“Sybil” was first published in The North American Review.
It has been awarded a Pushcart Prize.
The twins pat mousse into Sybil’s hair, working the tight, carefully-blued curls into stiff barbed wires the color of salmon. She cannot escape without her walker, and they have taken her walker down the front steps and across the front lawn to the hickory tree. The mousse stings her scalp. It’s strawberry scented, and a myriad of tiny flies circle blindly overhead, lured into the kitchen through the screen door which is propped open by a brick.
“She’s crying,” says the first twin.
The second twin peers into Sybil’s face, small pink mouth agape. Sybil can see a sliver of white in the child’s gum where a new tooth is coming in. The twins have lost their top front teeth this summer. Angel teeth, their mother calls them.
“No she’s not,” says the second twin. “She’s just thinking, that’s all.”
“Maybe she’s thirsty.”
The second twin considers this and goes over to the refrigerator. She takes out a pitcher and pours Kool-Aid into a glass she finds on the counter. She carefully brushes an ant from the rim of the glass. A smoke-grey cat, panting with heat, is coiled between the dishes in the sink. The twin scratches its head. Everything she touches gets kissed with a faint, pink smear of mousse. She holds the Kool-Aid to Sybil’s lips, but Sybil turns her face away.
“See?” says the twin. “She don’t want anything.”
Her sister kisses Sybil’s neck. Both twins are solemn little girls with pale yellow cheeks and yellow pony tails and their voices are pinched and whispery. They make more barbed wires with the mousse. They work until every inch of Sybil’s head is spiked and rosy.
“She looks bea-u-tee-ful,” says the first twin serenely.
“I don’t think she likes it.”
“She looks just like a movie star.”
The second twin drinks the Kool-Aid. They look at their grandmother with wispy blue eyes, their bright gazes crossing and recrossing her face the way spotlights search a dark sky.
Margie gets home from work at five, and the first thing she sees is Sybil at the table with spiked, rosy hair. The twins are nowhere in sight. Ants cluster on the table where drops of mousse have fallen.
“Oh, God,” says Margie. “Where are they? Where’d they go? Oh, Sybil, I’m so sorry! It washes out, though, I’ve used it on my bangs. It’ll rinse away in a jiffy, I swear.”
Sybil tries to form words and strange sounds come from her mouth. The stroke has garbled her speech. When she’s calm, she can write the words, gripping a pen with her fist. But Sybil is not calm.
“I’ve got a date! Can you believe it?” Margie says, brushing past Sybil and twisting on the cold water faucet in the sink. The smoke-grey cat hops out onto the counter top. It flicks its paws, one at a time. Margie splashes water on her face. She hasn’t had many dates since Victor left four years ago, but she makes the most of what she gets.
“God, this heat, can you believe it? Ninety-five downtown, hotter tomorrow I bet. Johnny Hecht asked me to dinner at The Gander. They got air conditioning and big-screen TV.”
Sybil says, “H-H-Hair!”
“Johnny, he don’t mind kids, he got his own two anyway. We got talking on lunch today, and he said, C’mon, let’s get outta here, so we went mini-golfing at The Palace. You know, that place off I-94? With the big dinosaurs?”
Margie wipes her face and twists a pen into Sybil’s hand.
“Write down where they went to,” she says. “I gotta get dressed. And don’t worry, I promise that’ll wash right out.”
She trots down the hall toward her bedroom, unbuttoning her uniform as she goes. Margie is a receptionist at The Lakeside Hotel. Sybil’s son, Victor, had been the one to hire her. Sybil scrawls HAIR on the formica table top. Fingers of mousse seep down her neck.
Victor disappeared when the twins were three years old, and Sybil knew he’d done the smart thing. By that time, they all were living with her. Sybil thinks they brought on her stroke, but Margie says that’s ridiculous.
“You’re just lucky we’re here,” she chirps. “If we weren’t, you’d be stuck in a home somewheres.”
Margie loves Sybil very much. She tells Sybil, I love you like my own ma! and she whispers Sybil things she could never say to anyone. She reminds Sybil of Sybil’s own mother, Georgia, who died eleven years ago. Georgia was disorganized. Georgia said she loved people all the time, but it never amounted to anything.
Hair, Sybil writes on the formica. Hair. Hair. Hair.
Margie comes back into the kitchen wearing a red strapless sundress that rides up when she walks. Her body bounces but her hair, stiff with spray, is like a helmet. She yanks down the sundress and leans over to read the formica.
“I know, your hair, but I gotta get your dinner first. Where’d the twins go?”
Sybil draws a question mark.
Margie sighs. She takes a carton of cottage cheese out of the refrigerator, sniffs it, and brings it over to Sybil.
“It’s too hot for anything cooked,” she says, “and Johnny’ll be here any minute.”
