Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day - an excerpt

Beverly lied. She told her mother she was going with Marietta and Ethel to see a movie. They did this every so often. Either they walked to the movie theater in Kelso or begged a ride from Aunt Constance and went to the Longview Theater, which was much nicer.
Today Beverly explained that they were planning to have lunch and see The Way We Were, which seemed safe enough to Mrs. Sherman until she heard from a friend that it was pro-Communism. Beverly swore to her mother that they would see Paper Moon instead, and that she wasn't going to see The Exorcist with Constance as a chaperone. She swore on a bible at Mrs. Sherman's insistence and in imitation of her gravely dramatic expression.
Lunch and a movie would be about three hours. That would be enough time, by Beverly's estimation. She didn't know for sure. She had never done this before, snuck off to the woods with a boy she liked.
He was new in town. His name was Oliver, a very odd name for a boy in Skillute. It sounded uppity. That was the first thing Beverly had noticed, right after she noticed Oliver's shaggy brown hair. He had the kind of hair that would make Beverly's father ask, in his bear-like, old-fashioned way, if he was a boy or a girl. Beverly was dreading this pathetic joke so much, she was afraid to invite Oliver to her house. She was also afraid that Oliver would find her home small, overcrowded, and tacky. He would see her mother's collections: a cluster of dolphin-shaped Avon bottles in the bathroom, a pile of ceramic poodles on a shelf in the hall, and the Robert Goulet albums next to the RCA stereo in the living room.
As far as Beverly was concerned Oliver had every right to be uppity. His family came from back east, as far away as New York and New England. That was almost as good as being from Europe. His mother was a Daughter of the American Revolution, a fact that Beverly found impressive. Her mother didn't know what D.A.R. stood for, and her ignorance further convinced Beverly that it must be very high toned. What her mother knew was how much property cost. She estimated at a glance that Oliver's parents occupied the most expensive house in Skillute.
"Rolling in it," Mrs. Sherman had said more than once. "That's what they are. Look at the marble lions next to their front gate. That house looks like a library, or a courthouse!"
Oliver had already completed the books on the current list at school. He seemed bored in class. He would often get a dreamy, faraway look as though he knew a much more interesting place, where he'd like to be.
Beverly's mother said she had been "itching for trouble" for a long time, ever since she turned fourteen. Beverly wasn't sure what that meant. The way she saw things, she was simply on the alert for the unusual. She bought clothes without her mother's advice, and paid Ethel's aunt to alter them for her. Ever since the Christmas when she caught her mother sewing fake Casual Corner labels into her school dresses Beverly had known that the adult world was treacherous and not very bright. Women with children were the biggest liars of all.
She wanted authentic, unique things, or nothing. She was finding that the more outlandish something seemed to the people she knew the more likely it proved to be valuable. Like caviar and fondue. Her father had never heard of fondue. He thought it was a country near Sweden. Beverly found his ignorance shocking, especially since he had served in the Navy during a world war. How could he travel all the way around the world and learn nothing?
This year, to top off the list of things that disgusted Beverly, all the boys in her class were learning to spit. It was their favorite pastime, spitting. She couldn't imagine ever being in love with or married to one of these lumbering, tongue-tied, saliva- and tobacco-spewing boys.
Oliver always nodded and watched her expression closely when she talked. He was the only boy at school who did this. The others grunted and looked past her like they were waiting for someone else to show up. They only looked at her when she walked away.
Beverly longed for a boy to fall in love with her, a boy or a man, someone who wasn't a singer or a character on a TV show. She wondered what it meant to be swept away. She had seen movies where men swept women up in their arms, but that looked made-up.
She couldn't get advice from her friends. They knew nothing about seduction. Ethel still had posters of David Soul and Michael Parks in her bedroom, and she lit candles and looked up at them like a little girl. Marietta was more grownup but in a watchful, silent way that sometimes gave Beverly a chill.
Nowadays Marietta's aunt kept her out of school whenever she felt like it. She used the girl as an assistant but didn't pay her much. The only money Marietta was allowed were tips for providing gullible people with what Delphine Dodd called her intuitions.
Of the three, Beverly decided, Ethel was the lucky one, despite her immaturity. Since her crazy mom and dad had died in a fire that almost killed Ethel too, she had been living with her dad's sister. Constance Burney ran a tailor shop in their home. She was quiet and patient, bland in her views, a teetotaler and a Republican. She never discussed politics or religion with anyone, because she said these subjects were in poor taste. She taught Ethel to sew, a trade she could use anywhere. Aunt Constance was even saving up to send her to the community college for a year of fashion and costume design. After that Ethel could probably get a job in Vancouver or Portland. She could leave Skillute if she wanted to.
Beverly sighed. She had often dreamed of her meddling, messy family going up in smoke. When she was nine years old she had written a solemn story about a nine-year-old who murdered her dull parents and loudmouthed siblings and burned their bodies in the fireplace. The heroine had eaten dainty cucumber sandwiches from a silver tray while the considerable layers of fat crackled and sizzled in the glinting fire.
She practiced a bereaved expression, just in case. She could see the black silk dress and hat she would wear to the funeral, both designed by a famous French woman. Beverly's teacher pronounced the woman's name "Shah-NEL." Beverly's mother mispronounced it "Channel." Beverly had seen the perfect black dress in a magazine next to a monthly column by Mademoiselle Chanel, who was a genius on the subject of what women ought to wear. One rule of thumb was to make sure your hemline wasn't too trendy. It was supposed to match your age. Mademoiselle Chanel said: If a man laughs when he sees a woman climbing out of a car, her skirt is too short.
