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While fighting a losing battle with needlepoint, bangs, and physical nonconformity, Al finds her life further complicated by her father's first visit in years.
"Why do they call it a period, is what I want to know," Al said. "Why don't they call it an exclamation point or a question mark or even a semicolon?"
Al and I were discussing getting our period. She knew perfectly well why they called it a period.
"It's for menstrual period, dummy." I am a fall guy for Al, which is maybe one reason we're such good friends. She says things like that and I rise to the bait like a first-class fish every time. Everyone we know, almost, has got her period. It's sort of like passing your driving test; when you do, people know you're grown up.
I got mine last month. Up until then, Al and I were the only two girls in our class who didn't have our period. Everybody keeps check on everybody else. I never thought it was such a big deal myself. But most of the girls I know keep their sanitary belts and pads in a package in their desks as if they might have to take a trip around the world all of a sudden and don't want to be caught short.
I never had any cramps or anything and my mother had prepared me by telling me about the ovum and the menses and the whole deal.
That left Al. And she was a whole year older than me, which made it worse. She said she didn't mind not getting her period.
"Maybe I'll never get it," she said. "After all, I'm a nonconformist. Maybe I'm such an outstanding nonconformist I'll never get my period at all. I've read that it's possible never to get it at all." The top half of her disappeared inside her locker. She thrashed around, looking for something.
"Then you can't have babies," I said. I know that your period and babies are definitely connected, but I find the facts rather hard to swallow. The facts of life, that is. I also know exactly what happens between a man and a woman to produce a baby. I know that my mother and father must have done it because here I am, not to mention my brother Teddy, fat, dumb and happy, with his mouth hanging open, as usual.
Al took me to a store once where they sell books with pictures of men and women in ridiculous positions with no clothes on. It was enough to make you burst out laughing if you weren't sort of horrified by the whole thing. Al had been to this store before and there were a couple of pictures she especially wanted to show me. She even had the page numbers and the titles of the books written on a piece of paper. But the guy who ran the store came up to her and said, "Listen, kid, if you keep coming in here, I'm going to have to report you to the juvenile authorities. Now scram." So we had to leave without seeing the pictures.
Al shrugged her shoulders. "It's not so much, not being able to have a baby. Anyway, I don't think I'm cut out to be a mother. But of course," she said, picking at her cuticle, "there's always artificial insemination."
Once again, she had me. "What's that?"
"You never heard of artificial insemination?" Al raised her eyebrows so far they disappeared into her bangs. I don't think Al and bangs were meant for each other. She had cut them herself last week and I didn't have the heart to tell her. If she asked me, I'd say what I thought but she didn't ask.
"When a lady can't have a baby they take the sperm of an unidentified male donor and inject it into her and, presto, she's pregnant."
"You made that up," I said.
"Could I make up a story like that?" she asked me. One thing about Al, she has a very vivid imagination but she usually tells the truth.
"The only trouble," Al went on, "is that the kid might turn out to be ugly, on account of its father, the unidentified donor, was ugly or maybe a murderer or a criminal or something like that. I think you take an awful chance. Still, it's a possibility. You've got to admit that."
"Maybe the unidentified donor turns out to be handsome with a cleft in his chin," I said. "What then?"
Al looked puzzled. "What's a cleft in his chin?"
I raised my eyebrows, higher even than she could raise hers. "You don't know what a cleft in the chin is?" I asked, incredulous. "It's a sort of cavity, like a giant-sized dimple, smack in the middle of the chin. My grandfather has one. It's really nice."
"Listen." Al tugged her sweater down. "Next time your grandfather comes to visit you, let me know." She picked up her books from the windowsill.
"Have a weird day," she said and went down the hall.
It was the first time since I'd known her that Al asked the question and I had the answer ready. It was a nice feeling, for a change.CHAPTER 2
After school we went to Al's apartment to do our homework, where we can have peace and quiet. Her mother works in a department store downtown. There is usually a glass jar full of carrot sticks and cucumber slices and green peppers for us to eat. Al's mother is in Better Dresses and is bugs on the subject of not eating fattening things for snacks, so she provides all these raw vegetables, which are supposed to be chock-full of vitamins and no calories.
"Have a carrot stick," Al said, tossing me one. I caught it and put it in my mouth.
"Every time I eat a carrot stick, I think of Mr. Richards," Al said. "I miss him."
Mr. Richards was the assistant superintendent of our building. He and I and Al were friends. He started giving us carrot sticks instead of bread and butter and sugar when Al went on a diet. He tried to teach us how to polish the kitchen floor the way he did. He tied rags on his feet and skated around until the floor shone, but neither one of us ever managed the trick. Mr. Richards died three months ago. Things haven't been the same since.
We were quiet for a few minutes. The sound of water dripping from the kitchen faucet was loud in the room.
