Cards - Part II [Adolescence]
Mrs. Spinnaker fishes into her coin purse and roots around with heavy, arthritic fingers. The bag is made from a fabric almost identical to the pattern on the rug—amber florals. The curtains are artfully positioned on either side of the windows, sticky with dust, and the layers of translucent dressings beneath act as a barrier to light.
“How much did you say again?” She asks, though it’s been less than fifteen seconds.
“Thirty-five cents, m’am,” I reply primly. I fold my hands in my lap and cross my ankles, like Mama taught me.
“Seems…awfully expensive…” She offers this without passion, so I let it pass.
“Ah, here we go.”
The coins jangle into my palm. “This is forty-five.”
“Is it?” She sways forward, and a crunch sounds from her back. Neither of us acknowledge it.
“Yes—it’s—” Instead of watching her count it out all over again, I pluck the extra dime myself. “Here.”
“Honesty.” She stares at the coin, glinting with the small amount of sun that brightens the room, and pats my knee. “I appreciate that. You keep it.”
“Oh.” I retract my hand. “Well, thank you.”
“Sure, sure.” She reaches for her cane and, bracing the blunt end on the ground, lifts up so she’s standing. I wait for her to get her footing, and then we start for the foyer together.
“Louise,” she rasps, as we come to a stop under a grandiose chandelier.
“I have a scarf laid right there, by the lamp, that’s in desperate need of repair.”
I snap up the hideous length of fabric and clutch it to my chest. “Sure.”
“I’ll expect it by Wednesday.”
“One in the afternoon. Tea time.”
“And I’ll expect you to take tea with me.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I feel inclined to curtsy, but I don’t. “Gladly.”
“Good.” She sags against the doorknob and manages to twist it open. “Off you go. Good day, and excellent work.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” I have to squint into the brightness. It was raining earlier on the drive here, and we had to roll the windows up, but now I see that they are wide open as Clark waits at the curb. At my appearance, the engine sputters to life.
“Young man,” Mrs. Spinnaker calls.
“Young lady,” he calls back.
She mutters under her breath then directs to me, “You watch that boy.”
“Oh, always. Thanks again!”
Holding the coins in one hand and the scarf with the other, I hurry down the dozen or so steps from the front entrance. When I reach the door, I turn back to find that Mrs. Spinnaker has already disappeared inside. It’s a hideously outdated place, with its dark brick and tile roof and pillars chipping their paint.
“You smell like the elderly,” Clark quips as he leans forward to push it open.
I plop inside and toss the scarf to the backseat. “Please.”
“It’s a compliment. Parfum de la Vieille Femme.”
“Golly, just go!”
“Fine, fine.” He puts his 1932 Ford into gear and we roll away.
I recount my money as we coast over the paved roads. They gradually transition to dirt as we leave the city limits, and the car starts to jostle us.
“Forty-five cents,” I announce, “for mending a hat.”
“You’re buying popcorn at the pictures on Saturday.”
“You wish.” Finally, I give up on admiring my money and slip it into my pocket. Mama always sews them into our dresses. “Actually, I think I may skip the moving pictures.”
“What? But Saboteur is showing.”
“I know—” I stare out the window, at the farmsteads that have begun to crop up of late. Little shells of homes, wood frames and half-constructed fireplaces, tease the American dream. We read about that in class recently. What it symbolizes, who it applies to, where the notion came from. Lots of people said from the revolution. I say from within.
“Hello? Louise—you in there?”
“I am.” I chuck a dime at him, and then bend over to scoop it back up. “I don’t care about action films and whatnot, though.”
“Not even for me?”
I reach out and ruffle his hair. He cut it short for the first time in his life about a month ago, and the shag is just beginning to reappear. “No, can you believe it?”
“All right, then.” He puffs out his lips as we turn onto our road, and then released the air with a pop. “I might ask Rita, then. If you don’t care.”
I fix my gaze straight-on. “I don’t care.”
“Because you know you’re my best friend—”
“Clark. Please.” I widen my eyes at him, and then cough up a laugh. “You’re worrying. You feel bad for her, I know.”
“I do, yeah.”
“I do, too. I mean, her mama’s living with that man—”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“I know.” I lean my head against the window. I can see our homes from the distance, both our chimneys cranking smoke. Rita Plymouth's house stands alone right by the road, on shaky legs, it looks like. The shutters are flaky and loose in the wind. As we make another right into our driveway, I notice a window’s cracked.
“What’re you being stingy with your money for, anyways?” Clark asks, as he coasts to a stop by my back door. He turns the car off and twists to face me. I push my hair back behind my ears and force myself to meet his inquisitive stare. His face is smooth, clear, with the smallest of lines to show that he cares. Mine gleams ruddy.
“I’m saving for a dress,” I mumble.
He laughs, like I knew he would. “A dress? What kind of dress?”
“I dunno.” I set my eyes at the window. “Just a dress.”
“For when you meet FDR?”
I roll my eyes, but a smile threatens to lighten my mood. “Yeah. I’m receiving the award for most patient friend in America.”
“That’s probably true.”
He lays his hand on my knee. “Or—just maybe—”
I twist my neck around. “What?”
He’s so somber, his mouth flat, his pupils lacquered with a sheen. He’s looking at me like I’m the first spring flower, or a shiny new bicycle. Something good, something wonderful.
“Maybe,” he continues, “you’re being awarded for your groundbreaking new perfume.”
“…de la vieille femme,” I deadpan. “Right.”
He gives my hand two quick pats. “Okay, out you go. I’ve got a load of arithmetic.”
“So do I.” Reluctantly, I reach for the door handle. I edge it open, twist to swing my legs to the ground. I sit there a minute.
“Do you ever—” My tongue seizes up in my mouth, hot-wired to my mind.
I shrug. “Do you ever just wanna sit here together for all time, and not get out?”
There’s a sound behind me, a scoff or a laugh. I don’t want to turn to find out. Here I am, flayed open.
He inhales through his nose. “Every day.”
“Well…” I reach up and curl my fingers around the top of the car door, “that’s good. Then we’re on the same page.”
“When have we ever not been on the same page?”
“Right.” I stand and turn, dangling myself so I can meet his eyes. “See you later.”
He gives me his most dashing grin. “Later, indeed.”
I shut the door with a soft click, and his jalopy grumbles across the field to his place. There are tire tracks worn into the grass from cutting over to me. Mama says it’s the lazy man’s way, that he wouldn’t go on the road and up the drive. He says it’s because he wants to get to me as quick as possible.
My cheeks are warm, my mouth lit with a smile, as I step inside. It’s quiet—there’s a loaf of zucchini bread wrapped in a towel on the counter. I go over and tear a corner off, even though it’ll make Mama huffy. I’ll just blame it on the cat.
She’s not in the sitting room, either. I readjust an afghan laid across the back of the couch and twist around, absorbing the eerie silence. Even when it’s quiet, there’s always something—the turn of a romance novel page, the click-clack of knitting needles, the staccato voice of a radio newscaster. I wrap my arms around myself, circling, then decide the stairs are my next best option.
