Category: Short Fiction

Dorothy’s Party

 

They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well, the name or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.)  But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.

Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.

Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. Marjorie was one of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments  she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Prevails were better. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs.

Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Marjorie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.

Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.

“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.

Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.

“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”

“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.

“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”

“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.

 

Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took only two days off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.

Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.

That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names, it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.

Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.

After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.

They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”

Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. It was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.

“SURPRISE!”

Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.

“Joe?”

“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.

“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”

Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.

“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”

There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.

“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.

“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?

“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?

“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.

“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.

“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”

She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.

“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.

“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“

“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.

“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”

As if she would eat ten plates of food.

“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”

There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”

“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.

The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her Dot. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.

Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.

Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand  low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.

Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.

He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel different ways towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.

He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”

Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.

He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.

“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.

Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.

She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron,­­­­ because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night, Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”

Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.

Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

That Certain Something

 

Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that she got fat and fell in love with Jason Sanders and got thin again. It also happened to be the year her father died, the obvious catalyst for the weight gain, though not the crush. The crush was normal. Every girl in the eighth grade was in love with Jason Sanders. But Debbie would always think of her father’s death as separate; a thing floating near her fourteenth year but completely detached, existing in a realm exempt from the normal restrictions of space and time. Her mother, Janice, said the weight gain was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds. Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may have actually been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that betrayed her, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen and Austin and Ally. She liked Ellen, and it was especially good if Ellen had on somebody funny, and even better if it was somebody funny or talented but also overweight. Or if she had that little girl on, Brielle, who was, like, a genius. Debbie couldn’t hate Brielle; in fact she loved her. All that bright-eyed cuteness. But even then, she flipped to Austin and Ally a lot because she was in love with Austin, the Austin of years ago when they filmed the show. He was played by Ross Lynch, who was in his twenties now, an actual adult, and not as cute as when he was seventeen. The Ross Lynch who was sixteen and who played Austin Moon was perfect. Easily the most perfect boy in the world, and way better than Brielle, no matter how cute she was.

Sometimes she also flipped the channel to a weird 90s show for kids called Power Rangers, to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and Austin and Ally and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

She had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four-thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Elise and Maddie, or Diane and Caitlyn, or just about anything, but they were dumb old Debbie and Janice, which were not good enough names to be in a story or a show or movie. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as Connor or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

Debbie went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried a purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “if Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back. Kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with tiny, weird Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. But they had a tacit understanding: Debbie said nothing about Judy’s clothes or resemblance to an old lady, and Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through those huge glasses. “Specs,” Debbie’s dad had called them one time, which Debbie thought was kind of cool for a dad.

Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for seventy-five cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. She would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about what actresses looked better with long hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders fooled around with Summer Banks at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, just like Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he went to high school parties and did stuff with girls. This both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history, and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was kissing her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was kissing her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billing’s house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was pretty and had blond hair and got good grades and was nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. Debbie decided that Sarah was of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, though, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. But at least Sarah was only Mormon-rich, not country club rich. The kids who were country club rich had names like Cooper and Summer. They wore clothes that were nicer than the other students. Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made the clothes nicer, but the belts and things often had tiny whales on them, for some reason, and she knew they didn’t come from TJ Max and Khol’s. Sarah Billings was rich, by the looks of her house, but they didn’t belong to the country club, and she might have gotten some of her clothes from Khol’s.

It had been Saturday, so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” They meant Heaven, and she knew all about Heaven, but it sounded boring. Harp music was annoying. So when she got home after the funeral, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the little boy down the street. Peter. He had Down’s Syndrome. He was nine but he seemed more like four, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed. His own parents smiled at that–like it was cute or something–and called him Stevie Wonder, whoever that was.  It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even four days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in the manufactured happiness that went with shopping. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about school and which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll really make those pretty brown eyes stand out.” Eighth-graders were not stupid; Debbie knew that was a very deliberate way of not saying anything about her weight, of trying to point out that she noticed something else. The b-word would probably think how nice a lady she was, like ohh, I was so nice to that fat girl, I complimented her eyes.

Her eyes were just boring brown and not that great.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that traveling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. She was allowed to pick a magazine at the little store in the airport, and there were articles about kissing and sex in there and she felt a rush of adrenaline, reading stuff like that right next to her mom, who probably thought she was reading about new fashions or fun crafts or something. And on the plane, she could watch people as they walked by to go to the bathroom, carefully evaluating their outfits and their general attractiveness, picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited, but her mom said she could come, she wasn’t a baby and they’d be happy to have her. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, though Sarah was going to Meredith Lancy’s party. Meredith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meredith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meredith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

Debbie didn’t want her mom to go to the Billings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomachache and wanted to stay home. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

Six weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “Yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the thirteen pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? She did feel cooler; she was starting to have…something. Not the cool confidence of the popular crowd, but the very beginnings of something she couldn’t put her finger on or words to. Just something. And her life had changed: Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want” at lunch the day before. Debbie had felt a little badly about leaving Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research, but she had to. Judy would do the same thing if they’d invited her to the big table; everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner, and not much else. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a charming Jason Sanders (who looked even more like Ross Lynch in the daydream), and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain, her glasses fogging up when she came into the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” Debbie said. It was almost a shout.

And Judy, in a glistening red raincoat with ladybugs printed on it, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie’s arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening sweetness and perfect blond hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need you to help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after baking for the first time since her husband died (apple muffins, not banana bread), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of change and grudges and innocence that was somehow already gone. Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were fourteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie probably heard those words before. And she needed this, this party with other kids; the beginning of a social life. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, sorry that Debbie wasn’t wearing a raincoat.

Dorothy’s Party

They had chosen Kate to come get her and take her to mass, because her sons were too embarrassed to come into her room anymore. They waited in the lobby. Kate was  Joe’s wife, she reminded herself. His new wife, not Catherine. She liked Catherine better. It was an unfortunate coincidence that they both were named Catherine, though the new one spelled it with a K and went by Kate. Dorothy didn’t like Kate very well: the name, or the wife, though she didn’t know why. The girl was nice enough. (Well, woman, really. Kate was forty-six years old, but Dorothy never did like saying ‘woman’; it sounded sexual somehow, so she called everyone a girl until they were near her own age, and then they were a gal.)  But the name: it was pretentious; it evoked movie-star arrogance. Katherine Hepburn insisted on being called Kate, Dorothy once heard.

Kate was sent because of the one time when Dorothy had needed help in the bathroom. David and Marjorie were taking her to church; one of those Sundays where they’d called ahead and said how about we take you to mass and then to Dixon’s for brunch after, and she was supposed to be grateful. The truth was she didn’t like Saint Boniface church. She didn’t like Father Bob, who insisted on being called Father ‘Bob’ instead of Father Whatever. No one even knew his last name, and he tried to be everyone’s friend. He had a little beard that made him look like a hippie. His homilies were always about justice and mercy, and he had an i-Phone and one of those bigger thingies. He apparently even had a Facebook page, of all things, and not for the church, for himself. He shared his ‘thoughts’ on there; little witticisms and jokes that were self-deprecating on the surface but really meant to show off what a great guy he was. Dorothy had looked. Everyone thought she couldn’t use a computer but they were wrong. She just didn’t like them. Easy enough to get one of the girls to look up Facebook for her. She’d asked Tina, the little Hispanic one. She looked like a child, and she wasn’t as bossy as the others. Didn’t ask a lot of questions.

