Seventeen Against the Dealer (4 page)

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
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“I'm sorry, James, I just don't seem to have any ideas.”

“I wish I knew,” James said. He leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands, his elbows on his knees. Dicey looked at the way his fingers laced together, and the bone of his jaw rested on the bones of his fingers. He really was worried about this. James looked at her and she shook her head—she didn't have any idea. He turned to ask Maybeth.

Maybeth sat curled up, her long legs under her, her hazel eyes dark with worry. “I'm sorry,” she said.

James smiled. “It's not your fault.”

“It's not anyone's fault,” she said. “But I'm still sorry. Because—but—I wish I could think. If I could think—because—people who think keep thinking of things, when it doesn't seem as if there's anything but one way or the opposite. But I can't.” Her hair fell forward, brushing her cheeks. “But I know James will be a good doctor. You will, James. I don't understand about counting up millions of years, and I can't remember the names you said, but—you can think, so you ought to be able to think of how to solve this. People who can think,” she said earnestly, and nobody laughed at her, “can think of things.” She reached up her hand to tuck the long, dark-gold hair back behind her ear.

“Maybeth's right,” Jeff said. “We can't think of anything, but you should ask your adviser. Unless you don't trust him?”

“Her,” James corrected. Dicey grinned. “No, I do trust her.”

Gram was staring at Dicey. “I remember the first time I ever saw you, girl. You looked about this tired.”

Dicey's smile stayed on her face. “You didn't,” she told her grandmother.

“Well, I wasn't,” Gram snapped. “I had all the time in the world, at that time, and it was too much time, that was how it felt. Geology notwithstanding, and all the ages, from Precambrian right up to the present, what is it, Helocene?”

“Yeah,” James said, not sounding surprised that Gram knew the name.

Gram's hands were busy, knitting a blue sock. The three needles formed an exaggerated triangle, each line extended beyond its intersections with the others. The wool rose out of the workbag in a thin line and the tube of sock hung down.
“When I think about geology, it feels like time is so long—which makes my own time so short—I don't intend to waste a minute of it. The hard thing,” Gram concluded, folding the needles together, wrapping the knitting around them, “is knowing what constitutes waste.” She tucked her knitting into the workbag and stood up. “I'm going to bed. A happy New Year to you.”

As she did each New Year's Eve, she leaned over to kiss each one of them on the forehead, Sammy first. Sammy reached up to hold her there, so he could return the kiss. They weren't frequent kissers, the Tillermans, but on New Year's Eve they always did, just as they always didn't stay up until midnight. This was their way of marking the end and the beginning, Dicey thought, standing up to wait her turn.

Maybeth, James, and Jeff, too—Gram kissed her family good night, and finally Dicey. At the door into the hallway she turned around, with a swish of her long skirt. Her eyes took them all in, and her head nodded briskly. “Those dishes are waiting. You three, give Dicey and Jeff a little privacy, you hear me?”

CHAPTER 3

N
ew Year's Day was about a third gone when Dicey woke up. She didn't need any clock to tell her it was midmorning; she just looked out the window and saw the bright, cold sunlight sprinkling down on the garden. And she could feel the time in her body. She felt rested from sleeping so long and deep, she felt filled up with energy. She wished it weren't New Year's Day. She'd have liked to use this energy getting work accomplished.

Dicey thought about New Year's Day, as she went into the bathroom, about how unnatural it was. Spring would be a natural place to start a year, or maybe the first day of winter, the winter solstice. In the school year, September marked the new beginning. Last September was the first fall she hadn't been in school, so—she splashed cold water over her face, still celebrating not being in school, being done with it, finished for good—maybe she wasn't used to the change. But January first hadn't ever felt like anything new. Dicey had never paid it any mind. Although this year she'd have to, because she had a checkbook, and when she wrote checks she'd have to change the year.

She rinsed her teeth and ran her fingers through her hair. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, she frowned. Even she had to admit that fingers hadn't done the job. She opened the cabinet door and took out a brush. She pulled the brush through her hair a couple of times, then replaced it. She didn't
bother checking herself again in the mirror. If she'd brushed her hair, then it had to look okay. She didn't have time to waste double-checking, she had things she was supposed to get done this morning. She was hungry, too.