I take them two at a time, but softly, making a game of balancing my weight. I come to the top and then hear her—Mama’s voice. Softly and slurry, like she’s half-asleep. I wonder if she’s talking in a nap. I go up to her closed bedroom door and close my fist around the knob. I’m poised to swing it open when a deeper, richer tone stops me.
There’s a man in there.
My stomach lurches and I stumble backward, accidentally pulling on the handle. It makes a loud, metallic noise as it rocks in its socket. The talking ceases. All is silent. Then the door is opening, and my mouth is, too, trying to find words of apology. But I can’t, because staring out at me—shirtless, suspenders off his shoulders, cigar in hand—is Mr. Otis Kitchett.
A squawk comes out, a cross between the wheeze of a heroine who’s being choked out by a mustached villain, and the indignant complaining of a jilted bird. Mr. Otis Kitchett drops his eyes and clears his throat. Then Mama is behind him, peering over his shoulder with a grimace of pity as she ties a pilled robe around her slip.
I raise a hand to my chest. My mind whirs too fast for me to catch any suitable phrases to spin toward them. Anything that would make this okay.
“Baby—” Mama steps out from behind Mr. Otis Kitchett, and as a reflex he guides her forward with a hand on her lower back.
That does it.
“I’ll be at Clark’s!” I warble as I pivot and pound down the stairs. Mama follows; I can hear the much lighter treat of her bare feet.
“Stay here, Mr. Kitchett,” she throws behind her and I’m glad, at least, that he won’t be trailing behind as well.
“Baby.” She tries to reel me in with her softest, most adoring voice as I arc through the living room. Kitchen, backdoor, yard.
She comes to her limit on the stoop, one leg raised so she’s half-inside. No decent woman would be caught out in such thin clothing. I soldier on, rustling through the grass—it’s akin to moving through quicksand. Then Mama chastens, “Louise!” and it’s been so ingrained in me, my duty to respect her, that I stop.
“Louise—” She says, trying for a softer approach now that she’s got me. “Come back inside. We need to talk about this.”
“No, thank you,” I reply coolly, keeping my feet planted. “I think I’ll just go over to Clark’s.”
“No,” she seethes, “you will not. You’ll come inside, and we’ll discuss this. Mr. Kitchett—”
“You mean, the man that was in your bed?” My incredulousness is enough to make me snap around to her. I want Mama to see the judgement on my face.
“There’s no denying it, Mama. I saw it with my own eyes.”
“I wasn’t…I wasn’t going to…” Something gives in her expression, maybe the last semblance of authority. It makes my heart stutter, watching it crumble like that. She sags the slightest bit, listing against the doorframe. “Please, Louise. Come talk to me. Mr. Kitchett will go.”
“Mr. Kitchett,” I say, measuring my words carefully, “should have never come.”
Mama raises her chin, closes her mouth. We stare down.
“I’m going to Clark’s,” I echo, and this time—this time—she lets me leave.
I collapse onto Clark’s bed with a sob. He’s not here, but Janet lets me in anyway and tells me to wait. She looks at me with such sympathy, I wonder if she knows. There’s no way, of course, but maybe she saw Mr. Kitchett come in. Maybe she realized when he didn’t leave.
I curl his bedspread into my hands and let the wails consume me. I cry for Mama, that she would cheapen herself like that. I cry for Mr. Otis Kitchett’s wife, because I know he has one. Sarah. They’re childless, so at least there’s that; it makes my Mama’s sin just a little bit less, as if that counts for something. I wonder if she would’ve drawn the line if he did have young ones, little tow-headed babies toddling around on his porch.
I cry for myself, having to see them like that—together. I cry because who knows how long this is going on, and me oblivious. Maybe years. Or maybe this is the first time. Either way, I didn’t know about it. And I cry for my Daddy, who kissed my head and called me Louisa, who loved my Mama with a fire, because this means that she has moved past him. And I cannot seem to do that, not even seven years later.
I cry because I’ve now had a reason to judge my Mama. A woman who was a paramount of purity, a guiding post for my life. And I have lost that, now. I have nobody to look up to—just somebody to look at: Clark, and he’s not even here.
I nod off somewhere between self-pity and disgust, and awaken with a touch on my arm. I roll onto my back, smacking my lips together to combat my dry mouth, and crack my eyes open. Clark, silhouetted by moonlight.
“Hey,” he says quietly. “Janet said you were upset.”
My lids seal off. “Just a little.”
The bed creaks as he plops down beside me, then lays back. “So. What is it? Did FDR rescind his invitation?”
“Rescind—that’s a good word. What’s it mean?”
“Hm.” I let out a long sigh and open back up to the ceiling. “Well, can I rescind my respect for my mother?”
I hear the rustle of his hair as he rolls his head to me. “Louise.”
“Because—” Oh, sleep. I wish it back on me. It allowed me to forget, and now my eyes are burning again, “—you know, she was all I had. And now it feels like I lost her.”
“Did something happen?”
I shake my head from side to side. My eyes screw shut again, but it’s too late to stem my tears. “She’s okay. Physically.”
“Yes. Physically being the imperative word.”
His weight shifts, and then he’s gone. I feel something soft being pressed into my hand, worn and loved. I run my thumb over a ridge of stitching. His handkerchief.
“Thank you,” I mutter as I press it to my cheeks. With a groan, I push myself into a sitting position. When I pull the cloth away, I find Clark perched on the window sill, facing me. He’s smiling just slightly, taking me in.
“Are you ready to tell me about it?”
“I guess.” I crumple it up into my hand, then glance down. “Oh. Sorry.”
His laugh is obligatory. “It’s fine.”
I smooth the handkerchief out onto my lap, and then fold it in half. I keep folding as I speak, trying to distract myself from the words I need to relieve. “I came here. Right away. But you weren’t here.”
“Something like that.” There’s an apologetic set to his mouth, though, and I realize he was with Rita. He just doesn’t want to make things worse. I decide to bypass the obvious and forge on. Now the handkerchief is in fourths.
“I walked in today, and—well, long story short, Mama was with Mr. Otis Kitchett.”
He’s waiting for more. I redden. “I mean with Mr. Otis Kitchett.”
“Oh.” Clark scratches his cheek. “Otis, huh?”
It’s odd, hearing his name without the prefix or suffix. “Yeah. Otis.” It’s oddly satisfying to say it without the adornments, though—condescending. What he deserves. “And I didn’t…I didn’t see it coming. I feel like an idiot.”
“You’re not,” he fires off, before I can even get the final syllable in. “How would you have known something like that was going on?”
“I don’t know.” I hand the kerchief to Clark. Eighths. “He’s married.”
“Yeah. I thought about that.”
“My Mama knows Sarah. Mr O—I mean, Otis, he used to bring us dishes that she’d made when Daddy died. How could Mama do that?”
“I don’t know, Louise. Love makes you do strange things.”
“Love?” I hop to my feet. “They’re not in love.”
“No. This is lust. It’s awful, hurtful lust and anyway, what do you know about love, Clark? You’re seventeen years old.”
“And you’re fifteen!”
For the second time to day, words leave me. My throat seems to close up and all I can choke out is, “What’re you saying?”
Clark’s eyes bug out. “Oh—no. I just mean that you’re young, too. So how do you know the difference between love and lust?”