Dorothy also didn’t like going to mass with David and Marjorie because her daughter-in-law, Dorothy felt, was a prig. One of those women who acted just so: made meals for Christ House and had Father Bob over for dinner dutifully once a month and took Dorothy to lunch every week, bringing her the Prevail undergarments  she knew Dorothy preferred, because Belmont Ridge housekeeping staff used Depends, and Dorothy hated them. Marjorie even brought Dorothy the particular brand of lemon cookies she was fond of. True, none of the boys did this, not David himself, or Joe or Jamie, but Marjorie always made Dorothy feel she was supposed to say how grateful she was for the visit and the cookies and the undergarments, which were just a precaution. And Marjorie wore a mantilla to mass. Dorothy had worn one herself in the 1950s when everybody did, but nobody wore them now, especially not at Saint Boniface where people came to mass in beach clothes and rubber shoes. Which of course was terrible, too. But Marjorie and David and their brood usually attended Saint Mary’s, where the priests went by their last names and on Fridays they even had mass the old way, with the priest facing the same way as the people. Well, she liked that better. Presumptuous, when they were turned forward. Too casual. But Marjorie was too pious. It was showy. St. Boniface was closer to Belmont Ridge, Dorothy’s home now. An upstairs room, she was quick to point out, not the first floor where they called it ‘assisted living.’ The first floor was all the droolers in wheelchairs. Everyone was driving out for mass and brunch this time: Joe and Kate and their kids, David and Margie and their kids, and Jamie. Jamie would have that girl with him. That Stephanie. He would meet them there, he said, and Joe and Kate were the ones picking her up. Now Dorothy would have to sit by them in the church so they could all feel good about themselves for taking old Dorothy to mass, and then go to Dixon’s for omelets that were never all the way done in the middle; the fellow made them too fast. The bread basket was good, though. Cinnamon raisin.

Kate knocked now, and then opened the door, smiling. Why did people do that: knock, as if you had a choice, and then open the door without being told to come in? A formality, but not formal at all. Familiar. Pointless, if they weren’t even going to wait.

“Hi there,” Kate said, leaning down to kiss Dorothy’s cheek. She always said hi there, not hi mom or hello Dorothy, and always the breezy air kiss on the cheek. Dorothy knew it was because Kate didn’t know what to call her. Mom? Dorothy? Certainly not Mrs. Bowers, Kate herself was Mrs. Bowers now, too.

Kate looked pretty, actually, if a little tired. Always trying to look glamorous, that one. Soon she wouldn’t be able to pull it off anymore, Dorothy thought. Just wait. She was wearing a turquoise scarf with her jacket and her hair was down, but Dorothy looked away and heard herself say, “They brought my coffee cold, and I never even got to go to breakfast.” Kate seemed to have this effect on her; she was always complaining when Kate was around.

“Well, you can’t leave on an empty stomach,” Kate said, opening the cupboards as if she owned the place, already looking for something for Dorothy to eat. As if Dorothy would want anything in there. “You get ready and I’ll find something.”

“I can’t eat now, mass is in less than an hour and I’ll want to receive. And I am ready,” Dorothy said. She was. It was mass, not a fashion show. She was wearing her good wool skirt, too.

“Oh. Well, great!” Kate said, too brightly. Then, “Hey, why don’t you wear that green sweater we gave you for Christmas? That would go great with that skirt!”

“Fine.” Dorothy shuffled to her dresser to get the sweater, though her blouse was fine, if a little wrinkled. It looked like real silk, and it was still a nice shade of rose, though not the pink it once was. It was a perfectly good blouse; she didn’t like how Kate said the sweater would “go great” with her skirt. It wasn’t even correct grammar.

Joe Jr. had gotten out to open her door, smiling and giving her a good hug. “Hi, Mom,” he said, and she thought for the millionth time what a handsome man Joe turned out to be. A surprise, because he’d been an odd-looking child. Teeth too big for his face. He was turning fifty next year, but he’d stayed slim, and the gray hair looked good on him. Catherine-with-a-C was a stupid woman, to let Joe Bowers go, although he could be a bit aloof. Prickly, even, if you caught him at the wrong moment. And he was too caught up in his work; Dorothy always thought so. When his first child was born, Joe Jr. took one day off. They didn’t have this ‘paternity leave’ back then, though they didn’t have it in Dorothy’s time, either, and she’d had four children without Joe Sr. ever having even one day off and she’d done just fine, thank you very much. But that first Catherine expected more, from day one, and Joe was always working. When the baby was two, Catherine-with-a-C put him in some silly music class where the child whacked around a tambourine or maraca, Little Maestros, it was called, and both parents were supposed to come, but Joe never wanted to. Dorothy knew this, because of the one time Catherine-with-a-C stood before her, teary, right before they’d announced to the world that their marriage had fallen apart, and asked her, “Did Joe Sr. ever come to things? You know…the kids’ things? When they were little? Because Joe never does. He says he can’t take time off during the week for things like that, and he doesn’t want to use time on Saturday for a music class for a two-year-old. As if Harper’s age were the issue.” One tear had escaped then, and she’d blown her nose loudly.

Dorothy had wanted to tell her that no, Joe Sr. never came to things like that, because she would never have expected him to, and she would never have put a two-year- old in a three-hundred dollar class just to shake around a cheap maraca. She had another child by the time Joe was two-and-a-half, and they could play in the yard with sticks for free. You could make a maraca type of thing with a jar and some rice. But she just said “those were different times,” a phrase she thought made the point without too much blame, or not enough to take issue with. The marriage ended a month later. Little Harper was so young, they thought he wouldn’t know a thing, but that child didn’t use a toilet until he was four.

That was her first grandson’s name: Harper. A last name, and not even the first Catherine’s maiden name. Not a family name of any kind, just a name they “liked the sound of.” This was back when the only people who gave their children last names were southerners using old family names, and wealthy people wanting to establish a child’s patrician roots with a first name like Anderson, Bentley, or Greer. Now everyone used last names; it meant nothing now. By now, it was probably considered lowbrow. Her grandsons were Harper, Forrester and Cole, and the girls—the girls!—were Darby and Ryan. She would never get used to Ryan for a girl, and Darby was, well, not even a name, really. Thank goodness she was a pretty child, when she was not acting sullen, or absorbed in sending messages on her phone with her thumbs.

Ten o’clock mass was packed as usual; it always amazed Dorothy that this many people showed up, the same people who just the day before got drunk or cheated on their taxes or their wives. But they came. Some of the couples who showed up were not even married, but living in sin. Like Jamie. Father Bob turned a blind eye. Though Jamie didn’t belong to this parish and probably only went to mass when he went with the family. The girl, Stephanie, wasn’t any religion at all; she had a tattoo on her ankle, and was some kind of new-age veterinarian who gave acupuncture to dogs. She adored Jamie, was always holding his hand. Sure enough, she was there, too, in a dress that precluded wearing any sort of bra. She made Dorothy nervous. Clearly it was mutual.

