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The Grooming of Alice


Page 5 of 15

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“Swim suit,” added Elizabeth.

“His birthday suit,” I finished. We rolled over on our backs and shrieked.

Dad knocked on the door of my room. He was wearing a pair of plaid shorts and an old T-shirt from the Melody Inn with the words HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEETHOVEN on the front.

He had sandals on his feet, and though he’s sort of pudgy around the middle, he’s got the skinniest legs and the knobbiest knees you ever saw.

“Is this the usual hysteria, or somebody here need a doctor?” he asked.

We stared at my dad a moment and then we broke into laughter again. We just couldn’t help ourselves. Dad smiled and shrugged and closed the door.

Pamela was laughing so hard, she had tears in her eyes. “I’ll take the younger guys,” she said.

“Even the milk drinkers,” said Elizabeth.

“Without plaid shorts,” I added.

“Definitely without shorts. No shorts at all,” said Pamela.

When Patrick called that night, I asked if he and the guys ever took quizzes.

“What do you mean?”

“In magazines. Just for fun,” I told him.

“Why would we want to do that?” he asked. “We get enough at school.”

Like they say, women are from Venus, men from Mars.

5

SAVING LESTER

WHEN I WENT TO THE HOSPITAL ON MONDAY, I found out that Mrs. Plotkin had been discharged. I was relieved that things turned out okay, but sorry I couldn’t drop in her room again to talk. When I got home that day, however, I got news of another kind. Lester was going on a week-long trip to the Rockies with one of his guy friends, Gary.

Seems that Gary had racked up two tickets to Colorado on his frequent-flier miles—Gary was a technician with an audiovisual company—and this was a chance Lester might never get again. They’d known each other for three years, and of all the friends Gary could have picked to go to the Rockies with him, it was Lester.

“A good way to spend the Fourth of July,” Dad said at dinner after Lester had told us. “But what about those two summer classes you’re taking? And your job at the shoe store? Will they let you off?”

“I made a deal with the manager. I’ll be working Labor Day weekend when everyone else wants to be at the beach, and also Thanksgiving weekend. And I’ll only miss one session of classes. I’m working ahead so I can afford the time.”

“Great!” said Dad. “What all do you guys plan on doing?”

“We’re staying at Estes Park and want to do some hiking,” Lester told us. “Gary wants to climb Longs Peak. I told him I’m up for it.”

I stopped chewing. Dad was going to England to visit Miss Summers, and Les was going to climb a peak? I was definitely turning into Elizabeth, but I suddenly wondered what would happen to me if Dad’s plane crashed and Lester fell off the mountain. Or maybe I was really thinking how come Dad got to go to England and Les to Colorado and I wasn’t going anywhere.

I could feel tears springing to my eyes, and I hate that, so I tried to get angry, instead. “Well, that’s just great!” I said. “Have a good time in England, Dad. Have a marvelous climb up Longs Peak, Lester. I’ll just slog away the summer as a hospital volunteer. Thanks for thinking of me.”

Dad put down his fork. Les had just lifted his glass to his lips, but he paused and stared at me over the rim.

“Something eating you, Al?” asked Dad. “I don’t remember either Lester or I complaining last year when you and Elizabeth and Pamela took that trip to Chicago on Amtrak. As I recall, you had a fairly good time.”

A tear escaped in spite of myself. “But what … what if … if something happens to you guys?” I whispered.

“Hey, we’re not leaving you here alone!” Dad said. “Lester’s going next week, and I’m going in August. Something could happen to me just crossing Georgia Avenue, but you don’t worry about that, do you?”

I still didn’t want Lester to go. I wanted Dad to have a good time because I wanted Miss Summers to marry him, but I couldn’t think of a good reason for Lester to risk his neck in Colorado when he could be here introducing me to his cute friends.

“What about Eva?” I asked, pulling out all the stops.

“What about her?”

“What does she think of you being gone for a whole week?”

“It so happens that Eva will be in New York at a sales conference for three of those days, so I doubt I’ll be missed,” Lester told me.