“Because I—” I pace to the door, and stand off against it. “I just do.”
“Well. I figure I do, too.”
“All right, then. So we’re square.”
“Square.” I lean on the door. “I just can’t go home tonight.”
He comes up beside me, a hand curling beneath my elbow. “You can have the guest bed here. But shouldn’t you tell her?”
“No.” I wrench open the door and head for the room he’s talking about. It’s mostly shadows, so Clark flips the light on. The bedspread is paisley and store-bought, like everything else in this house.
I collapse onto it. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” I feel a brush against my ankle, and know it’s his touch. “Your shoes are still on, Louise.”
“I’m comfortable,” I mumble against the mattress.
He laughs. “Well, that’s all that matters. But if it’s dirty in the morning, even Janet’ll lose her mind.”
I wait until he’s left, the light off and the door shut. Then I kick off my shoes, because after all, I’m a guest in his home.
Even when it feels like mine, too.
I ride to school with Clark and ghost my way through advanced arithmetic and geography and history. At lunch, I spot him with a group of guy friends. Rather than going up and enduring the joshing they’re always prepared to hand out, I find a good bench for sitting and unwrap the store-bought tuna salad that Janet packed for me, on Wonder bread. I’ve never had it before, but its soft and delicious and probably void of nutrition.
The sear of cigarette smoke smacks me in the face, and I lift my neck. Rita Plymouth is sidling up to me, skirt sagging off her hips, collared shirt bagging off her torso. A Raleigh is tucked between two bony fingers, and it takes me back to yesterday. Cigar, cigarettes—I hate them all. I’m not even the least bit surprised Rita smokes, though. Her mother’s practically a chimney.
I think about lobbing that insult her way, but Clark sees something in her, and anyway she’s not doing anything wrong.
“Hi, Louise,” she says quietly, lifting it to her lips. She sucks in, watching me.
I shift to the left side of the bench, making room for her to sit. She waves her hand in the air, a dismissal, and arches against a tree trunk.
“Your buttons are uneven,” I volunteer, deciding it’ll be less humiliating coming from me. It’s a favor, I tell myself, and not a gleeful jab. I take a too-big bite of my sandwich and choke a little.
“Oh, thanks,” she drones, dropping her chin briefly to her chest. “I’ll fix it later.” She draws another lungful of the sour air, releasing the smoke in rings. A smile lights up her face, buoyant. “Clark taught me that.”
“Taught you what?” I mirror dumbly, wracking my brain for any talents just displayed that my best friend would’ve had a hand in.
“How to blow smoke rings.” She takes another drag and demonstrates. “He’s good at it.”
I’m short of breath, and not just because of the intensified air pollution. “Clark—he doesn’t—”
She appraises me with thin eyebrows. “It’s not a sin, Louise.”
“No.” I stand, gathering my things. “But the smell of that should be.” As I stalk away, I think that I hate her. I hate that she’s pretty, and I hate that she’s skinny as a rail, and I hate that she looked at me like I was some kind of child. People keep doing that lately—Mama, Rita. Even Clark, yesterday, when he lied to my face about where he was.
I get a few yards away and then glance behind me. Rita is still standing there, polishing off the last of the cigarette, but she’s boring holes into the ground. I notice the absence of a lunch, or a purse. I think maybe it’s not her fault she’s thin.
“Here,” I say a moment later, shoving the other half of my sandwich at her, along with an untouched apple.
She frowns at me. “What’s that?”
“Right. I get that. But—why?”
“Because you don’t have a lunch.”
She opens her mouth, then closes it. Her dull brunette hair blows with the breeze.
“I wish you’d take it,” I say at last. “I’m not hungry, and anyway, I hate to see it go to waste. It was store-bought tuna salad.”
“Oh, store-brought.” It’s vaguely mocking, but she drops the cigarette, grinding it into the grass with the heel of her oxfords, and takes it. “I guess I’ll eat it.”
She raises the sandwich at me. My bites are half-moons, and I expect her to start with the untouched side, but she closes her teeth right where mine left off. No qualms about it.
“I’ll see you,” I offer, as I shuffle away. Clark has broken off from his group of friends, is heading for the school doors, and I see him studying us. When he catches my gaze, he grins, and waves me forward. I pick up my pace.
“Hey,” he says as I reach him, deftly looping an arm around my waist. “What was that?”
“She didn’t have any lunch,” I explain.
“So a truce?”
“It was lunch.”
“Well, either way.” He holds the door open for me. I glide through and look back to find him nodding to Rita. She’s got her mouth full, the sandwich almost gone. But she still manages to lift her lips in a smile.
Clark returns to my side, and I lean my head on his shoulder. As he walk down the hall, and he chatters about a conversation he had with the guys, I sniff his collar as surreptitiously as possible. No smoke detected.
She was probably lying about that. It seems the kind of thing she’d do, anyway.
“Louise?” Clark ventures abruptly.
“Mm?” I reluctantly lift my head.
He tucks my hair behind my ear. “That was nice what you did.”
The bell rings. He gives me a parting pat on my back and lopes away. I watch him go, brown trousers and suspenders to match, hair slipping out of its pomade grip. He latches onto a classmate and starts chattering at them, but he meets my eyes once more before he disappears through a poorly-lit doorway. I come to and scramble down a separate wing, careful not to slip on the freshly-mopped linoleum. I don’t want to be late.
I have to go back over to the house for a change of clothes that evening, I don’t have any choice—not unless I borrow undergarments from Janet, and I’m not about to ask that. I pause at the back door to collect myself, and then open it right up.
The smell of Mama’s freshly baked muffins hangs in the air—my favorite—and I know she’s been hoping I’ll come home. The radio is on in the living room, playing a sober, drawling tune, and I freeze. I almost head right back out, the door screaming to me, but I need fresh clothes. And since when am I afraid of Mama? I’m not the one who did anything wrong.
I tread lightly into the living room and find her relaxing on the couch. She’s embroidering something, a pile of starchy white fabric trailing from her lap—probably an apron. I force myself to walk to the center of the room, totally exposed, and clasp my hands behind my back.
She jumps so violently that she jabs herself with the needle. “Louise,” she breathes, and then sticks her thumb in her mouth. I purse my lips.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“No, it’s fine.” She studies her thumb, then presses it against her skirt. “Would you like a muffin? I made them this morning, so they’re still soft.”
“I’m fine,” I decline, working my jaw. “I just came for some clothes.”
“Yeah. I’m just going to stay the night at Clark’s.”
She stands up, apron forgotten. “Again?”
“Yeah. They have a guest room and I’m—going to a moving picture with him tomorrow. Early. So I figured…”
“All right. So the house is—” I sweep my hands around the room, “—yours. For whatever.”
Her face falls. “Louise.”
“No, Mama. It’s fine. I’m over it.”
“But we should talk about this. Mr. Kitchett—”
“I really don’t want to hear about him. At all, Mama.”
“I’m getting my things.” I dash up the stairs, hoping she’ll let me go. She doesn’t, of course.
“Mr. Kitchett is a nice man,” Mama says from the threshold to my little room. I rifle through my drawers and grab a dress, a slip, some frilly underwear.
“I’m sure he is.” I bunch it into a small bag, another feed-sack endeavor.
