she yelled and, in the middle of this, Ray stopped hammering. The word "depressing" probably carried for two blocks.
"She can't help that," Mary Fran pointed out, which was true.
"But she doesn't even know I'm there, Mom. Or you."
"She knows somebody is."
"I'll go next Sunday -- promise! And I'll make dinner today, and run the vacuum-cleaner. Okay?"
The girl knew it was a good offer but, while Mary Fran mulled it over, she added on: "I'll wash your car, too, if you want to take Daddy's. He's riding to the golf course in a group with with Mr. Moro, I heard him say."
"All right," Mary Fran said in the I-flat-give-up way. "But you stay where you can hear the phone."
The hammering resumed, more furiously, but it was easy to read Mary Fran's lips forming "because I said so." A yowl then sounded from the back yard and Ray hurried into the kitchen to rinse off his hand, which was bleeding quite a bit.
"I told you not to do that, Ray," Mary Fran reminded. "That dog doesn't like a doghouse and you are nowhere near handy with tools --"
"Where's the Campho-Phenique, Mary?"
"Oh right in my hip-pocket. Honestly!" Mary Fran traipsed off to get the stuff, from the bathroom medicine chest of course.
Once Ray doctored his hand, he made them come to see the half-a-doghouse.
"Yeah," the girl said, for want of anything better. Mary Fran just rolled her eyes, while Buddy sniffed around suspiciously and snorted.
"I'll finish later," Ray decided.
"Sure you will," Mary Fran teased, because he probably wouldn't for the longest time or ever.
The girl started vaccuming, when Mary Fran took off and pretty soon Ray's foursome stopped out front and honked, so he left, too. What a relief to get rid of them and have the place all to herself a while. Didn't take long to whip up a spaghetti sauce and leave that to simmer, so before noon she was outside in her orange two-piece swimsuit, turning on the water-hose and wondering who might come by.
Now that she was thirteen and in ninth grade, the girl knew lots of people who could drive. Everybody else in her class was at least a year older and you only had to be fourteen to get your license, if you took drivers' education. During summer vacations and on school-year weekends, most kids with cars cruised around town to visit. Boys who'd never stop to ask if you were home would park and talk if they saw you. Because she spent considerable time outside doing twirling practice or reading under the trees, the girl had frequent company -- even seniors now and then -- and sometimes friends took her for a ride to get a Coke and drag Main.
Sure enough, along came Alan Connor's daddy's Dodge. Alan was with another junior, Kenny Hastings, and they grabbed the hose and squirted her. Kenny washed the top of Mary Fran's Buick because he was tall enough to reach it easily. Then they had to go on with running errands for Mrs. Connor.
Cute Ricky Myers, a senior, came by next; he was too cool to turn off his Impala, let alone get out, so they talked a few minutes through the
window. When he said he'd probably ask her out next year, once she could car-date, she said she'd probably say yes. Who wouldn't?
While she was rinsing the Buick, Penny and Suzette arrived, yelling for her to dress and come with them. It was misery to say no; you got a lot of notice downtown in Penny's brand-new powder-blue Mustang convertible.
The girl stretched out on the grass to dry off and picked up her book, but felt too peeved to read Sartre. While everybody in the western world was out riding around, she was stuck at home for no good purpose. She clicked her radio onto KLIF in Dallas and listened to the Beatles, thinking that it didn't make a lick of sense hanging around just in case Mary Fran wanted to reach her; there was no earthly reason why Mary Fran would need to call home.
When Daniel Beck drove up, he was exactly what she needed: a really good friend who wouldn't rush off, bored to death or no. First he signalled for the girl to jump in but, when she shook her head mournfully, Daniel immediately turned his Corvair off and came over.
"I'm stuck," she sighed. "Mary Fran went to see Gran and said I couldn't leave."
Daniel pondered, swinging from a tree limb. "Couldn't have meant me."
"Well, she didn't say specifically." Regular rules didn't always apply to Daniel, whom Mary Fran and Ray had known for a couple of years already and liked. Besides that, they realized Daniel was crazy about her but she didn't have a crush on him at all, so normally the girl could go anywhere, almost anytime, as long as it was with him. Since he started driving a few months ago, they'd even gone to night movies and parties because it wasn't really dating.
For something to do, the girl showed Daniel her latest twirling tricks, and then Debbie Sinclair's mother's Lincoln came by with a carload of kids headed for the lake. It would still be hot enough to swim for a week or two more, and the girl really, really wanted to go. After reluctantly declining that suggestion, it seemed like absolutely nothing to leave for half an hour, just with Daniel, so she changed into her favorite pink shorts set and made her face and hair presentable while Daniel played with Buddy.
At the JacksonBurger, Daniel said "Coke'll be fine" before she could. It was a joke between them, because that's what Mary Fran told the girl she should always say when a boy took her somewhere. Even though Daniel had a part-time job delivering for the drug store, she couldn't ever bring herself to ask for anything more expensive.
