Authors: Mary Beth Keane
HERE WAS A SPOT
near the rocks where, if they positioned themselves just right, they could glimpse Peter’s mother’s car through the Maldonados’ arborvitae before it turned onto Jefferson. Peter had a bloom of acne across his forehead, and he knew Kate had noticed. He wore his Mets cap to school that morning and took it off only when the second bell rang. At the end of the day he dug it out of his backpack and held it on his lap, ready to return it to his head the instant they lined up for the buses. Kate’s legs were scabbed from a weekend softball game where she’d slid badly into third base. She couldn’t seem to stop herself from running her hands over the scabs—as if she wanted to compare the roughness there to the smoothness of the rest of her skin. Peter caught himself following the path of her hands as if in a trance. Kate had recently pointed out how much thicker and stronger Peter’s legs were than hers.
“Hey,” she’d said, shimmying closer beside him one afternoon, both of them in shorts and sneakers, both of them sitting on the curb waiting to see if any of the other kids would come by. “Look.” When her skin brushed his, he startled, moved away. She was quiet after that, and when
he spoke to her next—“Did you hear Joey Maldonado bought a car?”—she blushed.
That day, a late May afternoon, their backpacks stuffed with textbooks and information on the eighth grade graduation ceremony that was just a few short weeks away, Peter vowed to keep things light, but it was weighing on him, this strange thing that was happening between him and Kate. Sean Barnett had told the boys that he liked Kate, that he was pretty sure she liked him back, and he hadn’t even looked at Peter when he said it. “What the hell?” Peter said, not sure why he felt so furious.
“What?” Sean said. “Aren’t you guys cousins or something?”
“Uh, no. We’re definitely not cousins.”
“Well, have you kissed her?”
Every head turned to study him, every boy in the eighth grade who’d gathered to play stickball in the parking lot, every face waiting to hear what he’d say. “What makes you think she likes you back?” Peter had asked, stupidly, and felt in that instant whatever claim he had over Kate evaporate in their eyes.
“I just know,” Sean said.
“How do you know?” Peter asked. “Because I really don’t think so.” He said it in a way that implied privilege, like Kate would have told him if she did, and in doing so hoped to remind everyone that no one knew Kate Gleeson as well as he did. And she really would have told him, he considered. Or at least he thought she would have.
There was nothing Kate appreciated more than information, insight into what the boys said when the girls were not around. But he didn’t want to tell her about Sean Barnett in case it gave her an idea to like him back. So with one eye on the Maldonados’ arborvitae, he stepped from the shortest rock to the next tallest to the next as he confessed that the boys in their class had all agreed to throw easy pitches to Laura Fumagalli during stickball so that she’d connect and send the ball past Monsignor Repetto’s black Mercedes—the only car allowed in the school
lot during recess. A home run meant they could watch her boobs move under her uniform shirt as she ran around the bases.
Kate nodded from where she was sprawled on the grass with the same serious expression she wore when she took in their history lesson, or pre-algebra. He could see a tiny flicker of jealousy pass through her, but it was only a flicker, and was immediately drowned out by admiration for their slyness and for the way they stuck together. She nodded as if in complete agreement that this made sense.
“You won’t tell her, right?” Peter said.
“Of course not,” Kate said, insulted. She stood abruptly, walked over to the middle rock, and executed a perfect standing jump, as if her legs had springs. She looked over to see if Peter was impressed. He shrugged, but he couldn’t stop himself from smiling. She poked him in the belly. “Pretty good. Say it.” And just as Kate began to tell him that Laura’s mother had taken her bra shopping in fifth grade, they both leaped to the tallest boulder at the very same time and Kate slipped, catching her chin on the hard edge of the rock as she fell off.
Peter jumped down beside her. “Kate! Are you okay?” he asked. He put his hand on her face.
“I think I broke a tooth,” Kate said, and with one hand in her hair Peter put his thumb against her bottom lip as a signal to open up. He lightly ran his finger along the edges of her teeth. She could taste salt on his fingertip. When he glanced at her, he saw that she was watching him closely, searching for his eyes underneath the brim of his cap.
