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The Grooming of Alice


Page 2 of 15

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Elizabeth stopped laughing and sat up. “What do you mean?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Justin, grinning at her lazily. “You’re just a little softer in all the right places.”

But Elizabeth’s face was pink. Mark, of course, who’s about as subtle as a neon sign, had to say, “It’s all those Good Humor bars, the kind with the chocolate bar in the center.”

“It is not!” Elizabeth declared.

“I like the toasted almond bars,” said Brian. “I could eat those all day.” And the guys immediately started talking about their favorite ice cream, oblivious of what was happening with Elizabeth.

She sat stiffly on her towel, arms circling her thighs and calves, as though trying to shield her body from view. She wouldn’t even touch the rest of her Sprite, and finally went in the house to change. I followed.

“Elizabeth, don’t take what Justin said so seriously. You know you get a little puffy right before your period,” I told her.

“I’m fat!” Elizabeth insisted.

“You’re only round, not angular. Girls are supposed to be round.”

“Fat!” said Elizabeth. “I’m F-A-T, as in whale blubber, walrus blubber, globules of lard all coagulating inside my body. F-A-T, as in pork roast, lamb chops, sausage, and leg of mutton.”

“We don’t want to eat you! We like you just the way you are,” I told her.

But she marched into the Stedmeisters’ bathroom and closed the door.

I put my face against the door frame. “Any weight you gained over the winter, you’ll lose this summer by swimming and stuff,” I called.

But when she came out, she was staring straight ahead. “I’m fat,” she said again. “I will never eat another bite until I’ve lost fifteen pounds.” And with a quick good-bye to the group, she left.

Pamela called the next morning to be sure I was ready to go running. She said that Elizabeth had been up since seven, and we were going to do three miles around the neighborhood. She’d already mapped it out.

I put on my sweatpants and a wrinkled T-shirt, Pamela arrived in short shorts and a top, and we crossed the street to pick up Elizabeth.

We hardly recognized her. She came out on the porch in sweatpants and a sweat jacket with sleeves that hung down below her hands. The hood of the jacket completely covered her hair and was tied under the chin. She was also wearing a huge pair of sunglasses. It was impossible to tell whether the creature beneath all that paraphernalia was male or female.

“Good grief, Elizabeth!” I said. “It’s about seventy degrees outside. It’s going up to eighty-three. We’re not going sledding, you know.”

“I don’t want anyone to recognize me,” Elizabeth said.

“Sure. They’ll see Pamela and me and say, ‘Hmmm. I wonder who that third person could be?’ We’ve only been hanging around together since sixth grade,” I told her.

There was simply no reasoning with her, so we started off, trying to find a pace that was right for the three of us.

“How many calories do you figure we burn in a half hour?” Elizabeth panted.

“It depends how fast we run. Enough to burn off a scoop of Häagen-Dazs, maybe,” Pamela said. “Of course, if you add fudge sauce to that, and whipped cream …”

Elizabeth ran all the faster, but Pamela was in better shape than any of us, probably because her mom’s boyfriend is a NordicTrack instructor and her mom’s been getting herself in shape. In shape to move away with him, I guess, because they went to Colorado and were talking about opening a ski shop. Pamela’s staying here with her dad, though. It’s hard to get her to talk about it anymore. I think one of the reasons she runs is to work off all that anger.

We’d just turned the corner and were starting up the next block when Elizabeth suddenly covered her face. “Oh, my gosh, it’s Justin’s dad!” she cried. “Alice, get in front of me quick!”

I stared. “Elizabeth, it’s just a car! His dad isn’t even looking this way, and if he was, he wouldn’t recognize you! Nobody would recognize you, not even your mother!”

The car turned at the next corner, and Elizabeth gave a sigh of relief. I thought maybe the silliness was over for a while, and we ran another block, but then suddenly Elizabeth disappeared. Just vanished, as though she’d fallen down a manhole.

“Now what?” said Pamela.

We stopped and looked around. Elizabeth was gone. And then we saw her foot sticking out from beneath a hedge. We knelt down and poked at her.