She sweeps ants off the table with the flat of her hand and spoons cottage cheese into Sybil’s mouth. “Johnny knew Victor and he says Victor was never real responsible. Johnny’s responsible. He’s got two kids of his own, boys, the oldest’s just seven. I mean, not to count my chickens, but they’d be good for Trish and Tina, don’t you think?”
The smoke-grey cat glides up onto the table and Margie says, “Sybil! Where’s your walker?”
Sybil looks out the window.
“Huh? Oh, God, Sybil, I’m sorry. They musta been trying to climb that tree. Here, I’ll go get it for you.”
She pushes back her chair and trips out the door and down the porch steps. Through the window, Sybil watches her float across the lawn like a large red sun. The smoke-grey cat noses forward. Sybil lifts her arm to wave it away, then lets it drop. The cat’s tufted chin sinks into the cottage cheese.
Margie comes in with the walker as a truck pulls into the drive. She squeals, “It’s Johnny!” and yanks at her sundress. A heavy-set man with very red skin and white-yellow hair steps out of the truck. Sybil feels the barbed wire points on her scalp as if they are electrified.
“HAIR!” she chokes.
Margie looks at her, does a double-take.
“Christ, I forgot!”
It’s too late: Johnny thumps up the porch steps and swings his head through the doorway.
“Hey,” he says to Margie. Then he sees Sybil. His eyes stick to her, caught in a rosy web of mousse.
“Johnny,” says Margie in a grand way. “This is my mother-in-law, Mrs. Kelly.”
Margie takes Johnny’s arm and her face opens up to him like a flower. Sybil has forgotten how Margie acts when she desperately wants to be pretty. Sybil herself never needed to act: at Margie’s age, she’d been something to look at. Still, Johnny’s eyes slide from Sybil to rest on Margie’s thick waist and calves.
“Mama, you are somethin’,” he says.
Margie turns to Sybil, winks, and murmurs, “Get the twins to bed at nine.” She and Johnny glide down the porch steps, Johnny’s hand on her hip, her hip thrust into his hand.
Sybil’s throat feels dry and strange. She pulls herself up on her walker and moves out onto the porch to watch the truck bounce down the drive. The floor of the porch boils with ants. The smoke-grey cat twirls around Sybil’s ankles, its tail bolt-upright like an exclamation.
Sybil is sixty-eight. When she was forty-one and red-headed and trim, she rode through town shirtless on the back of a Chevy pick-up, eyes tearing, nipples hard as pits. It was dark, but someone must have recognized her because she got arrested outside of Tiny Joe’s.
“Mama, you are somethin’,” the officer had said, and drunk as she was then, Sybil still remembers it. Lying in bed, sticky with mousse, she thinks about the coolness of the jail that night where, laughing herself to sleep, she’d had the power to live forever. Mama, you are somethin’. It’s twelve-fifteen and too hot to sleep. Margie has not come home.
Sybil wears the same housecoat she’s worn all day. It smells like onions, sour and hot. Its pattern of pink roses is faded almost white, making the length of her body glow eerily in the darkness. The twins are sleeping on the couch in the living room, nestled together like spoons. They told Sybil it’s cooler there than in their bedroom, but Sybil knows they just want to watch adult TV and practice kissing on their hands.
A ragged motor works its way up the drive, idles, coughs, and quits. Margie’s giggle floats high in the air; two doors slam, and Sybil hears Johnny say, “SHHH!”, extra-quiet, extra-careful, and she realizes they are drunk and that they mean to come inside. They tumble up the porch steps and into the kitchen. Something falls, shatters.
“Shit,” Johnny hisses.
“Don’ wake th’ babies.”
Sybil hopes that Margie will come in to check on her so she can get out of her housecoat and sleep in her panties and bra. But Margie moves past Sybil’s room toward her own, Johnny plodding behind her. He stops off at the bathroom and releases a stream that makes Sybil think of horses. Then he goes into Margie’s bedroom and shuts the door. The smoke-grey cat appears in Sybil’s doorway. It pauses, springs like a shadow onto her bed. When the noises start, it stiffens, sniffing the air in the direction of Margie’s bedroom wall. Then it curls up against Sybil’s leg, its wide eyes green and knowing.
The twins are up; Sybil can hear them. The hall light clicks on and it’s not long before they, too, are in Sybil’s room.
“She’s awake,” the first twin says. “Look, her eyes are open.”
“She can’t sleep cuz of them,” says the second twin. She picks up the cat, kisses it, and settles into its place with it tucked into her lap. Sybil can feel the heat coming off of the child’s body. The noises in the next room grow louder, and Sybil wishes the child would move away.
“Aawh,” she breathes.
The first twin crawls over her chest and sits cross-legged on her pillow. She looks tenderly into Sybil’s face.
“What do you want?” she whispers.
Sybil doesn’t know. Johnny’s husky cries bead sweat like ice across her forehead.
