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A collection of short stories from "... one of the best writers about middle-class youth since Salinger." -- Booklist
I am eating my grapefruit with a grapefruit spoon my mother bought last summer from a door-to-door salesman on a large three-wheeled bike. My mother and I were sitting on the front steps that day and we watched him glide down the street, into our driveway, and up our front walk. He opened his case on the handlebars, and it was full of fruit appliances: pineapple corers, melon ballers, watermelon seeders, orange-juice squeezers, and grapefruit spoons. My mother bought four of the spoons and the man pedaled himself out of our lives.
That was about a year ago. Since then a lot has changed, I think as I pry the grapefruit pulp away from the skin with the serrated edge of the spoon. Since then, my mother has remarried, my father has moved to California, and I have stopped talking. Actually, I talk quite a lot at school, but never at home. I have nothing to say to anyone here.
Across the table from me, drinking Postum, is my new stepfather. He wasn't here last year. I don't think he was anywhere last year. His name is Lonnie, and my mother met him at a Seth Speaks seminar. Seth is this guy without a body who speaks out of the mouth of this lady and tells you how to fix your life. Both Lonnie and my mother have fixed their lives. "One day at a time," my mother says every morning, smiling at Lonnie and then, less happily, at me.
Lonnie is only thirteen years older than I am; he is twenty-nine but looks about fourteen. When the three of us go out together, he is taken to be my brother.
"Listen to this," Lonnie says. Both Lonnie and my mother continue to talk to me, consult with me, and read things to me, in the hope that I will forget and speak. "If gypsy moths continue to destroy trees at their present rate, North America will become a desert incapable of supporting any life by the year 4000." Lonnie has a morbid sense of humor and delights in macabre newspaper fillers. Because he knows I won't answer, he doesn't glance up at me. He continues to stare at his paper and says, "Wow. Think of that."
I look out the window. My mother is sitting in an inflated rubber boat in the swimming pool, scrubbing the fiberglass walls with a stiff brush and Mr. Clean. They get stained during the winter. She does this every Memorial Day. We always open the pool this weekend, and she always blows up the yellow boat, puts on her Yankees hat so her hair won't turn orange, and paddles around the edge of the pool, leaving a trail of suds.
Last year, as she scrubbed, the diamond from her old engagement ring fell out and sank to the bottom of the pool. She was still married to my father, although they were planning to separate after a last "family vacation" in July. My mother shook the suds off her hand and raised it in front of her face, as if she were admiring a new ring. "Oh, Stephen!" she said. "I think I've lost my diamond."
"What?" I said. I still talked then.
"The diamond fell out of my ring. Look."
I got up from the chair I was sitting on and kneeled beside the pool. She held out her hand, the way women do in old movies when they expect it to be kissed. I looked down at her ring and she was right: the diamond was gone. The setting looked like an empty hand tightly grabbing nothing.
"Do you see it?" she asked, looking down into the pool. Because we had just taken the cover off, the water was murky. "It must be down there," she said. "Maybe if you dove in?" She looked at me with a nice, pleading look on her face. I took my shirt off. I felt her looking at my chest. There is no hair on my chest, and every time my mother sees it I know she checks to see if any has grown.
I dove into the pool. The water was so cold my head ached. I opened my eyes and swam quickly around the bottom. I felt like one of those Japanese pearl fishers. But I didn't see the diamond.
I surfaced and swam to the side. "I don't see it," I said. "I can't see anything. Where's the mask?"
"Oh, dear," my mother said. "Didn't we throw it away last year?"
"I forget," I said. I got out of the pool and stood shivering in the sun. Suddenly I got the idea that if I found the diamond maybe my parents wouldn't separate. I know it sounds ridiculous, but at that moment, standing with my arms crossed over my chest, watching my mother begin to cry in her inflatable boat—at that moment, the diamond sitting on the bottom of the pool took on a larger meaning, and I thought that if it was replaced in the tiny clutching hand of my mother's ring we might live happily ever after.