“There’s a ton of blood,” he said, withdrawing his hand so fast it was as if she’d bitten him. Kate sat up and leaned over to spit. She wiped her mouth with her forearm and then she spit some more.
“Oh. Hey. Shit. Peter,” she said then, the words thick and muffled like she’d just left the dentist after a filling. She nodded at Peter’s back door and he looked over. There was his mother, squinting into the yard.
Peter scrambled to his feet. His mother had crossed the yard in an instant, was standing over them before Peter even had a chance to think.
It was as if she’d not only seen what had happened, but she could also see what they were thinking, whatever was beginning in their minds and hearts.
“Inside,” his mother said.
“But I only—”
“Wait,” Kate said, and Peter turned to Kate even as he felt his mother’s anger rise.
“He was just helping me,” Kate said to Peter’s mother as she gradually rose to her feet. “We were just talking and I fell. I hit my jaw. You can see I’m bleeding.” Kate put her hand on Peter’s arm to stay him.
Shut up, Peter thought. He shook his head as discreetly as he could, and he knew that Kate caught it but chose to ignore it.
“You’re a nurse, right?” Kate said. She leaned over and spit more blood. Her point was so clear she might as well have said it.
Thanks for your concern
Mrs. Stanhope took two quick steps closer to her. Peter flinched and Kate stepped back. But when she didn’t hit her, Peter thought, for a moment, that she was going to help. That as mad as she was she was going to make sure Kate was okay before she dealt with him. But she stopped just short of Kate and didn’t seem to have the least interest in discovering where the blood was coming from. She leaned over like she had a secret to whisper in Kate’s ear. Kate watched her eyes as they traveled over her hair, down her body, down even to her white Keds, which she’d threaded with blue laces.
“You think you’re so smart,” Anne said finally. A few mornings earlier she’d taken the usual two pills out of the bottles, but instead of swallowing them, she placed them inside an empty eggshell she’d returned to the carton after breaking the egg over the small frying pan. She reassembled the egg to make it look whole again, and then she placed it in the trash.
“Are you supposed to do that?” Peter had asked.
“Am I supposed to do what?” she asked as she crossed the room toward him, put her hand on his cheek. It felt like a caress at first but she squeezed harder and harder until he pulled away.
“Excuse me?” Kate said now.
, you think you’re so smart. Don’t you?”
Kate looked at Peter as if he might be able to translate.
From Kate’s side of the yard came the sound of the Gleesons’ screen door squealing open and then slapping shut. Lena came rushing outside. “What happened?” she asked, concern and love and reprimand all tied up into one.
She seemed to take stock of everything so quickly that Peter felt embarrassment well up in his chest. All along, everyone had known exactly what his mother was like, only they hadn’t said anything.
“Into the house,” Lena said to Kate.
“We weren’t even doing anything. Can someone tell me why we’re in trouble?”
“Get into the goddamn house.”
“This is bullshit,” Kate said, and her mother whipped around and slapped her across the face.
“Mom!” Kate choked out as she staggered and tried not to cry.
“Jeez, Mrs. Gleeson, she’s already hurt.”
“You shut your mouth,” his own mother said.
We will leave them all one day, Peter thought, not for the first time. We’ll live on our own and we won’t have to listen to any of these people.
Inside, his mother paced while Peter held the back of a kitchen chair, refusing to sit. When she finally spoke she said it showed what kind of people they were, the Gleesons. Trash. Imagine hitting a person in public, in front of a neighbor.
Peter thought of all the things he could say to her right then. He thought about how much bigger he’d gotten since the year before. He was as tall as his father now. He could tear down every cabinet in the kitchen. He could push his way out the back door, knocking her over if he had to, and go get Kate, and they could get on a bus somewhere right then. People did things like that all the time, Peter was sure of it. He was fourteen already and by the summer Kate would be, too.
“You’re not going back there,” his mother said, cutting across his thoughts.
“To that school. For trash girls like Kate Gleeson to try to pin you down.”
“Fine! Done! Kate won’t be going back, either, you know. Graduation is in three weeks.”
“No, I mean you won’t be going back, ever. Not tomorrow. Not for graduation. Not for anything.”
He stared at her. “What are you talking about?”
“Now you’re listening.”