“She wants them to shut up,” says the second twin. The cat’s ears rotate, radar style. A breeze lifts the curtains, and Sybil feels her whole body breath that gasp of air.
The noises stop. The twins settle down next to Sybil, one on either side, their legs draped over her legs. A spiked lock of hair dangles across her eyes, and one of the twins, noticing this, sleepily brushes it back. The cat sleeps at their feet, twitchy with dreams.
In the morning, the twins grab Sybil’s arms, pulling her upright. She’s still asleep, so they help her swing her feet over the side of the bed. They button up her housecoat, rubbing their faces into her arms, patting her hands.
“You kin use the bathroom now,” one of them says. “It’s empty.”
Sybil gropes for her walker and moves painfully down the hall, stiff with morning. She uses the toilet and tries to wipe some of the mousse off her face with a wet washcloth she finds squashed in the sink. When she comes out of the bathroom, the twins are waiting for her. They’re uncertain. They slouch against the walls.
“They’re in the kitchen,” the first twin says. “They’re eating breakfast.”
“The man is here,” says the second twin.
Both girls look to Sybil to see what she’s going to do. Sybil straightens her shoulders and grips her walker. The twins follow behind her, clutching her housecoat, and the three of them move down the hall and into the kitchen. Johnny’s at the table with Margie hanging over his shoulder. Margie’s got on a teeshirt that’s just long enough. From the table up, Johnny looks naked, but Sybil realizes he has jockeys on, lavender jockeys with a paisley print.
Johnny and Margie see Sybil at the same time. The barbed wires on her head have been flattened by sleep, but the color is still true and has spread to her cheeks and neck. Each of the twins has a rosy patina on the side of her head that slept next to Sybil.
“Morning,” says Margie, and she and Johnny burst out laughing. They’re eating cereal mixed with beer and drinking from a long dark bottle in the center of the table. They go on laughing for a long time. Sybil cannot keep her eyes from the white-yellow hair on Johnny’s chest, the hard, rounded mound of his belly. She wants to press her face into his skin.
“Come get your breakfast,” Margie says, “and say hello to Johnny. Johnny this is Trish and Tina. And you already met Mrs. Kelly.”
Sybil stares at Johnny. Margie tugs her into a chair and fills her mouth with cereal, giving her fresh spoonfuls before she has time to swallow. The twins pick at their Frosty-Pops. Johnny’s hands work their way under Margie’s shirt; Margie tilts her head back so he can kiss her full on the mouth. Sybil’s eyes fix on that kiss. The inside of her mouth fills with water. She wants that kiss to last forever.
“Kiddos, help Gram with her breakfast, okay?”
Margie slides from her chair, and Johnny rises to follow her out of the kitchen. The seat of his jockeys has been worn sheer; Sybil traces the dark flesh-crack with her eyes. She tries to picture the men she has known, but they all disappear into their own laughing mouths and hungry eyes, and she suddenly can’t remember if she’s ever had a lover at all. The smoke-grey cat skulks into the kitchen, jumps onto the table. It sniffs at a bowl of cereal and beer. When the noises start, its ears fold back like wings.
The twins roll their eyes at each other. They turn to Sybil, but she’s reaching for her walker; Sybil can’t bear those noises any longer.
“What do you want?” the first twin asks her.
“It’s chow time!” says the second twin, and she climbs up onto the counter and reaches into the top cupboard. She pulls down a bag of Choco-Chunk cookies.
Sybil moves out onto the porch; she can tell by the smell of the air it will be another hot day, with more to come. A twin comes out and nudges a cookie into her hand. As Sybil brings it to her lips, it slips, breaking against the wooden floor of the porch.
“Look what you did,” the child says, and her voice and inflection are her mother’s. She and Sybil stare at the ribbon of ants that already has formed to carry the pieces away.
Read This And Tell Me What It Says
“Read This and Tell Me What It Says” won the 1992 Nelson Algren Prize, judged by Jane Smiley, Larry Woiwode and Scott Turrow.
It first appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
My father took pills to make him calm, but they never worked the way they were supposed to. Chronically hyperactive, he rubbed his hands on his thighs, banged his knees together, snapped his fingers. He ate with quick, thrusting gulps. He paced as he talked, beginning new sentences in the middle of old ones. He had never learned to read very well because of his short attention span, and it was hard for him to hold a conversation. The doctors said there wasn’t anything they could do about it, except give him pills that didn’t work.
The pills my brother took were not by prescription. Sullivan would come upstairs from his bedroom in the basement and stare at the walls for hours. He looked so much like my father that sometimes, for a split second, I’d think he was my father not moving. He’s dead, I’d think, and I’d tease myself with it. I’d think about the way his being dead made me feel.
Once I said to Sullivan, “You know how much you look like Dad?”
He gave me a look that went right through me. He said, “An abysmal misconception; I am nothing like that man.” We were listening to the sound of my father riding the stationary bicycle he kept in the laundry room. He biked for at least an hour every day. The chain squeaked with each stroke.
