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The Grooming of Alice


Page 13 of 15

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But Brian said, “Doggone it, then, let’s party!” So somebody put on a CD, and Mark ordered pizza. Elizabeth ate at least a bite of hers, but I don’t know if she ate the rest. We horsed around the pool and shrieked and shouted like we were all having a great time, a wonderful going-away party for Pamela, but no one was enjoying it much. Pamela had been part of our gang so long that losing her was like losing one of our arms.

When I told Dad about it later, he said that her going to Colorado was probably a mistake, but everyone has a right to her own mistakes, and it wasn’t likely to be fatal. She’d eventually make new friends, and maybe she’d get along with her mother better than she did with her dad.

For the rest of the week, Elizabeth and I spent as much time with Pamela as we could. Her dad wouldn’t do a thing to help her get ready. He said he wanted no part of it, that it was a bad idea. So it was Elizabeth and I who had to help her sort through her stuff—what to take now and what to get later. She said maybe she’d come back for Thanksgiving and take the rest. We filled two huge suitcases with stuff she’d need for school in Colorado, but every little thing seemed to remind her of something she’d done with her friends, and she’d cry.

We tried to make her laugh. “Maybe all this packing will help tone our bodies,” I said hopefully, realizing it had been a week since we’d all been running. “I don’t know what Elizabeth and I are going to do without you here to get us going in the mornings.”

“You’ll manage,” Pamela said. “No one is indispensable, you know.”

Elizabeth sat staring sadly down at the dried corsage that Pamela had saved from the eighth grade semiformal. We remembered the way we went over to Elizabeth’s to get ready, how we all went in the same car. Patrick was sick and I went solo, but my friends stuck by me… . Now I began to tear up. And suddenly all three of us sat there bawling.

“Pamela,” I said, my nose clogged. “I never told you, but I’m really sorry about the way I pulled your hair back in sixth grade.”

“Pulled her hair?” Elizabeth stared at me. “Why?”

Pamela wiped one arm across her eyes. “Onstage, too,” she said.

“What?” said Elizabeth again.

“I was jealous,” I told her. “I got stuck being a bramble bush because I couldn’t carry a tune, and Pamela got the best part—her with her long hair down to her waist, the way she wore it then. When she stepped on my foot, I pulled her hair.”

I thought it would make us all laugh, but nobody did.

“Oh, I probably deserved it,” Pamela said. “I was all stuck-up, as though the sixth-grade play was the most important thing in the world.”

“Promise you’ll write?” said Elizabeth. “E-mail us. We’ll write each other every day.”

Lester had said he’d set me up with an e-mail address on his computer, but our family isn’t very high tech, and he hadn’t done it yet.

“I’ll try to get e-mail,” I told her. But I felt we needed something more here. “I think we should each give Pamela something to remember us by, something that means a whole lot to us,” I said.

Elizabeth agreed, and we sat thinking. Probably the two most important things in the world that I own are my mom’s locket, with a lock of her hair inside, the same color as mine, and the ring with the large green stone that Mrs. Plotkin had given me. I couldn’t give either of those away, not even to Pamela.

When we went over to her place the next day, our last evening together, Elizabeth gave Pamela a Saint Agnes card that she said would protect her from rape, because St. Agnes is the saint of bodily purity, having gone through all kinds of tortures to keep herself pure. Elizabeth said it would protect Pamela a whole lot more if she believed in saints herself, but it was better than nothing.

“Do I have to wear it around my neck or anything?” Pamela asked. Both Pamela and I are religious ignoramuses.

“Of course not, but keep it close to you always,” Elizabeth told her.

Then I handed Pamela a small envelope. When she opened it, she found the wrapper from a Milky Way bar. She stared at me. “Minus the candy?” she asked.

“It was the wrapper off the first thing Patrick ever gave me,” I explained. “It was the first time I realized he liked me.”

I think this impressed Pamela more than the Saint Agnes card did because she knows how much I like Patrick. “I’ll keep it always,” she said. The same thing I’d told Mrs. Plotkin about her ring.