After mass–Father Bright, the young one–gave an earnest homily about grace, and what it lacked in substance it made up for in sincerity–they all drove to Dixon’s, where they were given the back room. Dorothy didn’t want the back room, the back room was all booths. You had to scoot in, and then ask everyone to get out if you had to use the ladies’, or else you had to ask to sit on the outside in case you need to get out, which just caused speculation. And you couldn’t hang your purse over your chair. The light was better in the front room. Why didn’t anyone care about light anymore? “What’s wrong with up here?” she asked. There were several free tables.

They all paused, looked at Joe. “C’mon, Mom,” he said, putting a long arm around her as if she were a child. “There’s more room in the back. And I think I see some people I know back there.”

Oh, wonderful. Some people he knows. From what? From his job that she still didn’t understand, selling advertising on web sites? A ‘senior manager,’ he was called, but the time she tried to call him at the office and interrupted him, she’d said she thought she would reach his secretary. He’d said he didn’t have his own secretary, exasperation in his voice. So he couldn’t be very important there. In her day, an important man had his own secretary. These friends in the back room were probably computer people or slick advertising folks. And nobody told her! She would have done her hair better. it was a little flat on one side. Maybe worn a different blouse under the green sweater. This one was fine for every day, but not to meet your son’s friends, even if they were slick computer people. There was a little bit of something on the collar, she saw now; food or make-up or something. Nobody told her. She started to say you go see the people you know, I’ll wait up here, but the waitress or hostess or whatever she was had already walked ahead, and Joe was ushering her to the back room. He could really be so pushy when he wanted to be. Just like his father, before he got sick and became a big baby again.

“SURPRISE!”

Dorothy looked around. Why, there was something going on here already. They could move to the front room. She started to turn from these people, saw the look on her son’s face: delight, with a shadow of something else over it. Hesitancy, or nausea.

“Joe?”

“Look, Mom, all your friends are here.” Dorothy turned again, aware of her easy spirits hugging the floor, making her feet heavy. What was this floor, linoleum? Slippery, and almost…magnetic, at the same time.

“See, Mom?” Joe was saying, Kate smiling by his side, David and Marjorie nodding vigorously, as if she’d said something clever. At least Marjorie had taken the lace off her head in the car. Her dress was quite nice, actually. A little too nice for Dixon’s. “See?” Joe was saying. “Penny and Stuart Miller are here! Hey Stuart!” He was looking around the room. “And Dr. Masterson and his wife, and Karen and Bob are here! And look, your friends from the old street: the Andersons, and Pete and Didi Heckman! And there’s Dutch Beckerly…everybody’s here, Mom!”

Dorothy looked around the room. Why were they all here? That was Didi Heckman, though the old neighborhood was two hours from here. Her hair looked awful, too. A bad dye job. Karen and Bob were really Joe’s friends, not hers. Why were they here? What was Dr. Masterson doing at Dixon’s? They expected her to say something.

“Oh, my!” she mustered. “What’s going on?”

There was a smattering of laughter. Joe grinned but there was that shadow again, like all the times when he was young and Joe, Sr. would tease him in that way where you didn’t know if he was kidding. If Joe brought home a B+ on a test, his father would say, “Whatsa matter, that the best you could do?” A joke, of course, a B+ was just fine. Or if one of the children made Joe Sr. a gift; a crooked clay pot or ashtray–this is back when it was okay to smoke–he’d open it and say, “What, is this all I get?” Teasing, of course, But not entirely, so the kids always looked confused. Joe looked like that now.

“Your birthday, Mom,” he said. Then, brighter: “Everybody came to celebrate your birthday!” Some clapping, a little cheer, and then both Andersons started in with Happy Birthday to Yoooooo, and everyone joined.

“Goodness, how nice!” Dorothy ventured when it was over. Kate seemed to relax a little, and they made their way to a table, Marjorie saying let’s get you off your feet. “My birthday’s not for a month or two yet…” she said, shuffling. She was aware that she was shuffling. Was it her birthday? Or, had Joe forgotten the date?

“It’s next week, Mom. We picked a day everyone could come,” Joe was saying as he scooted in her chair. It didn’t scoot well on this floor. Was it some sort of tile?

“Dorothy!” Dutch Beckerly clapped her on the back, as if she were a man, Dorothy thought. “Happy birthday, Old Gal,” he boomed, and then shuffled off the omelet bar. That was shuffling. She wasn’t that bad, she just walked slowly. Dutch looked so old! Surely she didn’t look that old. And she did not shuffle.

“May I see a menu?” she asked Joe. A reasonable request.

“Well…sure Mom. Sure. But don’t you want to talk to people? To your friends?”

She hated how he pronounced it “dontcha wanna.” He didn’t get that from her. Then Marjorie piped in, “People want to talk to you, Dorothy…” She’d appeared out of nowhere, as always.

“Well, I’d like to eat!” Dorothy said, and just at that moment, Kate appeared with plate of food from the buffet for her, setting it down with a flourish. Loaded with potatoes, just the way Dorothy liked it.

“Oh, but the buffet is expensive, and I only get the one pla–“

“Mom! The price does not matter!” Joe said, in a fierce whisper.

“No, it doesn’t matter one bit,” Kate said smoothly. “They know this is your party, Dorothy. In fact the whole thing is paid for, and you can eat one plate of food or ten. Doesn’t matter. Just enjoy it!”

As if she would eat ten plates of food.

“Heh-ey, look who’s here,” she heard David say, and she knew without looking that Karen had come. She feigned surprise anyway when Karen leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Hi, Mom. Happy early birthday.”

There was a bit of a scuttle as her brothers all looked for an empty chair to pull up to the table, as though Karen were elderly herself. Of course, she wasn’t young either. Karen was no spring chicken. She’d be, what, fifty-something now. Strange, a daughter so old. She looked good, and Dorothy meant to say so, but what came out was, “Did you come alone?”

“Yes, Mom. I am alone. Nancy’s in Florence. You have me to yourself.” Karen smiled a wry smile as she put a napkin on her lap, a nod to one of her brothers that yes, she would like the buffet, just give her a minute. They were serving her, too, but leaving distance so the two of them could talk. Dorothy remembered now that ‘Nancy’ was in Florence. She worked in international marketing, Dorothy had been told several times through the years. Whatever that was. Pretentious; she would have thought so no matter who it was. “She says to tell you happy birthday.”

“Well.” Dorothy had no response, no message to pass along to the woman who was, as she still explained to people, her daughter’s roommate. As if they were twenty-two and sharing an apartment.

The bread basket was filled again (they put other kinds of bread in there now, probably it was cheaper, everyone was cutting corners these days, but there were still two pieces of cinnamon raisin), and nearly everyone had made their way to Dorothy’s table to say hello, even Penny and Stuart Miller, who both called her “Dot”. Stuart was pushing a walker that was too tall for him and made him look as if he were holding the bars of a cage, and Penny was prattling on and on. As usual. Dorothy decided to sit back and watch. Dixon’s was just the same as it had always been, except for the employees. They all recognized her now, but none of them really knew her. She’d been coming here for years and there was a time when they knew her, knew Joe Sr. and that he liked his coffee with milk and she took hers black. Now they knew nothing. She supposed it was nice of the boys to give her a party. Joe’s idea, probably. David would think it cost too much, or Marjorie would anyhow, and Jamie wouldn’t have thought of it. A big heart, that one, but no foresight, none at all.

