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Authors: Beth Nugent

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BOOK: City of Boys
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—Don’t you mind sharing a room with your brother? I ask, and she turns back to the icebox.

—Look, she says, —we do have Pepsi after all. She pulls one from the six-pack and hands it to me. —Here, she says, then hesitates a moment. —Do you want some ice cream? she asks.

* * *

I wait at the table while she carries over ice cream, spoons, bowls. She gives me some ice cream, then puts the rest–almost half the container–into her own bowl, and slaps her spoon on top of it.

—Okay, she says. —What do you think would be the worst way to die?

She holds the spoon against her tongue and closes her eyes to think of the possibilities; while her eyes are still closed, a man comes into the room and stands in the doorway. He too wears pajamas, as well as a robe, and slippers that show his flat white heels.

—Annie, he says, and she opens her eyes, but waits a beat before she turns to look at him.

—Who’s your friend? he asks, and I realize I have not told her my name. She stares at me for a moment.

—Anne, she says. —This is Anne.

—Well, Anne, the man says, and he leans over the table to hold out his hand. —It’s very nice to meet you. His skin is cool and dry, and I let go of his hand quickly.

Annie mashes her ice cream into soup and her father stands back. He watches us for a few moments, looping and unlooping the ties of his robe as Annie brings her spoon to her mouth and sucks in her ice cream.

—That ice cream looks pretty good, he says; he watches her eat a moment longer, then turns and leaves.

Annie glances at my ice cream, takes her bowl to the sink, and pours out what’s left. Then she goes to the front door and stands by it, not looking at me, but not looking at anything else. I’m not finished with my ice cream, but I rise with my bowl.

—Oh, she says, —you can leave that. Tommy will eat it. She closes the screen door behind me, and when I turn to look back from the street, she’s still standing there, her face and neck and head outlined by the dark room behind her.

The Pepsi is warm when I get home, but by now my mother’s hangover is gone and she is bent over the crossword puzzle. When she rattles the ice in her empty glass, my father rises to take it from her. Tomato juice runs unevenly down the sides.

—Sally, my mother says, —we were worried about you.

—Here’s your Pepsi, I say, and hold it out to her.

—You drink it, honey, she says. —I don’t need it anymore. She touches the tip of her pen to her lip and leaves a tiny black dot when she takes it away. —What’s a five-letter word for horse race? she asks my father, and he stops putting ice in her glass and stands still to think. Smoke from the freezer drifts past him and his face is perfectly blank. Finally he shakes his head and drops the ice into her glass, then pours in tomato juice, which turns pale pink as he adds vodka.

I pop open my mother’s Pepsi and sit at the table with my parents. My mother stares at the puzzle, occasionally writing in a word, and my father rattles through the paper, scanning each page for important stories. He sets each section of the paper onto one of two piles: those with important stories he will have to go back and read, and those without. He looks up and down each page with a kind of desperation, hoping that nothing will require a closer look, so that this part of his day will be over. The Pepsi is too warm and too sweet, but I drink it from the can and watch my mother take an ice cube from her glass and hold it to her forehead.

—Christ, she says. —They
send you someplace hot. My father looks up from his paper and watches ice melt ont my mother’s puzzle.

—Damn, she says, and blots up a drop that has fallen onto the paper, blurring the word she’s just written in.

—It’s got a good paper, though, my father says. —You have to give it that.

She says nothing and runs the ice cube down over her face and throat. My father watches the drops of water slip down the fine bones of her chest into her shirt; then he looks away and rises to make another drink.

—Honey, my mother says, —aren’t you bored? Why don’t you watch some television?

Like our neighbors and our houses, our streets and our trees, television changes hardly at all from place to place, and the same shows and songs and faces accompany us around the country. I watch a movie I have seen in two other states, and through the window I can see Annie’s house. I imagine her going back to the room she shares with her brother and sitting on the edge of the bed, watching him read his comics. I can’t think what else she might do in that house, unless she sits on the big stiff couch in the shadows of the living room.