“I’m calling Dad.”
“No you’re not.” She rushed across the kitchen and tore the handset from the phone. The late afternoon sun fell as a square across the table. Peter felt its heat on his leg, on his fingertips.
“Okay, Mom.” Peter held up his hands. “Let’s say I don’t go back. Does it bother you that everyone hates you?”
“Go to your room.”
She threw the phone across the room but Peter dodged it. He felt wound up enough to sprout wings and fly away.
“Go to your room.”
She opened the drawer where she kept serving spoons, wooden spoons, a whisk, a few spatulas, a heavy cast-iron mallet she used to
tenderize meat. She lifted the mallet over her head and rushed at him. He caught her by the wrist and held it.
“Stop it,” Peter said. “Stop.”
His mother released the mallet and it clattered to the floor. She looked around as if she’d mislaid something, as if something important had gone undelivered. Peter pushed the chairs neatly up to the lip of the table, one by one.
“You are not going to see that girl again,” she said.
“I will,” said Peter, and then left her.
His father always seemed to want to defuse things by agreeing with her. “Okay, Anne,” he’d say, and his face would go blank as he stared straight ahead and pushed through to whatever task would bring him out of the scene, away from her. He’d turn on the television, or disappear into the garage, or head over to the Grasshopper Pub for a few hours. “You’re right,” he’d say, and then he’d move around as if in a fugue state, as if nothing had happened. If he spoke at all, he’d talk about the price of gas, about whether the deer population had exploded in recent years or whether it just seemed that way.
One exception was the previous Thanksgiving, when Peter’s uncle—his father’s brother, George—made a rare trip to Gillam from Sunnyside with his new wife, Brenda. George Stanhope was ten years younger than Brian, and the brothers didn’t even look like relatives. Where Brian was blond and lean, George had a barrel chest and thick arms from lifting iron beams into place all day long. He was short and dark and had a belly that hung a little over his belt. His wife seemed not that much older than Peter. She worked in the union office, handled the insurance claims and workman’s comp. Peter had only met George a handful of times: once at a diner in the Bronx, another time at a funeral his father had dragged him along to because it was a Thursday in the summer and his mother
was at work. At the diner, George had pretended he just found a brand-new package of baseball cards, and casually asked Peter if he had any interest. At the funeral, while all the adults were standing together in the parking lot of the cemetery, George folded up a twenty-dollar bill and tucked it into the pocket of Peter’s shirt. Peter was only about six or seven at the time and had no idea what to do with a twenty-dollar bill. “Bet you’d like to be somewhere else,” George had whispered. Another time, Peter came home from school to find George helping his dad take a tree stump out of the ground, and it was like coming home to find a celebrity waiting for him. The three of them ate pizza on the back steps, and though Peter hoped and hoped George would stay longer, that he would stay all night and wake up to have breakfast with them the next morning, he somehow understood that George would leave before Peter’s mother came home.
When his father told him that George and Brenda were coming for Thanksgiving, Peter cautiously checked his excitement in case the plan would change. For years Peter had looked over at the cars pulling up at the Gleesons’ and the Maldonados’ on Thanksgiving and Christmas, but not once had a car ever pulled up to his house on those days. Peter imagined George walking through their front door carrying a tower of bakery boxes like the Gleesons’ guests all seemed to do. When George arrived, even before he introduced his wife, he put his hand on Peter’s shoulder, and Peter felt as if he knew his uncle much better than just those few times they’d actually spent together.
“You doing good?” George asked him. “Pretty tall now, huh? Your dad, he puts fertilizer in your shoes?”
All went well for a while. The adults discussed the election, poor Michael Dukakis, whether Kitty had really burned a flag in college or if Bush’s people had made that up. Peter went out to the driveway for a while to check out the pogo stick George had brought for him—Kate shouted hello from her bedroom window and Peter waved—but when he went back inside the mood had changed. In just fifteen minutes Peter’s
mother seemed to have taken a strong dislike to George’s wife, Brenda. She made a twist of her mouth whenever the younger woman spoke, and Peter saw George noticing. There hadn’t been a wedding, Peter had gathered, but he didn’t see why that would bother anyone.