“Go away!” she shrieked. “Didn’t you see? Brian’s coming!”

I looked up the street. Brian was coming down the hill on his bike, heading for his job at the doughnut shop, I supposed.

“So?” I said. “He’s going to work.”

“He’ll tell Justin how awful I look! How awful I smell! Just go! I mean it!” Elizabeth screeched.

Brian, of course, stopped to see what Pamela and I were looking at, and saw Elizabeth lying under the hedge.

“What happened? She get run over?” he asked, quickly wheeling his bike across the sidewalk.

“Not exactly,” Pamela told him.

Brian came closer and squatted down beside Elizabeth. “Maybe you should call 911,” he said anxiously. He reached out to take her pulse, and suddenly Elizabeth scrambled to her feet and started to run, Brian staring after her.

We followed, but could hardly keep up. She didn’t stop till she’d reached my front porch, and the three of us collapsed in a heap on the steps.

“Well, that … should have been good … for at least two hundred calories,” Pamela huffed. “Why don’t you just wear a rubber raincoat, Elizabeth, so your sweat can’t evaporate? Then no one will recognize you, and the fat will absolutely pour off.”

Lester came out on the porch with a cup of coffee. “I thought I heard voices out here,” he said. “Since when did you start getting up so early in the morning, Al?”

My full name is Alice Kathleen McKinley, but Dad and Lester call me Al. He looked at me, then Pamela, and then his eye fell on Elizabeth. She still wouldn’t take off the hood of her jacket, and her dark glasses were all steamed up.

“Who is that?” he asked. “What is that?”

“Elizabeth,” I told him. “She doesn’t want anyone to see her sweat.”

“She doesn’t want anything to jiggle,” Pamela said.

“She doesn’t want anyone to hear her pant,” I added.

Lester studied Elizabeth some more. “Hey, kiddo, if it doesn’t sweat, jiggle, or pant, it’s not alive,” he said, “and I’m outta here.” And he went back inside.

2

THE LONG GOOD-BYE

WHEN DAD CAME HOME FROM WORK THE next day, he went straight upstairs and took a shower. I was hoping he’d grill shrimp or something for dinner, but when he came back down, he was wearing a shirt that Sylvia Summers had given him for Christmas, and the kind of aftershave that makes you want to follow the scent. I knew he must have a date with my former English teacher.

“Doing something special with Miss Summers?” I asked, noticing how well he had trimmed his nails and mustache.

“I guess you could call it that,” Dad said. “I’m driving her to the airport. She leaves for England tonight.”

I pressed the mute button on the remote and stared at him. I didn’t know if I had actually been so wrapped up in myself that I’d forgotten about Dad and Miss Summers or whether it was something I just didn’t want to think about. About how much he loved her, and how—I think—she loves him, too. Except that there’s somebody else involved—Jim Sorringer, our vice principal from junior high school—whom she’d thought she was going to marry until she met Dad. So now she’s going to England as an exchange teacher for a year to help her decide which one she likes best. I used to feel I couldn’t stand it if she didn’t marry my father, but I finally realized there’s nothing I can do about it, which is why I try to forget.

“Oh,” I said. “Well, tell her good-bye for me, will you?”



“Sure,” Dad said, and pulled on his sport coat.

“What time is her plane?”

“It’s a seven o’clock flight, so I’ll grab a bite after I get back,” he said. “You and Les will have to get your own dinner.”

“Don’t worry about us. We’ll manage,” I said.

Dad went out, and I watched his car back down the drive. Maybe it’s a good thing I don’t remember much about my mother, because if I did I suppose I’d resent Miss Summers and the way Dad loves her. I only remember a little bit, and even that gets all mixed up with memories of Aunt Sally, who took care of us for a while after the leukemia won and Mom died. Now all I want is for Dad to be happy.

I tried to think what I should have for dinner. Crackers and peanut butter? Shredded wheat?

