The Grooming of Alice

Page 4 of 15


“Well, if they’re still keeping me here, dear, I’d like that,” she said. “I love visiting with you.”

The nurse smiled at me, and I said, “My favorite teacher.”

She looked at Mrs. Plotkin. “Well, she’s a pretty nice patient, too.”

I went out in the hall to take the magazines on up to maternity, and realized I hadn’t asked Mrs. Plotkin how she was doing. I am so self-centered! I told myself. There she was in the cardiac unit, and I chatter on about my friends, my job. Why didn’t I ask her about herself?

When I met Gwen in the cafeteria for lunch, I told her what a dork I was with my teacher. She put one finger to her lips.

“What?” I said, looking around.

“We aren’t supposed to do that,” Gwen reminded me, rolling her eyes as she stuffed a French fry in her mouth.

“Do what?”

“Talk about patients. If you see a patient here you know, you’re not supposed to tell anyone about it.”

Three days as a volunteer, and I’d already broken one rule.

It proved even more difficult at dinner that evening, because the more I thought about Mrs. Plotkin in the cardiac unit, the more worried I became. What if she was really, really sick? I wondered if I should call her husband and find out just how sick she was. Maybe I shouldn’t wait till Monday to go see her again. I sat staring at my plate, turning my pork chop over and over with my fork.

“You looking for bugs under there or something?” Lester asked.

I picked up my knife and cut off a piece. “I’m just worried about someone I saw in the hospital today,” I said.

“Who was that?” asked Dad.

“I can’t tell you.”

“What do you mean you can’t tell us?” asked Lester. “Who are you? The Secret Service?”

“I’m supposed to keep all information about patients confidential,” I told them. “It’s part of the agreement I signed.”

“Well, then, I guess you’d better not say anything,” said Dad.

I sighed. “I just hope she doesn’t die.”

Dad put down his fork. “Al, is this someone we know?”

I thought about it. They’d certainly heard me talk about her when I was in sixth grade, and Dad had met her at parent-teacher conferences.

“Yes,” I said.

“Male or female?” asked Lester.

“Female,” I said.

“Well, it can’t be Janice Sherman, because she was at the store today,” said Dad, referring to his assistant manager at the Melody Inn. “And it can’t be Marilyn, because she was there too.” Marilyn is Lester’s ex-girlfriend. She works for Dad.

I realized that if I kept answering their questions, they’d eventually hit the jackpot, so I pressed my lips together.

“Eva?” asked Lester. “Was it Eva?”

And when I didn’t speak, he asked, “Crystal?” (An ex-girlfriend who’s married.)

I thought about the agreement I’d signed, the volunteer’s jacket with my ID clipped to the pocket, and the doctors and nurses who smiled at me in the elevator. I was part of a team.

“You can beat me and starve me and pull out my fingernails with red-hot pinchers, but I’ll never tell,” I said proudly. “But I can tell you one thing: Everyone loves her.”

“The First Lady, obviously,” said Lester. “Listen, Al, if it’s Eva, rap once on the table. If it’s Crystal, rap twice. If it’s …”

I shook my head vigorously and put my hands beneath me in the chair.

Dad was getting impatient with me. “If you can’t tell us, why did you even bring it up?” he said. “If it’s a good customer of mine, I think I should know.”

“I brought it up because I wondered if it was permissible to call a close relative of hers to find out how sick she really was,” I told him. “I mean, if she died, and …”

“So how did you find out about this person?” asked Lester.

“I didn’t even know she was there! I was taking some flowers up to 510 and when I walked in, there she was!” I said.

Lester got up from the table, went down the hall, and looked up a number in the phone book. Then he brought the phone back to the kitchen doorway and pressed some numbers on the handset.

“Patient information, please,” he said. And a moment later, “Can you please tell me how the patient in 510 is doing?” he asked, and held the receiver out away from his ear so we could hear.

“Sara Plotkin? Her condition is fair, and she’s resting comfortably,” came the reply.

“Thank you,” Lester said, and hung up.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” I told him.

“Well, you shouldn’t have brought it up,” said Lester. “I was afraid it might be Eva.”