So I had my father drive me downtown, and I bought a diving mask at the five-and-ten, and when we got home I put it on—first spitting on the glass so it wouldn't fog—and dove into the water, and dove again and again, until I actually found the diamond, glittering in a mess of leaves and bloated inchworms at the bottom of the pool.
I throw my grapefruit rind away, and go outside and sit on the edge of the diving board with my feet in the water. My mother watches me for a second, probably deciding if it's worthwhile to say anything. Then she goes back to her scrubbing.
Later, I am sitting by the mailbox. Since I've stopped talking, I've written a lot of letters. I write to men in prisons, and I answer personal ads, claiming to be whatever it is the placer desires: "an elegant educated lady for afternoon pleasure," or a "GBM." The mail from prisons is the best: long letters about nothing, since it seems nothing is done in prison. A lot of remembering. A lot of bizarre requests: Send me a shoehorn. Send me an empty egg carton (arts and crafts?). Send me an electric toothbrush. I like writing letters to people I've never met.
Lonnie is planting geraniums he bought this morning in front of the A & P when he did the grocery shopping. Lonnie is very good about "doing his share." I am not about mine. Every night I wait with delicious anticipation for my mother to tell me to take out the garbage: "How many times do I have to tell you? Can't you just do it?"
Lonnie gets up and walks over to me, trowel in hand. He has on plaid Bermuda shorts and a Disney World T-shirt. If I talked, I'd ask him when he went to Disney World. But I can live without the information.
Lonnie flips the trowel at me and it slips like a knife into the ground a few inches from my leg. "Bingo!" Lonnie says. "Scare you?"
I think when a person stops talking people forget that he can still hear. Lonnie is always saying dumb things to me—things you'd only say to a deaf person or a baby.
"What a day," Lonnie says, as if to illustrate this point. He stretches out beside me, and I look at his long white legs. He has sneakers and white socks on. He never goes barefoot. He is too uptight to go barefoot. He would step on a piece of glass immediately. That is the kind of person Lonnie is.
The Captain Ice Cream truck rolls lazily down our street. Lonnie stands up and reaches in his pocket. "Would you like an ice pop?" he asks me, looking at his change.
I shake my head no. An ice pop? Where did he grow up—Kentucky?
Lonnie walks into the street and flags down the ice cream truck as if it's not obvious what he's standing there for.
The truck slows down and the ice-cream man jumps out. It is a woman. "What can I get you?" she says, opening the freezer on the side of the truck. It's the old-fashioned kind of truck, with the ice cream hidden in its frozen depths. I always thought you needed to have incredibly long arms to be a good Captain Ice Cream person.
"Well, I'd like a nice ice pop," Lonnie says.
"A Twin Bullet?" suggests the woman. "What flavor?"
"Do you have cherry?" Lonnie asks.
"Sure," the woman says. "Cherry, grape, orange, lemon, cola, and tutti-frutti."
For a second I have a horrible feeling that Lonnie will want a tutti-frutti. "I'll have cherry," he says.
Lonnie comes back, peeling the sticky paper from his cherry Bullet. It's a bright pink color. The truck drives away. "Guess how much this cost," Lonnie says, sitting beside me on the grass. "Sixty cents. It's a good thing you didn't want one." He licks his fingers and then the ice stick. "Do you want a bite?" He holds it out toward me.
Lonnie is so patient and so sweet. It's just too bad he's such a nerd. I take a bite of his cherry Bullet.
"Good, huh?" Lonnie says. He watches me eat for a second, then takes a bite himself. He breaks the Bullet in half and eats it in a couple of huge bites. A little pink juice runs down his chin.
"What are you waiting for?" he asks. I nod toward the mailbox.
"It's Memorial Day," Lonnie says. "The mail doesn't come." He stands up and pulls the trowel out of the ground. I think of King Arthur. "There is no mail for anyone today," Lonnie says. "No matter how long you wait." He hands me his two Bullet sticks and returns to his geraniums.