She drank her Coke and shared Daniel's fries while they dragged Main, but only six or seven times. The stores weren't open, but the street was busy, anyway; literally everyone was there. She spotted her sort of boyfriend Jeff Travis with his big brother's gang at the park, so got Daniel to stop there. That made him a little huffy, but the boys hadn't had an actual fight over her since last year.
Even after allowing those few extra minutes to see Jeff and neck in the shrubbery, it didn't seem possible for Mary Fran to be home yet; however, she was. Ray's Falcon was smack-dab in the driveway by the Buick, when Daniel pulled up.
Before the girl could get out, Mary Fran was hurtling out the front door at her. "That phone was ringing off the wall the second I got here. The nursing home's been calling since I left --"
"You would have had to get home to hear any message," the girl protested, "and we weren't gone even an hour!"
"I'll tend to you later," Mary Fran snapped. "I've got to go back now. She's worse."
Mary Fran made for the Buick, all freshly washed and shiny, and the girl followed. "I'll come with you, Mom."
"But I want to see Gran --"
"No, you don't; you've proved that."
So mad she barely missed hitting the fire hydrant across the street when she backed out, Mary Fran barked through the car window, "Don't you leave for one minute, Missy!"
After she drove away, Daniel stayed and let the girl talk all she wanted to about her gran, whom she really loved better than anyone. She'd wanted to give her room to Gran when she couldn't live alone any longer; she'd begged and cried then, but Mary Fran and Ray were dead-set on Shadybrook. The girl understood why Gran had to be in a nursing home now, but two years ago she wasn't much confused or sick, just frail. It wouldn't have been any trouble to sleep on the sofa and come home from school early to look after Gran. Her grades got her out of study-hall, so she spent the last hour just doing volunteer work for the counselor. Her plan had been thought out completely, but she couldn't make her parents see the wisdom of it. And now she'd let Gran down again.
"What if she's dying?" she asked Daniel, but there wasn't any right answer.
He asked her to play piano for him, trying to get her mind off the other, and then they went out back, laughed at Buddy's crazy half-a-house, played a little golf with him and picked roses.
"You can go on," she finally told Daniel. "You've got better things to do than hang around with me."
"Says who?" Daniel grinned.
"Common sense is neither," Daniel said, the way she knew he would. The dullest people were always talking about so-called Common Sense --
when they weren't raving on about Good Attitudes and Decent Behavior.
Penny and Suzette stopped by again and got out this time, so the girl made lemonade for everybody. There was nothing she could be doing for Gran and going to the kitchen reminded her to stir the spaghetti sauce before it burned. Daniel spread out the picnic quilt under the elm tree and helped her serve the lemonade with Band Candy she was supposed to sell door-to-door but made Mary Fran buy every fall. She didn't feel like eating anything, herself, and used the time to paint her fingernails Persian Melon.
The phone rang just as the girls were leaving, so she ran inside and said hello. Mary Fran spoke just two words, "She's gone," and hung up. It must've been the shortest conversation anywhere on record.
Daniel hugged her when she threw herself down on the picnic quilt and sobbed. "If I hadn't made her mad, if I'd only gone this morning in the first place --"
"You didn't know she was that bad --"
"I was selfish, and now I'll never see her again!"
"Wasn't your fault, Baby. You didn't do anything terrible."
"I did! I should've been there! Oh, Gran, I am so sorry! I love you, I love you!"
The gran she saw inside while she beat the quilt with her fists was the new one who looked like a floppy rag-doll, flailing her arms to keep balance in a white cotton nightgown so big it swallowed her and swung like her white hair in a tangled whirl over both shoulders and down past her waist. It was harder to love that gran than the other one -- strong and smiling and busy, who kept her hair wound in a bun except at night when she brushed it -- but the girl did love her, too, even though that Gran was distant as the one in pictures, young and so pretty and stubborn enough to insist on a pink wedding-dress. Gran, who'd been all of those people, wasn't anything now but what you could manage to remember. The packages were all unwrapped and the lovely trimmings had turned just-like-that to trash.
"You'd better go," she sniffled to Daniel after composing herself. "You don't want to be here when Mom gets back."
"Better believe I don't want to!" he chuckled, "but that's common sense."
Daniel did the brave uncommon thing, instead: He waited to tell Mary Fran how sorry he was about her mother and going for a Coke was all his fault. After he asked if there was anything he could do to help and there wasn't, Daniel excused himself and left the two of them alone. Mary Fran
flounced off to her bedroom then, so the girl turned off the stove burner and stepped outside to be with Buddy, who was always a comfort. He
slurped her left arm, the one with the checkerboard burned into it from an accident when she was four. Racing Mary Fran to answer the ringing, they'd hit the hall doorframe at the same time, which made the girl fall onto a hot floor furnace. That happened the same year she got Buddy; Ray brought him home one winter day, out of the blue, inspired by whatever made him sometimes turn up with mismatched outfits for the girl or freaky red-sequin earclips
for her mother. Mary Fran screamed when Ray let loose the monster-puppy and he charged her at the Singer, upending fabric sacks, a sewing box and
her ironing board. Buddy was never allowed inside again.
