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The Grooming of Alice


Page 14 of 15

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“Are you still hungry? I could fix you something… .”

“What are you, my indentured servant?”

“No, I just thought you could use a little TLC.”

He gave me a weak smile. “Thanks. Appreciated.”

“I never liked Eva, Les, but I didn’t want to tell you.”

“Well, come to think of it, I didn’t, either. She was gorgeous in an artificial sort of way, and sexy as anything, and exciting, and she smelled good. But she was one of the few women I’ve known who made me feel bad about myself. No matter what I did, it was never right. I couldn’t please her in a thousand years.”

It was one of the few times Lester had really confided in me, and I started to put in a plug for Marilyn Rawley but decided to keep my mouth shut, and went back downstairs again. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, the phone rang. It was Dad, calling from England. I could hear him as clearly as if he was right across the street. I’d thought his voice would be all garbled, and I’d hear waves sloshing against the telephone cable or something.

“It’s Dad!” I yelled to Lester, and he came out into the hall and picked up the phone upstairs.

“So how is everyone?” Dad asked.

“We’re fine!” I told him.

“How are things there?” asked Lester.

“We’re having a great time,” said Dad. “Sylvia has this charming flat, and we’ve toured Chester and half of England as well. I haven’t got the hang of driving on the left side of the street, but you should see Sylvia zip around as though she were born here.”

There were a million things I wanted to know, like, were they sleeping in the same bed? But what I said was, “Have you seen any castles?”

“A couple. They’re great places to visit, but I’d rather live right back there in Silver Spring. You two getting along okay?”

“Haven’t killed her yet,” Les replied.

And then Dad was saying, “Sylvia has only one phone in her flat, so I can’t put her on at the same time, but we have some news we both wanted to share with you.”

I don’t think I was even breathing. I don’t think Les was, either, because we didn’t even say what?

“We’re going to be married next year.”

“Oh, Dad!” I yelped in delight.

“Congratulations, Dad! That’s wonderful news!” said Lester.

“I’m a very lucky man,” Dad told us.

And then, Sylvia’s voice. “Hi, Alice! Hello, Lester! Isn’t this exciting? We wanted you to be the first to know.”

“I’m so happy!” I kept repeating. “I’ve wanted this forever!”

“Welcome to the family,” said Lester.

“Can I tell everyone?” I squealed. “Have you set the date? Is the wedding going to be here in Silver Spring?”

Dad’s voice again. “I don’t think we’ll even need to send out announcements, Sylvia. Just tell Al, and the whole world will know.”

“Oh, this is the best!” I kept saying. “Miss Summers, I …” I waited till Dad put her on again. “Well, I guess I won’t be calling you Miss Summers any more.”

“Just call me Sylvia,” she said.

I don’t even remember saying good-bye. I only remember running upstairs and grabbing Lester and jumping up and down, then turning a backward somersault in the hallway and banging my knee on a door frame. I didn’t even care. I felt no pain.

“Anybody got a tranquilizer gun?” Lester said.

“Aren’t you excited, Lester? Isn’t it wonderful? I’ve wanted this more than anything in the whole wide world, and it’s really coming true!”

“I don’t think Dad ever sounded happier,” Les agreed. “It’s about time things started going his way.”

I spent the next hour calling everyone I knew, and if they weren’t home, I left messages on their e-mail.

Elizabeth was almost as manic as I was. “What if they spend their wedding night right there at your house?” she said.

“Elizabeth!” I said, faking shock. “You wouldn’t be talking about sex, would you?”

We carried on so long that Lester came out of his room and closed my door. But after I made my last call and put down the phone, I realized I wanted to tell Pamela more than anyone, and I didn’t even know where she was.

I didn’t tell Lester that Marilyn was coming over Tuesday to help me with the computer. I didn’t want him to think I was doing anything to get the two of them back together, and to tell the truth, I simply forgot. All I could think about was that I was finally going to get a mother, and even though I wouldn’t call her that, she’d be there for me when I needed her. Finally something good had come out of this long, hot summer.

