Seventeen Against the Dealer (2 page)

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
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“Can we talk about something else? I don't like feeling guilty.”

For a second, Dicey was afraid he would apologize. Instead, he told her, “You don't feel guilty.”

He was right, she thought, grinning away, feeling good.

“And why should you feel guilty, anyway,” Jeff asked, “for doing what you always said you wanted to do?” But he said this as if he was reminding himself, not telling her.

Then she did feel guilty. “You know I'll come home with you. Live with you while you're home. Whenever you say, I will—you know that,” she reminded him. “Your father's away, we wouldn't be imposing on anyone.” Whenever they had this conversation, she always hoped that this time Jeff would say yes.

“You know that won't work,” he said, as usual. “I'm not good at half-measures, Dicey. Besides, it's too risky.”

“I know how not to get pregnant.”

“It's not about not getting pregnant.”

She heard it in his voice, something angry, or sad, and turned in her seat to face him, to see his face. “What, sex?”

“I don't think of it as sex,” he said. “I think of it as making
love. And I think love deserves the best from me that I can give it. Which is a lot more than shacking up with you for Christmas vacation.”

Dicey reached her hand across to touch the back of his neck. “I'm sorry—I said it badly—Jeff? I'm tired, I'm stupid with tiredness.”

“It's okay,” he said, and meant it. “You've been working too hard for too long.”

“That part's coming to an end now, I think.”

Dicey leaned back in her seat, while the dark night hurried past the windows and the dark road ran under the wheels. Work had laid the groundwork, and now the shop was started. She had always gotten things done; working hard, and harder, was what worked for her. She was bankrolling her own business because for the last six months she'd held down two jobs. Eight to four at Claude's boatyard, learning what had to be done and how to do it, meeting people who might hire her on her own, and then the night shift at the McDonald's up in Salisbury. Days spent sweating herself dry and nights togged out in a little orange-and-yellow outfit, inhaling the smell of grease and industrial-strength cleanser, taking orders and money from person after person, from an endless procession of people impatient to fill their bellies. Sometimes she thought if she never saw another hamburger in her whole life, it would be too soon. Sometimes, even, she thought if she never saw another human being, too.

Dicey was glad those six months were behind her, but she was even gladder for her bank account. She was on her way to where she planned to get to because of those months, which was what really mattered.

At the mailbox they turned right into the driveway, moving slowly. The two fields, one on either side, lay dark and empty.
The belt of pines that fenced the fields made a tall, dark wall. Then the driveway curved into the pines and Dicey could see the lighted windows of the house. Jeff drove around to the back and parked beside the pickup, in front of the barn. The car headlights shone briefly on the tarpaulin Sammy spread out to protect his tennis court, the beams of light reflecting off small black puddles formed by the mist, which gathered together if there was no soil to absorb it. Jeff turned off the engine and the lights, unbuckled himself, and then—as Dicey had hoped he would—he gathered her into his arms. The silky feel of his hair, and his strong young shoulders—the clean smell of him and the distant beating of his heart from deep inside his body—If she thought about it, Dicey didn't see how she was going to stand having Jeff go away again, back to school. She didn't think about it.


hen Dicey and Jeff got around to coming inside, they found Gram alone in the kitchen. She was pouring milk from a red pitcher into the six glasses set out on the table. The whole room was filled with the smell of some dinner Dicey had never smelled before.

A big covered casserole waited on the table along with a plate of butter and a basket filled with thick slices of bread. One pot bubbled on the stove—empty mason jars revealed what was in it, green beans mixed with tomatoes. Gram finished pouring the milk and put the pitcher into the sink before she turned around to greet them. “I heard you drive in.”

Gram's hair was grayer now than it had been the first time Dicey had laid eyes on her, but except for that she looked the same, in a long, loose blouse over a long, loose skirt. Dicey checked Gram's feet to be sure she was wearing the mukluks Jeff had given her for Christmas. Gram would go barefoot all year round, whatever the weather, if you let her. They didn't let her.