Really her mom was right that Buddy was too much pet for a small girl and a back yard in town, even if it was a big one. Once he got full-grown and able to leap six-foot hedges with ease, he didn't command much of the girl's
attention, except when scared neighbors came shrieking "Buddy's out!" every week or two. He didn't expect much of anyone, fortunately -- just his dinner, some golf and a pat and a chat now and then. Last year, thinking he'd be happier, her parents had give him to a boy on a farm, but Buddy ran back forty miles and crashed through the thorn hedge into the girl's arms, skinny and limping, dragging a snapped six-foot chain behind him. Now he was here for good, her parents promised.
Even Mary Fran got misty-eyed to think about Buddy struggling to get home. She felt guilty, like she did about the floor-furnace incident and the time the car door fell open and the girl got dragged by her foot until Mary Fran could stop. Those things could've happened to anybody, though; they weren't like giving Buddy away. Or not taking Gran in. The girl felt her face tighten with anger, but then her mind replayed Gran saying, "Hardly anyone intends to be hurtful, Honey. People want to be nice."
When the girl heard a car drive up and her dad telling his golf buddies goodbye, she went in the back door. Mary Fran was on the kitchen phone, crying. "Let me go tell Ray now, Bootsie," she said to her sister in Dallas and hung up. Ray and Gran loved each other, so pretty soon he was crying, too, and got down the bourbon bottle he kept over the washing machine, even though Mary Fran was shaking her head no. Nobody noticed the girl standing there, so she went into the den, picked up the "McCall's" and eavesdropped on her mother's phone conversations with Aunt Leila Rose in California and Uncle Bill in Illinois. Besides Bootsie, they were the only ones left except Aunt Dolores, who was staying at Gran's house here and Aunt Cara who'd been in a mental hospital for around thirty years. Next she heard her daddy talking to Al Larson, who owned a funeral home and was a neighbor just two streets away.
"We better go see Dolores in person," Mary Fran sighed after Ray got off the phone.
"Has she heard yet?"
"Not from me."
"Well, it's weekend. Who knows what shape she'll be in?"
"You're a fine one to talk, Ray Ferris, coming in smelling like beer and drinking that whisky!"
"I had two beers on the course, Mary. Two beers," Ray said in the give-me-patience way, like he did every Sunday.
The girl wondered if they'd invite her along to see Dolores. They still weren't totally comfortable leaving her by after dark and it'd be dark before long, but they also never wanted her around Dolores. She hadn't even seen the inside of Gran's house for at least a year!
Turned out they wanted her to come but wait outside, so the girl wandered around Gran's yard, kicking at leaves that had started to fall. The woods at the end of Gran's street were getting very red and yellow and it was so awful that she'd never walk down there with Gran again. She'd never walk to the store up the street with Gran again, either, and buy oodles of candy or help Gran dust her sweet little pitchers or swing on that porch and tell stories. She'd never hear Gran talk about the woods where she stepped barefoot on a snake when she was little, or about the day in l883 when she and her mom were alone and Indians came. That was the second time Gran's mother was brave, the first being when she ran off to marry a Yankee soldier during the Reconstruction and got disowned by her family in Alabama. Come to think of it, 1883 was also the last time that woman was brave; she hated the west, missed being a belle and just went to bed, leaving Gran to do everything.
Through all she'd been thinking, Dolores had kept on hollering. First it was, "Why'd y'wanna bother me on Sunday? It's Sunday! Jimmy's here! I always have a l'il party on a Sunday!" Now she was wailing, "Mama! Mama! Mama! I want m'mama!"
The girl was glad she didn't have to watch what that carrying-on looked like. It was bad enough to see what had happened to Gran's yard; nothing had been pruned right or even fed and watered. What used to be lawn was bald as Ray's head and the four o'clock flowers around the elm tree trunk were gone. At least there were still bright cornflowers down by the mailbox, since they didn't need help to keep growing.
Next thing she overheard was Mary Fran almost shouting; it wasn't loud enough that you could make out words, but she sounded mad as the girl had ever heard her.
"I live here!" Dolores screamed back. "Guess I can give a few old things away to m'friends if I wanna! S'just old junk!" Blustering "S'just old junk!" over and over, Dolores came right out onto the porch as Mary Fran and Ray were stomping down the steps without saying goodbye.
"Almost everything's cleared out," Mary Fran told the girl as she got into the Buick. "She's given Mama's things away to her drinking buddies!"