“And…you know, he was there for us a lot. When Daddy died.”
I slide the bag onto my shoulder. “You mean your husband.”
“Your husband,” I say, edging around, “who you apparently forgot.”
“Baby. It’s been seven years.”
“But Mr. Kitchett?” My voice splits out of me at an ear-piercing decibel, the loudest I’ve ever heard it. “A married man? Mama, what are you doing?”
“Louise, you don’t know anything about this. Mr. Kitchett and Sarah have not lived as husband and wife for ages. She’s…inattentive, you know. She just sits up in her chair all day and reads—she barely speaks.”
“So that makes it okay?”
“Well—” I can see I’ve stumped her.
“Right. Pardon me.” I shove past her, pressing myself as small as I can to keep from brushing against her.
Relentless. “Mama.” She’s kept right behind me all the way to the kitchen, is almost breathing down my neck. “Please. I can’t see you right now.”
“You’re just a child, Louise.” She rubs her forehead, hard, knocking a few hairs loose from her bun. “You cannot possibly understand. And you need to be home.”
“I will be,” I promise, yanking the door open. “Tomorrow. Like I said—we have a movie.”
I slam the door.
I decide to join Clark at the moving pictures on Saturday. We rumble along the dust-bitten road and I stare at my lap as we pass my house. I watched Mama from the upstairs window this morning, studiously watering her peas and tomatoes. She moved slowly, like the can was a little too heavy for her. It made her seem old, almost, which I suppose she is—fifty. Older than most mamas with girls my age.
“What’re we going to see, again?” I say, popping my lips together, struggling to rev up some energy.
Clark edges on the brake. “Saboteur. It’s supposed to be real good.”
I straighten. “Why are we stopped?”
He furrows his eyebrows. “I told you, I invited Rita.”
We’re parked alongside the Plymouths' roost. I rake my hands through my hair without thinking and snag them on my braid.
“Oh, great,” I grumble, tugging to undo it.
Rita swings the back door open. “Hey, folks,” she deadpans, by way of greeting. Clark throws a smile and hello over his shoulder, but I just raise my arm.
“So a movie,” Rita volunteers, as Clark resumes steering.
“Yup,” He confirms.
“Supposed to be.”
I lean my cheek against my fist, deciding not to care about the red splotch it’ll leave. This is the most boring conversation I’ve ever heard.
Rita inhales audibly.
Clark shifts gears.
I switch to my forehead.
“So…” She retries. I wish she’d quit speaking. “Louise.”
“Mm?” I could fall asleep, I think, rocking in this tired Ford as we are.
“Thanks again for the sandwich. It was delicious.”
I straighten, unable to tell if she’s mocking me. “Oh, sure. Anytime you’re low on food, I’ll be glad to give you mine. I always have plenty.”
A silence chases my sentence. Clark stretches to adjust the rearview mirror, presumedly so that he can see Rita.
“You know, you should come over sometime. For dinner.”
“I’d like that.” At this angle, I have a perfect view of her smirk. “We can practice our smoke rings outside afterward, if you want.”
Another bridge of quiet. I dart my eyes to Clark, hair acting as a shield. I find myself hoping—praying, actually—that a scoff or a grin will besmirch her. But he’s staring straight ahead, and he swallows, and he’s not blinking and—
“I’d love to join you,” I interject, surprising myself.
“Oh, you should.” Rita dips forward, elbows on her knees, grin wider than an Arizona desert. I’ve seen pictures in my geography book. “It’d be fun.”
“A little Jack Daniels…”
I wrack my brain for a classmate with that name. “You mean Jack Fischer?”
She giggles, and I hate that. “Oh—you’ve never had Jack?”
I bunch my skirt up in one hand as a flame lights up my skin.
“Goodness, I can’t wait to get my hands on you! Clark and me love Jack. Don’t we? It’s our thing. Our drink—that’s what it is, by the way. Whiskey. Ever had any whiskey before?”
My lower lip quivers. My fingers still it.
Clark coughs. “Louise is a good girl. The best. She doesn’t—do that.”
“Oh. Okay.” She reclines, feigning ignorance. “Does that make me bad?”
I open my mouth, but Clark puts his hand on my knee.
“Hardly. It just makes Louise very, very good. Much better than us.”
His eyes seem to glitter when he looks at me, and I can’t think. I can’t be angry at him for keeping this—friendship, whatever it’s called—with Rita from me, when he looks like that.
I drape my palm over his knuckles. “Thanks. You know—” My smile returns with a triumphant pinch, “—it’s hard for me to believe we’ve been friends so long. What, eight years now? Nine?”
“Since the day we met,” he allows.
“You were so grown-up. And you’d do that card-trick thing, and we’d spend hours together. Absolutely hours.”
“Every day, practically. And thanks for letting me stay with you.” I move my hand from his wrist to his forearm. Up, up to his elbow. “It means so much.”
The warmth disappears from my knee, returns to the steering wheel. “Anyway,” he continues, his voice hard with finality, “we should probably figure out the seating plan. Because, you know, some people like to sit up real close—” he grants me a meaningful look, “—and others, like myself, are sane and prefer distance. Rita, where do you stand?”
I watch her expression as she answers—something about not minding either way. She’s hollow, beneath the eyes and in the cheeks. Haunted and lovely. But it’s not the face of the girl that’s been Clark’s best friend for a near decade.
It’s not the face of a girl who has won.
I walk out of the theater on shaky legs, clutching Clark’s arm.
“That was awfully intense,” I breathe into his shoulder. He laughs.
“Yeah, well. It is called Saboteur.”
“I liked it,” Rita inserts. She’s walking separate from us, hands in the pocket of her tweed pants. I’m positive they were meant for a little boy, tapering well above her ankles. They’re even tight over her hips, for a change—I notice men looking her way.
“I’m glad,” Clark says. So pleasant.
“For a first moving picture, that wasn’t bad.”
“Oh, that was your first, then?”
She raises her hands, and her blouse glides up, exposing a flat stomach. “Guilty.”
I roll my eyes against the cotton of his shirt, embarrassed for her. It’s obvious she’s never had a mother, somebody to teach her what’s right and proper and expected.
That thought is immediately chased by shame, humid and raw. I quiet it with the suggestion of ice cream. We queue at a small joint with a hand-lettered sign and cheerful occupants. An older teenage girl, hair in twin braids, throws her elbows into digging out an extra-large scoop of mint chip like she knows I need it.
“Thank you,” I say absently, as I hand her my fifteen cents. I’m too busy watching Clark snake his arm over Rita’s shoulders as she contemplates her choices. His fingers do a dance on the inner bone, and she giggles something into his ear.
“Oh.” The girl is holding change out to me. “Sorry—what?”
“You gave me a quarter,” she elaborates. “Here’s your change.”
“No, keep it.” I lift my ice cream to her in a swiftly-melting salute. Then I park myself on a bench just outside so I can’t watch Clark pay for Rita’s ice cream.
By the time they emerge, mine is nearly gone.
“Wow, you’re a fast eater!” Rita marvels as she lifts a dainty bite to her lips.
“I didn’t want it to get soupy.” I break off a sizable chunk of my waffle cone and gnash it to smithereens, ignoring the taste of cardboard.