I have this feeling, holding the stained wooden sticks, that I will keep them for a long time, and come across them one day, and remember this moment, incorrectly.
After the coals in the barbecue have melted into powder, the fireflies come out. They hesitate in the air, as if stunned by dusk.
Lonnie and my mother are sitting beside the now clean pool, and I am sitting on the other side of the "natural forsythia fence" that is planted around it, watching the bats swoop from tree to tree, feeling the darkness clot all around me. I can hear Lonnie and my mother talking, but I can't make out what they are saying.
I love this time of day—early evening, early summer. It makes me want to cry. We always had a barbecue on Memorial Day with my father, and my mother cooked this year's hamburgers on her new barbecue, which Lonnie bought her for Mother's Day (she's old enough to be his mother, but she isn't, I would have said, if I talked), in the same dumb, cheerful way she cooked last year's. She has no sense of sanctity, or ritual. She would give Lonnie my father's clothes if my father had left any behind to give.
My mother walks toward me with the hose, then past me toward her garden, to spray her pea plants. "O.K.," she yells to Lonnie, who stands by the spigot. He turns the knob and then goes inside. The light in the kitchen snaps on.
My mother stands with one hand on her hip, the other raising and lowering the hose, throwing large fans of water over the garden. She used to bathe me every night, and I think of the peas hanging in their green skins, dripping. I lie with one ear on the cool grass, and I can hear the water drumming into the garden. It makes me sleepy.
Then I hear it stop, and I look up to see my mother walking toward me, the skin on her bare legs and arms glowing. She sits down beside me, and for a while she says nothing. I pretend I am asleep on the ground, although I know she knows I am awake.
Then she starts to talk, as I knew she would. My mother says, "You are breaking my heart." She says it as if it were literally true, as if her heart were actually breaking. "I just want you to know that," she says. "You're old enough to know that you are breaking my heart."
I sit up. I look at my mother's chest, as if I could see her heart breaking. She has on a polo shirt with a little blue whale on her left breast. I am afraid to look at her face.
We sit like that for a while, and darkness grows around us. When I open my mouth to speak, my mother uncoils her arm from her side and covers my mouth with her hand.
I look at her.
"Wait," she says. "Don't say anything yet."
I can feel her flesh against my lips. Her wrist smells of chlorine. The fireflies, lighting all around us, make me dizzy.CHAPTER 2
Nuptials & Heathens
Joan is trying to decide if Tom's habit of switching the car radio from station to station is endearing or annoying. As they drive north of Boston, into the late night and away from the good stations, he punches the buttons more and more frequently. He is never satisfied with one station for long. They are driving to his parents' house in Maine for the weekend.
She rolls up her window because it is getting cold, and puts her empty Tab can on the floor at her feet, then picks it up because she's not sure it is something she should do in his car. When they stopped for gas she took fifty-five cents from the "toll money" (they were off the highway and through with tolls) and bought a Tab from the machine. When she tilted the can under Tom's chin for him to sip from, he said, "Ugh, Tab. Couldn't you have got a soda we both liked?"
Tom's mother, Mrs. Thorenson, hears them arrive, but she doesn't get out of bed. She doesn't look so great in the middle of the night, and first impressions are first impressions. She listens to them come inside, hears them trying to be quiet, hears Tom pointing things out—"There's the ocean down there. See it?" She listens to them use the bathroom. It sounds like they're using it together—at least they're talking while Tom urinates (it sounds like a man urinating)—although Joan could be standing in the hall. Then she hears them go upstairs, together, into his room. She's glad she's not up to see that part. She hears them get into bed. She falls asleep listening for them to make love.
The sun doesn't wake Joan up. Tom does. "You better get up," he says. "We get up early here." He is standing by the bed in the pale blue tennis shorts she helped him pick out Thursday night in Herman's. Tom isn't tan, although it's August. From this angle, lying in bed with Tom standing beside her, the hair on his legs looks very unattractive. She gets out of bed and stands beside Tom in her Nike T-shirt.