“I'm wondering about you two,” Gram said, her quick glance going from Dicey's face to Jeff's face. Over Gram's shoulder, on the sill of the window over the sink, a white cyclamen plant bloomed against the dark. This was Maybeth's Christmas present to her grandmother, and like everything else Maybeth cared for, it flourished. Half a dozen flowers, their silky petals blown
backward by some invisible wind, shone white against the black windowpane. Windflowers, that was what their name meant, Dicey thought. The sturdy, delicate-seeming blooms with their fragile, sturdy-seeming stems and leaves—they marked the real difference, since the first time she'd seen her grandmother, the first time she'd stepped into this kitchen. Now the kitchen was crowded, or would soon be, with people and voices, with good food, with the tales and quarrels of the day—where before it had been silent and empty, like the windows of an abandoned house. That first day, Dicey remembered, she had been offered canned spaghetti—the memory made her smile.

“What're you smirking about?” Gram demanded, but before Dicey could begin to answer, she went on with her own thoughts. “I
wonder about you two. I don't think you spend half-enough time necking. Go fetch your family, girl—I'm almost starved and I bet Jeff is, too. Aren't you, Jeff?”

Maybeth had found a recipe called jambalaya, which she was trying out on them. With the jambalaya they had the green beans and tomatoes—simmered with some fresh oregano from the pots of herbs Maybeth grew at her bedroom window—and thick slices of Gram's bread, spread with butter. For a while, the only sounds in the room were eating noises, grunts and murmurs of appreciation, forks clinking on china, milk being swallowed. Jambalaya, Dicey discovered, was mostly rice, with occasional sweet surprises of turkey or ham, and little crisp bits of green pepper and celery. Inexpensive, filling, and flavorful, that's what jambalaya was. Dicey looked across the table at her sister. “Where'd you find this, Maybeth?”

“Mina told me,” Maybeth explained. “It's something called creole, from Louisiana. It sounded good, so I looked in a cookbook.”

“It is good,” Gram said. “Was it complicated?”

“No. Easy.”

“You think everything you cook is easy,” James said.

“Cooking is easy,” she agreed.

“Not if it's hard for you,” James argued.

Maybeth thought about that. “But it's not hard for me.”

James smiled, as if he'd known all along where this conversation would end up. And—being James—he probably had, Dicey thought. “That's a lucky thing for us,” James told his sister.

Dicey was tired, good tired, from having ridden her bike across to the shop as soon as the light broke, from having worked a long day. She didn't have the energy to do more than nod her agreement and eat on. She didn't have to talk, anyway. They were all sitting at Gram's table, in Gram's home—their table in their home—and she was working her life out according to plan. She looked around at them all and the familiar gladness rose up inside her, like one of Maybeth's cakes rising up fat and rich in the oven, smelling so good you could almost lick the air.

Maybeth and Sammy sat across from Dicey. You'd know they were brother and sister, just looking at them. They both had Momma's golden hair and big eyes. Maybeth looked as if her face had been drawn with a finer pen than Sammy's, and she was growing her heavy hair long so the curliness had smoothed into waves, but one look would tell you those two were related. James, beside Dicey, was as dark-haired and narrow-faced as she was. And they all—all four of the kids and Gram, too—had Tillerman eyes, hazel eyes where the colors mixed up greens and browns and yellows. The Tillermans looked like they belonged together, and that was a book you could judge by its cover.

Jeff, whose profile she could see beyond James, was a book you couldn't judge by its cover—because he belonged, too, only not in the same blooded way. She watched his narrow wrist and the
gray eyes you could look into and into and never touch bottom; she watched the way his hair, black as the water at night, fell down onto his forehead—cripes, Jeff was a treat to look at. Dicey couldn't ever see Sammy's chunky, sturdy body, even as big as he had grown, without wanting to hug him, and then pound small punches on his shoulder just to feel how strong he was, and then tickle him under the arms to watch his whole body collapse in laughing—but Jeff she could sit still and look at, for weeks, and never get tired of just seeing him, the way he moved and the way his skin had been laid out over his bones. Jeff was beautiful, inside and out; she'd always thought that, although she'd never let Jeff know she thought it. Jeff didn't think of her as having thoughts like that, and she didn't know how he'd react. Besides, he was right, most of her thoughts weren't like that at all.