Dicey ran down the stairs, into what was left of the morning. Baking smells came up to greet her—sweet, warm smells, with nuts and vanilla mixed in—she followed her nose into the kitchen—apples, too, cinnamon, nutmeg. Gram and Maybeth were in there, both working away at the long table. Gram was beating something in the big bread bowl while Maybeth, an apron over her jeans, frowned at the grater she was rubbing an orange against.

Dicey poured herself a glass of milk and drank it down, watching the two of them. “You slept late,” Gram observed, the big wooden spoon moving steadily even when she turned her attention away.

“I feel—terrific,” Dicey said.

“Sammy's out back, chopping wood. People will be coming soon,” Gram told her.

“I must have been tireder than I thought.” Dicey kept moving around, stepping out of her sister's way, out of her grandmother's way, eating bread and jam.

“I thought so.”

There was no use feeling impatient. Dicey had known that, like on Christmas, she would lose a day's work on New Year's. There wasn't anything she could do about it, anyway, because there were people coming over for the afternoon.

Over the years it had gotten to be a tradition, people coming to spend the first afternoon of the New Year at the Tillermans'. It wasn't official and it wasn't formal—nothing at the Tillermans' was ever official or formal—it was just something that happened once, and then again, and somehow got grown into a habit. You
didn't dress up for it. Dicey wore jeans and a cranberry-red sweater Jeff gave her the first Christmas he ever gave her a present, a mix of cotton and silk that was so soft, every time she put it on she felt like a baby, wrapped around with care, or a royal princess nothing could ever happen to. She knew that was pretty stupid. The history courses she'd had to take had taught her that princesses were at more risk than ordinary people. Babies, she knew, were easy to neglect, or abandon, because they were helpless. But she wasn't a princess, so she didn't have to worry, and she wasn't a baby anymore, either. In fact, helpless was one thing she was sure she wasn't, she thought, running her hand down over the soft arm of the sweater.

At midafternoon, Dicey stood leaning against the door frame between the dining room and the living room. She was waiting for the hours to flow by, half of her mind in town at the shop—considering the list of tasks to be done, checking supplies—most of the other half wondering what it was Ken Forbeck had wanted, what he'd say when she called him. The trouble with holidays was you couldn't even make a phone call.

From behind her, she heard the voices of Gram and Dr. Landros, talking about something with Mina Smiths. She knew that if she turned around she'd see them, the three women sitting on three of the chairs that had been pulled away from the table, all leaning forward toward the others as they talked. Mina had come without Dexter, so Dicey guessed they were having one of the fights that had characterized the romance, now in its fourth year. She hadn't had a chance to ask, because seeing Mina unescorted, Sammy had dragged her out to the kitchen to talk about tennis camps.

The people in the living room had eaten and talked and were settling down to song. Jeff had his guitar ready. Maybeth sat on the floor in front of him, the fire behind her. James and his friend
Toby were playing chess at the desk; Celie Anderson stood behind Toby, watching. Those three had gone through high school together, old, good friends, the three of them, however oddly assorted. Dicey watched James shake his head, shrug his shoulders, laugh, and reach a hand up to Celie, asking her to make the next move. This meant that Toby had outplayed him and James saw his only hope in a move no practiced chess player would ever think of. Dicey never saw Celie's move because Louis Smiths, Mina's little brother—weighing in at about 170 now, not so little anymore, all muscles—moved and blocked her view.

Sammy sat in front of the big sofa, talking with Custer and Robin and the two girls they had brought with them. Both Custer and Robin had traveled with steadies since they'd taken up girls in the eighth grade. Dicey could never remember the girls' names, but that didn't matter, since the girls changed as regularly as the styles of dress they sported, which was pretty regularly. This year the style was layers, T-shirts that bore a curious resemblance to men's undershirts, hanging out under baggy sweaters, all hanging out over jeans, and hair in a mass of curls, so they looked like a pair of neglected poodles.