Ray started the engine. "Now calm down, Mary. Calm down. Let's all go home and calm down."
"I know it wasn't valuable furniture, Ray, but it was hers." She turned around to face the girl in the back seat, who wasn't sure she'd like being noticed. "Those little pitchers and the books she wanted you to have have aren't there anymore, Sugar. Or that cabinet they were in." She turned around to Ray and went on. "I would've dearly loved to have that cabinet and maybe a chair, just one chair! Is that asking too much?"
"Don't dwell on it. You've had a rough day, Mary. Tomorrow'll be better --"
"It won't! I've got to set up a funeral service. Then I've got to bury my mother!" Mary Fran broke down completely and Ray tried to give her a cigarette, but she wouldn't take it. "I thought you gave those up, Ray!"
"Just once in a while," Ray said and lighted up. He wasn't telling the strict truth; the girl usually saw him smoking whenever she dropped by to see him at work.
"So you want to die, too? Ray, you've got emphysema."
Ray tossed the cigarette out.
In the silence the girl remembered Gran's books and pitchers and the pretty cabinet she kept them in. It was true there wasn't much
you'd want from Gran's; she didn't care about her house except to keep it clean and cheerful. She liked things very simple. Once she was by herself, she even closed off half the place and rented it sometimes to other people -- usually couples from the air base who might have trouble
finding anywhere to stay, not because they weren't nice but because they had a noisy little baby or the lady was Japanese. Gran would rather have people around, somebody to talk to and do for, than wander around a big house looking at stuff. Most of Gran's furniture was stored down under the house -- or had been before wretched Dolores doled it out like it was hers to give.
Gran wouldn't fault Dolores for what she did or let anyone else complain. She'd just say it doesn't matter, lets forget it. She was the same way about the bruises she got when Dolores was drunk and shoved her around, except she'd also lie about those and claim she'd only slipped or bumped into something.
"I hate Dolores!" the girl blurted out. "I positively despise her to the ends of the earth. I've always hated her, ever since I was little-bitty and first saw those marks she made on Gran's arms --"
"Don't talk like that. Mama would say we have to forgive her."
"I never will. Isn't that how she got so spoiled in the first place, because everybody made allowances for her because she got sick that time
and almost died?"
"Mama made a mistake raising Dolores. She knew that --"
"Well, everybody makes mistakes with kids. You can't let them bully people forever. Why didn't she ever stand up to her? Why haven't you?"
"Drop it," Mary Fran said in the don't-dare-mess-with-me way.
"Gran was too good," the girl muttered quietly. It wasn't just that she excused the things people did wrong or didn't do right. Beyond saying she knew you didn't mean it and felt sorry, Gran came back for more of the same. Cheek-turning came highly recommended by church people, but the girl had always doubted that the practice could produce a benefit for either party. If that was true forgiveness -- not just understanding and saying you won't hold a grudge, but actually inviting somebody to do it over again -- then forgiveness was a puzzle and looked pretty sick to anybody but a saint. Was Gran a saint? Was she maybe even an angel now?
Her gaze raised to heaven, where Gran was far too good not to be, the girl tried imagining her there and it was instantly apparent that she wouldn't like it! A gilded many-mansions sort of place just wouldn't suit Gran's taste at all. What she liked was being needed, not rewarded. She'd be lost in any circumstances where all the doing was done.
A white cloud shaped itself to the rag-doll Gran and wisped sadly at the lowering sun, but then caught fire. Breathless while it magnified, the girl pictured her grandmother strong again and breaking out of heaven -- storming through gates and and soaring down galaxies, flying like crazy, desperate to make her way home, wild to love the very ones who'd been so hateful, hurtful or at least neglectful, frantic to find her flawed people and her half-a-house where every day she could love them again. Why, Gran might burst through that sunset just any minute, dragging a long long broken golden chain!
Points in Biology
It took a team to straighten out the cat, sort of, so Jana could begin to cut it. Suzette and Roger were assigned to yank the back paws wide out to the sides while Daniel was pulling up on both front legs which were hooked stiff as hardware. Next to Daniel, Belinda had to lift the tiny tufted chin by reaching carefully underneath a jagged mouth frozen hugely open.
The girl was supposed to be in Belinda's spot around that black-topped slab of table, but she told her teacher he knew perfectly well that she just couldn't. Then she was supposed to watch along with everybody else in class, but she couldn't do that, either. Once the knife went in, she couldn't look at anything but Daniel's face going more and more blur-dizzy. She knew he'd bombed last week's exam because of making late deliveries for the drugstore; now he had no choice but to march on up there, tug on that pathetic cat and eventually take his own turn with the scalpel.
Afterwards, the same as usual, the two of them got into Daniel's white Corvair and drove to JacksonBurger for their lunch. Today they ordered just ice-tea, though.