“Here,” Clark says, extending his spoon to me. “Wanna bite?”
I let him slide it between my lips. Then, mouth full, “Thish good. Wha flavoh?”
“Pineapple. Something new—called sorbet.”
“Mm.” I blanket my mouth as it slides down my throat. “Yum.”
“Very,” Rita agrees, in a way that feels like a snub. She got the first taste.
I tip my cup toward him. “Here, Clark,” I snap, “there’s a bite left.”
“I’m good. Maybe Rita wants to try?”
“Yeah—” She reaches for it, but then my fingers seemingly loose their grasp, and it tumbles to the ground. An anemic green pools on concrete.
“Oh—sorry.” I bend to pick it up. “It’s empty now.”
“No problem.” She buries her spoon in her double scoop and takes a heaving bite. “This is delicious.”
“Chocolate? That’s a little boring.”
“But so good. Theirs is the best.” She offers the cup to Clark. “Want a taste?”
“Too bad.” She smiles a close-lipped smile, the kind a wolverine might. “They say chocolate’s an aphrodisiac.”
A word I haven’t heard. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I look to Clark. “What’s that?”
“It’s—” His face blossoms pink. “That might be one for an actual dictionary.”
We’ve been walking back to the car, but I stop to throw what’s left of my cone away. Clark and Rita clip ahead, and she seizes the opportunity to take a half-step closer to him. Their shoulders brush. I study the way they are together, at least from the back. Clark’s not a big guy like my Daddy was, not tall, so her petite frame—it fits. Her light hair contrasts with his dark. Her quick, dicey steps sync up to his strides.
I don’t know what to feel, only a little bit nauseous—and probably because of the ice cream. I shouldn’t have eaten that, not coupled with popcorn. But that’s our thing, Clark and I. We go to the movies and eat concessions, and then we get desert. It’s been our tradition for years. But she comes along, with her boyish clothes and figure and somehow manages to be a woman—unafraid, uninhibited. Smoking cigarettes and talking about aphrodanishes, whatever those are. No wonder—
“Louise?” Clark has stopped; they’ve made it halfway down the block. “You coming?”
“Yep.” I’m still holding my cone so I drop it in the bin, where it joins the other trash of yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Then I hurry to catch up, keeping my eyes averted so I don’t risk witnessing Rita joke about what I look like when I run.
I slow as I draw near, out of breath. “Thanks for waiting.”
We clasp hands, and Clark nods. “Of course.”
Janet corners me in the kitchen while I’m making iced tea to break the news.
“You need to go to your Mom,” she suggests gently, “and make up.”
I stop stirring sugar. The ice cubes clink together, chance music. “Oh.”
“I’m sorry, Louise. But you’ve been here four nights—”
“No, I understand.” I lift the spoon by its tail and wag, wag, wag. “Thank you for letting me stay here at all. I really appreciate it.”
“Well—I’m glad. I’m happy you could. I’ve enjoyed having you.” She pulls out one of the kitchen chairs and swishes herself into it, folding her arms over the back. “I always wanted a daughter, you know. It just never happened for Rupert and I.”
I pull the spoon out and nod, transfixed by the way the liquid ripples.
“You want a daughter someday, Louise?”
“Oh.” I lay the utensil down in the sink, so careful that it barely tinkles. “Maybe. Probably.”
“And you’ll love her, I’m sure.”
“Yeah.” I take a drink. I made it too sweet. “You have any lemon?”
Janet points to a bowl of fruit on the countertop. Her nails are fire-engine red; I don’t know if Mama’s ever had hers done.
“We’re in the war right now, you know,” Janet says, watching as I retrieve the citrus and a knife. I slice the smallest of wedges.
“That’s all we hear about at school,” I joke, as I squeeze it over the glass. The drops somersault in, translucent as rain.
“I’m sure.” She rests her chin upon her hand. “I’m in the news, you know, so it’s been my job. Four years now, it’s been my job. And tragedy, tragedy—that’s all it’s about.”
“Well, yeah.” I think about rinsing off the spoon to stir it again, but instead I give the drink a tentative shake. “That’s what war is.”
“So much pointless killing,” She agrees. “Man against man, these men with families. And it made me realize that I don’t want to fight in my own life anymore. If Rupert does something ridiculous, you know, like men do—I don’t argue. I might huff a little bit, but I don’t…”
“Fight,” I supply.
She nods. Her eyes are kind, long lashes framing blue, hair done in loose curls. I notice a mole on her right cheekbone, the stuff of movie stars—glamor, the hollywood life. And yet she’s here, sitting in this kitchen, beaming her wisdom at me like I’m the leader of the next world—a successor to her youthful knowledge.
“What are you saying?” I set my tea aside with a clank against the ceramic countertop.
“You know.” She graces me with a doting smile, so much love. “Make up with your mother, whatever it is that’s going on. Make amends. Life’s too short for fighting.”
I can feel tears building inside. A dozen memories flit through my mind, each one a burr on my conscience: Mama, holding my hand as we threaded laps around the yard; Mama, fussing over a scraped knee; Mama, putting an extra pinch of sugar into my lemonade, even when we were low; Mama, sewing my dresses for me; Mama, coiling me to her in the days after Daddy died; Mama, baking cookies for the first time since; Mama—
blushing when Mr. Otis Kitchett helped her into the cab of his truck.
“Sure.” I mean to say this flippantly, but it comes out garbled and choked, near tears. I spin away and busy myself wrapping the lemon up, washing my spoon, draining my tea. Somewhere in the midst of this, Janet leaves; when I turn around I find the chair tucked against the table, the tang of her perfume zapped from the air. I wonder if I imagined it.
That night, my bed feels foreign to my shoulder blades. I lay on my back anyway and stare at the shadows that paint the ceiling, cast by the moon. I pretend the peak of the barn is a pyramid in the desert. I pretend the long, rustling grass are soldiers marching towards it. I pretend the flickering off of a shiny wheelbarrow is fire, gulping everything down. My blankets are arms—soft arms, forgetting arms. His.
Monday plods around, and I stop by Mrs. Spinnaker’s after school to see if she has any more work for me, aside from the hideous scarf. There is a skirt to patch. I name my price and hold my breath. She says that’ll be fine and sends me away with her customary, “Now, watch out for that boy!”
What would she say if she knew my reason for working in the first place?
On my walk to the bus stop, I calculate. With all my savings from the past four months, I should have enough to by myself a dress from one of the shops in town. I’ve never had a store-bought dress before, but I’ve pressed my nose to the display window glass plenty of times. They’re all gorgeous, shiny satin and tulle, and I know which one I want—salmon-colored, with a daring neckline and cap sleeves like dollops of whipped cream. Discounted.
After this, I will have the eleven dollars. I’ll be able to buy that dress.
And I’ll finally ask Clark to the dance with me.
I’ve always assumed we would go together anyway, he and I. People have been buzzing about that dance since we were twelve, and high-school seemed so far away. Now I’m in my second year, and it’s the first time I’ll be old enough to do my hair up and dot my lips with rouge and be more to him than Louise. For a boy on the cusp of being a man—graduating, going on to do whatever fabulous things he’ll do—this won’t be an easy feat. I need that dress.