Dad looked over at me. “Mrs. Plotkin? Your sixth-grade teacher?”


“It’s good that you’re following the rules, Al, but I don’t think the hospital would mind if you’d simply mentioned your former teacher to your family. What they don’t want is you broadcasting a patient’s personal medical problems to the world. Anyway, she appears to be out of danger.”

“I guess so,” I told him.

But after I went to bed that night, I thought how the report might have said that her condition was excellent. It could even have said good. I would have settled for satisfactory. But it didn’t. It said fair, which was one step up from poor. I knew that my first stop on Monday would be to room 510 to see if she was still there.



SINCE PAMELA’S MOM MOVED TO COLORADO with her boyfriend, things have been pretty grim over at Pamela’s place. Elizabeth and I don’t go there much. When the three of us want an overnight, we come either to my house or Elizabeth’s. Lester always says to let him know when the gaggle of witches is gathering, because our cackling drives him nuts. So I told him they were coming over Saturday night, and he made plans to play baseball at the park with some of his buddies.

When Elizabeth and Pamela arrived, though, he was still waiting for a couple of his friends to come by. He and Dad were sitting at the dining room table looking over the grant Lester had received from the University of Maryland for his graduate studies, figuring how much more they’d have to come up with to pay tuition in the fall.

“You’ve got Teen Vogue!” I cried when Pamela came in, seeing one of our favorite magazines. Elizabeth was carrying Seventeen, too. I opened some sodas, and the three of us hunkered down on the couch to look them over—Pamela in the middle, and Elizabeth and I on either side.

“Now that,” said Elizabeth, pointing to a bone-thin girl in a slip dress on the inside cover, “is how I want to look.”

“What is she? A poster child for starvation?” I said.

“She’s modeling a dress,” Elizabeth told me.

“Looks like an ad for TB,” said Pamela. “She doesn’t have any curves! She’s all angles!”

“I think she’s gorgeous,” said Elizabeth, and turned the page.

There are always more ads than articles in these magazines, and when it’s a magazine for girls, half the ads are for zit cream, it seems. There was a double-page ad for earrings, titled “Ear Power,” but Elizabeth dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “None of those earrings are any fun,” she said. Pamela liked a photo spread on body piercing, though. “That is so cool!” she said. “I want my navel pierced, and I want two more holes in each earlobe.”

“Not a nose ring, though,” said Elizabeth. “Those are really gross. Especially when you get a cold.” We agreed.

The problem with looking at magazines with Pamela and Elizabeth is that they like to look at articles about clothes and hair and makeup and stuff. I like the quizzes. We all do, really.

“Wait,” I said, flipping back a few pages. “I saw a quiz.”

“‘Do You Have Bedroom Eyes?’” Pamela read aloud, and we all shrieked. “Get a pencil,” she said. “We’ve got to take this one.”

Pamela read the questions aloud, all

three of us answered, and Elizabeth tallied our scores.

“Question one,” said Pamela. “‘Do you flirt with your eyes or your smile?’”

“Eyes,” said Pamela.

“Smile,” I said.

“Smile,” said Elizabeth.

“No, you don’t, Elizabeth, you flirt with your eyes,” Pamela told her. “I’ve seen you.” She read the next question: “‘Using your thumb as a measure, are your eyes a thumb-length apart, three-quarters of a thumb-length apart, or half a thumb length apart?’”

We measured and judged each other. Elizabeth was the only one whose eyes were a thumb-length apart, so only she had authentic bedroom eyes. Pamela and I both measure three-quarters of a thumb length. But if your eyes are close together, don’t despair, the quiz said. By concentrating your eye liner at the outer edges of your eyes, you will create the illusion of widely spaced eyes. Never bring your eye liner all the way to the inner corners of your eyes unless, like Jackie Kennedy, you have unbelievably widely spaced eyes.

“Wow, Elizabeth, you’re so lucky!” said Pamela.

Who decides these things? I wondered. “Quiz by Marcia Kent.” Who the heck was Marcia Kent? How come she got to decide who had bedroom eyes and who didn’t? And did I really want bedroom eyes in the first place? If I become a psychiatrist, like I think I want to be, will they help me there?