Curled around his scrunchy paper cup, Daniel's fingers were stained a pale blue-green to match the cat's little front-foot socks that would've been white to start with. Jana's mother had been dying curtains in her washing machine right before Jana drowned the cat; that's what Jana said and then she giggled about how the leftover color would've been loads worse except that the cat needed three wash-rinse-and-spin cycles.
It was all about points in biology. You lost ten any time you refused when Mr. Henry called on you to get involved in a dissection. There were two ways you could make those up or earn ten extra points if your test scores needed boosting. Bringing in an animal was one way.
"I'll never speak to her again, I swear it, Daniel."
"Oh, you'll say 'hi' when you have to."
"Well, that. If it's socially imperative. Like if I run smack-dab into her in public."
The girl tried not to stare at Daniel's hands, but neither one of them could stop doing it.
"GR-oss," Daniel growled and she answered, "Putrid."
"Louie, Louie" started playing on half a dozen car radios, all tuned to KLIF in Dallas, and a bunch of kids got out to dirty-bop in between Mr. Jackson's rows of order-speakers. Daniel didn't even make the suggestion; she could tell he knew she'd really hate to touch his hands.
"Let's go over to my house. Maybe we can get it off you with some Comet. It took off most of that Q.T. tanning junk that turned me orange."
"Took off most of your skin, too," Daniel grinned.
"Yuck," she said, remembering when she tried to get a suntan overnight and woke up to her mother's screaming. Mary Fran made her scrub all over with the Comet and she was raw for days, and rusty-stained on her knees and ankles and elbows.
"You looked awful."
"No worse than you with pumpkin hair." For a party last Christmas, Daniel tried to match his hair to hers. "That was not a success."
Today his hair was looking really okay, sandy with a bunch of paler highlights. His sister Cindy who did hair must've helped him out this time, the girl was thinking while she fired up two Salems and passed one.
"Monster fingers!" Daniel teased, acting like he was about to tickle.
"GR-oss," she growled and he answered, "Putrid."
The girl practiced French-inhaling while Daniel drove back toward the high school and turned left onto her street.
After they used up half a can of Comet on Daniel's hands and then fingernail polish remover, the color faded out everywhere else but he still had turquoise cuticles.
"UG-ly!" they groaned together.
"We've got to put her on the hate list!" The girl left Daniel scrubbing hard with a Brillo pad and ran to her room for the list they'd been keeping since seventh grade when they got acquainted at the library. Right away they agreed they both loathed the sight of empty wastebaskets, the sound of chewed bubblebum clunking into empty wastebaskets, the word "ugly" and the name "Ursula." Those were their very first four.
"How many are we up to now?" Daniel asked when the girl got back.
"Two thousand four hundred seventy-one. Counting Jana James."
"Ought to make it more general, maybe. How about cat-killers? Warm-animal killers?"
"Oh, we already have sadists and hunters and ignorance. Besides, this is personal. Now don't forget to add her onto your list tonight."
"I won't forget," Daniel said, fixed on his hideous cuticles. "You know, before this I always thought Jana was just dumb."
The girl plopped cross-legged on the kitchen table and started to write. "Dumb," she pronounced very positively, "is dangerous."
"Speaking of. Guess you're signed on for Henry's Dolt Brigade tomorrow --"
"Alas. It's the only chance to get my 99 back before report cards. That fink called on me today absolutely on purpose, just so I'd have to go again." The girl simply had to have her high A grade in biology, as in all her other courses, and she deserved it; after all, her test grades were perfect. The only trouble was dissecting things you wouldn't want to touch, alive or dead, or things you were meant to pet when they were living. Because she wouldn't ever dissect, she'd already spent a month's worth of perfect spring Saturdays recording tombstones in graveyards.
"You'll be there, too, I suppose."
"Bingo. Still need six more points to get back to a 90. Where we going this week?"
"It's someplace where they moved the graves from old towns that went under the water, when they built the dam."
The girl got up to get glasses and ice cubes and pour them some Coca-Cola, while she was trying to remember exactly what she heard last Saturday about the next cemetery Mr. Henry wanted to document. "According to Mr. Henry, it's about fifteen miles past the Briarwood Marina, not way far out in the boonies -- but we can still look forward to nearly an hour cooped up in a station wagon full of retards, watching Mr. Henry popping out his glass eye to entertain them!"
"No way, I say. I'll drive us. At Daniel Beck's Cemetery Travel Service, we have a motto: No Eye, No I.Q., No Service. We handle only hard-luck cases and conscientious objectors."
"Neat, but are you absolutely sure you can find where we're going?"
"I run prescriptions around there all the time."
"We can't be late, I mean, this is terribly important. If I don't show up on time tomorrow, I'll lose my 99 for the whole six weeks --"
"Fifteen miles past Briarwood, how many graveyards can there be?"
"Well, who'd have thought one little county would have hundreds?"
"Not the Cyclops, or he'd never have volunteered to record every stupid tombstone!"