In the kitchen, my father finishes sorting the paper, sighs, and turns to the large pile full of articles he must now read; he stares dully at each story, and whenever my mother asks him for help with her puzzle, he stops reading and gazes straight ahead to think until, unable to help, he goes back to his article and she moves on to another clue. Like this the afternoon creeps slowly away; most of our days pass like this, slowly, the same things happening over and over, and at the rate time passes for us, it seems possible that I may never become an adult.

The movie ends, another begins, and I watch that too, until my parents begin to move, anticipating the beginning of cocktail hour, which is almost upon us. Cocktail hour eases the abrupt decline of the day, transforming it into a gentle slide toward evening, and it changes everything–even the light turns a kind of soft gold, and it shines directly on my parents. I am not in the light, but I am close enough to it to feel its warmth, along with the sting of my mother’s martinis
and the odd mellow wave of scotch on my father’s breath as he leans over me to hand my mother her drink.

There is a kind of excitement that comes with cocktail hour, a feverish awareness that all things are possible; my parents’ eyes turn bright, their voices lift, their gestures grow large and happy. There is a sharp sparking light here, and when I look outside, all the other houses seem colorless and unreal, just a part of the fading blue landscape of evening. The families inside are having dinner and doing homework and watching television together; they will do tonight what they did last night and what they will do again tomorrow. Even Annie’s house is dim, lit only by the dulling orange blaze of sun reflected off the building behind it. I turn back to the television and listen as my parents come alive.

The next day when I open my front door, Annie is there, leaning against the doorjamb, looking nonchalant. She has not knocked and may have been standing here all morning, since anytime after my father left for work.

—Oh, she says, as though it is she who has opened her door to find me.

—Hi, I say.

—Listen, she says. —I never got your name.

—Sally, I tell her, and she nods.

—Sally, she repeats. —There are already three Sallys at school.

She picks at a thread hanging from her cuff and pulls at it, but it is attached, and she smiles as her sleeve begins to unravel. —I hate all three of them, she says, and looks in the direction of the school, which is only a short walk away. My parents try to live close to schools so that I can walk there, and they try to plan our moves around the school schedule, so that, as they put it, I won’t be starting off on
the wrong foot. I will have, they say, as much chance as anyone to make new friends. And it is true, I always make friends in my new schools, and they are always the same: shy girls with thin hair and glasses and shy boys with pale round heads. They are so much like each other that I hardly remember them from town to town, their names or their personalities. Sometimes we exchange a few short, stuttering letters, but soon they are replaced by new friends who speak like them and walk and look and dress like them, who in fact resemble them so closely that only their ages change, and it is as though they are the same group of friends getting older with me.

I find my new friends at the beginning of each school year, and they are always to be found, like me, scattered along the sides of classrooms, or creeping along the walls of the hallways—out-of-the-way positions we take to watch the rules of school play themselves out. Annie is not at all like my usual friends.

—So anyways, she says now, —what were you doing?

—Nothing, I say, and she gazes at me, waiting. —You know.

She says nothing, so finally I say, —I was just watching TV. —TV? she says, and looks over my shoulder. Behind me the television runs smoothly from show to commercial to show again, and she listens to try to tell what’s on.

—My parents don’t let me watch much TV, she says, still looking past me, and soon we are sitting together on the rug in front of the television.

—Oh, she says, —I love this show. She sits only a few feet away from the television, but I can see her eyes traveling all around the room. She leans sideways to look around the corner into the kitchen.

—What’s she doing? Annie asks.

—I don’t know, I say, —maybe the crossword puzzle.

After a moment my mother comes into the room and when I tell her Annie’s name, Annie darts a look at me, surprised and a little suspicious, since she has never exactly told it to me, but she takes my mother’s hand and smiles.

—You have a very lovely home, she says, and my mother looks startled, then glances around at the white walls, the plain, sturdy furniture.