I was still sniffling. “What does she sell?”

“Perfumes and cosmetics. She’s a representative for Revlon or Estée Lauder or one of those companies.”

That figured. Eva’s makeup looked to me as though it took an hour to apply. But I was horrified to discover two tears rolling down my cheeks. What was wrong with me?

“Well, I don’t want you to go,” I sobbed, and felt five years old. It was as though someone else had set my emotional thermostat and I didn’t have a thing to say about it.

“Deal with it, Al,” said Lester.

“You’ll cope,” said Dad.

I sure couldn’t expect any sympathy there. Not even from Patrick, I found out later. When he came over that night, I told him I was worried about Lester climbing Longs Peak.

“Why?” asked Patrick.

“Why do you think? Because he might fall.”

“But how will he know if he can do it or not if he doesn’t try?” Patrick said.

“The point is, this is not something he has to do, Patrick! And if he falls off and kills himself, he’ll have no life at all!”

Patrick only shrugged. “But if he makes it, he can always say, ‘I climbed Longs Peak.’”

We don’t even speak the same language.

Two days before Lester was to leave for the Rockies, he picked up Eva at whatever department store she was training clerks, and brought her to our house to change into the tennis outfit she’d brought along. They were going to play a few games, then come back here to shower and change and go out for dinner.

“Eva, this is my dad,” Lester said. “Dad, Eva Mecuri.”

I was sitting cross-legged in my beanbag chair in one corner of the living room reading a novel called Ice, hoping, maybe, it would cool me off.

“How nice to meet you,” Dad said, getting up from the couch where he’d been sorting the mail.

“It’s a pleasure,” said Eva, extending her hand. She was wearing a white linen two-piece dress, white stockings, and white shoes. Her black hair had been pulled away from her face and held in place in back with a large black ribbon. Her perfectly shaped brows and perfectly shaped lips and perfectly outlined eyes had that painted-on look. “And how are you, Alice?” she asked, turning to me.

“Fine,” I told her. Since we’d already been introduced, I didn’t feel it was necessary to stand up. Dad hates my beanbag chair and says it doesn’t go with any of the other furniture in our living room, but I’ve had it since I was four and I sort of think of that little space in the living room as my comfort corner, the way you keep a dog’s bed behind the couch or something. I heard Aunt Sally tell Uncle Milt once that I’d got that beanbag chair for Christmas the year my mother died, and that I was probably clinging to it as a “lap substitute.” Maybe that’s why I want to be a psychiatrist.

“Al,” said Lester, “would you let Eva use your room to change?”

“Sure,” I said, and suddenly remembered the socks and underwear that were strewn all over the place. “I’ll take you up,” I said, leaping to my feet.

I could smell Eva’s perfume as she came up the stairs behind me, and I wondered what happens when perfume collides with the smell of sweaty socks. What happened was, she winced. I turned just in time to see her eyebrows come together over the bridge of her nose. I kicked a pair of underpants under my bed, and grabbed a bra that was hanging over a chair. A box of Kotex was perched right there on my dresser, as though it were the centerpiece, and I grabbed it and tried to tuck it under my arm as I

headed for half a cheese sandwich that had been molding on my windowsill for a week.

“Would you have a hanger for my dress?” Eva asked. “I hate to impose on you like this.”

“It’s okay. There are hangers in my closet,” I said. Then I wished I had opened the door myself, because as soon as she looked inside, she was greeted by a pile of sweaty clothes on the floor and two old pairs of sneakers.

She coughed.

“Sorry,” I said, scooping up all the clothes and taking them out to the hamper in the hallway.

I left her alone, then, and when she came back downstairs she was wearing a white tee, a short white pleated tennis skirt, and white panties with lace around the legs. She had exchanged her gold earrings for a pair of tiny pearls, and she wore a white terry cloth headband around her shiny black hair. I saw the way Lester’s face lit up when she came back in the living room. What I was really conscious of, though, was how skinny she looked. Her elbows and knees were points, not curves, and I decided she looked a lot better in a dress. But Lester was all smiles.