Dorothy remembered another party, the only other party given just for her. She was nineteen, but everyone thought she was twenty. Her mother, not normally a vain woman, made Dorothy rinse three times with vinegar so her hair would be shiny. Her mother had known. And in her insistence on new stockings, a vinegar rinse, there was a tacit consent given. Dorothy’s mother disapproved of Jack Campbell, for his two-tone, cap-toe shoes, the flamboyant red of his silk tie. But she was a pragmatist; Dorothy had her father’s strong nose and eyes just slightly too close together. They couldn’t afford to be too picky. Jack Campbell was a war hero, they said, and a man who liked a challenge. He didn’t mind Dorothy’s height, and he said she looked like Marie McDonald. Which she did, at a certain angle.

Dorothy stared at the people, at nothing, and let her mind turn inside to the place where it slipped sometimes now, the way your foot will slip off a curb if you aren’t careful and sometimes even if you are. Only now she let it slip there, willed it, looking around this back room at Dixon’s, smelling the burnt oil of old hash browns, until it became something else entirely, and she could hear Frankie Carle playing, smell the sweat and the punch and the Brylcreem the boys had in their hair. Jack Campbell was dancing with her, his hand  low on her back, his hips pressed against hers, even with hers, she was so tall. She’d met him there, as requested, and when she walked in the door, the band played “Happy Birthday,” and she had looked over her shoulder to see who they were playing it for. Surely not her? Jack Campbell laughed and took her hand, walked her out on the dance floor. Her birthday wasn’t until the next week, but she didn’t say so.

Jack Campbell thought she was beautiful and so she was. He had a Hudson Super 6, inherited from an uncle, parked outside. Later he would tell her the car didn’t really belong to an uncle, but to his cousin, Georgie, who died somewhere in Northern France, in something called ‘Operation Norwind.’ Such a pretty name, Dorothy thought, when so many of those things sounded ugly. Only eighteen months ago, Jack said. A great guy, but his time was up. Georgie loved that car.

He would tell her this and then wipe at his eyes with the bottoms of his palms, nearly his wrists, though his tears never spilled over, only turned his eyes a fierce blue. She’d remember that, the clumsy way he wiped at his eyes, like a school boy or a farmer. It made her feel motherly for a moment, which confused her. She knew nothing then of how you could feel towards a boy, a man. But then he had shaken his head a little, as if to clear it, and smiled at her, the old Jack Campbell smile. He was talking about California now, a job waiting there for him. “Come with me, Kid,” he’d said, the emphasis on with, because he was going either way. It made Dorothy weak, how he called her ‘Kid,’ though years later when she thought of it–the rare times she allowed herself to think of it–it sounded absurd. They were in the corner, sitting out a slow dance, talking. Flirting. It was like speaking a language you weren’t entirely fluent in: you might understand the words, but only guess at the meaning.

He went on. “You’ll like it out there. Palm trees, pine trees, take your pick. Lemons. Limes, big as your fist. Year round.” He took her hand then, gently curling her fingers into a fist, then putting his hand around it. They both starred at their hands for a moment, a thing separate from them. “The ocean’s right there, blue sky, and it never rains.”

Dorothy couldn’t imagine a place where it never rained. The look Jack Campbell had in his eyes frightened her a little. He was in love with a place, and she understood in that moment that he belonged to the place more than he ever would to her, or to anyone else; that he was part of it already, and he wasn’t even there yet. Still, he wanted her to come. He didn’t say whether he meant for them to marry. She could not ask what he meant, it would reveal her uncertainty, spoil the moment somehow, the way planning the logistics of a trip spoils the daydreaming about it.

He knew anyway. He knew by the way she glanced down at her cup of punch, at the floor, instead of at him. He drew back, just barely, to look at her face, to make sure he’d seen correctly, then leaned in close again. A sigh, barely audible. His hand, still covering her fist, gave it a little squeeze as the band picked up, couples darting out to the dance floor again. A jitterbug, which the band always played when the sexual tension in the room got so thick you could feel it, taste it, suffocate in it. He didn’t lead her out to the dance floor gradually, he stood suddenly and grabbed her arm, almost shouting over the music, a sudden merriment in his voice when he said, “C’mon, Kid, let’s dance!” Shouted, really, because by then he was halfway there.

“Mom?” Karen was looking at her, the waitress holding the coffee pot over her cup. “No, thank you, I’m fine,” and the waitress disappeared. Dorothy could tell from the sharp turn of her heel and the posture of her back as she walked away that she’d been thinking ‘crazy old lady,’ or ‘boring old lady,’ or something that ended with old lady. They may have known it was her party, but they didn’t care, which was worse than not knowing. In fact the party was irritating the wait staff, it was clear.

Foot off the curb again, only it won’t go, even when she tries. But she can remember it, which isn’t the same as going back there; smelling it and tasting it and feeling nineteen, being nineteen, every sense heightened so much that she felt nearly dizzy all the time. It isn’t the same, but it’s close enough.

She remembers not just Jack Campbell, the red silk of his tie, wide-leg trousers since the war was finally over. There are other things, too: the blue of the sash on her dress the time her father took her to see Meet Me In St. Louis, the taste of the dill pickle he bought her in the lobby. The smell of starch on a hot iron,­­­­ because her apron had to be cleaned and starched every night; Boeing insisted on it. Peach pie, in the red ceramic pie dish, because company was coming. Her mother, in a rare good mood, humming the Texaco Star Theatre theme song, singing the words out loud when she got to Sky Chief, fill up with Sky Chief… The sum of all these things together rose up in Dorothy’s throat and drifted out in front of her, becoming a thing she could almost touch; sepia-toned, and just out of her reach. She tried to tell Karen this once, years ago, when she had had too much wine. She wanted to tell somebody, to say this is how it was. She tried to tell her about the movie and the pickle, the starch and the peach pie, those handsome Texaco men, but Karen had rather absently said, “Huh…is that movie the one with Judy Garland, with that ‘clang-clang-clang’ song in it? I always thought that one was kind of boring.” Dorothy had given up then, rolled her eyes and said, “It’s nothing you people would understand.”

Karen waited a minute, two, and then said, “We have our own things, Mom. We do.” Dorothy couldn’t imagine what they were.

Now Dorothy is looking at people moving slowly around the omelet bar, but she is seeing those couples on the dance floor. The band has picked up even more, a Lindy Hop, so one moment the girls are stomping to the music, nearly leading, nearly in charge of the whole thing, but the next minute they are crushed against the boys’ torsos, limp. The dance so violent, the boys, even the agile ones, the best ones, are heaving with the effort, and the girls’ spines seem about to snap.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way Home

What she would remember, years later when she thought about that time, was the synthetic smell of watermelon.  The occupational therapist who came to her house weekly to play with Ben had suggested water in a bottle, which Ben could spray into the air to eliminate monsters, dragons, or people he did not like. It was supposed to give him a sense of power over the things that made him feel powerless. But water was not potent enough for Ben; he needed something he could smell, and in the end, they settled on an environmentally friendly room scent that smelled like Jolly Rancher candy.