"What should I wear?" she asks. "Do you get dressed up for breakfast?" When can I take a shower? she thinks to herself. Now, or after breakfast? Do they have a shower? She didn't see one in the bathroom last night.
"Not dressed up," says Tom. He pulls his matching blue-and-white-striped shirt over his head and speaks from inside it. "But dressed."
Joan looks out the window. A woman is dragging a black cat on a leash across the lawn. The cat looks dead.
"That's Deborah," says Tom. They both stand by the window and watch Deborah. "I don't know what that is she's got."
"It's a cat," says Joan.
"It looks like a skunk."
"Is your father here, too?" Joan asks. She puts on her jean skirt, then pulls off her T-shirt.
"I'm not sure," Tom says. "Let's hope not."
In the kitchen, Mrs. Thorenson is cutting up fruit for a fruit salad. She bought kiwifruit at The Fruit Basket just for this weekend, but she is unsure how to slice them. Should she peel them? The fuzzy skin looks unappetizing and vaguely dangerous. Yet, when she tries to peel them, the soft green flesh mushes up. She has, at Fanny Farmer's suggestion, quartered the strawberries, sliced (diagonally) the bananas, sectioned the grapefruit, and balled the cantaloupe with a teaspoon, but Fanny Farmer doesn't mention kiwifruit. The kiwis are hopeless. She throws them away. Good riddance to them, although at ninety-nine cents each it is a shame.
She watches Deborah tie her cat—what was its name, Gilda?—to the rail of the deck and come inside.
"Do you think it's safe to leave him out there?" Deborah asks.
"Of course," Mrs. Thorenson says. Gilbert climbs onto the canvas director's chair and lies in the sun. "Just make sure he doesn't fall off the deck and hang himself."
"He can't," says Deborah. She opens the refrigerator and looks in it. "He has on a harness, not a collar. Have they come down yet?"
"No," says Mrs. Thorenson. "But they're awake."
"She left her soap in the bathroom," Deborah says. "Clinique."
"So?" says Mrs. Thorenson.
"So, nothing. Just FYI."
The morning goes O.K. Mrs. Thorenson's fruit salad is a big hit, the coffee Deborah laced with cinnamon makes the kitchen smell nice, and Joan begins to relax. There is a shower, a nice one with a Water Pik showerhead and plenty of hot water, and after breakfast Joan takes a long shower and changes into her bathing suit.
They all sit on the deck for a while. Deborah lets Gilbert off the leash, and he sits in some bayberry bushes purring and looking dazed. At ten o'clock Mrs. Thorenson and Deborah drive to the airport to pick up Mr. Thorenson, who missed his flight the night before.
Joan and Tom go down to the beach. It's rocky except for one small area that's surrounded by railroad ties and filled with sand—bought sand, Tom explains, sand replaced every summer and after extremely high tides. They keep sacks of it in the boathouse.
But it's like a little oasis, and Tom and Joan lie on it, on an old bedspread that has a Wizard of Oz motif, only Dorothy doesn't look like Judy Garland, she looks like Heidi. She's blonde and dressed in lederhosen.
The blonde, skipping Dorothys unnerve Joan, but when she closes her eyes and traces the indentation down Tom's warm back again and again—a gesture she usually reserves for after they have made love—she begins to feel better, and by the time Deborah appears on the little beach, with Gilbert back on his leash, she's almost happy. It's not so bad here. It's nice.
"Daddy missed that plane, too," Deborah announces. "Mommy's beginning to get worried."
"Can't she call?" asks Tom. He doesn't open his eyes.
"She did. There's no answer." Deborah drops the leash and wades into the waves. Gilbert crouches on the beach looking terrified.
Joan sits up and watches Deborah in the water. When she was in college, Deborah was married to a Pakistani exchange student. Tom told Joan this, but also told her it is no longer mentioned. His exact words were "dead and buried."
"Have you been in the water yet?" Deborah calls.
"No," Joan shouts, "but I'm hot."
Excerpted from One Way or Another by Peter Cameron. Copyright © 1986 Peter Cameron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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