“Have a good game,” Dad said. “You two don’t seem to mind the heat.”

“It will feel great after being in air-conditioning all day,” Eva said, and they left the house.

I settled back in the beanbag chair with my book. “So what do you think?” I asked Dad.

“About what?”

“About her.”

“I don’t know her at all, Al, so I don’t have an opinion one way or another,” he said.

“Yeah, but what’s your first impression?”

“First impressions can be misleading.”

“Oh, stop being so polite, Dad,” I said. “What do you think think?”

“That she’s an attractive woman and I can see that Lester would be impressed.”

“She’s not Marilyn,” I said. “She’s not Crystal.”

“Of course she’s not. And Sylvia’s not your mother, Al. No one can ever take the place of someone else, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be special in some way.”

Whoa! I thought. Who said anything about Mom? Who said anything about Miss Summers? Then I noticed that Dad was holding an opened envelope with a foreign stamp on it, and I knew right away it was from Sylvia Summers. I looked at his face. He didn’t look at all upset. He looked pretty happy, in fact.

“Dad?” I asked. “Is there something I should know?”

“About what?”

“You know exactly what. About you and Miss Summers.”

“Only that I’m looking forward very much to visiting her. And I think she’s looking forward to having me there.”

Older people talk so weird, I swear! Looking forward very much to visiting her. Translation: I’m crazy about her.

“Well, good!” I said. “I hope you have a great time. What will you do while you’re there?”

“I suppose we’ll travel around and see different places—York, Bath, London, of course; you can see a lot of England in two weeks.”

“Miss Summers is in Chester?”

“Yes.”

“Does she have an apartment, or is she staying in a room somewhere?”

“It’s a small flat. Small, but very British, she says.”

“One bedroom or two?”

“Al …!” said Dad.

“What? I was only asking about her apartment.”

“I know what you were asking,” he said, and took the letter up to his room. But I could tell that whatever was in it made him happy.

Boy, Sylvia, you’d better not let him down! I thought. Don’t you get my dad all the way over to England and then decide you don’t love him.

It was later, when Dad was in the kitchen making lasagna, that I decided I’d better go upstairs and make sure the bathroom was clean enough for Eva when she came back to take a shower. I took a bath towel and wiped out the tub, pulled a wad of hair out of the drain, wiped the hem of my T-shirt along the edge of the sink, and sprayed a whiff of deodorizer in the air for good measure.

But when I finished, I knew what I had really come upstairs to do. I went to the door of Dad’s bedroom and looked in, and there was Miss Summers’s letter on his dresser. I felt my pulse pick up and my palms get sweaty.

That is not your business! I told myself. I knew that if I ever got a letter from Patrick, I wouldn’t want Dad or Lester reading it. But I felt I had to know. My feet moved forward until they reached the dresser, and I had the letter in my hand.

I compromised. I would not read the letter itself, only the way she signed her name. That, I felt, would tell me all I needed to know without reading any personal details. I moved to the door again and looked down the stairs to make sure Dad was still in the kitchen. Then I took the letter from the opened envelope and unfolded the bottom.

… my arms again, read the last line. All my love, Sylvia.

Yes!

I put the letter back on Dad’s dresser in its envelope and went to my own room, where I sat on the edge of my bed, an insane grin on my face. All my love meant one hundred percent. It meant there couldn’t be any left over for Jim Sorringer. It meant she’d given her heart to Dad. At least, it better mean that, I told myself.

I was helping Dad layer the noodles and cheese and sauce, noodles … cheese … sauce, when Lester and Eva came back from the tennis court. Eva was actually perspiring. Her face glistened, her hair was messed up, and a few wet strands hung limply down over her forehead. There was even a smudge of mascara below her left eye. But she still looked good. I imagined having Eva for a sister-in-law, how she would teach me to look good under any condition. It was hard to imagine.

“Well, she almost beat me,” Lester said, pulling a towel from around his neck and wiping his forehead. “She’s a pro.”

“Hardly!” said Eva, laughing.