"Look at what my father sent me from New Orleans," Al said. She opened a box and showed me the big, flat pieces of candy full of nuts.
"What are they?" I asked.
"Pralines. They're absolutely delicious," Al said.
"How do you know? I thought you weren't supposed to eat sweets," I said.
"The day they came, my mother said I could have one. And you know something?" Al put the box back in the cupboard. "I'm sorry I did. Before I tasted it, I didn't know how good they were. Now I know and it's a heck of a lot harder not to eat one."
"How come your father doesn't know you don't eat candy?" I said.
"How would he know? He hasn't seen me in years. I think I was eight the last time I saw him. He wouldn't recognize me if he fell over me. Except for that picture I sent him, and I've lost some weight since then." Al's father and mother are divorced. Her father sends her checks in the mail even when it isn't her birthday. He sends her postcards from all over but, so far, he hasn't come to see her. He keeps threatening but he doesn't show up. It used to bother Al a lot but now I think she's used to the idea.
The telephone rang. Al picked it up and said, "Yeah? Oh, hi, Mom. We're getting a snack. We polished off all the pralines and now we're into the mashed potatoes." She winked at me. I could hear her mother's voice, sounding high and anxious. "No, that's all right. Have a good time. I'll be fine."
Al hung up. "That was my mother. She's going out for dinner. She wanted to know if I was all right. She's got this thing about not wanting me to be alone too much. She's got a new boyfriend, in Sportswear, at the same store where she works. She's been out with him three times in the last week."
"Do you like him?"
Al shrugged. "He's O.K. At least he doesn't ask me to call him Uncle. And he doesn't give me presents to get on my good side. I'll give him that much. He probably hates me."
"Why does he hate you?"
"How would you like it if you went to take a lady out to dinner and this great big kid is sitting there giving you piercing looks. I feel as if our roles are reversed."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"It's like I'm the mother and she's the kid. I almost said, 'Don't keep her out too late, and be sure not to drive too fast.'" Al looked at herself in the mirror. "Why am I so hideous?"
"Remember what Mr. Richards said," I reminded her. "He said you were going to turn out to be a stunner someday."
"That's right, he did." Al looked pleased. "Maybe if I ran around thinking beautiful thoughts, it might help. My first beautiful thought for the day would be how nice it would be if Martha Moseley fell down and broke her leg."
We got a good laugh out of that. Martha Moseley is a girl in our class who thinks she's the world's greatest cheerleader. Martha Moseley was also the first girl in our class to get her period. You might know.
We had a few more carrot sticks and did a couple of math problems.
"I've got to go," I said. "My mother and father are going out to celebrate their anniversary and I have to brat-sit for Teddy."
"How long have your mother and father been married?"
"Fourteen years. On account of they'd been married a year and a half before I came along to brighten their life."
"Some brightener," Al said.
"You can come and help me brat-sit if you want," I said. "Probably it'd be all right if you came to eat with Teddy and me."
"Not with the price of food these days," Al said. "Besides, I've got my tuna fish and my wheat germ. But maybe I'll come over later on."
"See you," I said.
"Fourteen years is an awful long time to be married," Al said. She looked impressed.CHAPTER 3
"Mom, you look pretty good," I said, "You look like you've been married four, maybe five years at the most. No one would ever guess."
"How about me?" my father said. He straightened his tie in front of the mirror. "Would they take me for a carefree bachelor?"
"More like the father of about eight kids," I said. I like my father. He is the least vain man I know.
My mother wore her taffeta dress, the one that sounds like wind rustling through tall grass. She had on her gold earrings and matching bracelet.
"Where can I possibly take you to show off all that youth and beauty?" my father said. "Why don't we just stay home? I think the ultimate anniversary celebration is to stay home with one's nearest and dearest."
My mother held out his coat. "I've got the hamburgers all set to go and there's creamed spinach and rice, if you want to cook them. The directions are on the package. The number of the restaurant is by the telephone, just in case." She kissed me. "Be kind to Teddy," she said.
"How about Teddy being kind to me?" I said. The doorbell rang. "That's Al. She's coming over to do homework."
"Happy anniversary," Al said, handing my mother a box done up in paper covered with green-and-red Santa Clauses. "It was all I had," she explained.
Mom undid the wrapping.
It was the box of candy that Al's father had sent her from New Orleans.
My mother kissed Al on the cheek. "Thank you," she said. "I love pralines."
"They're for you," Al said firmly. "I don't want any of the kids to eat your present. I want you to make sure you eat them all, both of you."
Teddy snuffled in the background. He had his hand out, ready to rip one off but Al gave him such a piercing look he scratched his nose instead, pretending that was what he planned to do all along.
"Your mother looks super," Al said when they'd gone.
"My father looks super too."
"Your father is a prince."