What she says now is, “Not in the car, Benji, honey. Remember? You don’t need to spray it in here.” She can’t stand the smell of it in confining spaces. This is the thousandth time she has told him this, but that is how it is with Ben. She can see him in the rear view mirror, still in his high-back booster seat, the spray bottle resting between his legs. It’s as if he is relaxing only for a moment; finger on the trigger, ready to spray with lightening reflexes if the need should arise. But he looks absently out the window and seems calm. His face is moon-round, blue bedroom eyes and ridiculous lashes. A mop of blond hair that is not quite curly. She is not one to put kids in movies, but really, if he didn’t have Asperger’s and the sensory thing, he could be a child star.

Josh has headphones in his ears and is reading a Harry Potter knock-off of some sort that he claims is better than the J.K. Rowling ones. Do people even call them head phones anymore, she wonders, and then feels a pang of knowledge that she is getting older. It feels something like a menstrual cramp, but more vague. Not that she has ever wanted to be “cool” or “in,” or even young. But still.

Katie is chewing on a pencil, reading from a textbook with a cover made from a brown paper bag. Tess used to know how to make those without tape, so that the front and back covers fit into flaps on the book cover. She is sure she could not remember it now. There is no doodling on the cover, just the crease that was once the bottom of the grocery bag, and KATIE RYLAND written in block lettering as tidy as the name itself. They are on the way home; school let out a mere fifteen minutes ago and Katie is already working on her homework. Tess knows she should be awed and proud of this, but she considers it something of a betrayal. A second-grader with the work ethic of a serious graduate student should probably be a good thing, but it just makes Tess feel vaguely rejected.
It is quiet except for the white noise of the tires spinning, and Ben’s constant mum-mum-mum-mum noise that he makes when he is “reading.” Surprisingly, it does not annoy her. It was the first near-word he ever said, and they have all grown used to it, even though he speaks now. They call it “mumming,” and when Ben is mumming, he is happy and relaxed. And Tess is growing more and more sure that he really is reading. He is only four, but children with Asperger’s are nearly always highly intelligent. It is possible.
“Hey, do you guys want to go to Popeye’s?” she asks them, a little too brightly. They are always bugging her to go to Popeye’s. This will be good: she will not have to cook, and it is uncharacteristically spontaneous.
“No, that’s okay,” Katie says lethargically, not even looking up.
“Josh?”
He takes one ear plug out and raises an eyebrow, just like his dad.
“Hmm?” Ah, he will want to go.
“Do you want to get some Popeye’s?”
“Oh. Naw. No thanks.” Ear plug back in. Tess can’t for the life of her figure out why they’ve said no. She will have to cook after all, and they won’t like that either. Just as well, though. Josh is chubby. The last thing he needs is fried chicken and fries.
She tries not to let Josh’s weight bother her, but it does. Her best friend Maggie says it is because our children are a reflection of us, and on some level a chubby child is hard on the mother’s ego. But that’s not really it; it bothers her because she cannot fix it. She doesn’t let him have coke or candy, doesn’t let him have sweets except for birthday parties and an occasional scoop of ice cream after dinner. He eats fruit or vegetables at every meal and she doesn’t buy all the processed things his friends eat. The pediatrician just shrugged and said put him on a soccer team and she knew what he was really telling her was chill out, get your chess playing chubby son here some exercise and he’ll be fine. They did exactly that, and though she was prepared for Josh to resist, he joined the team, won an award for most improved player, and said he loved it and wanted to play next year. And gained five pounds.
Katie?” she tries again. “Did you decide about choir?”
“Yeah. I don’t really want to do it. If that’s okay.” There it was–the essential Katie. Considering something fun, something she could be really good at, and then backing down at the last minute for no apparent reason. Then worrying weather that was okay or not.
But what Tess says is “Sure, that’s okay. I’m just not sure why you don’t want to do it. You have a really nice voice, Sweetheart. You might want to just…try it, you know? You might like it.” It was a children’s choir, for goodness’ sake, at a church. It’s not like you had to audition, anyone could be in it, and Katie probably had a better voice than at least half of the kids in there.
“No, thanks. I don’t really want to.”
Silence, except for the wheels. Mum mum mum mum mum from the back seat.
What was Katie’s problem, anyway? Most mothers would be so glad to have a girl so interested in math and science at such a young age. All the other mothers always said she is so bright!  It was meant to be a compliment, but Tess suspected they couldn’t think of anything else to say about this shy, serious girl who rarely smiled, at age seven. Already there was an unmistakable “in crowd” in the second grade and Katie was not in it. Not that Tess would want her to be, but still. Shouldn’t she have a group of giggling friends around her? She was pretty but the prettiness was somehow canceled out by her eclectic clothing ensembles, and her tendency to wear headbands straight across her forehead. It reminded Tess of a character on Star Treck: the Next Generation, which her older brother watched in the late eighties. The guy’s name was Jordan or Jordie or something, and he was blind, but wore glasses that made him able to see. And Katie’s hair, though a beautiful blond, was somehow…fuzzy and unkempt. She didn’t like to wear it up. It was too bad those girls at school didn’t see what Tess saw; those beautiful eyes! The kind heart. Katie wouldn’t hurt a fly.
Still, Tess secretly wished Katie was just a little more like Anna Nolan, their spunky, red-headed ten-year-old neighbor, who loved shopping with her mom and organizing neighborhood snowball fights, and was president of everything a ten-year-old can be president of. Anna was always rolling her eyes and making “Mom” into a three-syllable word, but it was affectionate. She did cartwheels on the lawn and was always saying, Hey! You guys wanna… and then coming up with fun things to do. Katie often stared at Anna, gaping. Last year, she used to follow Anna around and would have walked off a cliff for her, but lately she didn’t even want to play with her on Saturdays.
They are nearing Riverside Lane; it would only be another five or ten minutes now, depending on traffic at the light. Tess realizes she has been driving by rote, not even thinking about the turns or stops. Does this constitute careless driving, she wonders? To not even pay attention to where you are going because you make the drive so often? Or is it somehow safer, because you are relaxed you don’t even need to think about it?
She wonders how she even got here, to the road that leads all the way to her house, save one turn. She remembers the time in college that her class had a guest lecturer, though it was a small seminar class on writing and the lecture was really just a discussion. At the time they were all preoccupied with “the art” and “where we are as writers,” and her real professor encouraged them all to ask the guest meaningful and insightful questions on becoming writers. Tess had casually raised her hand in the way of college students, like signaling for the waiter, and said, “So, how did you get here?” meaning, here, to this place in your life of meaningful art and general enlightenment. She thought it was deep. The famous person, whose name escapes Tess to this day, said in a tone both baffled and irritated, “I, ah, took 22 East and then Kingston Road.”
Mum mum mum mum mum mum
            Maybe they should take a vacation. That’s what people do when they need something to look forward to; to break up the monotony that is real life. That’s what Maggie said. But Maggie didn’t quite know their situation.
 Mum mum mum mum mum
            She looks at their heads in the rear view mirror. Katie has fallen asleep, her head back, mouth slightly open. Perfect lips, like Sleeping Beauty. What did everyone call her before she fell asleep? Didn’t that girl have a name? Or has Tess just forgotten it? Josh is staring out the window, absently. His profile looks older than ten; the ghost of the man he will be someday is there. She can just see the top of Ben’s white-blond hair. It occurs to her that their lives are in her hands, and they are all so used to it they take it for granted. They look so vulnerable, like that baby bird she found on the driveway, fallen from the nest. Alive, but nearly bald, papery skin drying out in the heat. She had panicked; the mother would not come. She took the bird inside in her bare hands; it weighed about as much as a nickel. Less. She set it in a box while she googled some avian protection society, and three phone calls later she found someone who would come. The bird was dying, but maybe they could save it. A man showed up. Just a boy, really, with thin hairy legs and the obligatory Birkenstocks, and took her bird away. She never knew if it lived.
There is just the sound of the wheels, and Tess can feel the weight of depression crushing in on her, like the heat blanket they put on her the one time she went to the chiropractor. Heavy. Presumptuous.
“Mom? Mom!” Josh is craned to his right in his seat belt, leaning over Ben, shaking him, hitting him on the back with his fist.
“What? Jeez, Josh, why are you–?”
But now Josh is screaming “Pull over! PULL OVER!” and he is shaking Ben, and she can see in the mirror that Ben’s face is bluish, terror in his eyes, his mouth open and silent.
She pulls the car over on the shoulder, right at the spot where you should never pull over.
“Josh! What does he have? What’s he—here—” she is climbing over the seat—“sweep his mouth with your finger—” but Josh is already doing it, Ben’s chest hanging limply over his arm.
There is a gurgle and a cough, and then Josh is holding something orange in his fingers, and Ben is taking deep gulps of air, crying.
“What the hell is that?” Josh is asking, wide-eyed with disbelief over the thing in his fingers, covered in Ben’s saliva. But Tess can’t talk, she is shaking. She doesn’t care what it was, it is out.
“It’s the garlic thingy,” Katie says, awake now, pale and alert. “You know, that bean-shaped thing you clean the garlic press with after you use it. He likes to play with it. He likes how those little prickly things feel.”
Josh places it in the cup holder, wipes his hand on his jeans.
Tess is kneeling in the well between the middle seats, too small a space, so she hugs Ben tight and climbs back to the driver’s seat. She has to get them off the shoulder.
It is quiet for two or three minutes, except for Ben’s crying, which is a mewling that Tess usually finds both heart breaking and annoying. Her knees are weak, but her grip on the steering wheel is firm. They are almost home.
“Ben, you okay buddy?” Josh is asking him. He’s got his chubby arm around his little brother, Ben’s head on Josh’s chest. “Seriously, buddy, you scared us. Don’t put junk in your mouth, okay? Benji, buddy, hey, stop crying, you’re okay. C’mon. You’re okay…”
Tess is suddenly awe-struck by her oldest child. He is so good with Ben, it amazes her. He will be such a good father. Katie keeps looking at them with concern over her shoulder. She snaps her book shut and puts it in her bag with a sigh. Takes off her glasses. Such and endearing gesture.
“Well,” Tess ventures. Her voice is shaky. “What do you guys want for dinner?”
Katie catches her eye in the mirror.
“Do we have to have, like, a normal dinner?” Katie asks. “Like, with meat and rice  and a vegetable?”
“Well, what do you mean? What do you want?”
“Like, could we just have that honey toast you make? And some strawberries, and, like, hot chocolate or something?”
“Well, sure, I guess—”
“Yeah!” Josh takes his arm off of Ben, it is forgotten for now. “Maybe just peanut butter sandwiches and a big bowl of strawberries, with chocolate drizzled over them like you did that one time!”
They all look happy, animated. She is rounding the corner of Riverside and turning onto Willow.
“Ben?” she asks. She likes to include him, though sometimes he doesn’t answer.
His beautiful face lights up for just a moment; a flicker. “Marshmallows,” he says. He likes them in hot cocoa. The small ones, just about six or seven of them. It can’t be more.
Josh and Katie smile, start to gather up their bags.
“Yeah, okay. Sure. That all sounds really good.”
The garage door is opening, and she feels light as air.