The groan of an engine prompts me to shed my cloak of thoughts. I’m expecting the bus, but Clark’s rusted ford is idling by the curb. He beckons me with a loose wrist, grinning ear-to-ear.
“Hello,” I chirp, as I swing myself inside. I land with a grunt, some object pressed into my backside. As I dig beneath for whatever it is, I twist around, making show of checking the backseat. “Wait…so Rita’s not here?”
“No, she’s not.” Clark blows a breath, and his bangs rustle. “I have this car reserved for you and only you.”
“The way I like it.” With a triumphant, “ha!”, I extract whatever was left in the seat, and bring it forth for fleeting inspection. My face falls.
“What?” Clark asks, as I clam up.
“Here.” My thumb covers the brand name, but I know what these are. I hold the packet of cigarettes up in the air, exhibit A. “These hers?”
“Louise—” With one hand, he reaches down to tap his pockets. "Golly!"
“Or yours?” I suggest.
“They’re—” He holds his hand to me. I study the creases and rivulets I grew up with. “Can I have them?”
“Whose are they? Somebody I don’t know?” I am stricken with fear for a terrible second, imagining Clark with some husky-voiced harlot nobody even knew about until now—this discovery.
“No! I was just going to say—” He glances away just long enough to snatch them from me “—that they’re ours.”
Ours. Suddenly such a hateful word. “Oh.”
“It’s fine.” I fan my hair in front of my face as I watch out the window. We leave the town. Or it leaves us. Either way, corn has taken over.
My nose crackles a reply.
My lids meet over my pupil and leak saltwater. “No.”
“Louise—” The roar slows to a purr, and I feel a swooping sensation as he pulls to the side of the road. Then the sound dies down completely. We are surrounded by sunshine and husks and a meaningless quiet.
“Are you okay?” His hand, on my knee. Up my thigh.
I hate the goosebumps it sends across my skin, the fact that my heart races. He’s sitting a foot from me like every day of my stupid life, and he has no idea.
I use the collar of my dress to wipe the tears. “I’m fine.”
“You’re not.” He reaches out and pushes my hair behind my ear, sliding it hand to the back of my head so he can turn it, so gently, to his. “Please talk to me.”
“I…” My mouth freezes, my tongue turned to lead. Then I decide to lunge for the jugular. “Will you go to the dance with me?”
“That’s it?” His hand trails down, to the base of my skull, and over my neck. “That’s it?”
“That’s—that’s part of it.”
He cocks a corner of his mouth. “I wish I would’ve known you wanted to go earlier.”
“Yeah.” He relaxes back into his seat, arms crossed over his chest. I’m wary of the pitch to his face; there’s a nervousness there. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry—I already asked Rita.”
My breath leaves me. All of it hisses out in a pale grey mist. I can feel my arms, my legs deflating. My posture slackens.
I am nothing.
“Oh,” I manage. Visions of a pretty pink dress, of twirling beneath sparkling lights, of feeling like a movie star and maybe beautiful, of a first kiss goodnight—all of that is gone. The surface things, the material. But more than that—
I am looking at him, and I know. He is not only mine anymore.
“Louise.” He touches me again, and I wish he wouldn’t. “I’ll tell her I’m going with you. I would love that. I promise if I’d thought you…wanted that, to go—you would’ve been it.”
It’s a tantalizing offer. It’s a cake layered with buttercream or a new song that forces your feet into jiving. It is not meant for me.
“No—” Somehow, I manage a smile. Grin, even. “Goodness, no! Don’t be silly! You guys’ll have a great time.”
He’s visibly relieved as he pokes me in the ribs. “And you will, too. I promise every other dance will be yours. Plus the last.”
“Sounds good.” My face is plastic. “Can we—you know, go home, then?”
“Sure.” He turns the key. I close my eyes and transcend into the familiar vibration. Jostling calves, back, toes. When the jarring gets worse, I open my eyes. We’re puttering down the lane to my house, and for the first time in weeks it’s a haven. My solace.
“Thanks, Clark,” I say. I give the handle a pull and a shove.
I ignore him, hurrying up and out. He says it again—“Louise”—and I can picture the way his lips form my name. Purse and open and closed. The color of a balmy sunrise.
I want him to follow, but he doesn’t. I close the backdoor with a soft click and press myself against it. Hard, so hard an ache takes up in my bones. I don’t move until the air comes to life with the protest of the motor, and then I slide down.
He is not coming inside. He is not sorry.
The night of the dance, I stay inside where it’s safe on the couch, and read. After a little while of solace Mama tiptoes in with a plate of warm sugar cookies, and I take two. The crumbs shed against the pages, leaving pinpricks of grease, but I don’t mind.
She takes up her knitting needles, and we don’t talk. She is working on something wide and deep red, squared off like a jaw—a man’s scarf, no doubt. I don’t ask.
“So,” she casts after a while, “you’re not going to the dance tonight?”
“Did you not feel like it?”
I take a huge bite, so my mouth is full. By the time I’ve swallowed, I’ve bought an excuse. “I didn’t have enough money for a dress.”
“We could’ve made one. You and I.”
“Not enough time.”
“All right. Well, there’s next year.”
I turn the page. I’ve not idea what I’ve just read, something about maple trees and milk bottles. I continue anyway.
I hold my book up. “I’m trying to read, Mama.”
“Sorry.” She clacks the needles together. “Idle mind.”
It’s as if I’ve bitten her, and not the cookie. I’m stuffed with remorse; it’s coming out of my ears and eyes and pores. I set the book aside.
“I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
“It’s fine.” She studies her project. “I missed you terribly, Louise. While you were gone.”
“You didn’t come after me,” I point out, as some of the pressure relents.
“I thought you needed space. I didn’t want to push you.”
“Well…” I snag a third cookie, breaking off a third of it. My skirt is sprinkled with it. “Maybe I wanted to be chased.”
Her face is rosy, hair gleaming gray at the temples. I follow a line from her frown to her chin, to the skin of her neck which is beginning to soften. She’s getting old, my mother, and here I am yanking her heart around. I’m all she has left.
“I was just hurt,” I admit, dropping the cookie back onto the plate. I pluck the fragments from my clothes, afraid to watch her eyes. “You didn’t tell me.”
“I was…ashamed.” She breathes deep. “That’s why. My pride…I knew it was wrong.”
“Why, Mama?” I lift my head, resolute. “Please. I just want to know.”
“Because I love him.” She sits up straighter, and I’ve never seen a woman look so strong. Her somber face shines, her eyes flicker. “And he loves me.”
“But his wife—”
“I know.” She clutches the knitting. “It’s terrible. I’ve prayed every day for that woman. I’ve done something terrible to her. I know.”
I shake my head. “You can’t be with him, Mama.”
She nods, mostly to herself. Her eyes are faraway—she’s somewhere else. “I know.”
I reclaim the cookie. We keep to ourselves for a few ticks. Then, when I’m about to open my mouth, I hear a grumble. Clark’s car.
It’s so close—and he’s here. Here for me! I hurry off the couch and to the back door, breakneck speed. I’m going to throw myself off the stoop and into his arms, wind them around his neck. I’m going to press my cheek to his and whisper hallelujah.