We went back out through the living room, where Mr. Jones sat like a statue in front of the TV set. He hardly said anything to us. Just watched us go in and out of Pamela’s room, like a man who had lost his wife and was about to lose his daughter, and didn’t know what to do about it.

Because he was so against her leaving, Pamela’s mom had sent her a reservation on an afternoon flight, knowing that one of her friends would see that she got to the airport. Mr. Jones would be at work, and there wouldn’t be any scenes at the last minute. Lester agreed to drive Pamela to the plane if he could just drop her off and not have to wait around with her. Elizabeth and I went along.

We sat in the backseat together, Pamela in the middle, and alternately laughed and cried, each trying to cheer the others up, but it never worked.

Lester watched us warily in the rearview mirror. “Hey, Pamela,” he said finally. “If you come back for Thanksgiving, do we have to go through all this again?”

“Of course,” she said. “And you know I’ll miss you, too, Lester.”

He put his hand over his heart. “And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils,” he said.

“Don’t quote Shakespeare to me, Les, it doesn’t help,” Pamela said.

“Don’t you know Wordsworth when you hear it?” Les said.

“As soon as you get there, Pamela, send me an e-mail so we’ll know where to write,” Elizabeth said as we pulled up at the airport.

“Give us your address when you get a new apartment,” I told her.

“Say good-bye to everyone for me,” Pamela told us.

We climbed out as Lester got the two huge suitcases from the trunk and gave them to a sky cap. Elizabeth and I broke down again as we hugged Pamela for the last time, till finally the skycap said, “Let’s go, miss, before your friend here gets a ticket.”

We got in the car and watched as Pamela followed her bags into the terminal. She grew smaller and smaller until she was only a tan shirt and blue jeans. Then all we could see was the reflection of sky in the glass of the revolving door.

13

MARILYN

DAD WAS LEAVING FOR ENGLAND, AND Patrick left before Dad. Everyone seemed to be leaving. If they didn’t die, they moved away, and if they didn’t move, they were off to England or Maine or some other wonderful place.

Patrick gave me a long, tender good-bye kiss. The thing about Patrick’s kisses is that no two are alike. Some are long and intense, some are short little pecks on the cheek, and some are light brushes of lips against lips, tantalizing things that make you want to grab him and hold him and make him kiss you in earnest.

“See you in eighteen days,” he told me. He asked what he could bring me from Maine, and I told him a perfect shell.

“I’ll try,” he said.

I helped Dad pack. That’s all I seemed to be doing lately, helping people leave. But I wanted him to look extra nice for Miss Summers. Two whole weeks with the woman he loved without Lester or me around to interrupt—two whole weeks for her without kids from school noticing who she was with.

“Any shirts that need ironing, Dad?” I asked. “Any buttons missing?”

“I think I’m set,” he said. “Is there anything in particular you’d like me to bring you from England?”

The perfect mother, I wanted to say. The news that you and Miss Summers are going to be married. I didn’t say that, of course.

“Choose something,” I said. “Whatever you or Sylvia—I mean, Miss Summers—think I’d like.” If Dad and Miss Summers did marry, I w

onder what I was supposed to call her. I certainly wouldn’t go on calling her “Miss Summers,” but I wouldn’t call her Mrs. McKinley, either. How would just plain “Sylvia” be? I’m not sure I could ever call her “Mom.”

Dad was taking a cab to the airport because Lester had an exam at school, so I waited with him in the living room until the taxi drove up.

“Have a safe trip, Dad! Have fun!” I said, giving him a long, hard hug. “I love you.” What I meant was, Don’t let anything happen to you, because I don’t want to be raised by Lester.

“I love you too, honey,” he said. “Hope things go well here at home.” What he meant was, I don’t want to hear that the neighbors had to call the police. He gave me a quick kiss on the forehead, and he was gone.

Actually, I was more worried about Pamela at the moment, because Elizabeth had had only one e-mail from her from Colorado, nothing more. I reminded Lester again, when he got home, that I wanted an e-mail address so Pamela and I could write each other.