That Certain Something

Debbie Simms turned fourteen the year that her father died and she got fat. That is how she would always remember it: the year my dad died and I got fat. Her mother, Janice, said that it was hormonal, that it was her slow metabolism, that Aunt Maureen had thyroid problems, too. Aunt Maureen was three hundred pounds.  Now that was fat, Debbie would think, at first, when it was only ten pounds, then twenty. But she knew she was well on her way.

It may actually have been Debbie’s hormones or slow metabolism or thyroid that let her gain the weight, or it may have been the Mallowmars and King Dons and Hostess fruit pies that she ate, one after the other, while she flipped between Ellen Degeneres and the Power Rangers. She knew that the Power Rangers was for little kids, boys, probably, and she liked Ellen better, but if Ellen had on somebody dumb or boring, like Regis Philbin or something, then she flipped to the Power Rangers to see what they were up to. She was pretty sure that the brown haired guy and the blond girl liked each other. She thought the show should do something with that plot but they never did, probably because the show was for little kids and all. She told herself that she would only watch for a minute, that she actually needed to relax after a long day at school, and she would watch Ellen and the Power Rangers and eat Little Debbie snack cakes, especially the pink powder puff ones that tasted like marshmallows and cotton candy together. She felt a strange significance in the fact that they were Little Debbie snack cakes, like they were made especially for her.

Then at four, she watched Oprah on some channel that showed old ones, and hoped it was something good, like the time they had Justin Beiber on for the whole hour. But she had to hide the snack cake wrappers by four-fifteen to be safe, because her mom got home at four thirty from her real estate job. She wouldn’t get in trouble, exactly, if her mom knew that she spent her baby-sitting money on her snacks, but her mom would be disappointed and give her that look, and a little talk about how they both needed to start taking walks and eating healthy. Debbie knew it made her feel better to say “we both need to…” only that was dumb because her mom was naturally thin and Debbie didn’t really want to go for walks with her anyway.

She hated that her mom’s name was Janice, that they were Debbie and Janice.  She wanted their names to be Kayla and Elise, only they were dumb old Debbie and Janice. Her Dad’s name had been Mike, which was an acceptable name for a man, though not as good as  Austin or Alex. Mike was fine, though. It didn’t embarrass her. In fact, her dad was pretty good all around, except for when he wore his Lee jeans that were too-dark blue and had a waist that was too high. She had hated those jeans. But most  of the time he wore pretty good clothes and he laughed good and he didn’t embarrass her in front of her friends. Well, in front of Judy, her only main friend. Especially after she got fat.

She went to the mall with Judy sometimes. She ate lunch at school with Judy, who was so small she looked like a fourth-grader and had thick glasses and carried this purse with covers that buttoned on and off. Judy had matching purse covers for all her outfits: little girl outfits, like red corduroy jumpers with strawberry appliques sewn on, with a red corduroy purse cover to match. Her mom made them. Debbie thought they were dumb and embarrassing, but it was better than eating alone and sometimes old Judy could be pretty funny. Like she would say, “If Mrs. Coakly’s bun gets any tighter, its going to pull her eyes back and she’ll look Chinese.” Then they would laugh a little and feel the cool superiority that she knew the other kids felt; the kids who sat at the big table in the back, kids like Meredith Lancy and Jason Sanders. Sometimes Debbie laughed more than the situation called for, just so it would look like she was having a really good time with old tiny Judy. And it wasn’t so bad. Yeah, for a quiet little girl with dumb purse covers, Debbie thought, Judy could be pretty funny. Only she never seemed to notice the funny stuff about herself, like her stupid homemade outfits with little bumble-bees and strawberries sewn on, and her thick glasses. And they had a tacit understanding: Judy never made fun of Debbie’s increasing size and never asked about her dad.

