Eighteen and Pretty
“Rainy?! Well!” Mom fluttered her hand dramatically. “That’s an interesting name—I hope it doesn’t match her personality!”
Mom was being breezy. Trying anyway, as she sat at the picnic table behind our house smoking a Parliament. Dad had built the patio and the half-walls surrounding it out of cinderblock. I suppose he had meant well...hell, maybe not. Maybe he was just being cheap. Either way, he had under-sized it so that the table barely fit. It looked like the exercise yard of a very tiny correctional institute. Mom was acting as if she were on the deck of a cruise ship.
“Her real name’s Lorraine.”
“Ahhh.” Mom winked as if this were a profound secret. “I see. I like Rainy better too. She pretty?”
Mom measured me, smirking. She flicked her ash into one of the window boxes that lined the patio. They were all filled with bright plastic flowers.
“Come on! Tell me...she pretty? She swirled her glass, creating a little ice cube tornado inside. Vodka and lemonade.
“Yeah, Mom...she’s really pretty. I think so.”
“Eighteen and pretty...” Mom seemed to focus on something far away. “I remember eighteen and pretty.” She drained her glass and gave her head a little shake. Her cigarette had grown a long ash, and it dropped unnoticed into her lap. I felt that it was my unspoken responsibility to contradict her at this point, but she looked so far away, and somehow indistinct. I remembered a demonstration at the Museum of Science where a man dipped a chrysanthemum into a beaker of liquid oxygen...the flower came out looking fresh and beautiful, but when he tapped it on the counter it shattered into a thousand bright pieces. That’s what I was afraid of.
“Come on, Mom. You look great.” It was true. Her hair was thick and dark brown and she had the figure of someone ten years younger. Only her eyes betrayed her.
She gazed at a point six inches in front of my nose and mussed my hair. She talked so low I could barely hear her.
She had a sort of good-bye sadness around her eyes.
“See if you can be a man and stay sweet.”
She tipped up her empty glass, and sighed.
* * *
At work that night it had been fairly busy up until eight oclock, and then it was like a curfew went into effect. I stood at the QuickieMart cash register tearing the cellophane off a pack of Kents. I was trying every off-brand in the store. Because nobody bought Kents, I reasoned that it wasn’t really stealing. As much as I justified it, I still felt guilty enough to spin around and toss them under the counter with the paper bags when I heard the door open.
“Hey, kid,” and then “What the fuck’s the matter with you? You look like somebody just goosed you.”
“Hey, Harry. I’m fine—it’s just been too quiet, that’s all. Smokes?”
Harry scratched his belly under his mechanic blues and stretched, holding up two fingers. I stacked two packs of Marlboros in front of him on the counter, and he scissored a five-dollar bill out of his shirt pocket with two grimy fingers.
“Fuck, man—I’m tired.”
Harry exhaled loudly while I rang him up.
“You hear much from Frankie?”
“What’s he up to?” Harry had been in my brother’s class at school.
“Oh, you know, the usual stuff. Taking classes. Playing football. Walking on water.”
“Ah, don’t let that bug you. Look at me, kid—straight fuckin’ D student, but I’m my own man, right? And worth twice as much as Frank and that crowd, believe it or not.”
I pushed his change across the counter towards him. He picked up a handful of five-cent mints and dropped them into the pocket where the fiver used to live, slid some change back, and pushed through the door waving over his shoulder. The glow of fluorescent light, cool and dirty, surrounded the store like the brim of a hat. As Harry shambled across the parking lot he began to disappear. Crossing Main Street his disembodied head reappeared in a halo of matchlight from his cupped hands, then he finally reappeared under the pumps at the Power Test station across the street.
I lit one of the Kents. It tasted like a crematorium smokestack.
Three more hours.
* * *
It was late—I was finally home and I was tired. I didn’t even want a cigarette, but I needed to assert myself in some way, and I needed to do it with whatever style I could muster. I could have haunted my way down through the quiet house and gone outside, but instead I chose to risk the old copper gutters that ran under my window and connected with the porch roof outside of Frank’s empty room. I was safe there.
We used to have a little sister—sometimes I think I remember Katherine, but those could be memories slipped into my head like letters slipped under a door. The way I understand it is that when Katie was born Frank turned into a royal little shit. I don’t suppose he was crazy about sharing the parental love-light when I had come along, but he was only three at that time. Three years later Katie was a definite threat to his six-year old dominance of the house. He blamed her for everything from the smell of the house to her constant crying. When she grew sickly and silent and finally cold, he didn’t understand meningitis, but he sure understood guilt. All of his signals were missed by stubborn Dad and self-medicated Mom, and finally the Little Frank That Could broke down and had a psychotic episode in school.
It seems that the grownups thought it would be best to keep Frank in his routines, so they encouraged him to do show and tell the week after the funeral. That day, he walked stiffly to the front of the room and took an old coffee can from a rumpled paper bag.
This here’s my head.
He dumped the contents of the bag onto the table; some nuts and bolts, a headless doll, a razor blade, a beer bottle cap, a jackknife, some coins, and two plastic soldiers. Some kids began to snicker as Frank swept the stuff into the coffee can. He cut his fingers on the razor blade, but didn’t seem to notice.
This is how I feel all day.
He began to shake the can vigorously.
Frank didn’t hear the metallic racket he was making. He didn’t hear the other kids laughing. He didn’t hear the teacher yelling at him to stop, he just stood there, shaking the can with all of his might, staring ahead as the blood formed a red spider web down his forearm. Soon the laughter died, and the kids watched in awkward silence as the school nurse led Frank, still shaking his can, out of the room. Frank and his thoughts rattled off down the hall. They took Frank out of school.
Unfortunately I was too young to think of that—if I had wandered the halls bleeding I could have had the free pass, instead of being the designated fuckup. Somehow Frank’s struggle took on a noble quality in the eyes of my father, which I found interesting, given that any weakness in me made him want to puke. How did that little damaged kid grow into a winner, a bully? With my father’s relentless pushing, and complete attention. I helped too, I suppose—to become big and strong and smart, you have to be bigger and stronger and smarter than someone else. That was my job. Did I hate my father? I tried to, but it didn’t work any better than trying to love him did. Unlike him, weakness didn’t turn my stomach. I wrapped myself in the blanket of my plans and dreams, and tried to stay out of his way.
Hunched on the porch roof, shivering in my t-shirt I held myself in place with my bare feet. In a hole in the back of my closet was a quart of tequila that Harry had given me after his brother’s bachelor party. I had taken three big swallows, and I stopped shivering after a while. I lit a cigarette and once again considered my seventeen-year-old plans and dreams. They were cliched and unambitious but they were all I had, and felt like a treasure map to me.
I needed a car.
I needed Rainy.
There were so many other things I needed: a future, a skill, money, something to be proud of, a sheltered place, friends who weren’t misfits, something to do with all the crap in my head...I couldn’t think about all of that now.
I needed a car because a car meant movement and movement meant freedom and I was dying in this house. I needed to own something besides shame. I was a sliver under the fingernail of my family, and I wanted to go even more than they wanted me gone.
I hadn’t known her that long but that didn’t matter—it felt like she knew me. I loved the softness of her body, I loved the hardness of her heart, I loved that delicate scar that ran along her jaw. She was old enough to buy liquor, old enough to know things, smart in a soul way, and not cruel. Swear to God, if she loved me back I wouldn’t need much else.
I stubbed out the butt and carefully tossed it into the gutter.
Before the first frost I’d be gone. Joey Hoyle was selling his ’69 Camaro for $475.
Fuck this house, this town.