“You can take the first shower,” Les told her. “I’ll wait. I want to sit out on the back porch and cool off.”

Eva went upstairs, and it wasn’t until I heard the shower running that I realized I hadn’t put out any fresh towels. I hadn’t even given her a robe or anything to wear from the bathroom to my bedroom.

I went up to the linen closet and got out a huge beach towel she could wrap up in, then sat down at the top of the stairs to wait and make myself useful. The water cut off at last. I waited … and waited … and waited some more. Finally the bathroom door opened, and I stood up, holding the towel. When Eva came out, however, she was wearing the bottom half of her white linen dress and had one of our old towels around the top of her. I felt embarrassed. I hoped it wasn’t Lester’s old smelly towel she’d had to use.

“I’m going to put my makeup on in your room, Alice, so Les can have the shower,” she said. “Could you tell him? It’s perfectly all right for you to come in your room if you want. I don’t mean to take it over.”

“I thought you might need another towel,” I said, following her to my room, and she quickly accepted. “Lester!” I yelled out the window. “You can have the shower now.” Then I sat on the edge of my bed and watched as she spread her cosmetics out on my dresser. She had enough bottles and jars and tubes to make up every actress in Hollywood, I thought. She didn’t look quite so much like a porcelain doll without her makeup, but she was still gorgeous.

She frowned at herself in the mirror, then went over to adjust my window shade so she’d have more light. She set to work smearing some kind of gel all over her face. “How old are you now, Alice?” she asked. Even her voice was gorgeous.

“Fourteen,” I told her.

“Need any makeup samples? I could get you anything you like.”

“Sure,” I said, even though I don’t wear very much. “Whatever you think I need.”

“Certainly not a lot, because you have beautiful coloring,” she told me. “But a little moisturizer, a little makeup base and blush … powder … a bit of eye liner and eyebrow pencil—it works wonders.”

“I’d never know how to put it on right, though,” I told her.
<br

/> “Hey, I’d be glad to give you a makeover. Really! We could set one up sometime, and I’d bring all my samples,” she said.

“Really?” I thought immediately of Elizabeth and Pamela. “I’ve got these two great friends. Maybe the three of us could—”

She laughed. “How’d I get roped into doing three? It’s okay, though. I’ll give you a call sometime when I know I’m coming over.”

“That would be great!” I said. Maybe Lester should marry this woman.

That night I had a dream that frightened me so that I was almost sick to my stomach when I woke up. I dreamed that Lester was climbing a mountain and his foot slipped. I saw it slip. Somehow I was there. I had put out my hand to stop his fall, but I couldn’t, and then I was falling with him. When I opened my eyes, I was trying to sit up in bed, and couldn’t tell if I’d screamed or not.

What if this was an omen? What if Lester fell off Longs Peak for real?

That afternoon, after my work at the hospital, I stopped at an army surplus store on Georgia Avenue and, the next day, when Lester was packing to leave for the Rockies, I walked in his room and handed him a small packet. “For you,” I said.

“Huh? What’s this?” he asked.

“Just put it in your bag, Lester, but promise you’ll open it before you climb Longs Peak,” I told him.

“What is it?”

“Never mind. You’ll find out. Just take it.”

“Hey, Al. No time for games. I hardly have room for my hiking boots. What is it?”

When I still wouldn’t answer, Lester opened the sack and stared. “Rope?”

“It’s got hooks on each end, Lester. I want you to promise you’ll hook onto something when you’re climbing the peak.”

“Al! I—”

“I know you, Lester! You’ll try to be real macho and climb without a rope, but … the man said it’s not real mountain-climbing rope, it’s monkey line or something, but it would hold a horse, and all you have to do is hook it onto—”

“Al!”

I stopped.

“We’re not using rope. I walk. I don’t climb hand over hand. I’m not dangling.”

“But on TV, I—”

“I’m not on TV. I’m in a national park with a good friend doing something we’ve talked about for a couple of years, and if I had a rope around my waist, the way you want, I’d probably trip on it and go stumbling off the edge of the precipice. Okay?”



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