“I didn’t say you were like him, I said you looked like him.”
“The man is a goddamn gerbil,” Sullivan said. His eyes were my father’s; narrow, curving down at the corners, except that the pupils in Sullivan’s eyes were huge.
Sullivan was four years older than I was. Being the kid sister got me attention in bad ways as well as good, but I was fifteen and took attention where I could get it. My mother told me again and again how much she had hoped for a daughter, how certain she was when she was carrying me that I would turn out to be exactly what she wanted. I played the piano and sang in the church choir; summers I played volleyball downtown and got a tan. I pretended to read the classics, one by one, as they arrived from the Book of the Month Club, bound in brown vinyl with gold-plated trim. I was becoming, according to my mother, a well rounded individual.
But the thing I liked to do more than anything else was steal. I was really good at it. I was nervous and awkward most of the time, but when I stole I was smooth as cream. My best friend Suzanne and I bummed rides to Milwaukee with her older brother. He dropped us off at Grand Avenue, and we moved from shop to shop with our loose-sleeved shirts and our jackets tied around our waists, no make-up, hair tied in pony-tails, eyes wide and sweet. The most beautiful thing I ever stole was a hand-blown crystal ball from a jewelry store. It had a tiny blue glass house inside, and if you turned it upside down, snow whirled around. It was nothing like the cheap junk you see at Christmas time; this was for all winter long and the snow looked absolutely real. I gave it to Sullivan as a gift; he cupped it in his hands and stared deep into that blue house for a long time.
“House of cards,” he finally said.
“Make sense. Do you like it?”
“Gifts are for the living,” he said. “You shouldn’t squander your talents on me.”
“Give it back, then,” I said, but he wouldn’t. He glued it to the dashboard of his car.
I didn’t know what to make of Sullivan. We had been close when we were younger, and I was always looking for ways to climb back into that closeness. The next week I stole him a hand-tooled alligator-hide wallet, but he just smiled and shook his head, so I gave it to Suzanne. I stole things that I didn’t like, things I’d never use. When I stole, my mind grew absolutely still, that stillness you get when you walk into a church and know that you are safe there.
My mother had big plans for me. I was the smart one, the one who would go on to college and make something of myself. My mother was a hair stylist and color consultant; on weekends she trimmed my hair, did my nails, worked on my wardrobe with me, the wardrobe that would impress the friends I made in college. New things were always appearing in my closet, but my mother never asked about them, the same way she never asked why Sullivan, who had graduated from high school a year ago, had so much pocket money and no job.
My mother had not given up on Sullivan. He’s finding himself, she said. About my dad she said, He has ants in his pants. She had phrases that summed up each of us. Mine was, She will go far.
She wrote away for information on at least fifty colleges. I was only a sophomore with a C+ average, but at night, we pored over the catalogues together, choosing dorms, sororities, and, occasionally, classes. I was going to major in pre-Law or pre-Med. I would go to a state university for now, but for graduate school, I’d get a scholarship and hit the Ivy League. When I thought about actually applying for college, I got a strange hot feeling in my head that my mother said was excitement.
My father was proud of the education I was going to get. I liked to read, and if he saw me with a book, he squeezed my shoulder — always too hard — and got Sullivan to do whatever it was he was going to ask me to do. I got out of a lot of work that way. Sullivan mowed the lawn in summer, shoveled snow in winter, painted, did dishes, vacuumed, took out the garbage. My father sometimes picked up my books and asked me to tell him what was in them. He brought me letters, advertisements for things he wanted, recipes.
“Read this,” he’d say, “and tell me what it says.”
So I’d tell him that Big Charlie and his wife were doing fine, and they hoped to hear from him soon. I’d tell him why Ford meant quality, and how you could hear a pin drop over five hundred miles of phone line if you used SPRINT. When he started to pace, I’d pace behind him, rattling off the facts.
“Good, that’s very good,” he said, washing his hands in invisible water, shifting from foot to foot, before his mind wandered off to other things. He didn’t ask Sullivan to read to him because Sullivan made things up.
Whatever was between Sullivan and my father had started before I was born. When I asked my mother about it, she just rolled her eyes and said, Boys will be boys, and gave me a look to let me know I should be satisfied with that answer.
“But what does that mean?” I said.
“Oh,” my mother said. “Well. They just have different interests, that’s all.”
“You mean Dad isn’t interested in Sullivan,” I said.
“Oh,” my mother said, “now, Mary Ann, I don’t think that’s fair.”
My mother kept a picture on her dresser that had been taken on Sullivan’s fourth birthday. In it, he sits on my father’s lap, looking up at my father’s chin which is pointing away from my mother and the camera, Sullivan, the other three year olds in their party hats. My father’s knees are spread wide, the way men sit when their laps are empty, their hands folded across their bellies, and their minds on private thoughts. There is nothing about the way my father sits that would be different if Sullivan wasn’t there. Looking at that picture made me feel strange. I wondered how my father had looked when he held me, but all my baby pictures were taken with my mother, and both of us are always smiling.