“Next,” said Pamela. “‘Do your eyes, lids included, most resemble almonds, hazelnuts, or Brazil nuts?’” We whooped with laughter.

“This is really dumb,” I said, wrestling the magazine away from Pamela. “Let’s find another one.” We flipped past a picture of a bunch of guys playing touch football in their swim trunks.

“Isn’t he hot?” Pamela squealed, pointing to a guy with washboard abs.

“There’s one!” said Elizabeth, spotting another quiz as I turned. “Are You a Tease?” it asked.

“Pamela, this one’s for you,” I told her, and read the first question. “‘When wearing a shirt, do you usually A) button it to the top? B) leave the top unbuttoned? C) leave the second button open, too? D) leave as much open as possible?’”

“Now this one is stupid!” Elizabeth declared.

“A for Elizabeth, D for Pamela,” I said, and Elizabeth reached around and poked me.

One of Lester’s friends knocked at the door just then, and Lester left the dining room and went out in the hallway to let him in. His name was Jack Grafton, and he was probably one of the shyest guys I’d ever seen. Most of Lester’s guy friends are like Les, sort of extroverted and funny, but Jack’s almost a year younger, and the few times I’ve spoken to him, he seems terribly uncomfortable. He’s cute—real blond with a square face and just a touch of beard neatly rimming his jaw. I could tell that Elizabeth and Pamela were studying him over the top of the magazine.

“Bud coming?” Jack asked Lester.

“Yeah. He’ll be here in a little while—the others will be at the park,” Les told him. “Let me go up and change my shirt. Be with you in a moment. Sit down.”

Jack glanced in at us, then turned and looked beseechingly after Lester as he disappeared up the stairs. Finally he walked over to a chair in the living room and sat down, looking hopefully out the window. His face was a faint shade of pink.

Pamela nudged me. I think this was the first time Jack had been in a room with me without Lester, and now he had Elizabeth and Pamela to deal with, too.

“Uh, Pamela … Elizabeth … this is Jack Grafton,” I said.

“Hi, Jack,” said Elizabeth.

“Hi, Grafton,” said Pamela.

Jack’s face grew pinker still, and he glanced over at us as though seeing us for the first time. “Hi,” he said, and looked toward the window again.

Pamela gave a muffled giggle. “We’re taking a quiz,” she told Jack. “Want to take it with us?”

I poked her, but it didn’t make any difference.

Jack forced a smile. “I’m not very good at quizzes,” he said.

Then Elizabeth got in the act. “Oh, there aren’t any right or wrong answers,” she said. “It’s just to see whether or not you’re a tease.”

I exchanged looks with Elizabeth. Jack didn’t answer.

Pamela giggled again. “Question one,” she said. “‘When wearing a shirt, do you usually A) button it to the top? B) leave the top unbuttoned? C) leave the second button open, too? D) leave as much open as possible?’”

Jack seemed to be trying to figure out if we were serious or not. He shrugged. “I don’t wear those kinds of shirts much,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself. “Give him B, Pamela,” I said. “You keeping score, Elizabeth?”

“Yeah. That gives you two points, Jack,” Elizabeth said.

“Question two,” said Pamela. “‘Do you typically kiss with your mouth open or closed?’”

Jack’s face grew as pink as cotton candy. “That’s pretty personal,” he said.

“Open!” Elizabeth and I said together.

“We’ll give Jack three points,” said Pamela. “Okay. Next question. ‘When wearing jeans, do you flaunt your butt?’” All three of us broke into giggles. Jack looked so pained that I should have stopped Pamela right there. If he had been closer to our age, I might have felt sorry for him, but at nineteen or twenty, I figured he should be over this by now. A car drove up, and Jack jerked around, hoping it was the third baseman, but then the car went on by.

“Maybe we should try him on another quiz, Pamela,” I said. “Let’s see if he has bedroom eyes.”

“Oh, yes! Definitely!” said Elizabeth.