"They aren't stupid, really. Some of the inscriptions are so great and the carvings are sweet, especially the angels. And those wonderful old-fashioned names, don't they just make you imagine? Except for going every blessed week, practically, I kind of like doing it, don't you?"
"Beats turning blue!" The horrid color was still faintly there when Daniel held out his fingers to take the glass of Coke she was handing him.
Daniel begged for it and certainly deserved it after what he'd been through, so the girl played "Fur Elise" for him twice. Before they headed back to school and parted company for their afternoon classes, she let him hug her, too, but drew the line at kissing; Daniel was cute enough and she was no prissy prude, but he was a brother-figure.
As usual, going in after lunch gave her a minor electrical fizz. Weird things tended to occur then. There was the time last fall when they came back and heard what just happened in Dallas to Kennedy, for instance, and once she ran in very fast, immediately had to say "hi" to the principal in the hall and watched smoke blow out of her mouth right into his face. Dorky Mr. Musgrave was no friend of hers, never mind that she was the best student in the place. It went back to when he was junior high principal and there was a huge stink about racy stories she wrote and passed around in eighth grade. Musgrave was a big Church-of-Christ who'd love to see something knock her out of line for valedictorian, something like revolting Sophomore Biology II. Thank heaven for Mr. Henry's devotion to genealogy.
Actually nothing extraordinary happened after lunch that day. She played "Boredom" through Latin II -- matching it with adjectives like "abysmal" and "endless" -- and during sixth period she beat down another challenge for first-chair flute; it was her boyfriend Jeff Travis trying that again and, although he was good, he was never quite good enough.
Nothing stood out much about the evening, either. There was a nasty phone call after the basketball game, but that was really more or less to be expected, since the twirlers broke in a new routine at halftime in new skimpy sequinned outfits. The tune was "Hey, Look Me Over" and they'd been practicing so much she dreamed it started playing before the picture-show and Mr. Goddard made all the majorettes get up and dance it in the aisles.
On Saturday, 6:00 a.m. sharp, the girl was curbside, awaiting Daniel and drinking Dr. Pepper, having performed her daily breakfast illusion. For her parents' benefit, she always sprinkled grains of cereal in a bowl, added a splash of milk and a spoon and filled it with water in the sink. She fiddled with bits of gravel edging the street, the way she began doing as a child too tiny to be let out of the yard. From the curb, she could peek around the hedge and watch kids playing. They felt sorry and called her to come, but whenever she did, Mary Fran broke off a tree-switch and chased her home, stinging the backs of her legs.
After building a gravel wall a few inches high, the girl poked in some wide St. Augustine grassblades and dandelion flowers and wished her high school offered something civilized like geology or botany. Then she paced around, wishing she could take a walk while the dew in everybody's yards was so prettily misting.
It was a sweater morning, one of those foggy-special April mornings when the heavy Texas clay starts radiating summer into the cool early air, definitely a morning for wandering and poetry instead of Discipline. Daniel felt that, too. The minute she slid into his car, he started doing their drama tournament scenes, mostly from Shakespeare and Williams.
"Opium dens, dens of vice and criminal hangouts, Mother! I've joined the Hogan gang! I'm a hired assassin! I carry a tommygun in a violin case!" Daniel was so far into that part that they almost didn't hear it, there was just the smallest thump when the car hit the puppy.
"My God! My God!" Daniel whipped the car to the edge of the lake road and jumped out. After checking her watch, the girl followed.
It was breathing, whimpering, grotesquely broken. Daniel pulled off his windbreaker and very gently rolled the dog onto it. The blue jacket, she remembered, was almost brand-new; he was so proud when he'd saved up his own money to buy it and now it was getting all mucky and bloody.
"Run on over to that yellow house. Hurry! Call a vet!"
"Gosh, Daniel, look where we are."
Heading north through Grayson, the lake road led through what polite people called Colored Town. Dola Lou lived there somewhere, a woman who took care of the girl when she was small and still cleaned house sometimes for her mom; so did Edwardine, who married the chef at the country club, Loftus. Edwardine baked pies the girl's mom bought for every Thanksgiving and after she picked them up she always commented over and over how clean their house was. That was every solitary thing the girl knew about this part of Grayson, except the barbeque restaurants smelled fantastic but her daddy said they couldn't ever stop there because they wouldn't be welcome.
"Okay, I'll go." Daniel was handing her the puppy, such a little one, not pretty and not wearing any tag, and it was bleeding right through his nice jacket onto her white English I cardigan. Sure there'd be three more where that one came from and she'd won letter-sweaters for drama and twirling, too, but she hated seeing it ruined. "Yuck," she said but Daniel was gone. She relocated him on a ramshackle front porch, banging on somebody's front door and yelling until a colored girl came out wearing her bathrobe and finally let him in.