Jeff had brought his friend Phil Milson, who was getting a master's at an agricultural college in South Carolina. Dicey had wondered, opening the door to the two of them, why Phil was there. Not that she minded. She liked Phil. He had a lazy way of talking that was relaxing to be around, and he looked—with his thick blond hair, still bleached summer-white by outside work, and his lazy smile—healthy, like a good, healthy person who would be good to have around. Phil was sitting now in the stuffed chair across the fire from Jeff. When Dicey saw his eyes resting on Maybeth's face, she figured she knew why he was there. Well, Sammy wouldn't object to Phil asking Maybeth out, and neither would James, unless they thought he was too old. Dicey looked at
her sister, cross-legged on the floor, her hands quietly folded on her lap, wearing an old blouse Gram had brought down from the attic, with its high lacy neck and long sleeves.

As she watched, Jeff lifted the guitar and started to play, one of the classical pieces he'd been studying since he went to college, quiet music, the notes clear, his hands moving along the frets and plucking gently at the strings. It didn't take long for all the chattering in the room to fade away. He changed the music then, to make the guitar a background for song. “‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot,'” Jeff sang. Maybeth joined in about two beats after he started. Everybody sang, Dicey, too, “‘And never brought to mind.'” Maybe it was morbid of her, Dicey thought, singing, but this kind of occasion, and this kind of song, always made her think of the people who weren't there. Old acquaintances, like Jeff's father, who was away teaching in Australia until spring. The Professor had sent them a case of kiwifruit for Christmas, and a card with a kangaroo that jumped out of it. Or an old acquaintance like Mr. Lingerle, who had moved away from Crisfield when the woman he met at a music teachers' convention said she couldn't live anywhere except Chicago, so if he wanted to marry her—which he did—he would have to move out there, and teach there—which he had.

And Momma, their mother, Gram's daughter. But it wasn't holidays that made Dicey remember her mother, it was singing. Dicey, as the oldest, had the most memories of their mother, and singing was the best of them. Momma when she sang—it sounded as if she stepped inside the song, the words and melody, and sang it out from its own self, like Maybeth when she sang, only Momma's voice was honey where Maybeth's was gold.

Maybeth was growing to look more like Momma, too, with her long legs and long hair; only Maybeth's eyes didn't have the
lost, frightened look Dicey remembered in her mother's eyes. Maybeth used to have that look, all her life, until they found Gram and knew they were always going to live here. Dicey wondered if their mother had been shy, too; Maybeth still was, but it wasn't so much shyness now as quietude, because there wasn't any being frightened left in it.

Drawn by the singing, Mina came to stand facing Dicey. “‘I'll take a cup of kindness now,'” she sang, raising her eyebrows at Dicey, “‘for auld lang syne.'” She held the last note until her voice faded away. Because Mina sang with a chorus at college, she'd taken a semester of voice; the note she held, low and rich, like a bassoon, blended with the note Maybeth held high and clear, like a spun-gold thread. Mina had shown Maybeth what she had learned in her lessons, about breathing, about shaping the inside of your mouth around the letters of the words. In perfect communication, Mina and Maybeth cut the note off at the same time, allowing the guitar the last few bars.

Custer's girl asked Jeff if he knew “This Land Is Your Land.” Jeff did, he always knew all the songs. Dicey asked Mina, “Why doesn't Sammy have a girlfriend?”

Mina shook her head; she didn't know. She had always dwarfed Dicey and, now that they'd reached their full growth, always would. Mina was wearing big, heavy, bright metal earrings, made in Africa, Dicey was willing to bet. When Mina shook her head, the earrings reflected little pieces of moving light onto her dark cheeks. “You going to start worrying about that now?” Mina teased. “I wouldn't. I wouldn't worry until it starts. Then I'd do some serious worrying.”

“I've got more important things to think about.”

“Are you sorry yet that you quit school?”

Dicey shook her head.

Mina studied her for a minute, while the Woody Guthrie song
played on. “You will be. Although, maybe you won't. That would be just like you.”

“What would be?”

“Not ever to be sorry. To drop out and not miss it.”

BOOK: Seventeen Against the Dealer
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