Mostly they talked about people in Hollywood, which Debbie was an expert on, or about Jason Sanders. Or, rather, Debbie talked and Judy ate her perfect turkey sandwiches on wheat bread with one little piece of wilting lettuce coming out the side exactly a quarter of an inch, and looked at Debbie through her huge glasses. And Debbie ate her snack cakes or fruit pies, or maybe one of the honey buns you could get for fifty cents that were so sticky you had to pull them out of the cellophane wrapper with your fingernail, and maybe part of a sloppy joe or whatever they were serving, so it wouldn’t look like she only ate sweets. And she would laugh a lot and be really animated with old Judy, and talk about how Taylor Swift looked better with curly hair or how she heard that Jason Sanders had done things at a party with high schoolers at it. She didn’t know if that was true or not, but she had heard it, or something pretty much like it, when she was in a stall in the girl’s bathroom and Meredith Lancy and Tiffany Peterson didn’t know she was in there. She knew Meredith and Tiffany liked Jason Sanders, and Debbie herself liked Jason Sanders, because he was so cool he seemed much older than fourteen—almost fifteen—and she liked the way part of his hair fell over one eye. There were rumors that he drank, that his older brother got him beer and maybe other stuff, too, and that he’d…done things with girls, (Debbie didn’t want to call it what the other girls did; it was gross), and this both repulsed and fascinated Debbie and made her watch him out of the corner of her eye all the time.

Plus, Jason Sanders talked to her sometimes. Like once they were at their lockers, which were pretty close because there weren’t too many names in their class between Sanders and Simms, and his bag was in her way so she just stood there, but then he saw and said “Oh, sorry,” and moved it. And another time they had to sign an attendance sheet when they had a sub in history and he handed her the pencil that was going around and said, “here.” She had liked the way he said it, and sometimes she would think about it over and over in her head: oh, sorry and here, over and over. And she would imagine that he said other stuff, too, or that he looked out from under his hair at her and smiled, just slightly, or that they were at a dance and he was breathing on her neck. She even dreamed that once: that they were at a dance or something, and Jason Sanders was breathing on her neck and touching her hair, which was longer in the dream, but then all of a sudden her dad was in the dream in his green Eddie Bauer shirt saying Deb? Debbie? Wanna go with your ol’ man to the hardware store? We can get some ice-cream on the way home… but then he disappeared and she couldn’t find him, and then Jason Sanders turned into her dad only different, without one of his arms, and she woke up sweating.

***

 Her dad died in a car accident. He was at the Billings’ house where he was doing a dry wall job. No, supervising  a dry wall job. The Billings were some rich Mormon people they sort of knew because Sarah Billings was in Debbie’s girl scout troop when they were in elementary school. Sarah was “nice” and had blond hair and got good grades and was pretty nice to Debbie, but only up to a point. One of those people who was just nice enough that they could think to themselves how great they were because they were so nice to the people that other kids teased. Debbie always wished she had hair like Sarah’s, and was annoyed and fascinated that Sarah politely refused to drink Coke or Pepsi because of her religion. Even ginger ale, which doesn’t even have caffine.

It had been Saturday so Janet and Debbie were home, and Debbie got the phone when it rang. It had been Mrs. Billings only her voice was high and pinched and breathy when she said “Debbie, get your mother…” and she was sobbing. For some reason Debbie had said, “What? Why? What’s wrong? Is my dad the— ?” But her mom, who was wiping the counter after making banana bread, suddenly seemed to know without being told that something was wrong, and her eyes got huge and scared and angry and she started screaming What?! What?! no…no…no before anyone even told her. She crumpled down on the kitchen floor when she started talking to Mrs. Billings, who must have told her that there had been an accident right out in the Billing’s driveway, and Debbie’s dad had been hit–mangled, maybe–by one of his own dry wall guys backing the truck up. Mrs. Billings probably told Debbie’s mom whatever else happened, but even now Debbie didn’t know if he was mangled or if he broke his neck or something or if the truck just hit him in the head and killed him. They thought she didn’t need to know and she never asked. The smell of bananas still made her sick.

Debbie started eating a lot right after the funeral. They were Methodist, or at least they went to a Methodist church sometimes. Debbie wasn’t really sure what Methodist was or why her parents chose that, because she knew there were some other kinds you could choose, and when the minister met with her and her mom before the funeral, he said, “Now, as you know, Debbie, we Methodists believe in the communion of saints, with a small s, and the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. You can take comfort in that,” she said okay but it didn’t really make sense. She didn’t know why it mattered how you wrote anything, or what was comforting about “the life of the world to come.” Nobody had ever explained that. When was it coming? So when she got home, after a small, stiff funeral in a starched little church with red, scratchy material on the benches, she ate. She ate a lot.

It was summer and she had fifty-seven dollars saved up, and she got more every Wednesday night when she babysat for the retarded little boy down the street. Peter. He was six but he seemed more like three, and he always had a runny nose and seemed oblivious to Debbie, just listening to his little yellow Fisher-Price radio and swaying his head back and forth with his eyes closed, like a crazy Stevie Wonder. It was an okay job but  Debbie was glad she didn’t have to take him anywhere. She just watched TV and kept an eye on him and waited for her ten dollars. You could buy three boxes of snack cakes with ten dollars, or two packages of Mallowmars, which had more in them. There was almost nothing better than the squish of a Mallowmar when you bit through the waxy chocolate coating and through the marshmallow, and the tender snap of the graham cracker bottom. Debbie could make a package of Mallowmars last a pretty long time—maybe even two whole days.

So by the time school started, Debbie Simms was fat. Janice took her shopping, which was one of the activities her mom liked best, because you could hide in it. Janice would get all excited about their “girl’s day out” and chatter the whole time, and Debbie knew her mom wanted her to get excited, too, and be all into getting new outfits, and talk along the way about which boys she liked and who was having a party on Friday night. Like Meredith Lancy or Tiffany Peterson or even old Sarah Billings would, if they were Janice’s daughter instead. But even before she was fat, Debbie didn’t really get invited to parties, and now that she was 184 pounds, it was hard to get excited about shopping for school clothes. So Debbie coped by being sullen and only conceding to buying  one pair of jeans, which she would wear with old sweatshirts. She tried for sort of a grunge look. And when her mom “treated” her to a haircut on the way home at a really nice place where they offer you tea or soda while you sit there, the lady said “Now, if we layer it through here to frame her face, it’ll make some of that weight not so noticeable.” That weight she had said, as if Debbie weren’t there. Janice closed her eyes briefly and nodded her consent, and Debbie thought she saw the spasm of pain float across her mother’s face.

