- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
My dog, Keds, was sitting outside of the A & P last Thursday when he got smashed by some kid pushing a shopping cart. At first we thought he just had a broken leg, but later we found out he was bleeding inside. Every time he opened his mouth, blood would seep out like dull red words in a bad silent dream.
Every night before my sister goes to her job she washes her hair in the kitchen sink with beer and mayonnaise and eggs. Sometimes I sit at the table and watch the mixture dribble down her white back. She boils a pot of water on the stove at the same time; when she is finished with her hair, she steams her face. She wants so badly to be beautiful.
I am trying to solve complicated algebraic problems I have set for myself. Since I started cutting school last Friday, the one thing I miss is homework. Find the value for n. Will it be a whole number? It is never a whole number. It is always a fraction.
"Will you get me a towel?" my sister asks. She turns her face toward me and clutches her hair to the top of her head. The sprayer hose slithers into its hole next to the faucet.
I hand her a dish towel. "No," she says. "A bath towel. Don't be stupid."
In the bathroom, my mother is watering her plants. She has arranged them in the tub and turned the shower on. She sits on the toilet lid and watches. It smells like outdoors in the bathroom.
I hand my sister the towel and watch her wrap it around her head. She takes the cover off the pot of boiling water and drops lemon slices in. Then she lowers her face into the steam.
This is the problem I have set for myself:
245(n + 17)/34 = 396(n - 45) n =
Wednesday, I stand outside the high-school gym doors. Inside students are lined up doing calisthenics. It's snowing, and prematurely dark, and I can watch without being seen.
"Well," my father says when I get home. He is standing in the garage testing the automatic door. Every time a plane flies overhead, the door opens or closes, so my father is trying to fix it. "Have you changed your mind about school?" he asks me.
I lock my bicycle to a pole. This infuriates my father, who doesn't believe in locking things up in his own house. He pretends not to notice. I wipe the thin stripes of snow off the fenders with my middle finger. It is hard to ride a bike in the snow. This afternoon on my way home from the high school I fell off, and lay in the snowy road with my bike on top of me. It felt warm.
"We're going to get another dog," my father says.
"It's not that," I say. I wish everyone would stop talking about dogs. I can't tell how sad I really am about Keds versus how sad I am in general. If I don't keep these things separate, I feel as if I'm betraying Keds.
"Then what is it?" my father says.
"It's nothing," I say.
My father nods. He is very good about bringing things up and then letting them drop. A lot gets dropped. He presses the button on the automatic control. The door slides down its oiled tracks and falls shut. It's dark in the garage. My father presses the button again and the door opens, and we both look outside at the snow falling in the driveway, as if in those few seconds the world might have changed.
My mother has forgotten to call me for dinner, and when I confront her with this she tells me that she did but that I was sleeping. She is loading the dishwasher. My sister is standing at the counter, listening, and separating eggs for her shampoo.
"What can I get you?" my mother asks. "Would you like a meat-loaf sandwich?"
"No," I say. I open the refrigerator and survey its illuminated contents. "Could I have some eggs?"
"O.K.," my mother says. She comes and stands beside me and puts her hand on top of mine on the door handle. There are no eggs in the refrigerator. "Oh," my mother says; then, "Julie?"
"What?" my sister asks.
"Did you take the last eggs?"
"I guess so," my sister says. "I don't know."
"Forget it," I say. "I won't have eggs."
"No," my mother says. "Julie doesn't need them in her shampoo. That's not what I bought them for."
"I do," my sister says. "It's a formula. It doesn't work without the eggs. I need the protein."
"I don't want eggs," I say. "I don't want anything." I go into my bedroom.
My mother comes in and stands looking out the window. The snow has turned to rain. "You're not the only one who is unhappy about this," she says.
"About what?" I say. I am sitting on my unmade bed. If I pick up my room, my mother will make my bed: that's the deal. I didn't pick up my room this morning.