“Hey, Les,” I called when my brother came in. “Any ideas for dinner? Dad’s taking Sylvia to the airport.” Lester’s working on a graduate degree in philosophy at the University of Maryland. He’s also a part-time clerk at a shoe store, but I don’t get discounts on anything.

“I’m taking Eva to dinner,” he said, yanking off his T-shirt and racing upstairs to shower. “You’re on your own, kid.”

Well, great! I thought. Just great! Crackers and peanut butter it was, then. Maybe I should invite Patrick over for dinner. That would show them! And then I thought, why not?

I picked up the phone and dialed his number. “Patrick, you want to come over for dinner? I’m going solo tonight, and thought maybe we could make something.”

“Like what? Pizza?” he asked.

Actually, I hadn’t the foggiest idea. “I don’t know,” I said. “Whatever you want.”

“I’d better check with Mom, see if she’s made anything special,” he said. And then he was back on the line. “We’re having leftovers,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

While he had been asking his mom, I’d walked into the kitchen with the phone and was staring inside our refrigerator. Half a grapefruit, a slice of meat loaf, and a bowl of chickpeas. A couple of tomatoes, half an onion … Was I insane?

My face! My hair! My teeth! I charged upstairs like a stampeding cow, colliding in the hallway with Lester, and changed my shirt. I was just brushing my teeth when the doorbell rang. Patrick always comes over on his bike, and I should have known he’d be here in two minutes.

“Hi,” he said at the door. “What’s for dinner?”

How do you say nothing and make it sound appetizing?

“Uh …,” I said. “Maybe I should take you out. I thought we could make supper together, but there’s absolutely nothing in the fridge.”

Upstairs I could hear Lester racing around, getting ready for his date with Eva, whom I’d never met. I don’t think Dad had, either.

“Where is everyone?” Patrick asked.

“Dad’s taking Miss Summers to the plane, and Lester’s going out with his new girlfriend,” I told him. “In a moment of madness I invited you over for dinner, and there’s nothing to eat. C’mon. I’ll treat you to a Big Mac.”

“Hold on,” said Patrick. “I had a hamburger for lunch. Let’s take a look.”

I’m not supposed to have boys in when no one else is home, but I’d be starting high school in September, and what could be more wholesome than eating dinner with a guy? Besides, I’d been deserted, and if both Dad and Lester were having company for dinner, so could I.

Patrick followed me out to the kitchen, and I sat on the table in my khaki shorts and yellow tank and watched. He moved stuff around and opened all the vegetable bins, and every so often he’d say, “Aha!” or, “Um hmm.” Then he started taking stuff out—eggs, a tomato, cheese, butter …

“Have any potatoes?” he asked.

I looked in the bin where we keep potatoes and found one.

“Onions?” he asked.

I got him half an onion.

“Excellent,” he said, and began slicing it thin.

I didn’t have to do a thing. I just sat cross-legged on the table and watched Patrick making dinner, sautéing slices of onion in butter until the edges began to curl, then adding the potatoes and a little water and stirring them around.

Patrick’s a couple of months younger than I am, but almost five inches taller. He’s slim and strong and smart and funny and totally competent in whatever he does. I think it has something to do with the fact that his dad works for the state department, and they’ve lived in three or four different countries, so he’s seen a lot of the world. He gets along with all kinds of people, and he’s got self-confidence. We took a gourmet cooking class together in school last year, and he got a lot more out of it than I did.

I like him—I really do. There are times I think I’m crazy about him. But I always wonder what he sees in me. Why me? It’s hard for me to imagine Patrick needing anyone, but here he was, in our kitchen, making dinner for me.

“Patrick,” I said as he added tomatoes, then the egg mixture. “What do you like about me?”

He didn’t even glance over. He was concentrating on sprinkling diced cheese on top of the eggs. “You’re practical,” he said.

Practical? That was my best quality? Men were going to sigh and pant and yearn for me because I was practical?

“What?” I bleated.

“What I mean is, you’re not on a fast track, like Pamela, or stuck in reverse, like Elizabeth.”

Fast track? Reverse? What were we, cars? Pamela was a sports car, maybe, and Elizabeth a station wagon, and I was—what—a practical little Honda? A family sedan?