"Not theirs," he said when he got back, "but I called the vet on Norton Street and he'll come down and open."
"We have to be at the graveyard by seven o'clock, Daniel! You know he starts taking off points if you're late!"
"Screw me, you mean -- and you. I'll be ruined if I get a eighty-nine and do you want an 80 in biology? Barely a B!"
The puppy kept squeaking and bleeding all the way downtown. It seemed far too light to have held that much blood.
Outside the vet's office, still locked tight, Daniel wouldn't let her write a note and leave the dog by the door, the way she wanted to. It was terrible to see that puppy hurting, sure, but this wasn't just any old day.
No matter what she said, Daniel just kept on soothing the puppy and telling it how sorry he was, so she walked away to windowshop at Vera's Shoes and then came back. "Sartre says people who love animals and children too much love them at the expense of human beings," she reminded him, but Daniel took no apparent notice.
"Better call your mom to take you --"
"I can't! She thinks I was walking over to school to ride out with the Henrys!"
It took until 6:45 for the vet to come and take the dog in, then Daniel wanted to go knock on Colored Town doors until he found the owner.
"We don't have the time, we're sure to lose at least three make-up points already --"
"Shouldn't take us long. Somebody right around there is bound to know where that dog belongs, probably --"
"Not if somebody dumped him out there. People do that, you know, and he didn't have any tag on. He'd have a tag on if the owner cared a hoot --"
"Might just not have one yet, he's so little --"
"Okay, perhaps he's not a stray. Perhaps. But later's soon enough to tend to it, Daniel. We don't want to wake up all those people. 'Uh, pardon me, I may have killed your dog. You see I was all worked up playing Tom Wingfield.' You don't know what could happen!"
"But I'm responsible. I should've seen it, I shouldn't have been fooling around --"
"That's simply precious of you, Daniel, but look at it this way. Dr. Miller said he'd be okay, most likely. By afternoon, you'll know for sure, you can promise them he'll be okay."
"So all morning long people have to be out looking and calling and worrying and upset? Could be some little kid bawling his eyes out."
"If the owners, if there are owners, are deeply concerned for that poor animal's welfare, how come he's running loose without a tag?"
Daniel didn't even answer that or look at her. He just drove on up the going-to-the-lake road, past Main and all the good historic streets where huge gingerbready houses remembered Grayson's railroad heydeys. In Colored Town, he stopped again where the accident happened.
"Daniel Dixon Beck, we do not have the time for this now." She felt like she would any second burst. "Please, Daniel! Please! I cannot take a B! This is my life we're talking about! Get me out there!"
Daniel stepped out, thought a quick minute and got back in.
"Great! Oh, thank you. I'll help you look for the owner later."
"No, I'll drive you now, so you don't have a hissy-fit, but then I'm coming straight on back."
"This isn't some massive favor you're doing just for me. Think about your own average. Daniel, are you hearing me?"
"I said I'd take you."
"Look, you need the points worse than I do."
"Need more points, yeah. But obviously not worse."
Beyond the hospital and big cemetery where the girl's people had been put, back to her great-grandmother, Daniel turned left and climbed through a long foggy valley. Taking the shortcut to Briarwood, the new country club where Dallas people came and brought fancy boats, too, they passed by the older one where her daddy played golf every weekend, where Loftus cooked barbeque on Fourth of July and the girl went swimming all the time, except the pool was closed now until the end of May. She caught a glimpse of the clubhouse, which looked like it belonged in a Fitzgerald novel; all she could see was the red-tile roof but she remembered the long walls of French doors that opened to the pool terrace and the balcony.
When they got to where they could see the lake, she thought for the first time of whole towns down there, Atlantean, under the water. She wondered if it might be possible, if you had a boat, to see the buildings on a day like today with no wind blowing and the lake surface all hard and shining. There wasn't anything to do but think. Daniel evidently felt not one bit like talking and he hadn't turned the radio on, either. He was busy chewing on his fingernails the way he used to, although she forebore pointing this out to him.
She could feel a zit developing alongside her nose, and worried it a little before fishing around in her purse for powder and dabbing more on.
At least they were making good time, because there wasn't much traffic yet and it was easy to get around the old folks hauling clunky fishing boats, even when the road got narrow and steeper. In the girl's head there was a taxicab meter but it was running backwards: ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven. At about ninety-six, 7:35 by her Elgin, they went by the Briarwood gate where the woods broke and masts bobbed in the distance.
Fifteen more miles. A full hour late on arrival, the best she could possibly get would be a ninety-five. While the grade in her mind's eye kept steadily dropping by tenths, she couldn't do one thing but ride on between thicketed roadsides. Cedars and red oaks thronged spindly dogwoods that trailed wispy white dance veils and seemed to be "it" in some other whirling game.
There was a Cemetery 3 Miles sign opposite a recent lake house development, posh for the Dallas folks, and ahead on the road was a car broken-down. The Henrys' old green station wagon!