But as I reach the door and the handle, the sound is fading—taken away by distance and the wind. With a lump in the throat, I crack it just enough to peer through. He’s gone right by our place, and there he is—at hers.
Dusk has set in, but there is enough light to watch as she comes around the side of their shack. She’s wearing an ill-fitting frock, something puffy and huge. Half of her head of hair is pinned up, and I can see the white of her grin from here, the gleam of his as he comes around to open the door for her. His hands all over her—back, arm, waist.
I shoot back with a gasp. It feels as if I’ve been punched, all my air stolen. I shove the door harder than I mean to, with a clap that rings into the night. I duck down even though they can’t see me, imagining their heads turning—in unison—my way. Knowing that I was watching.
“Louise?” Mama calls. I can’t answer.
A moment later she’s padding into the kitchen. “Lou—oh, I thought you were gone. I heard the door and—baby—”
She crouches down beside me. “Baby, what’s wrong?”
“Clark.” I screw my eyes shut and brace my fingernails against the floor, rocking back and forth. “It’s Clark.”
“Is he hurt—baby?”
“No.” I throw my head back, wishing a blue sky were above us and not the dim kitchen lights. Twin rivers trail from the corners of my eyes. Quiet. “He’s not taking me to the dance. That’s why I’m not going.”
“Oh, baby—you can still go—”
“No.” I gape at her accusingly. Then I pound my fist against the ground. “No, Mama, I can’t. Because then I’d have to watch him with her—”
“I don’t know. All I know is that they’ve been doing stuff together for months, and I was blind. I was stupid and blind.” The tears pick up, so fast that I can’t seem to catch my breath. “I thought—maybe—I thought maybe he liked me.”
“My baby.” Mama pulls me to her. I lay my head against her chest as a shudder overtakes me. “He does love you, Louise.”
“Not like I—not like I love him.”
Her hands cusp the back of my head. “Oh, baby,” she whispers, again and again. We sit there on the kitchen floor, and I cry while he dances.
I stay by Mama’s side. We knead bread in the kitchen and read books at the table; she gets me started with my first pair of knitting needles, tiptoeing through the motions so I can follow; outside, we plant tomato seeds—it is May—and hum oldies under our breath.
“Hey,” I trumpet, holding up a worm from the soil, “Look. A friend.”
She wrinkles her nose. “Oh, Louise. Put him back.”
“I think…” I wait until she’s refocused on digging and then creep towards her. “I think he wants to see you!”
I let the worm fly, and Mama squeals, narrowly dodging him. “Louise!”
“What? He asked me to visit you.”
She stands with her hands on her hips, pieces of hair falling around her face, and pants. Then, shaking her head slightly, she bends over and picks up the trowel.
I’m giggling as I pull weeds, pleased with myself—
I stumble to the side and nearly loose my footing as something catches me in the shoulder. I fumble with my sleeve as I right myself, glimpsing a smear of brown. It’s easy to spot the culprit—Mama is posed a few feet away holding an empty trowel, with a hand over her mouth. My facial expression must be something, because she suddenly lets loose with a loud guffaw, followed by another.
I scoop up some dirt and hurl it at her. She twists away, grasping her skirt, and gets annihilated on her back. She’s laughing so hard she can’t get in a word in, and grinning, I pick up another clump and send it sailing her way.
She lurches forward for a handful and a beat later, I am speckled with brown. Then I’m laughing too, so wide my cheeks hurt, and we are clawing at the ground and letting loose mounds fly from our fingertips, not really aiming anywhere—our vision is obscured by tears from laughing.
We both surrender at the same time, collapsing onto the seat of our skirts with wheezy exhales and squinty eyes. Mama studies me a minute, and I’m overtaken by the urge to giggle again—she is an anomaly, plopped in the center of a rainstorm of dirt—but her face is so somber, so serious, that all I can do is mirror her expression. And I know we will be okay.
I let her have the bath first. The twilight has come, and I linger outside to gather the seeds and gardening tools. It’s quiet—nary a truck has passed down the road, and it’s too early for the night-bugs. I plunge onto the stoop and rest my head on my knees. The faint thrum of the bathtub can be heard, and on top of that, almost lost beneath the water, is Mama’s humming.
I lay my head on my knees and listen, as if I am three again. Earlier, when we sang, it was what Daddy used to listen to—Bing Crosby, mostly. Now, sitting here, there is de ja vu; certainly I have heard this before, as the folds of my memory pick it up and hold it dear, telling my heartbeat to slow, everything’s fine now.
So enraptured by the song, I am, that I do not hear him. Not until he is almost on top of me, a shadow cast over my body.
I don’t bother looking up. “Hey.”
“Hey.” He hovers. “I haven’t seen you for a few days.”
“I’ve been busy. With Mama.”
“Yeah, I know. I saw you guys. You looked happy.”
“I am.” I lift my head and straighten my shoulders. He is working his boot into a place on the ground, hands in pockets—sheepish, maybe. It pains me to ask, but I do. “How was the dance?”
“Oh, all right.” His brown eyes beam into me. “I looked for you.”
“Mm. Yeah, Mama and I decided to do something,” I say breezily, settling back on my palms. “I’m glad it was fun.”
“It was all right,” he stresses. “I really wanted a dance with you.”
“Let’s do it now.” He holds out his hand. I falter.
But after everything—after the heartache and the changes and the turmoil—he is still Clark. So I take it, and he pulls me up and against him.
The crickets start up, the perfect chorus, and we move to their rhythm. I smile as I press my ear to his shoulder. He’s got one hand holding mine, the other on my back.
“You know,” he says in my ear, “there’s supposed to be a full moon tonight.”
“A perfect time to use my telescope.”
“Well.” I step back, severing the moment. “Normally, I’d say sure, but—”
“Louise.” He’s still got hold of my hand, and he squeezes. “Please?”
I shake my head. “Ugh. You’re impossible. Just—let me tell Mama.”
I find her in the hall, adjusting her dressing gown. She lights up when she sees me. “Oh, Louise! I’m all done. It’s yours.”
“Sure—I just…” I suck in my lower lip. “Clark came by. And he asked me over to watch the full moon. So I thought maybe—”
Her face creases up when she smiles. It’s sad, almost. “Sure, baby. Just don’t be home too late.”
“Thank you.” I grab hold of her. “I’ll be back in a little while.”
“Okay.” After two pats on the shoulder, I am flying—down the stairs, through the rooms, out the back door. I’m seized by the sudden fear that he won’t be there, that perhaps Rita Plymouth will have spotted him and beckoned with her feminine wiles—but of course he is. Of course.
“All right,” I announce, coming to a halt. “I’m all yours.”
“Excellent.” He loops his arm through mine. “In a good mood and covered with dirt? I’m a lucky man.”
It’s the first time I’ve heard him use that word to describe himself. “A man, huh?”
“Well, according to medicine.”
The grass parts beneath our feet as we cross the sea of yard. “Oh, please.”
“Are you trying to dispute that?”
“I—no.” I clamp my mouth shut. “When you turn eighteen, then you can call yourself that.”
“Oh, but I did. Yesterday, remember?”