“I’m not only giving you an e-mail address, babe, I’m going to give you my whole computer. I’m getting a new one this week with a lot more memory.”

I screamed and hugged him, and he said if I ever screamed like that again he’d take it back. But that very night he moved it into my bedroom and set up an e-mail address for me. He showed me how to sign on, how to write a message and send it. He even showed me how to write something and send it to a lot of people at once. Elizabeth had given me a list of the e-mail addresses of some of our friends, so I typed up the news that I now had a computer, and e-mailed my address out to some of the gang. Gwen must have been online at the same time, because I got a message right back: Hey, girlfriend! Welcome to the Age of Technology. I was in.

I wanted to learn to type papers on it, though, so that I could do English assignments when I started high school. Lester gave me the manual, but the word processing program was so complicated! He even had one of those Complete Idiot’s Guide books, but I guess I needed a book for imbeciles in order to figure things out, because I still couldn’t get to first base. The margins would jump or the type would dance or numbers would suddenly start appearing down the left side of the page. It was crazy. Lester had given me a computer on the edge of a psychotic breakdown, that’s what.

But between his new girlfriend, his part-time job at the shoe store, and his summer classes, he didn’t have a lot of time to help me, and when Marilyn Rawley called the next evening to ask if I’d heard from Dad, I told her about the trouble I was having with the computer.

“I could come over sometime and do some troubleshooting for you,” she said.

“Would you?” I begged.

“As long as Lester’s not around,” she answered.

“Come Tuesday. He’s in school all afternoon on Tuesdays,” I told her.

“Deal,” she said.

Within a few days of Dad’s leaving, Lester and I broke one of the rules, but because we both agreed to it, we figured it was okay. Lester and Eva went to a crafts fair in Frederick on Saturday afternoon, and were going to stop off at a little restaurant on the way back. But the restaurant had closed, and when Lester remembered the leftover fettuccine we’d had the night before when we’d ordered far too much take-out, he brought her here for a little supper.

We both knew that Dad wouldn’t mind if they simply ate and left again. What Dad really meant by that “no member of the opposite sex” rule was “nobody of the opposite sex going upstairs.” And “no member of the opposite sex lying down on the couch beside you.” Those kinds of rules.

When Lester brought her inside and explained that they were going to have a quick bite and head for the movies, I knew this wasn’t a good time to remind Eva of her promise to do a makeover on me, but I was hoping she’d bring it up again. She had only been in the house for fifteen minutes, however, when I decided I might not like her for a sister-in-law after all.

“This is fettuccine Alfredo?” she asked, pronouncing it with a decidedly Italian accent, rolling the r.

“Supposed to be,” Les said, pausing with some of it wrapped around the end of his fork as though poised for her next comment.

“They obviously didn’t use cream,” she said. “Fettuccine Alfredo demands cream, or why bother? Cream and great cheese.”

Lester said nothing, just popped the forkful in his mouth.

“Tastes good to me!” I chirped. “Pass the fettuccine Alfrrrrredo, Lester, and I’ll have some more,” I said.

Eva went on picking at her food, pushing the pasta from one side of her plate to the other.

“How was the crafts fair?” I asked Lester.

“Some interesting pottery,” he said. “I almost bought a beer pitcher. Had little ceramic figures around the bottom of fat men in a London pub, caps on their heads, knee breeches, the works. Real art.”

Eva laughed musically. “Oh, darling, not art! Craft, maybe, but not art.”

“Folk art, certainly,” Lester said. “And better than anything I could do.”

“Or me, either, but that still doesn’t make it art,” Eva said with authority.

I looked at Eva. “Define art,” I said.

“Well, a craftsman,” she instructed, “has the ability to turn out a product of precision and skill. But an artist produces a work of such originality and inspiration that it transcends craft. It goes beyond mere talent.”

“I still liked the beer pitcher,” said Lester. “I would have bought it if I’d had the dough.”

The musical laugh again. “If we ever have a bar in the basement, you could keep it there,” she said, and gazed at Lester with fond exasperation.