"About Keds," she says. "I'm unhappy, too. But it doesn't stop me from going to school."
"You don't go to school," I say.
"You know what I mean," my mother says. She turns around and looks at my room, and begins to pick things off the floor.
"Don't do that," I say. "Stop."
My mother drops the dirty clothes in an exaggerated gesture of defeat. She almost—almost—throws them on the floor. The way she holds her hands accentuates their emptiness. "If you're not going to go to school," she says, "the least you can do is clean your room."
In algebra word problems, a boat sails down a river while a jeep drives along the bank. Which will reach the capital first? If a plane flies at a certain speed from Boulder to Oklahoma City and then at a different speed from Oklahoma City to Detroit, how many cups of coffee can the stewardess serve, assuming she is unable to serve during the first and last ten minutes of each flight? How many times can a man ride the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building while his wife climbs the stairs, given that the woman travels one stair slower each flight? And if the man jumps up while the elevator is going down, which is moving—the man, the woman, the elevator, or the snow falling outside?
The next Monday I get up and make preparations for going to school. I can tell at the breakfast table that my mother is afraid to acknowledge them for fear it won't be true. I haven't gotten up before ten o'clock in a week. My mother makes me French toast. I sit at the table and write the note excusing me for my absence. I am eighteen, an adult, and thus able to excuse myself from school. This is what my note says:
Dear Mr. Kelly [my homeroom teacher]:
Please excuse my absence February 17-24. I was unhappy and did not feel able to attend school.
Sincerely, Michael Pechetti
This is the exact format my mother used when she wrote my notes, only she always said, "Michael was home with a sore throat," or "Michael was home with a bad cold." The colds that prevented me from going to school were always bad colds.
My mother watches me write the note but doesn't ask to see it. I leave it on the kitchen table when I go to the bathroom, and when I come back to get it I know she has read it. She is washing the bowl she dipped the French toast into. Before, she would let Keds lick it clean. He liked eggs.
In Spanish class we are seeing a film on flamenco dancers. The screen wouldn't pull down, so it is being projected on the blackboard, which is green and cloudy with erased chalk. It looks a little like the women are sick, and dancing in Heaven. Suddenly the little phone on the wall buzzes.
Mrs. Smitts, the teacher, gets up to answer it, and then walks over to me. She puts her hand on my shoulder and leans her face close to mine. It is dark in the room. "Miguel," Mrs. Smitts whispers, "tienes que ir a la oficina de guidance."
"What?" I say.
She leans closer, and her hair blocks the dancers. Despite the clicking castanets and the roomful of students, there is something intimate about this moment. "Tienes que ir a la oficina de guidance," she repeats slowly. Then, "You must go to the guidance office. Now. Vaya."
My guidance counselor, Mrs. Dietrich, used to be a history teacher, but she couldn't take it anymore, so she was moved into guidance. On her immaculate desk is a calendar blotter with "LUNCH" written across the middle of every box, including Saturday and Sunday. The only other things on her desk are an empty photo cube and my letter to Mr. Kelly. I sit down, and she shows me the letter as if I haven't yet read it. I reread it.
"Did you write this?" she asks.
I nod affirmatively. I can tell Mrs. Dietrich is especially nervous about this interview. Our meetings are always charged with tension. At the last one, when I was selecting my second-semester courses, she started to laugh hysterically when I said I wanted to take Boys' Home Ec. Now every time I see her in the halls she stops me and asks how I'm doing in Boys' Home Ec. It's the only course of mine she remembers.
I hand the note back to her and say, "I wrote it this morning," as if this clarifies things.
"At breakfast," I say.
"Do you think this is an acceptable excuse?" Mrs. Dietrich asks. "For missing more than a week of school?"
"I'm sure it isn't," I say.
"Then why did you write it?"
Because it is the truth, I start to say. It is. But somehow I know that saying this will make me more unhappy. It might make me cry. "I've been doing homework," I say.