Debbie stayed fat through the Christmas holidays, and managed to smuggle her snack cakes to Oklahoma, where her mom’s sister lived with her three bratty sons.  Janice told her it would be good for them to get away for Christmas, to a place where there weren’t so many memories of her dad, and Debbie said whatever even though she wanted to hold on to those memories like a life preserver and felt a shaky pain when she thought of leaving her own house for Christmas. But she blocked them out and went grudgingly to brown Oklahoma where it didn’t even snow and her cousins acted like she wasn’t there. The only good thing about the trip was the weird structure that travelling provided: Debbie liked airports, the necessity of having to walk down a long thing called a concourse–she liked the sound of that word–and find your gate. Sometimes, a sterile, generic voice would get on the speaker system and Brown, Elliot Brown, please come to a white paging telephone. Miller, Doris Miller… Debbie liked listening to the names and picking out the good ones, scoffing silently at the dumb ones, and loosing herself in the bright staleness of it all. She seldom looked at her mother, who didn’t seem to feel the same odd security in airports, and wore a look of vulnerability that Debbie hated.

The trip was bad, the cousins were terrible. There was a really cool one who played lacrosse, and two younger ones. The cool one, Ryland, ignored her or else walked up and asked if she wanted to play the wii or go outside and play basketball, and you could tell his mom made him ask. She tried shooting baskets and actually got a few in the net but never when Ryland was looking and he seemed bored and annoyed. The middle one was a jerk who liked to burp while trying to sing Lady Gaga lyrics, and he actually asked her what she weighed. The little one was okay; he liked to color and told her funny jokes. But she couldn’t very well hang out with him. He was, like, five.

They came home for New Year’s, and Janice went to a party at the Billings; a grown up party so Debbie wasn’t invited. Debbie said she had a party to go to, but she didn’t, and she couldn’t go with her mom because Sarah Billings would hear about it, and anyway, Sarah was going to Meridith Lancy’s party. Meridith’s parents were rumored to be so cool that they stayed up in their gigantic bedroom watching TV when Meridith had parties and didn’t even come down to check on people. Meridith’s parents each had their own bathroom.

She didn’t want her mom to go to theBillings, who, she thought, were only inviting Janice because they felt sorry for her, so Debbie said she had a stomach ache. Janice put her coat on, slowly and deliberately, and then turned to Debbie with a look Debbie had not quite seen before, and said, “Then stop eating all those sweets.” She looked like she was going to cry. Debbie slumped towards the TV.

So Debbie stayed home watching boring TV shows, and on her fourth Mallowmar, she got a bitter taste in her mouth and felt a sudden anger surge up inside her, and without thinking she crushed the sticky cookie in her hand and threw the little mess at the wall. Then she sat silent for nearly two minutes, surprised at her outburst, and went upstairs to bed, leaving the little white and brown cookie body on the floor where it fell.

***

 Eight weeks later it happened. Debbie and Judy were sitting at their lonely, wobbly lunch table when Jason Sanders himself walked up, casually, hands in his pockets and hair over one eye, and asked Debbie to the spring dance. All he said was Hey. You wanna go the dance? and Debbie could feel her heart beating in her neck, and almost turned to make sure he was talking to her. She managed a “yeah…” and he said ‘Kay. Meet me at Meredith’s at eight on Friday and he was already sauntering away before she could answer. Judy’s eyes, behind the inch-thick glasses, were as big as dinner plates.

For two days the possibilities raced through her mind. Had he secretly found her cute and attractive all year and was only now getting the courage to tell her? Was it the eleven pounds she lost? Was it her new way of slinging her backpack over her shoulder after history class—did he suddenly think she was cool? But it didn’t matter, because her life had changed. Tiffany Peterson had even said “Hey, Deb. You can sit with us if you want…” at lunch the day before, and she did and left Judy alone with her perfect sandwich to eat quickly and then go to the library to pretend to do research. Everything was different now. And Janice noticed a certain openness about her daughter, who ate her salad at dinner. It was too good to be true.

So when Friday night came, and Debbie sat in her room in her seventh outfit, her mind bubbling with possibilities about the night: a sulky but charming Jason Sanders, and her future, she tried to ignore the sinking dread in her stomach when she heard an urgent knock at the door two hours earlier than her ride was supposed to come.

It was Judy, whom she hadn’t spoken to in five days, her hair stringy and damp from rain and her glasses white with steam from the warm house. Part of their tacit understanding, their odd friendship, was that the two didn’t go to each other’s houses. They had not been the type of friends to do that, only necessary lunch table sharers and occasional mall companions, so when Debbie heard Janice say “Hi, honey. You’re Judy, right? Debbie’s in her room. Go on upstairs,” she was filled with rage that made her arms hurt.

“What do you want?” she said.

And Judy, in a red rain coat that a six-year-old would wear, took off her glasses and began to wipe them on her sweater sleeve.

“It is a joke,” she began. “This whole dance thing is just a joke. He’s going to get you to drink a lot and then he’s supposed to…you know, do stuff with you, because he bet Meredith and Tiffany and some other people that he could. He doesn’t really like you.”

Debbie arms really ached now.

“How do you know?” she almost yelled, her voice tight and her throat suddenly sore. She was thinking absently that she had never seen Judy with her glasses off, and that without them her eyes were very small and mole-like, and had no lashes. She looked like a different person.

“I found out from Sarah Billings. She wanted to warn you but didn’t want to tell you herself because of…everything. She was really nice about it and told me to tell you she’s really sorry. So then I spied on Jason and heard him laughing about it with some people. It’s true. It’s just a joke,” she finished matter-of-factly, putting her glasses back on.

Debbie was suddenly enraged, thinking of Judy spying on Jason for her, thinking of Sarah Billings with her sickening niceness and perfect hair saying she was sorry for her, and she stood and screamed at Judy “Get out! Get out of my house! Get away from here! I don’t need your help! I don’t need you!” And then, one last time when she could still feel Judy standing outside her closed bedroom door and heard her say through it “Debbie, you can’t actually go…” she screamed “GET OUT OF HERE!”

***

 Janice Simms was wiping down the counter after making bread for the first time since her husband died, (pumpkin, not banana, but it was a start), when Debbie came down the stairs and she heard a car horn beep in the driveway. She stopped herself from asking is that what you’re wearing?  when she saw Debbie’s frayed jeans and short shirt, which was pulling so tightly across her that you could make out fat bulges pushing out under Debbie’s bra line. And she stopped herself from saying that whomever was driving the car outside—this Meredith person or her older brother or whatever—should come inside and be introduced, because she knew that kids didn’t really do that anymore.  And she stopped herself from giving Debbie a hug, or insisting she be home by eleven-thirty, or finding the cause of the look in her daughter’s eyes; the look that left Janice cold because it spoke of an innocence about to be lost.  Janice ignored that. Debbie needed this, she thought. Things had been so hard, and this was better than her just eating and watching TV, and anyway, what could possibly happen? They were not even fifteen for goodness’ sake. Probably at the dance the boys would stand on one side and the girls on the other, too embarrassed to talk or dance, just like in her day. And maybe later, they would go to this girl’s house and watch a movie that might have some bad language or something. But that’s not so bad, really. Debbie needed this. At least it was…something.

“Goodbye!” she called as the door slammed, feigning cheerfulness, and turned to face an empty living room, only sorry that Debbie had no raincoat.

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