Dicey's body relaxed as her stomach filled. Taking a forkful of vegetables, she thought about how the oregano in the green bean-tomato mix was sweet, and how its freshness made the vegetables taste fresher, too, and how Maybeth made up little packages of fresh herbs to sell at Millie Tydings's grocery store, downtown. The packages sold for a dollar and a quarter, of which Maybeth got seventy cents. It didn't sound like much, but it mounted up, over a growing season. The Tillermans knew how to bring money in, because they knew how to work. Dicey hesitated over her plate, wondering what to taste next, smiling to herself because she had so much to choose from, and picked up a slice of the crusty bread. She filled her stomach and listened.

Sammy would have gone on forever to Gram and Maybeth about some tennis camp he'd read about in the magazine Dicey had picked out for his Christmas stocking, somewhere in Arizona, where you did nothing all summer long but play tennis under coaches whose names Sammy seemed to know. But
Gram held up her hand to silence him when she heard Jeff ask James, “I thought premed meant you took science courses, like organic chemistry, molecular biology, that kind of stuff. And what are
taking? Philosophy, art history, Shakespeare, geology. That's not premed.”

“You forgot math.”

“And calculus,” Jeff added. “What does a doctor need with those?”

“My scholarship isn't premed,” James reminded him.

“Your ambitions are,” Jeff answered. “I don't understand what you're up to. You tested out of all the distribution requirements with those AP exams.”

“I'm not ambitious.” James had his eyes fixed on his plate. It sounded almost like a quarrel he and Jeff were having; but what business did Jeff have quarreling with James?

Gram entered the conversation. “Yes, you are. Don't try to fool us, young man. We're your family.”

“Not the way Jeff means. I know people like Jeff means, and—Anyway, what's the point of going someplace like Yale if you don't—I mean, it's this great liberal arts college, with a whole rack of good departments, not just a couple of strong ones—Why should I have to miss out on things just because I know what I ultimately want to specialize in?”

“Yeah.” Sammy backed his brother up.

Jeff raised both hands in self-defense. “Hey, I wasn't saying you shouldn't. I was just wondering why you are. I assume you have good reasons because you always do. You should know I'm assuming that, James.”

“I do,” James said. “I guess you touched a sore spot, because I've been wondering myself how much effect not taking those science courses might have, when I go for a med school scholarship. But, Jeff, it can't be that doctors are allowed to know only
about medicine. And they shouldn't just know that, should they? I mean, if a doctor has wider knowledge he'll be a better doctor for people—if he knows more about how people think, and are, about human beings, he'll see things in a broader perspective, too, so he can really see people and not just—not just whatever their diseases are.”

Jeff studied James for a minute, then asked, “And you say you're not ambitious?”

Their laughter rippled over the table, over the scrubbed wood and the plates and bowls. But, Dicey thought, too lazy to say it, she knew what James meant. The Tillermans weren't ambitious. They wanted enough to take care of themselves, that was all. The Tillermans weren't greedy, to be rich or to own things, or to be famous, either. They just wanted to be able to take care of whoever they were supposed to, just to earn a living—because your living wasn't a present, it had to be earned. Even Momma had done that. She'd taken care of them until she couldn't anymore. But until she couldn't, she had done the best job she could, earning her living and theirs, too.

Dicey concealed the yawn that stretched her jaw muscles. She was feeling too good to want to be tired. She was too tired to eat any more, but she felt too good to want to leave the table, and the people. James talked on, getting excited.

“Did you ever take geology, Jeff? They measure things in billions of years, they round things out to the millionth—and they're measuring time. The odd three thousand years don't even matter, not in geological time.”

“I know,” Jeff said. “That's why I've never taken it. That point of view terrifies me—no, it does—because all the things I care about don't matter much, seen that way. It's all just a series of destructions and erasures, and there's so much lost . . . you know? So much just ended—and it's worth keeping, treasures of mind
or art and—lost.” He tried to shrug it off, with a movement of his shoulders. “And that scares me, I guess.”

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
9.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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