Marilyn arrived on Tuesday in shorts and a tank top with the outline of her nipples barely visible under the tan cotton. Her long dark hair was piled on top of her head, some hanging in wisps down the back of her neck, and she carried an armload of computer manuals.

It was probably one of the hottest days on record for the Washington area, and our house—an old house—isn’t air-conditioned. We’ve got window units in the living room and Dad’s bedroom, but Les and I just open our windows wide at night and hope for a breeze. Dad keeps talking about central air-conditioning, but it hasn’t happened yet. You can bet we’ll get it before Miss Summers comes here to live.

“My lord, Alice, it’s hot up here!” Marilyn complained after I’d told her all the news and we’d worked at the computer for an hour.

I apologized and set up a fan to blow on her bare legs, but even a fan can’t blow away Washington’s humidity. Marilyn’s a good sport, though. Eva probably would have thrown a fit and walked out after the first ten minutes.

She showed me a lot of things—how to make a new document on the computer, and organize stuff into “folders” where I could find them again. She set up school files and friends’ files and personal files so that I could put things in their proper place. Most important, she showed me the “escape” key and the “undo” key, and I began to think I could survive the computer age after all.

After we’d been at it for two hours, though, we were both ready to quit for the day. Marilyn was meeting her sister later at the mall, and she said, “Alice, would you mind if I took a quick shower?” She sniffed her armpits. “I’ve been sweating like a pig.”

“Sure, go ahead,” I told her. “I’ll get a fresh towel for you.” I put one in the bathroom along with a box of body powder I’d got for my birthday, and felt almost as grown-up as Marilyn—having an adult woman for a friend. She was so different from Eva. No matter what Eva might have done for me, I never would have felt comfortable around her in a million years.

It wasn’t until I heard the shower running that I suddenly remembered that Lester’s summer classes were over, and he was on break! He’d had finals! He was through! He was gone, but where he was I hadn’t the faintest idea, and I didn’t know when he’d be home, either. Maybe, though, he wouldn’t come back until Marilyn had left.

No such luck. Marilyn had only been in the shower about two minutes when I heard a car door slam, and the next thing I knew, Lester was standing in the hallway, his gym bag under his arm.

“Where is she?” he said.

Then I remembered Marilyn’s car out front. I tried to stay cool. “Marilyn?” I said. “Relax. She came by to help me with the computer, and it’s stifling in my room, so she’s taking a shower before she meets her sister at the mall.”

Lester looked somewhat relieved to know she hadn’t come by to see him.

“I forgot your classes were over,” I told him. “I thought you’d be gone all afternoon.”

“Well, I’m stifling, too,” he said. “What have we got to drink?”

“I made lemonade,” I said. “Just go out in the kitchen and you won’t even have to see her when she leaves.”

“Hey, I’m a big boy, Al. I don’t have to hide in the kitchen,” he said and, as if to prove his point, he stood just inside the living room sorting t

hrough the day’s mail.

“Suit yourself,” I said. I went out in the kitchen and poured us each a glass of lemonade. I was just going back through the hallway when there was a knock at the front door.

I stood there holding both glasses as Lester went to answer. The door swung open, and all we could do was stare.

“Aunt Sally!” we gasped in unison.

14

THE TRAVELER RETURNS

THERE SHE WAS, ALL 170 POUNDS OF HER, with her suitcase in one hand and her purse in the other.

“We … we thought you were in Michigan!” I spluttered.

She smiled and stepped inside with that take-charge manner that makes you want to run for cover. “I know you did, dear, and I didn’t want to trouble Lester to come to the airport for me, so I just took a cab here.”

“But I thought you told Dad you couldn’t come,” Les protested.

“Well, I got to thinking about it, and asked myself, Now what is more important? Another week of fishing with Milt or looking after my sister’s children the way I’d promised I would? I decided I’d done my duty to my husband, and I should spend the other week doing my duty to Marie by coming here and looking after you two, so here I am.”