I didn't argue with her. I cooked the hamburgers and toasted rolls, so I wouldn't have to cook rice. They got a little scorched. I scraped off the scorched part but still Teddy gagged and carried on.
"Grow up," I told him.
"I heard a song today," Teddy announced. "A dirty song."
"Better run out to the hall and check to see if they're gone," Al said.
"My bonnie lies over the ocean," Teddy sang, "My bonnie lies over the sea, My father lay over my mother, and that is how I came to be."
Al and I looked at each other. I went on eating my hamburger, and Al got herself a glass of water.
"How'd you like that?" Teddy said. "You want me to sing it again?"
Neither of us answered him. We went on eating and drinking. "I think I'll wear my blue sweater tomorrow," Al said, pushing back her bangs. "It makes me feel so sexy."
Teddy repeated the song, from start to finish. He didn't miss a beat. "You get it?" he asked us when he'd finished.
"You think he's ready for the other thing?" Al asked me.
"What other thing?"
"You know. What we were talking about in school today. The a-r-t-i-f-i-c-i-a-l i-n-s-e-m-i-n-a-t-i-o-n."
Al is a much better speller than I am.
Teddy's head swiveled on his neck like he was watching a tennis match.
"Spell it again," he said, "slower."
"Heck, no, I don't think he's ready for that," I said. "I'm not ready—how could he be?"
"Sorry, Ted," Al said. "You'll have to wait a couple of years. Tough luck. Keep on trying."
Teddy was practically in tears. "A kid told me it was a very dirty song," he wailed. "Don't you think it is?"
"It'll do until something better comes along," Al said.
Teddy looked crestfallen. I felt so sorry for him I didn't even make him finish his creamed spinach. It went into the dog's dish, along with the scorched roll. Teddy is a very picky eater, as I may have mentioned before.
"Why don't you go drown your sorrows in the bathtub, kid?" I said to him. "You can take your ark and all the animals in with you, and I'll even let you have a little of Mom's bath salts."
Teddy cheered up a bit at that. My mother has the pink bath salts that smell like geraniums, which Teddy is a pushover for. "The only trouble is," he said the last time I let him use them, "it hurts when I sit on it. It sticks me in my rear end."
I clued him in about letting the hot water melt the stuff, then it wouldn't stick him, and that made things O.K. When you're only nine, getting joy out of life is very easy. It's only as you grow up that it becomes more difficult.
We listened at the door as Teddy filled the tub. He sang "My bonnie lies over the ocean" at the top of his voice.
"That was mean," Al said. "Here he thought he was such a hotshot bringing home a dirty song, and we didn't even react."
"I'll get him to sing it next time my mother has a tea party," I said. "That ought to get a reaction of some sort."
After a while Al said she had to go. "You didn't say anything about my bangs," she added.
"I didn't notice," I said.
"As a liar, you finish last," she said. She put her hand on her forehead, pushing the bangs down so far they covered her eyebrows.
"Who beat down that brow?" she said, looking at herself in the mirror. Then she crossed her eyes at me, picked up her books, and opened the door.
"Have a weird day, what's left of it," she said.
"I'll try," I said. "See you tomorrow."CHAPTER 4
Next morning when we met in the lobby I could see that Al didn't have on her blue sweater after all. Instead, she had on a brown vest that she wears only when she's feeling mean. That brown vest is a danger signal.
I decided not to ask what was wrong. She'd tell me when she was good and ready.
"It was bizarre," Al said when we got to the corner.
"What was?" I asked, trying to spell "bizarre" in my head.
"You know I told you my mother was going out with a man from Sportswear?" Al said. We waited for the light to change. People passing us on the street had the gray, fuzzy look they usually had in the morning. I don't know whether they actually were gray and fuzzy or whether it was the sleep still in my eyes. Probably both.
"Yeah," I said, waiting. "You said she'd been out with him twice already this week."
"Three times," Al said sternly. "Well, I fell asleep and when I woke up, the light was still on in the living room and I felt as if I'd been asleep for hours—you know the way you do—so I got up to see if she was home."
The sign changed to WALK and Al and I crossed the street. I could hardly wait to get to the other side.
"She was kissing him and he was kissing her back. And I mean he was kissing her!" Al looked at me out of the corner of her eye. "They didn't even hear me come in. So I backed out as fast as I could and went back to bed. I hardly slept at all after that." Al hugged her books against her chest as if she were trying to keep warm.
"And let me tell you, it was the kind of kissing that can only lead to one thing."
I thought of Teddy singing his song and of the pictures I'd seen of the sex act. Or what leads up to the sex act. I wanted to ask if Al's mother and her new boyfriend had their clothes on or off, but I figured that would be going too far. We are best friends but there are some things even best friends don't discuss.
"What could it lead to?" I finally asked.
Excerpted from I Know You, Al by Constance C. Greene. Copyright © 1975 Constance C. Greene. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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