"That's fine," Mrs. Dietrich says, "but it's not the point. The point is, to graduate you have to attend school for a hundred and eighty days, or have legitimate excuses for the days you've missed. That's the point. Do you want to graduate?"
"Yes," I say.
"Of course you do," Mrs. Dietrich says.
She crumples my note and tries to throw it into the wastepaper basket but misses. We both look for a second at the note lying on the floor, and then I get up and throw it away. The only other thing in her wastepaper basket is a banana peel. I can picture her eating a banana in her tiny office. This, too, makes me sad.
"Sit down," Mrs. Dietrich says.
I sit down.
"I understand your dog died. Do you want to talk about that?"
"No," I say.
"Is that what you're so unhappy about?" she says. "Or is it something else?"
I almost mention the banana peel in her wastebasket, but I don't. "No," I say. "It's just my dog."
Mrs. Dietrich thinks for a moment. I can tell she is embarrassed to be talking about a dead dog. She would be more comfortable if it were a parent or a sibling.
"I don't want to talk about it," I repeat.
She opens her desk drawer and takes out a pad of hall passes. She begins to write one out for me. She has beautiful handwriting. I think of her learning to write beautifully as a child and then growing up to be a guidance counselor, and this makes me unhappy.
"Mr. Neuman is willing to overlook this matter," she says. Mr. Neuman is the principal. "Of course, you will have to make up all the work you've missed. Can you do that?"
"Yes," I say.
Mrs. Dietrich tears the pass from the pad and hands it to me. Our hands touch. "You'll get over this," she says. "Believe me, you will."
My sister works until midnight at the Photo-Matica. It's a tiny booth in the middle of the A & P parking lot. People drive up and leave their film and come back the next day for the pictures. My sister wears a uniform that makes her look like a counterperson in a fast-food restaurant. Sometimes at night when I'm sick of being at home I walk downtown and sit in the booth with her.
There's a machine in the booth that looks like a printing press, only snapshots ride down a conveyor belt and fall into a bin and then disappear. The machine gives the illusion that your photographs are being developed on the spot. It's a fake. The same fifty photographs roll through over and over, and my sister says nobody notices, because everyone in town is taking the same pictures. She opens up the envelopes and looks at them.
Before I go into the booth, I buy cigarettes in the A & P. It is open twenty-four hours a day, and I love it late at night. It is big and bright and empty. The checkout girl sits on her counter swinging her legs. The Muzak plays "If Ever I Would Leave You." Before I buy the cigarettes, I walk up and down the aisles. Everything looks good to eat, and the things that aren't edible look good in their own way. The detergent aisle is colorful and clean-smelling.
My sister is listening to the radio and polishing her nails when I get to the booth. It is almost time to close.
"I hear you went to school today," she says.
"How was it?" she asks. She looks at her fingernails, which are so long it's frightening.
"It was O.K.," I say. "We made chili dogs in Home Ec."
"So are you over it all?"
I look at the pictures riding down the conveyor belt. I know the order practically by heart: graduation, graduation, birthday, mountains, baby, baby, new car, bride, bride and groom, house.... "I guess so," I say.
"Good," says my sister. "It was getting to be a little much." She puts her tiny brush back in the bottle, capping it. She shows me her nails. They're an odd brown shade. "Cinnamon," she says. "It's an earth color." She looks out into the parking lot. A boy is collecting the abandoned shopping carts, forming a long silver train, which he noses back toward the store. I can tell he is singing by the way his mouth moves.
"That's where we found Keds," my sister says, pointing to the Salvation Army bin.
When I went out to buy cigarettes, Keds would follow me. I hung out down here at night before he died. I was unhappy then, too. That's what no one understands. I named him Keds because he was all white with big black feet and it looked as if he had high-top sneakers on. My mother wanted to name him Bootie. Bootie is a cat's name. It's a dumb name for a dog.