She put her bag down and held out her arms. I can’t say we exactly fell into them. We each dutifully hugged her, though, and Lester said, “You know, Sal, I am twenty-one. Twenty-two, next month.”

“I know, Lester, but I also know that a young man’s hormones work overtime in their twenties, and if I had a twenty-something son and a fourteen-year-old daughter, I wouldn’t leave them alone together in the house for one minute.”

“What?” I croaked. Did Aunt Sally actually think that … that Lester and I … that we …?

She immediately blushed. “Oh, I didn’t mean you! Heavens, no! But … Alice with her Patrick, and you, Lester, with your Marilyn, and …”

“He’s not dating Marilyn,” I said. “And Patrick’s away for two weeks. We’re really doing just fine, Aunt Sally, and Uncle Milt will miss you.”

“Uncle Milt can take care of himself,” she said, “and I’m not here to interfere in your lives. I’m just going to give the house a good cleaning and do some cooking and baking so that when the traveler returns from England, he’ll have a spick-and-span house to come back to, as well as something in the refrigerator.”

Lester and I could only exchange helpless looks. You can’t exactly tell your aunt you don’t want her. You can’t tell your mother’s sister to leave.

“Now you two just go right on doing whatever you were doing when I got here, and I’ll make myself at home,” Aunt Sally said. “You don’t have to worry about me.” She picked up her suitcase and started upstairs.

Dumbly we watched her go. Neither of us could think of what to say, and at that precise moment, when Aunt Sally was three steps from the top, Marilyn Rawley stepped out of the bathroom with a towel around her and called, “Alice, do you have any …?” Her voice tapered off. “Deodorant?”

Aunt Sally stared at Marilyn’s bare legs, then turned and looked down the stairs at Lester.

“She’s my friend,” I said, and called, “second drawer on the left, Marilyn.”

Marilyn whirled about and disappeared in the bathroom again.

Aunt Sally put her suitcase on the top step and came back downstairs. “Lester, was that Marilyn Rawley?”

“Yes, Sal, it was.”

She looked at me. “You lied to me?”

“Aunt Sally, come out in the kitchen and have some lemonade and I’ll explain the whole thing,” I said. She followed me to the kitchen and sat down, fanning herself.

I gave her my own glass and sat down across from her. I told her that Lester and Marilyn had broken up. I explained how he had given me his old computer, and Marilyn had come over to help me with it, how I’d forgotten that summer classes were over at the university, and Les had come back to find Marilyn here… .

Aunt Sally sighed. “I shouldn’t have come,” she said, subdued.

“No, Aunt Sally, I don’t think you should have,” I said honestly, “and certainly not without calling first.” I teased her a little. “You were trying to check up on us and you know it.”

She wrung her hands. “Carol told me not to come.”

“Smart woman,” I said.

“But Ben was the one who suggested it. He was the one who called me.”

“I know. That’s because I was hiding Pamela here,” I said. And then I had to explain about that.

Aunt Sally took another sip of lemonade. “I can tell that if I stay here till Ben gets back, Lester’s going to hate me,” she said.

“He won’t hate you, but he’s not exactly happy. It’s me he’s mad at, for upsetting Dad enough to call you in the first place,” I told her.

“So …,” Aunt Sally put down her glass. “I tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going to stay just long enough to do some baking and put a few things in the freezer, and then I’m going to change my reservation and fly home.”

I smiled.

“I’ll get home a few days early so I’ll just have time to bake a pie for Milt too,” she said.

“Then everyone will be happy,” I assured her. “You know, Aunt Sally, we’re growing up. Lester’s an adult now.”

“I know. Carol keeps reminding me of that. It’s just … just that no matter how old your children get, you never stop worrying about them. You won’t understand that until you’re a mother yourself, Alice, but it’s true.”

“I suppose so.”

“And maybe, because Marie’s not here, I feel I have to do her worrying for her.”