“Lazy bastard,” my father said to Sullivan whenever he saw him on the sofa. “You need to learn what it is to work.”
“Show me, big guy,” Sullivan said. More than anything else, my father hated to be touched. Sullivan draped his long arms around my father’s neck, stood so close that they were hip to hip. My father flapped his hands, chewed his lips.
“Big guy,” Sullivan said too sweetly. “You have to learn to relax.” Under his breath, he said, “Tight-ass,” after my father had gone. He loosened the screws that held the seat of my father’s stationary bike in place. He moved all my father’s pants to his shirt drawer, and all his shirts to his pants drawer. He thought up dozens of little ways to drive my father crazy. “If the man would only smile,” Sullivan once said, but my father was too harried to smile, driven by bursts of energy, unpredictable as lightning bolts, that wiped out whatever was going through his mind and made his hands shake and his jaws bite down hard.
My father worked for UPS and he left in the morning before my mother and I got up. Sullivan didn’t open his eyes until noon, so my mother and I ate breakfast at the Donut Hole downtown. The waitresses knew us and automatically brought two coffees and two jelly doughnuts. I dunked my doughnut and squinted out the window, jiggling my foot and thinking about Suzanne and what we would do that day and worrying about it. I worried about everything. My mother was quiet in the morning; she dreaded going to work. Sometimes she talked about playing hooky.
“Let’s make a picnic lunch,” she’d say. “We can bundle up and eat in the park,” or, “Let’s stay home today and watch TV.”
But always, at seven fifty-five, she said, Another day, another dollar, I guess, and walked across the street to The Style Haven, and I walked up the hill to school.
Suzanne and I were together all day because we took all the same classes. We called each other every night to discuss the things we forgot to talk about during the day. We did everything together and it drove the teachers wild. Sometimes we’d cut in the afternoon and go to the woods behind the parking lot where Sullivan hung out with his friends. The air drifting from them smelled sweet. Suzanne and I walked over, acting cool, until they’d give us a hit. Being stoned cleared my head and slowed me down. It made me realize how nervous I was all the rest of the time. I was turning into my father and there was nothing I could do about it. I tried a few of my father’s pills and they didn’t help at all. When I told my mother how I was feeling — that I couldn’t keep still, that my palms sweated, that my heart pounded for no reason — she said it was my age and that I should find a boyfriend.
I had a boyfriend. His name was Dirk Smith, and I hadn’t told anyone but Suzanne about him because he wasn’t the sort of boyfriend a girl admitted to. Dirk had bad breath and pimples the size of dimes. When he kissed me in the bus shelter after all the buses had left, I wanted to spit and wipe my mouth. This is what normal people do, I told myself, but it didn’t help.
So I got stoned with Sullivan as often as I could and I stole things and I ate breakfast with my mother. I read things to my father as he rode the stationary bicycle in the laundry room, shouting to be heard over the squeak of the chain. At night, when my mother pulled out the college catalogues, my heart pounded until I thought it would explode.
Suzanne said not to worry about it. She didn’t seem to understand me the way she used to, and this terrified me because if anything happened so we weren’t best friends, I didn’t know what I’d do.
“You’re a victim of stress,” she said. “That’s normal.”
“I guess,” I said. “I just feel like I can’t shut my brain off. I feel like I’m going crazy.”
“It’s nerves,” Suzanne said, “and you’re lucky to have them. Look how skinny you are!”
Suzanne was always on a diet. I was on the track team, the girls intramural softball team, and I lifted weights in the gym. In the evening, I played the piano for hours to keep my mind from racing around and around what had piled up there during the day. Still, I had insomnia. I had bags like walnuts under my eyes. I was skinnier than anybody else I knew except for one person, and that was my father.
“Sweetheart,” he said to me one day. “Read this and tell me what it says.”
It was a newspaper article about a man who had an allergy to everything: food, air, people, animals. The man had to live in a special house and wear silk clothes and eat irradiated food. If he didn’t, his nerves drove him crazy, he hallucinated, he went without sleep for days. I paced after my father, explaining it to him.
“Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me,” he said.
“Me too,” I said eagerly, but his mind had already wandered to other things and he didn’t hear. I found a new boyfriend, a short, muscular junior who liked to be called Fonzie, and we spent hours exchanging vicious kisses in the woods behind the parking lot. Fonzie knew what he was doing, but I couldn’t keep my mind on it for long. I forgot to finish meals. I asked to use the bathroom during class, and then I sat in the stalls, giggling. I thought, I am cracking up.
I knew I would never get into college. When I turned sixteen, my mother gave me a ring that had belonged to her mother. The ring had two diamonds set into a silver band. I couldn’t believe she was giving me two diamonds.