Lester came down just then, and Jack practically leaped out of the chair, wanting to get away. But his face fell when Les came in and sat down. “Bud said he might be a little late,” he told Jack. “Should have told him to meet us at the park.” Jack sat back down, but he looked so miserable that Lester figured out we’d been teasing him.

“What no-brain quiz are you girls taking?” he asked.

Elizabeth was already flipping through the second magazine. “Here’s an article for you, Lester,” she said. “‘Ten Things Guys Can’t Understand About Gals.’”

“Ha! I could name you twenty,” said Lester. “I don’t need a quiz for that. For starters, how come girls are always taking quizzes? Do you understand that, Jack?”

Jack shook his head.

I looked at Pamela and Elizabeth. “I don’t know. How come we do take quizzes?”

“We learn about ourselves this way,” said Elizabeth, making a guess.

“You have to take a quiz to figure out who you are?” Lester said.

“We compare ourselves with other girls to see how we’re different,” I told him.

“You’re different, all right,” said Lester. “Weird, weirder, and weirdest.”

Now it was Jack’s turn to laugh.

“So what don’t you understand about women, Lester?” Pamela asked flirtatiously. She and Elizabeth have had a crush on Lester since the day we moved in, I think.

Lester thought about it a moment. “The way you obsess about the way you look,” he said. “When do you ever hear a guy say, ‘I wonder if these pants make me look fat?’ or, ‘Does this go okay with my hair?’ Guys don’t talk that way, do we, Jack?”

“No. Sure don’t,” Jack said, looking a lot more comfortable now that Lester was in the room.

“Here’s another one,” said Lester. “Whenever girls go to a restaurant with a bunch of people, if one goes to the restroom, they all get up and go. You ever notice that? Girls go to the bathroom in gangs. They all get the urge at the same time? Explain that to me.”

Pamela, Elizabeth, and I looked at each other.

“We do?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s right,” said Elizabeth. “We do that.”

“Why?” I wondered.

“So we can talk about the guys,” Pamela suggested.

“Right!” I looked at Jack and Lester. “We go off together to talk about the guys.

Half the time we don’t even use the facilities. We just gather there at the sink and comb our hair and talk.”

“Amazing,” said Lester. “Absolutely amazing.”

A door slammed out front.

“There’s Bud!” Jack said, leaping to his feet.

“Good-byyyeee, Jack!” cooed Pamela. “Maybe I’ll call you sometime.”

Jack was already out the door.

“Good-bye, Les,” called Elizabeth.

“Good-bye, witches. Have a good cackle,” Lester called.

When they were gone, Elizabeth said, “How come girls are attracted to older guys like that?”

“I’m attracted to Patrick, and he’s a couple months younger than I am,” I reminded her.

“Yeah, but in general. That would make a good quiz for one of these magazines,” said Elizabeth. “We ought to suggest it.”

“So let’s write one,” I said.

Dad was still trying to work at the dining room table, which he was using for a desk, so we trooped up to my room and sprawled out on my bed with a notebook. My bedroom is decorated in a sort of jungle motif—a lion-print spread, a koala bear pillow, and a huge rubber plant in one corner.

“What’ll we call our quiz?” asked Pamela.

“What about ‘Your Fave Fella?’” suggested Elizabeth. “‘If you could choose the ideal guy, he would be: A) older than you, B) younger, C) about the same age, D) doesn’t matter?’”

I grinned and wrote it down. “Number two,” I said. “Older guys are A) more fun; B) more dangerous; C)—”

“More boring?” said Pamela.

“No, conceited,” said Elizabeth. “And D) more bald.” We laughed. “Oh, this is good!” she went on. “Now … three: Your ideal date would own A) a guitar; B) A bike; C) A dog—”

“A dog? Gimme a break!” said Pamela.

“That’s important, Pamela! You can tell a lot about a guy by how he treats a pet,” I told her.

“And D),” Elizabeth finished, “a car.”

I had another idea. “Here’s one: Your fave fella drinks A) champagne; B) beer; C) root beer; D)—”

“Milk,” finished Elizabeth. We howled.

“You like your fave fella best in A) a suit; B) a sweat suit …,” Pamela began.





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