"Is there another way up to that graveyard, do you think?" The girl's own grin spread across Daniel's sweet face; it slid just like creamy peanut butter on hot toast, in spite of his grieving.
Daniel slowed and swung in among the new stone-and-redwood houses. "There's an old guy lives in here who gets heart medicine. I take it to him every first-Tuesday. About a mile farther on, we can reconnect with the main road and Old Man Henry will never know we went by him."
"You are wonderful!" She couldn't help but giggle as the grade-meter spun ahead to ninety-nine again. "'Oh, Mr. Henry, Mrs. Henry, Dear Classmates," she gushed in her Amanda Wingfield dialect. "Where were you? We've been waiting and waiting and starting to worry about you. Weren't we worried, Daniel? An automotive breakdown, my stars, what a pitiful shame!'"
"If they don't show up in an hour or so, I'll drive back out like I'm looking to see if they might be close by and in trouble."
"Oh, go find them sooner than that. Be their hero."
"Don't feel much like a hero today."
"That's funny, you know, because you really are." The girl lighted two Salems and handed him one. No doubt about it, getting her ninety-nine back made her feel tons more compassionate. "I've been a little bitch,
"Yeah. But I love you."
The cemetery, when they found it a few minutes later, was on a wide plain overlooking the water, a treeless place and soundless. Its gate was locked by a tangle of wild blowsy roses they both worked to break free, although Daniel tried to stop the girl from helping.
"Who cares? I mean, I'm already a mess," she shouted at him, filling up the silence. Snapping off rose canes bent under her sneakers, she was glad of the motion after being too long pent up.
"Please stop," Daniel begged but she wouldn't. Three fingertips were oozing soon and even a careless slap of thorns against her face felt somehow satisfying.
Once past the gate, she dashed ahead through tall Johnson grass, already seeding, sinister. She knew from how her parents fought it, its broadening clumps could overtake the finest lawn if given just an inch of leeway. She tripped against a hidden headstone and fell to tear the grass away and read of Bradley Alden Cook, aged two in l873, Our Darling. Next door was his little sister, Caroline Laura, who lived six days in 1874, and his mother Susannah Jane, who lived one day longer. Nearby was Miranda B. Lazenby, Born 1849 in England, An Angel in the House. What might the letter "B" stand for and what made her so good and why was she dead at forty-one, somewhere near here of all places?
The girl walked among several of the l9l7 Flu People as an airplane passed overhead. She wondered if anybody lying here had ever seen a plane. Life wasn't exactly better back then, was it? There was more grace, perhaps, but there were many fewer chances especially for the Susannahs and Mirandas.
Who knew, could know, if carcasses so named were really lying underneath these markers? Or were the stones flung like prom night confetti over quickly transferred make-way-for-progress bones? Either way, did it matter; did anybody care a fig, not that anyone of her acquaintance cared much for one? How could anything honestly matter when it all ended up the same, predictable as breakfast?
Daniel was calling, "You gotta' see this!" so she ran to read with him how Emmett Frank Mirick (1894-1927) Dropped a Candle in His Lap and Tried to Douse the Flames with Bourbon Whisky. It was impossible not to laugh, of course, and then Daniel pulled a few thorns from her hair and draped an arm over her shoulders. Down on the water fishing craft were parked well away from the fast boats, a few towing skiers in wetsuits, and a handful of the weekend people's blink-white yachts were starting to float out from Briarwood like ogre-sized bars of soap.
"Poor Old Emmett, what a simp."
"'Dumb is dangerous' -- like you say."
The girl leaned in closer. "I say smart's pretty dangerous, too. And rich is, and poor --"
"Drunk and sober --"
"Beautiful," she began; they both added, "and UG-ly!"
Daniel picked up the pace. "Man and woman, child and adult --"
"Day and night, love and hate --"
"What you do and what you don't do."
"Yeah," she agreed. "Kind like you and -- ornery."
Daniel kissed the tip of her ornery nose and she confessed, "I'm ashamed, you know that, but I couldn't have done a bit differently."
He shook his head. "My fault the thing happened. You shouldn't have to suffer for it."
Just then Mr. Henry's whistle shrilled in the distance, an enforced breath like the day's enforced labor.
"Won't you stay and get your grade back up?"
The girl walked Daniel to his car and thanked him very much. "Muchas gracious" was how they'd always put it since a big dumb kid in Spanish I wrote it on the blackboard that way. Daniel finished their routine with "de nada," using an ordinary hard "d."
"Please stay a while. You really need to."
"Wouldn't make the same difference to me as to you."
While she was hugging him goodbye, the girl could feel their lives rising up from deep under the water, heavy lives, granite and red Texas brick. Then she went to join weird Mr. Henry, his dull-but-pleasant wife and the six worst students in biology, except for Jana who was sleeping in.