I freeze, my pulse quickening. “What?”
“Yesterday?” He smirks at me. “Now, don’t say you forgot. That’s not like my Louise.”
“Clark—” I open my mouth. I was so angry at him, so swaddled in my own pity—forgot his birthday. “Holy cow. Clark, I’m sorry.”
“It’s no thing.”
“Yes it is. Ugh, I’m a terrible friend!”
He gives me a tug and, trying to be compliant, I resume walking. “But seriously, though,” I rant, “I am an awful friend and person. You are a man now.”
“For all intents and purposes.”
“And—and—” My knees are a little shaky. “When did this happen?”
“What? My birthday? Yesterday—remember?”
We pause at his backdoor. I wrap my fingers around his forearm, try to think past his grin. “No—growing up. When did that happen?”
“Dunno.” He sweeps the door open. “I guess when we weren’t watching for it.”
I trot up the stairs to his room, after him. When we’re inside, he hurries over to start adjusting the telescope. It’s been awhile since I last used it, a few months ago when I had to map out a constellation for a school project. I hang back and watch him fiddle with the dials. Over the years, he’s become skilled with this thing—I joke he should be an astronomer, like Galileo.
“You know,” I suggest, “if you were to grow a beard—”
“Shut up.” The word dissolves in a chuckle. He steps back. “Okay. It’s yours, princess.”
“Thank you.” I curtsy, and step up. The cool metal beneath my palm is an old friend. I fall into my usual position with ease, muscle memory taking over. Distantly, I register the sound of Clark’s door clicking shut, the groan of his bed as he sits down. I don’t mind that he’s watching me—we always do this. I look, he watches. It’s us.
“Moon yet to come out,” I report robotically, “Louise thinking this was a sham to get me up here.”
“Right.” He laughs, but there’s a wavering quality.
I decide to ignore it. “Jupiter is making eyes at Saturn tonight, but she won’t go steady with him. She’s afraid of commitment.”
No response. I forge on, “And the Big Dipper has served itself too much space ice cream as usual; everybody thinks he’s a hog.”
“Wait, wait.” I adjust the lens. “Well, there’s Cassiopeia, holding her head. She’s got a migraine again, probably from all the chattering the toddler stars—”
I stop. Clark does not move, so I slowly turn around.
“Enlisted in…” I press my lips together.
“The army. I’ve enlisted in the army.”
He’s so small, sitting there like that—shoulders hunched, body pitched forward. His leg starts a jitter against the floor.
“Clark—” I lift my hand, and my whole face crumples. I can feel it. “Clark.”
He reaches out for me, but I shake my head. The tears are falling, but I don’t try to wipe them away. “Golly, why would you do something like that? So stupid?”
“It’s not—Louise, it’s not stupid—”
“It’s stupid!” The word rips out like a scream for help. I stamp my foot. “How? How can you do this to yourself?”
“Louise, you’re not listening.” He’s clenching his teeth, I can tell, but I cannot force myself to be mindful of his feelings. “I needed to do this. I need to make a difference.”
“I have to. For me. For the country.”
I know I must be a sopping mess. There is no space between the tears, they just flow out. I wrap my arms around my stomach and curl in with a sob.
“Louise—” He pats the place beside him. “Please. Just come sit.”
I manage a few steps forward. He does the rest of the work, until I am against him. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, reaching up to touch the back of my head, “I’m sorry.”
“I don’t want you to leave.” I speak the words against his neck, but I’ve calmed down some.
“I don’t want to either, but that’s part of the job.”
“Clark…” I can feel my heart breaking, worse than before, I think. “Why?”
He laughs, but it’s not a happy sound. “I told you, crazy. I’m eighteen. I couldn’t just go on about my life while other guys were out fighting for it. I have to fight, too.”
“You do not.” I tuck my head beneath his chin, afraid to look at him. “You’re not even somebody who gets mad. Remember when Robert Gregory—”
“That bully kid with two first names,” Clark quips.
I roll my eyes, but I’m smiling. “Yes. Okay. So, remember when he threatened you because you became friends with one of his friends—”
“Jim Wells, the kid who always smelled like chocolate milk.”
“Yes, him. And then Robert Gregory came at you with two fists and you went straight to the teacher?” I had felt proud of Clark when I paid witness to this, during recess one day. Most boys would’ve put up and gone in with a war cry, but not my friend. He’d rather label himself a tattletale than hurt anybody.
“I remember,” He says softly.
“So what’re you going to do when a bad guy makes you mad, huh? Tell his boss?”
“General,” he amends.
“Yeah, general—whatever.” I pull away, finally finding the strength to meet his eyes. “Clark, you can’t kill anybody. That’s not you.”
“I—” He bites his cheek, somewhere far off. “I haven’t thought about it too deeply, I guess. But—Louise.” He reaches up to grab my face between both hands. “This is right. And I need you to be okay with it. Okay?”
There’s a shine to his eyes, like maybe he might cry. I’ve seen Clark through a lot of things, but—oddly enough—never tears. And I can’t be the one who brings him to them now. So, with quivering lips, I smile. And I nod.
“Good.” He releases me and leans back with a long exhale. “That was scary.”
“You’re telling me.” I flop onto my back, and a moment later, he joins me. It seems impossible that just a few weeks ago we were in this same position as I despaired about Mama. And now—before long—he won’t be here at all.
I grab his hand as he settles next to me. “How am I supposed to get by without you?”
“Please.” He laughs. “You’re Louise. You’ll be fine.”
“I’m a terrible mess. You know that.”
“I’ll write letters.”
“An advice column would be nice.”
“Okay. And an advice column.”
Silence. Then: “Will you write to me?”
I flip onto my stomach, propping my head up so I can see him. Suddenly, I want as much of him as I can get. “Of course, dummy. If you’re lucky, I’ll even remember to send you some candy on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
“Yes.” He claps his hands together. “That’s all a guy really needs, anyway.”
“Good.” We lapse into quiet again. It’s nice, though—it’s friendship. I study the fan of his eyelashes, the flop of his hair, the line of his jaw. I want to remember.
“So,” I think to ask, “what does Janet think? And you’re dad and—” I almost bite her name off the end of the sentence, but decide against it, “—Rita?”
“They don’t,” he says, crossing his arms. His eyes flick from the ceiling to me, then back again. “You’re the first I’ve told.”
“I’m the first?”
“Yeah.” He’s not looking at me when he says this, almost afraid. “Tomorrow…that’s everyone else. But you—you’re the first. For everything.”
“What? You are.” Our eyes lock. Both are brimming with tears. “And don’t be sad about that. Please don’t. It’s a good thing, Louise. You’re my best friend.”
“And you’re mine.” I steal one of his hands from their lock and sandwich them between mine. “And you’ll be fine.”
“Of course I will.”
And for that moment, I am not thinking about Rita Plymouth, or forgone dresses, or fragile mothers or angel fathers. I am not thinking about the wisdom of young women, the war of the world, movie theaters or telescopes. I am not thinking about truck-wielding men or chocolate chip cookies or dirt fights, laughter. I am thinking only of him, the way he makes me feel—alive and grateful, even when I’m hurting. Like now.
I miss him already.