“Also, you look good …,” Patrick continued.

“I look good? Like a cupcake, you mean? Patrick, I’m not a car, I’m not edible, I’m—”

“Will you let me finish?” he said. “Get some plates.”

I opened the cupboard.

“I like your hair,” he continued. “I like your feet. I like your shoulders and the way you smile. Especially your smile. Yeah. That’s what I like about you, Alice. Your green eyes and your smile, okay? How’d I do?”

“Better,” I said. I stood holding the plates while Patrick gently lifted the puffy egg mixture away from the sides of the pan, divided it into two portions, and put one on each plate.

“You got any bread to go with this? Any French or Italian?”

“Some sourdough, maybe.”

“Perfect,” he said, and we sat down to eat. In the space of fifteen or so minutes, Patrick had put together a tasty meal, and all I’d done was set the table. And then he said, “But you know what I like most about you?”

“My sexy body? My throaty laugh?”

“You’re not phony,” he said, and the way he said it, I knew he was serious. “That’s something I can’t stand in a girl. When a girl tries to act like somebody else or look like somebody else, or dresses wild just to be different, I always wonder why she’s trying so hard.”

That was even better than a throaty laugh.

The supper was really good.

“Maybe you should be a chef,” I said, and when he grunted, I asked, “How’s the landscaping going?”

“Everything hurts,” he said. “My shoulders, my back, my arms, my thighs… . It’s good for me, though. I might even get a tan by the end of summer. Mostly I just burn. When do you start at the hospital?”

“Orientation’s next week. Gwen and I are going together. I just hope I don’t get assigned to bedpans,” I told him.

Lester came galloping downstairs and stuck his head in the kitchen. “If Eva calls, tell her I’m on my way,” he said. “Hi, Patrick. How’s it going?”

“Good,” said Patrick.

After the door closed, Patrick looked across the table at me and grinned. “Well!” he said.

I guess that’s why parents don’t want you to be alone in the house with a boy. That “well” could mean anything at all.

“So what do you want to do?” I asked. “Blackjack? Gin? Spit? Put on some CDs?”

“Spit,” said Patrick.

We went

into the living room, and while I got the cards, Patrick looked over our CD collection. It felt better being alone in the house with Patrick with music playing than sitting there listening to my stomach digest our dinner. I sat on the floor by our huge coffee table, and Patrick sat on the sofa.

We’d only played one game when we heard a car drive up. A door slammed, then another. There were footsteps and voices on the porch, and Lester came inside with one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.

“Just a pit stop,” Lester said. “Eva, this is my sister, Alice, and her friend Patrick. Guys, this is Eva Mecuri. Sit down, Eva. I’ll just be a minute.”

I couldn’t understand why Lester would come all the way home to use the bathroom, but at that moment I was focusing on the tall, ultraslim woman walking across the room. Her skin was pale and creamy, her dark eyes almond shaped, and her black hair was cut in a short bob. Her dress was black, translucent layer on layer, with short sleeves and a neckline cut into a low V. She wore black stockings with black sling-back heels.

Eva’s eyebrows were beautifully arched, the mascara on her lashes elegantly applied, the blush on her cheekbones perfectly placed, and her red, red lipstick outlined a heart-shaped mouth. I couldn’t imagine where Lester had met her, but what mattered was that she was here in our house and, compared to her, I felt like a banana peel at the bottom of the garbage pail. I tugged at my shorts so they weren’t so wrinkled looking and straightened my tank top.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hello, Alice. Hi, Patrick,” the gorgeous thing said, and took a seat next to the sofa, crossing her silky legs. You couldn’t see anything under her short dress, so I suppose all her underwear was black, too.

“School’s out, I guess?” she said.

“Yeah, good old summertime,” said Patrick, reshuffling the cards.

“What grade will you be going into?” Eva asked.

“We’re starting high school,” I told her.

“Ninth,” Patrick added.

“Wonderful,” said Eva, glancing at her watch and then at the stairs.



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