Oliver held out his hand to help Beverly. They followed the ivy-covered incline and walked for a quarter of a mile until they reached a patch of cedars. The woods here were spotty, strewn with weeds and dead branches, dotted with the brittle spines of devil's club, the shrubs starting to die off.
Only a year earlier one of the big companies had come through and pulled out most of the Doug fir for timber. Now it was nothing like the place Beverly remembered. Only a slim ring of fir and cedar leaned rakishly between busy residential roads and the freeway. She recalled the silence of the place, above all. It wasn't silent here. The traffic sounds were softened but not shut out.
"Here we are," said Beverly, looking forlornly at their destination.
She felt sweaty. She brushed away the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand. She had once seen an actress on Here Come the Brides do this and she still thought it was a very feminine thing to do. She wished she had worn lace gloves.
"So this is the spot?" Oliver asked, grinning. He stood with his arms crossed and looked around at the forest, then back at Beverly.
"I think so."
"You and your friends used to play here when you were little?"
"Not exactly," said Beverly. "We kind of took an oath."
"Really?" Oliver smiled.
Now it all seemed ridiculous. How many years had it been since she had seen this place? She wasn't sure. It might have been two or three years, but it seemed like more. She remembered the fire, and saying some words they had memorized. She remembered the lipstick and the white shoestring she had stolen from her mother that day, and running from the fire.
"Do your mom and dad have hair like yours?" She asked, anxious to change the subject.
"I guess so," he told her.
"What does that mean? You know what their hair looks like."
"Not really," he said. "I'm adopted, so, you know?"
She had never met anyone who was adopted. Orphaned or abandoned to relatives, yes, but adopted by another family? That was a story she had only seen on TV, along with babies left on doorsteps or deserted and raised by wolves in the wild. She felt an overwhelming pity for Oliver that made her want to kiss him.
"That's so sad," she told him.
"Why?" He asked. "My parents are okay. My dad's rich."
"But your real mother gave you away."
Beverly winced. She hadn't meant to say this so bluntly.
"Please," said Oliver. "She was probably a junkie, or some other type of criminal. We don't talk about it. Anyway, I got lucky, believe me."
Beverly sensed the weekend traffic on the main road flashing beyond the fringe of cedars to her right: A quick, bright light in her peripheral vision.
A memory flooded her senses. She inhaled the fragrance of cedar. Underfoot she now saw the remains of wood shingles. Some of them were smashed to bits. She smelled smoke, turned, and flinched when she saw Oliver.
"Hey!" He said. "Everything okay?"
She stepped closer, placed one hand on his chest and kissed him. He laughed.
"What?" She asked.
"That's, um," he shook his head.
"Did you know you were standing on one foot when you did that?"
Against all of her will, her face flushed hot pink. She had only kissed mirrors and pillows and a few doors and the back of her hand. She had kissed these objects the way she imagined romantic kisses. Now with a flash of self-loathing she realized her pose was ridiculous.
"I didn't mean it like that," Oliver told her. "It was kind of cute."
She wanted to retch.
"Very cute," he said. "It's all right."
He kissed her. His lips were dry and his breath smelled like grape bubble gum. She was about to tell him that she was joking before, but he kissed her again. This time she felt his tongue, warm and slippery, gliding between her lips. His tongue wiggled against the roof of her mouth.
He put his arms around her and pulled her close. She felt a tingling in her chest and between her legs. It crossed her mind that she might be starting her period, and she blushed again. Before she could decide what to do Oliver pressed against her and gently guided her to the ground. He lay on top of her. His sweat smelled clean like salt water.
She didn't like having her dress bunched up around her hips. Or his wet tongue stuck inside her left ear. She forgot these annoyances when he licked the palm of his hand and reached inside her panties.
"It's okay," Oliver whispered in her still-wet ear.
It wasn't okay. He was slathering her, down there, with his spit, with the saliva and mucous from his mouth. So this was the part of lovemaking they left out of TV shows, the part no one was allowed to see. Whatever it was, Beverly didn't care for it, but she was too mortified to say anything until she felt Oliver's flesh as he shoved his way inside her. This burned so much that she almost cried out, but she was afraid to scream or cry. She was afraid that if she started screaming Oliver wouldn't stop. Then what could she do? At the same time she was afraid he would laugh at how pathetic and ignorant she was. He would tell everyone at school that she had never even kissed a boy before.
So she clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. She concentrated all of her strength on the darkness behind her eyelids; the quiet darkness where Oliver's grunting didn't nauseate her and the perspiration from his neck didn't swipe across her chin every time he heaved his body against hers.
A few minutes later Beverly sat up. She was sitting on the ground looking up at the trees. Oliver gave her a peck on the cheek. Then he put his hand on top of her head and stroked her hair. He smiled. In the next moment he was trudging away, taking the path they had used to reach this pitiful, balding patch of woods.
She didn't watch him go. She smoothed her dress and took a compact out of her purse. In the mirror she saw that the thin layer of lipstick she had applied that afternoon was smeared on one side.
She was sore and she didn't want to move. Her mother would worry if she didn't come back soon. She had to get home before anyone came looking for her.
She forced herself to stand, then to walk on legs that felt like they had springs instead of bones. She smoothed her hair and her dress again and took a few more steps, watching the ground to avoid stumbling. She saw a stone sticking out of the ground and stooped to pick it up, just to see if it hurt to do so.
Her fingers grasped the stone, which now appeared to be a shell. Only when Beverly held the object closer and turned it over did she realized that it was a jawbone, darkened by fire or paint. Tiny and delicate, it was also unmistakably human, with a crooked row of teeth small enough to belong to a child.
She stood in the dappled light, gazing at the strange memento. Slate in color, it was so smooth and clean it looked as though it had been polished. She gently wrapped the jawbone in a linen handkerchief and placed it inside her purse next to her compact.


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