"It's a good thing you weren't here when we found him," my sister says. "You would have gone crazy."
I'm not really listening. It's all nonsense. I'm working on a new problem: Find the value for n such that n plus everything else in your life makes you feel all right. What would n equal? Solve for n.CHAPTER 2
Excerpts from Swan Lake
"What is that called again?" my grandmother asks, nodding at my lover's wok.
"A wok," I say.
"A wok," my grandmother repeats. The word sounds strange coming out of her mouth. I can't remember ever hearing her say a foreign word. She is sitting at the kitchen table smoking a Players cigarette. She saw an ad for them in Time magazine and wanted to try them, so after work I drove her down to the 7-Eleven and she bought a pack. She also bought a Hostess cherry pie. That was for me.
Neal, my lover, is stir-frying mushrooms in the wok. My grandmother thinks he is my friend. I am slicing tomatoes and apples. We are staying at my grandmother's house while my parents go on a cruise around the world. It is a romance cruise, stopping at the "love capitals" of the world. My mother won it. Neal and I are making mushroom curry. Neal isn't wearing a shirt, and his chest is sweating. He always sweats when he cooks. He cooks with a passion.
"I wish I could help," my grandmother says. "Let me know if I can."
"We will," says Neal.
"I don't think I've seen a wok before," my grandmother says.
"Everyone has them now," says Neal. "They're great."
The doorbell rings, the front door opens, and someone shouts, "Yoo-hoo!"
"Who's that?" I say.
"Who's what?" my grandmother says. She's a little deaf.
I walk into the living room to investigate. A woman in a jogging suit is standing in the front hall. "Who are you?" she says.
"Paul," I say.
"Where's Mrs. Andrews?" she asks.
"In the kitchen," I say. "I'm her grandson."
"Oh," she says. "I thought you were some kind of maniac. What with that knife and all." She nods at my hand. I am still holding the knife.
"Who are you?" I ask.
"Who's there?" my grandmother shouts from the kitchen.
The woman shouts her name to my grandmother. It sounds like Gloria Marsupial. Then she whispers to me, "I'm from Meals on Wheels. I bring Mrs. Andrews dinner on Tuesday nights. Your mother bowls on Tuesday."
"Oh," I say.
Mrs. Marsupial walks past me into the kitchen. I follow her. "There you are," she says to my grandmother. "I thought he had killed you."
"Nonsense," my grandmother says. "What are you doing here? You come on Tuesdays."
"It is Tuesday," says Mrs. Marsupial. She opens the oven. "We've got to warm this up."
"I don't need it tonight," my grandmother says. "They're making me dinner."
Mrs. Marsupial eyes the wok, the mushrooms, and Neal disdainfully.
"What do you have?" Neal asks.
Mrs. Marsupial takes a tinfoil tray out of the paper bag she is holding. It has a cardboard cover on it. "Meat loaf," she says. "And green beans. And a nice pudding."
"What kind of pudding?" my grandmother asks.
"Rice pudding," says Mrs. Marsupial.
"No thanks," says my grandmother.
"What are you making?" Mrs. Marsupial asks Neal.
"Mushroom curry," says Neal. "We're lacto-vegetarians."
"I'm sure you are," Mrs. Marsupial replies. She turns to my grandmother. "Well, do you want this or not?"
"I can have it tomorrow night," my grandmother says. "If I remember."
"Then I'll stick it in the fridge." Mrs. Marsupial opens the refrigerator and frowns at the beer Neal and I have installed. She moves a six-pack of Dos Equis aside to make room for the container. "I'll put it right here," she says into the refrigerator, "and tomorrow night you just pop it into the oven at about three hundred and warm it up, and it will be as good as new." She closes the refrigerator and looks at my grandmother. "Are you sure you're all right now?" she asks.
Excerpted from The Half You Don't Know by Peter Cameron. Copyright © 1997 Peter Cameron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.