—Thank you, she says, and when our show comes back on, she stands politely smoking behind us as we settle back down to watch. Beside me, Annie sits quietly, but I can see her still looking around without moving her head, and behind me my mother breathes smoke in and out; she alone seems to be watching the show, and when a commercial comes on, she goes back into the kitchen, cradling her cigarette ash in her hand.

—Girls, she calls out after a while, —do you know a six-letter word for child’s toy?

Annie looks at me.

—So, I say, —what’s the school like here? Though I already know what it is like; it is like every other school.

—Oh, Annie says as a new show begins. —Look. She sinks back deeper onto the rug to watch, her elbows propped uncomfortably behind her, and stares at the television, her mouth half open.

When my father comes home from work, Annie stands immediately. She crosses one long leg coyly behind her and smiles up at my father in a way I can tell she cannot help.

—You have a very lovely home, she says, and he smiles, pleased.

—Well, he says, and arranges the pens in his front pocket, pulling them out and putting them back in one by one. My mother watches him and puts another word in her crossword puzzle. When he goes to the icebox and opens the freezer, she folds her newspaper away.

—Honey, she says to me, —would your friend like to stay for dinner?

She says this quite naturally, as though, like all families, we always have dinner when my father comes home from work. He looks around at her, his hand still on an ice tray, and, without waiting for an answer, she takes a pot from the cabinet under the stove and opens a cupboard. Annie doesn’t answer, and we all watch my mother as she pulls out cans and looks gaily at the labels. Finally she opens one, and we stare, transfixed, as she empties a can of peas the color of olives into a pot. When the can is empty, Annie takes a step back.

—Thanks, she says, —but my parents will be expecting me. My mother looks up, confused; she has gone through all of this only for Annie.

—See you tomorrow, Annie says to me, and when the door clicks behind her, my mother looks down at the can in her hand, then at the pot on the stove; finally she puts the can down and turns off the stove as my father drops ice in her glass. I watch Annie walk slowly home, zigzagging across the street.

—You’re not hungry are you, honey? my mother asks, and I shake my head and go back to the television as my parents settle into cocktail hour. In the neighborhoods all around us, the boys and girls who will be my friends are getting ready for school to start; they eat their dinners quietly and dread the beginning of another year spent hovering on the borders of things.

When we finally have dinner, we are all a little dull. I have watched too much television, and my parents have passed beyond the excited flush of cocktail hour. It is too late to eat, so we just sit, pushing the pale green peas from one side of our plates to the other.

* * *

Annie appears in just the same way the next day, lounging carefully beside the door when I open it.

—Hey, she says, —only one more day till school.

She looks past me and down at my hands and feet and around at my house while she talks. —Do you want to see the school? she says. —You do, don’t you? We can walk there together. She looks at me when she says this, then nods.

—Come on, she says and turns, so I follow her, leaving the television running and my mother in the kitchen scribbling down different combinations of words in the margins of her puzzle.

Empty, the school playground looks tiny and flat, even though in only a day it will seem enormous and unmanageable, full of children going through the initial sorting out of every school year. Annie sits on a swing and circles around, twisting the chains tight; her feet trail in the sand, leaving long furrows; then she spins back around and kicks up all the dirt.

—I know, she says, —let’s start a fire.

—A fire? I say.

She looks at me and raises an eyebrow. —Don’t
start fires? she says, and her tone makes me say, —Sure I do, although it has never occurred to me to start a fire.

—Okay, she says, and looks around. She begins collecting things—loose papers, leaves, handfuls of dry grass—and piles it all at the base of each leg of the swingset. I hand her what scraps of things I find, and when there is a little heap at each leg, she smiles at me and lights the first match. She kneels carefully at each corner of the swingset and when all four little fires have caught, she takes my hand and we run to the fence at the edge of the playground. We crouch behind it to watch the swingset burn; flames rise along the
slanted metal legs, then, eventually, fall back down. I can feel Annie’s excitement as she watches, holding tightly to the chain links of the fence. When the fires have gone out, she turns to me and her face is radiant.

BOOK: City of Boys
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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