“My mom was smart just like you,” my mother said. “I always hoped you’d take after her. I think this should belong to you.”
“Mom,” I said. “I’m not smart like that.”
“I was so afraid you’d take after me.”
“I am like you.”
“No,” my mother said, and she made a motion in the air like she was wiping the words away. “You aren’t one bit like me.”
“That’s because there’s something wrong,” I said. “I can’t stop thinking. I can’t slow down.”
“That’s good,” my mother said. “You’ll never be short of energy.”
My mother had a special look she gave me, and that look said I was the smartest, prettiest, most talented girl in the world. It wasn’t the sort of look you could argue with. It was a look that had made up it’s mind. I wore the ring and I passed my driver’s ed exam and became addicted to driving fast. For the next year, high speed soothed my mind. Even Sullivan wouldn’t ride with me.
“There are certain precautions one takes to live a long and fruitful life,” he said. I didn’t care. I called him chicken-shit and flew around town in my mother’s ’74 Pinto wagon, running stop signs, squealing curves. Suzanne found a steady boyfriend who drove within the speed limit. He came along with us to Milwaukee, and I thought his face would split, his mouth dropped open that wide, when I slipped a pair of dove-shaped earrings into my jacket. Suzanne wouldn’t steal with me after that. She said she had grown up. I tried to give her the earrings, but she told me I should return them.
I mourned for Suzanne, especially when I saw her in the halls with girls we had always called fluff. I got shin splints and had to quit track, so after school I came home and played the piano and when I’d had enough of that I rode my father’s stationary bike. He was pleased we finally had something in common. If he came home before I was finished, he walked circles around me while he waited, talking to himself, gesturing wildly.
“Don’t have children,” he said to the air. “They’ll grow up and stab you in the heart.”
I knew he was worried about Sullivan. Sullivan came home less and less, but I saw him every day behind the school. He always was glad to see me.
“Mary Ann,” he’d say. “Sweet sister. Flesh of my flesh.”
“Hey,” I’d say, trying to act cool around his friends who were older and had dropped out or graduated, but Sullivan would muss up my hair, or imitate my walk, or ask how was kindergarten today. His friends didn’t know what to make of me. They circled me, just out of reach, like wary dogs. After awhile, though, they got used to me, and they became my friends almost as much as Sullivan’s. We drove to Milwaukee on weekends and went dancing and partied on the East Side. I was like their mascot. I was everyone’s kid sister.
My favorite of his friends was a girl named Lace, and at the beginning of my senior year, she and I became best friends. Seeing Suzanne in the halls didn’t matter now; Lace and I shared the same mind. We cut our hair the same, dated the same guys, and had identical rosebuds tattooed above our ankles. Lace liked to race trains; she took me to where the railroad tracks crossed Highway KW south of town, where three kids had been killed last year, and showed me how it was done. You lined up in however many cars you had, with the bravest kids in the last car. Then you waited for the ten fifty-three freighter. You drank beer, and if another car went past, you all acted like you were leaving so they wouldn’t call the cops. When you heard the train in the distance, you got into the cars; at the last possible moment, the first car took off across the tracks with the rest of the cars behind. Sometimes, after the train shuddered past, the last car would still be on the other side of the tracks and you laughed at the kids in it and called them chicken-shit. If everybody made it, you drank more beer to celebrate and told the lead car they were chicken-shit for taking off too soon.
That was how you did it, and Lace and I raced trains every weekend with whoever wanted to come with us. We got reputations as dangerous girls. We wore black lipstick and went on the Pill. We went on crying jags together and holed up at Lace’s house because her parents were never there. We tried to figure out what I would do after graduation. We tried to figure out what Lace would do when her parents finally threw her out.
Lace liked to hear me play the piano. After school we’d sneak into the practice rooms where I would play Chopin nocturnes and Lace would read Harlequin romances. I had perfect pitch and I played everything by ear. No one had told me this was unusual, so I didn’t think about it much. Playing the piano was just something to do that calmed me down for awhile. The music teacher, Mr. Lee, took an interest in me. I told him I liked romantic music, so he brought in a recording of the Chopin Berceuse. I thought I would die listening to it, and afterwards I went to the piano and played what I remembered of it.
“You could be famous,” Lace said.
“Nobody gets famous playing the piano,” Mr. Lee said, “but you have a gift, a remarkable gift.” He wanted to make an audition tape of me and send it to a conservatory out east. I shrugged at him.
“Whatever,” I said.
“You have to get moving on this,” he said. “Application deadlines are in January. Unless,” he said, “you have an interest in another field?”
It was December and I had no interest in anything. One day after school, he tape-recorded me playing the Chopin Ballads. All I knew was romantic music, and almost all of it was Chopin. Mr. Lee said not to worry. He said if anyone complained, he’d swear we’d made a classical tape and a contemporary tape and they must have been lost in the mail. Then he took me out for dinner.