If we ever have a bar in the basement? I couldn’t stand the thought of Eva in our family. I couldn’t stand the thought of them having a bar. A basement. A house!

And then the world sort of stopped. My breathing did, anyway, because Lester suddenly put down his fork, looked at Eva, and said, “If I have a house, I will buy a beer pitcher and put it any damn place I please.”

I stared. Eva stared. Then she gave another little laugh that wasn’t quite so musical. “Of course you will, Les! If it’s your house, you can do anything you want,” she said.

The silence there at the table was awesome. It was Lester’s cue to say if he ever intended to include Eva in his future, and he didn’t exactly jump at the chance. Needless to say, she didn’t finish her fettuccine.

When they left, neither was smiling, and I called Elizabeth to come over and make brownies with me. I told her about Lester and Eva, and she said that marriage was a partnership, and everything was supposed to be divided fifty-fifty—money, decisions, chores, worries … I wondered if it ever really worked that way, though—if sometimes one partner seemed to be doing all the giving, and another time, the other. Anyway, we mixed up the dough, put half of it on the bottom of a baking pan, put caramels over the dough, then spread the other half of the dough on top. It was our own creation, and nothing Betty Crocker would put in a cookbook, probably, but I thought it turned out okay. It would have been better if we’d melted the caramels first, because there were these huge, chewy lumps all over the brownies, but they were good. Elizabeth even ate one. Well, half a brownie, anyway.

“I still haven’t heard any more from Pamela, have you?” she asked.

“Not a peep,” I said. “I’ve sent her three e-mails at the Colorado address, and she hasn’t replied. And we never did get her mom’s street address because she said they’d be moving soon.”

“Do you suppose she’s okay?”

“Sure. Probably just trying to get things straightened out, especially if they’re moving,” I said.

Elizabeth took another brownie, but simply dissected it on her plate, separating the caramel from the chocolate and then not eating any of it. “What if she didn’t go to Colorado, Alice? What if she really bought a plane ticket to somewhere else and didn’t tell anyone?”

“Her mom sent her the plane ticket, Elizabeth. And we’d have

heard by now if she hadn’t got there. Her dad would have come over here first thing.”

“Oh. Right.” Elizabeth was quiet a moment. “Well, what if she went to her mom’s, but the mother’s boyfriend turned out to be el creepo who sneaks in her bed at night and molests her, and she’s afraid to tell anyone?”

“Pamela? Are you kidding? She’s no eight-year-old dummy! If a man tried to molest Pamela, she’d kick him in the groin so hard, he couldn’t walk for a week.” I studied Elizabeth. “Are you still planning on being a nun?”

“I’m not sure. Why?”

“I think you ought to write for television instead. I think you should write screenplays for shows like Law & Order or something. Your imagination always works overtime.”

“Well, what if another week goes by and we still haven’t heard from Pamela?”

“Then we’ll worry,” I said.

We were washing up the mixing bowl and pan when Lester came in. He clomped into the kitchen, ignoring Elizabeth, jerked open the refrigerator door, glanced at the contents, then banged the door again.

“I am through with dyed-haired, made-up, half-starved, ill-tempered, spoiled-rotten, money-hungry, self-centered, know-it-all women!” he declared, as though I had anything to do with Eva. And then he turned on Elizabeth. “Don’t ever trade a healthy body for a bag of bones in high heels!” he thundered, and with that he marched back down the hall again and stomped his way upstairs.

Elizabeth stood staring after him, then looked at me. “What was that all about? What did I do?” she asked.

“You were in his line of fire, that’s all,” I told her, but I couldn’t help smiling. “I think he just broke up with Eva!” And suddenly I yelled, “All riiiiight!” and we gave each other a high five.

After Elizabeth went home, I waited an hour, then went upstairs and knocked on Lester’s door. He was playing a CD, so I figured that music had at least calmed the beast.

“Yeah?” he called.

I opened his door a few inches. “I take it you and Eva aren’t ‘an item’ anymore?”

“You could say that,” said Lester. He was lying on his bed in his bare feet, reading a mountain bike magazine.



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