“Dad can do enough for both of them,” I said. And then I remembered the big news. “But guess what! He’s going to get married! He called a few days ago, and he and Sylvia are marrying when she comes back next year!”

Aunt Sally just stared at me. I don’t know what I expected her to do—stand up and cheer, maybe—but she didn’t even smile. Just looked at me with such puzzlement that suddenly I knew: I had just announced that the man her sister had been married to was engaged to another woman. And she probably wondered how I, her sister’s daughter, could be happy about something like that.

“I guess they really love each other,” she said at last.

“I guess so,” I said.

“And Marie wouldn’t have wanted Ben to be lonely the rest of his life.”

“Not if Mom was as wonderful as you say.”

“Then I guess I’m happy for him, too, Alice,” said Aunt Sally.

We heard the front door close, and when I went out to the living room, both Marilyn’s and Lester’s cars were gone. I went upstairs to make up Dad’s room for Aunt Sally, and then went back down while she settled in. The phone rang. It was Carol.

“Alice, listen, my mother’s on her way to your place. Don’t ask me to explain, but she feels it’s her duty. I tried to tell her not to go, but she …”

“She’s here,” I said.

“Oh, my gosh.”

“It’s okay, Carol,” I said, grateful forever to the wonderful cousin who explains a lot of things to me, including sex. “We had a little talk, and she’s only staying a couple of days.”

“How did you manage that?” asked Carol.

“The friendly art of persuasion,” I said. “But listen! Have I got news …!”

True to her word, Aunt Sally stayed only two days, a dish towel pinned to the front of her dress as an apron, her glasses sliding forward a little on her nose, and her feet firmly planted in white oxfords. She spent the first day baking, the second day cleaning, the air conditioner in the living room and bedroom going full blast, and then she flew back to Chicago.

What I didn’t find out until later was that the day she had come, Lester and Marilyn were laughing about it upstairs—the way Marilyn had walked out of the bathroom with a towel around her—and decided to go have ice cream at the mall with Marilyn’s sister. They were friends again, Lester told me.

Just friends. But I could live with that.

It was fun to e-mail this story around, but I wished Patrick was here so I could tell him in person. I got a postcard from him that afternoon, though: HAVEN’T FOUND THE PERFECT SHELL YET. WILL YOU SETTLE FOR THE PERFECT KISS? SEE YOU SOON.

The day before Dad was due home, I spent the afternoon at Elizabeth’s, just talking, hanging out. It was cooler in her room, for one thing, and her mother always fixed something for us to eat when I came over, which was always better than whatever Les and I were eating back home.

What was bothering us both was that there was still no word from Pamela.

“I think it’s bad news,” Elizabeth said. “When things are going well, you want to tell everybody. When they’re not …”

She was right about that. “Think we ought to call her dad and see if he’s heard from her?” I wondered. “Of course, he’d probably hang up on me, the way I hid Pamela at my house.”

“I don’t know,” Elizabeth said. “She’s probably busy getting registered in a new school, and they can’t do that until they know where they’re going to live.”

“I hated to see her go feeling so bad about everything,” I said. “In fact, I haven’t seen Pamela look happy for a long time, have you? Not since before her mother ran off with that boyfriend.”

We lay on the bed idly leafing through magazines.

“How are things with you and Justin? Are you going out at all?” I asked her.

“He hasn’t called in a while. We’ll see,” Elizabeth said, and didn’t offer any more.

“Elizabeth?” came her mother’s voice suddenly from below. And then, louder, “Elizabeth?”

There were hurried footsteps on the stairs. We jumped up. Had something happened to Nathan?

The door to Elizabeth’s room burst open, and there stood Pamela.

We could only stare at first, and suddenly we were screaming and laughing and swarming all over Pamela, hugging and dragging her down on the bed.

“Pamela!” We kept saying her name as though we’d never heard it before.

Mrs. Price was standing in the doorway laughing. “I just answered the door, and there she was!” she told us, and went downstairs again.



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