“To celebrate,” he said. We drove to Sheboygan because he said he knew a restaurant there that served fantastic steaks. The restaurant was called Pancake Heaven, and it served breakfast All Day Every Day. It was attached to a motel. Mr. Lee ordered a rare steak with his eggs and talked about evolution.
“Man evolved as a carnivore,” he said. “I never understood folks that try to undo that particular process.”
He smiled as I bit into a piece of bacon.
“This is what separates us from apes,” he said. He reached for my hand and squeezed it between his fingers. “You’re a talented girl, Mary Ann.”
I squeezed his hand back to see what he would do; he blushed the color of his steak, then he pulled my hand to his mouth.
“I’ve had my eye on you,” he said.
“Mr. Lee,” I said. “I don’t think I want to major in music. I mean, I think my mother wants me to be a doctor.”
“Don’t limit yourself,” Mr. Lee said. He pressed my hand to his cheek; I tugged it free and put both my hands on my lap. “Keep all your avenues open.”
I thought about sleeping with Mr. Lee. I looked at his hair cut too short on the top and the eyelash clinging to his cheek. His teeth crossed slightly in front; the crevice between was stained the color of dirt. I decided I couldn’t do it, even if it would be an interesting experience to look back on.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
His hands found mine under the table. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll fill out the forms. I’ll even pay your application fee, how’s that for reasonable?”
“Suit yourself,” I said.
“That’s what attracted me to you in the first place,” Mr. Lee said. “You’re so mature for your age. Now, I’m going to pay this bill, and then we can either get back in the car and I’ll take you home, or,” he stroked my hands, “we can go next door. It’s your decision.”
He smiled, but his eyes were hard as stones.
“I’ll wait in the car,” I said, and he didn’t speak to me all the way back. I felt weird about the whole thing and avoided the practice rooms after that. Lace came over after school the next day and I played the piano in the living room while she leafed through my father’s current Playboy. I played the Bercuese, changing it here and there so that it wouldn’t belong to Mr. Lee anymore, but to Lace and myself.
“I’d never look like this,” she said when I finally got up to fix coffee. She was studying Miss December. “Not even with plastic surgery.”
“Yes, you would,” I said. Modeling was the only thing Lace thought she might be good at. She looked like a model, with high cheek bones and long blonde hair that was more white than yellow, but whenever I made an appointment for her with one of Sullivan’s photographer friends, she said she was too fat to shoot a portfolio yet. “They air brush everything,” I said. “No one has skin like that.”
“She does,” Lace said. “It’s for real, you can tell.”
“I think I’m going crazy,” Lace said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I think I am truly insane.”
“I think I am too,” I said.
“Then what’s the point,” Lace said, “if we’re going to be crazy like this all our lives?”
My mother filled out ten applications for ten different schools and signed my name. She did the writing because her penmanship was nicer; I sat across from her and answered questions.
“How should we write your name?” she said. “Mary A. Crill? M. A. Crill?”
“What’s wrong with Mary Ann?”
“Well,” my mother looked embarassed. “Your father picked it out, and it’s a very nice name and all, but it doesn’t have. . . “
“Flair,” I said.
“Exactly. We need something bold, but not pushy.”
“How about Marianne, all in one word?”
“Marianne Crill, Marianne Crill,” my mother said. “I like the sound of that.”
“Me too,” I said, and she watched as I practiced signing my new name. My average had slipped to a C- but I told her I’d raised it to a high B. When the school called to report I’d been missing from certain classes, I said I was having menstrual cramps or that I’d come in late or that the teacher just hadn’t seen me. I kept finding notes from Mr. Lee in my locker. Thinking of you, the notes said. The writing was cramped and jumbled together. Want to talk. Misunderstanding.
“What am I going to do?” I asked Sullivan.
We were lying side by side on his waterbed in the basement, listening to Pink Floyd on his two thousand dollar stereo system. A large tank of tropical fish was suspended by thin chains from the ceiling, and the underwater lights inside the tank were the only lights in the room. The fish glowed electric orange, blue, the bright colors of dragonflies, and in the darkness they seemed to float on air.
“Relax,” Sullivan said. “We shall move to Milwaukee. We shall live in harmony with our fellow creatures. Milwaukee will broaden our horizons.”
I had three hundred dollars in savings from various jobs that I quit within weeks of taking them. “We don’t have the money to move anywhere,” I said. “Besides, it would look weird.”
“Money is not a relevant issue. Trust,” he said, “is key.” He rested his head against my shoulder. “We can make a break from things here. This summer I’m going to get clean.”
“Why this summer?” I said. “Why not now?”
“The world of high finance can be troublesome,” Sullivan said. “One acquires certain responsibilities.”
