Listen to this: for Christmas one year, my dad’s brother gave her this weird jigsaw puzzle. I think Uncle Tom was in collusion with my dad on that one. She did a lot of jigsaws-I helped-and they both thought it was the biggest waste of time on earth. So Tom sent her a five-hundred-piece jigsaw puzzle that had a single blueberry down in the lower-right-hand corner. The rest of the puzzle was solid white, no shades.
My father laughed his ass off. “Let’s see you do that one, Mother,” he said. He always called her
“Mother” when he felt a good one had been put over on her, and it never ceased to irritate her. She sat down on Christmas afternoon and spread the puzzle out on her puzzle table in her bedroom-by this time they each had their own. There were TV dinners and pickup lunches for Dad and I on December twenty-sixth and the twenty-seventh, but on the morning of the twenty-eighth, the puzzle was done. She took a Polaroid picture of it to send to Uncle Tom, who lives in Wisconsin. Then she took the puzzle
apart and put it away in the attic. That was two years ago, and so far as I know, it’s still there. But she did it. My mother is a humorous, literate, pleasant person. She is kind to an-imals and accordion-playing mendicants. But you didn’t cross her, or she could dig in her heels . . . usually somewhere in the groin area.
I was crossing her. I was, in fact, starting to run through my arguments for the fourth time that day, but time had just about tun out. The bow tie was clutching my collar like a pink spider with hidden steel legs, the coat was too tight, and she’d even made me put on my square-toed shoes, which were my Sunday best. My father wasn’t there, he was down at Gogan’s slopping up a few with his good buddies, but if he’d been around he would have said I looked “squared away.” I didn’t feel like an asshole.
“I don’t want to hear any more about it, Charlie. ” I didn’t want to hear any more about it either, but since I was the one running for the Shithead of the Year Award, and not her, I felt obliged to give it the old school grunt.
“All I’m trying to tell you is that nobody is going to be wearing a suit to that party, Mom. I called up Joe McKennedy this morning, and he said he was just going to wear-”
“Just shut up about it,” she said, very soft, and I did. When my mother says “shut up,” she’s really mad.
She didn’t learn “shut up” reading The Guardian. “Shut up, or you won’t be going anywhere.”
But I knew what that meant. “Not going anywhere” would apply to a lot more than Carol Granger’s party. It would probably mean movies, the Harlow rec cen-ter, and swimming classes for the next month.
Mom is quiet, but she carries a grudge when she doesn’t get her way. I remembered the jigsaw puzzle, which had borne the whimsical title “Last Berry in the Patch.” That puzzle had crossed her, and it hadn’t been out of the attic for the last two years. And if you have to know, and maybe some of you do anyway, I had a little crush on Carol. I’d bought her a snot-rag with her initials on it and wrapped it myself. Mom offered, but I said no. It wasn’t any lousy fifteen-cent hankie, either. Those babies were going in the Lewiston J. C. Penney’s for fifty-nine cents, and it had lace all the way around the edge.
“Okay.” I grumped at her. “Okay, okay, okay.”
“And don’t you wise-mouth me, Charlie Decker,” she said grimly. “Your father is quite capable of thrashing you yet.”
“Don’t I know it,” I said. “Every time we’re in the same room together, he reminds me.”
“Charlie . . . ”
“I’m on my way,” I said quickly, heading it off. “Hang in there, Mom.”
“Don’t get dirty! ” she called after me as I went out the door. “Don’t spill any ice cream on your pants!
Remember to say thank you when you leave! Say hi to Mrs. Granger!”
I didn’t say anything to any of these orders, feeling that to acknowledge might be to encourage. I just jammed the hand that wasn’t carrying the package deeper into my pocket and hunched my head.
“Be a gentleman!”
“And remember not to start eating until Carol does!”
I hurried to get out of her sight before she decided to run after me and check to see if I’d peed myself.
But it wasn’t a day made to feel bad on. The sky was blue and the sun was just warm enough, and there was a little breeze to chase along at your heels. It was summer vacation, and Carol might even give me a tumble. Of course, I didn’t know just what I’d do if Carol did give me a tumble-maybe let her tide double on my Schwinn-but I could cross that bridge when I came to it. Perhaps I was even overestimating the negative sex appeal of the corduroy suit. If Carol had a crush on Myron Floren, she was going to love me.
Then I saw Joe and started to feel stupid all over again. He was wearing ragged white Levi’s and a T-shirt. I could see him looking me up and down, and I winced. The jacket had little brass buttons with a heralds embossed on them. Rooty-toot.
“Great suit,” he said. “You look just like that guy on the Lawrence Belch show. The one with the accordion.”
“Myron Floren,” I said. “Riiight.”
He offered me a stick of gum, and I skinned it.
“My mother’s idea.” I stuck the gum into my mouth. Black Jack gum. There is no finer. I rolled it across my tongue and chomped. I was feeling better again. Joe was a friend, the only good one I ever had. He never seemed afraid of me, or revolted by my weird mannerisms (when a good idea strikes me, for instance, I have a tendency to walk around with my face screwed up in the most godawful grimaces without even being aware of it-didn’t Grace have a field day with that one). I had Joe beat in the brains department, and he had me in the making-friends department. Most kids don’t give a hoot in hell for brains; they go a penny a pound, and the kid with the high I.Q. who can’t play baseball or at least come in third in the local circle jerk is everybody’s fifth wheel. But Joe liked my brains. He never said, but I know he did. And because everyone liked Joe, they had to at least tol-erate me. I won’t say I worshiped Joe McKennedy, but it was a close thing. He was my mojo.
So there we were, walking along and chewing our Black Jack, when a hand came down on my shoulder like a firecracker. I almost choked on my gum. I stumbled, turned around, and there was Dicky Cable.
Dicky was a squat kid who always somehow reminded me of a lawn mower, a big Briggs & Stratton self-propelling model with the choke stuck open. He had a big square grin, and it was chock-full of big white square teeth that fitted together on the top and bottom like the teeth in two meshing cogs. His teeth seemed to gnash and fume between his lips like revolving mower blades that are moving so fast they seem to stand still. He looked like he ate patrol boys for supper. For all I knew, he did.
“Son of a gun, you look slick!” He winked elaborately at Joe. “Son of a gun, you just look slicker than owl shit!” Whack! on the back again. I felt very small. About three inches, I’d say. I was scared of him-I think I had a dim idea that I might have to fight him or crawfish before the day was over, and that I would prob-ably crawfish.
“Don’t break my back, okay?” I said. But he wouldn’t leave it alone. He just kept riding and riding until we got to Carol’s house. I knew the worst the minute we went through the door. Nobody was dressed up. Carol was there in the middle of the room, and she looked really beautiful.
It hurt. She looked beautiful and casual, a shadow glass of sophistication over the just-beginning adolescent. She probably still cried and threw tantrums and locked herself in the bathroom, probably still listened to Beatles records and had a picture of David Cassidy, who was big that year, tucked into the corner of her vanity mirror, but none of that showed. And the fact that it didn’t show hurt me and made me feel dwarfed. She had a rust-colored scarf tied into her hair. She looked fifteen or sixteen, already filling out in front. She was wearing a brown dress. She was laughing with a bunch of kids and gesturing with her hands.