I had no responsibilities. I lived for racing trains. One night, Lace and I went to the tracks alone. It was a cold night in March; there were no stars, and the faint glow of the town in the distance made me shiver. We were drinking Southern Comfort. We walked to the tracks, passing the bottle back and forth, and sat back to back between the rails.
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had,” she said.
“No, I mean that.”
“Me too,” I said. We felt the rails start to hum and watched the wide, pure eye of the train grow wider; Lace’s pale hair exploded with light.
“Let’s go,” I said.
“Now,” I said. I had to yell to be heard. I got up and grabbed for her hands, but she tucked them under her arms. The bottle tipped against the tracks. I jumped back onto the road and as the train roared up Lace unfolded her arms and sailed into my chest. The impact knocked me down; the back of my head hit the ground hard as the Southern Comfort bottle spun through the air above us. Lace rolled off me, laughing.
“Chicken-shit,” she said.
“Asshole,” I said, surprised at myself. I had never been angry with Lace before; her eyes opened wide with hurt. I hugged her, then, and she hugged me back and we stood there hugging until I felt foolish and pulled away.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just drunk.”
My mother was waiting up when I got home. Three more universities had rejected me. That made ten. “It’s not fair,” she said. “After we worked so hard.”
“Oh, Mom, don’t,” I said, but her face flushed and she started to cry.
“Oh, Mary Ann,” she said, only she said it Marianne.
“I’m just not that smart,” I said. I could smell Lace’s perfume on the collar of my coat and it distracted me. I spoke very slowly and carefully, trying hard not
to seem like I’d been drinking. “I’ve been telling you that all along.”
“But you are,” my mother said. She blew her nose. “We’ll figure something out,” she said. I could tell by the way she looked at me she didn’t blame me one bit. My stomach clenched like a fist. I went to bed, but later I got up and vomited Southern Comfort.
Lace took all of her mother’s Valium and walked out into the snow. The cops found her in the woods south of town, not far from the tracks. They said she looked like she was sleeping, but her parents cremated the body right away and so I never saw. Cops and reporters asked me questions because I was The Best Friend. I said she hadn’t seemed depressed. I said she wasn’t any different from the rest of us.
After that, I stayed home from school for days. My mother told my teachers I was grieving, but all I did was pull the stationary bicycle into the living room so I could bike and watch TV at the same time. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t make decisions. I didn’t know what I was going to do next.
“Leave things to me,” Sullivan said. “You’ve had a terrible shock.” He started looking for a two-bedroom for us on the south side of Milwaukee. I wasn’t convinced I wanted to move away with Sullivan, but on Easter morning, I found a brightly colored straw basket hanging from my bedroom door. It was filled with chocolate eggs and marshmallow rabbits. The card said, We will get a fresh start. We will live our lives. You’ll see. I loved him so much then I went back into my room and cried and decided to go with him.
I went to Mass with my parents as I always did Easter Sunday. Afterwards, my father had my mother read him all of my university rejections. By the time she finished, his face was slick with sweat. I was sitting at the table, listening, and he came over and put his hand on my shoulder. He squeezed so hard I gasped, but though his mouth worked, no words came. Then he patted my hand and went into the laundry room. The chain on the stationary bike began to squeal.
“He feels so bad for you,” my mother said.
The next day, when I came home for supper, my father handed me a letter from The Eastman School of Music.
“Read this and tell me what it says,” he said, but the letter had been opened and I saw by his face that he already knew. My mother was smiling so hard that she didn’t look like herself. I read that I had been accepted at the conservatory, based on my fine audition tape. I would be placed on academic probation for a year. I was to be congratulated.
My father jumped up and down. My mother said she hadn’t applied for me at Eastman, and I told her one of my teachers at school had done it for me.
“We wanted to surprise you,” I said numbly, and she hugged me and my father pounded me on the back.
“Where’s Sullivan?” I said. His Camaro was parked outside on the street, but of course, no one knew where he was. That night in my room, I got down on my knees and tried to send psychic messages, first to Lace, then to Sullivan. With Lace, I felt a warm tingle in my stomach, and I knew she was happy for me. But with Sullivan I felt nothing, though I tried to reach him for a long time. I knew if he still wanted me to move to Milwaukee, that was where I would go. Sullivan, I whispered hard inside my head. Through the door, I could hear my mother on the phone, the shrill rise and fall of her voice, as she called her sisters, her old school friends, telling them our good news. I covered my ears and repeated Sullivan’s name until it became just a sound.
The following night, when we heard he’d been arrested, I drove Sullivan’s Camaro down to the railroad tracks and crossed just seconds before a train pounded through. It came so close to hitting me that the force of the air swung the tail end of the Camaro out to the side. I pulled over and got out. The sky was speckled with stars; I threw back my head and breathed deeply. For the first time in many weeks, my head was clear. I was filled with what I’d felt as I crossed the tracks, just after that moment when I knew I wouldn’t make it: the unexpected relief that I’d been wrong.