Authors: Jennifer Vanderbes
Miss Van Effing
As Juliet finally ascended the creaking white steps of her house, she recalled her task: “Tuck’s practice is running late,” she announced, opening the door. “He won’t be home for a while.”
Pearl, having commandeered the dining table with cards and envelopes, news clippings and pens, barely looked up. Their stepmother spent great portions of her days writing to politicians. Having once shaken the hand of Eleanor Roosevelt, Pearl prized more than anything else the white glove she’d worn on that occasion, now wrapped in a red velvet cloth in her bureau. Never in the history of the world, thought Juliet, had a woman been so undeserving of a name: Pearl was short and bowlegged; her eyes were a lusterless gray. She was several years older than their father, and had married him that March.
Her father glanced up from the coffee table, where he played his customary game of chess against himself. He slid forward a rook, and in his professorial baritone asked, “How was lab, Juliet? Did magnesium and phosphorous behave today?”
Juliet considered confiding everything about Beau. But it would only sharpen her father’s guilt. He had always believed Juliet’s awkwardness stemmed from her mother’s absence, and tried to make up for it by spoiling Juliet with the one thing he had in abundance: knowledge. At dinner, he bombarded her with elaborate explanations of the respiratory and circulatory systems. He sat beside her at her desk and talked her through the dissection of a bullfrog. She was given three stethoscopes, a microscope, a copy of
and a teaching skeleton. One evening, her father even
launched into a cumbersome explanation of the monthly shedding of the uterine lining, aided by a series of diagrams and charts—only recently, when Juliet woke in the night to a red streak on her underwear, did she realize he’d been describing the feminine “curse.”
“The experiment is stupendous,” Juliet answered, climbing the stairs. “But I’m coated with baking flour. Practically breaded. When Tuck comes home, would you tell him to come find me?”
Juliet drew a hot bath and surrendered her legs, then torso to the steamy porcelain tub. The water whitened with soap and flour. She stared dully at a spidery crack on the ceiling, chips of plaster dangling precariously. Life suddenly felt impossibly long, impossibly dreary.
The feeling of Beau’s hand covering her cheek came back to her. How could she have been so stupid? So gullible? She slid her shoulders down until the water washed over her scalp. She wanted to be swallowed, to be gloriously erased.
But the probing softness of Beau’s tongue also returned—the warmth, the startling wetness, the momentary thrill of her parted lips. It was all so vivid, so confusingly tangible. The taste of him—salty? yeasty?—lingered on her teeth. Juliet drew in a mouthful of bathwater, swirled it around, and spat it at the drain.
As she stepped from the tub, she studied herself in the mirror.
You’re getting womanly, Juliet.
In the past year she had grown an inch, and the nipples that had once been mere insect bites had acquired a sudden conical alertness. She thumbed them down and watched them spring back. Was she supposed to cover them? Wear a brassiere? The flesh on her hip bones, too, had risen, thickened, so that her hips sloped elliptically from her waist. All that trouble getting people to ignore her birthmark—and now this? She couldn’t very well expect people not to notice when she herself found these fleshy additions somewhat mesmerizing.
Leaving a trail of wet footprints down the carpeted hall,
Juliet shoved closed her bedroom door. The room was an embarrassment of pink. The princess wallpaper had, fortunately, been lost for years beneath periodic tables and circulatory-system posters. The mauve carpet was haphazardly tiled with textbooks and magazines.
Juliet threw herself onto her bed. It was Sunday, and the realization that she might see Beau in school the next day made her groan. From downstairs she heard her father and Pearl arguing, interspersed with the unusual sound of a forbidden news broadcast. What would Tuck think, coming home to hear the news blaring? Outside her window, wind rustled the massive dogwood and swept coolly into her room, ballooning the graph-paper calendar tacked above her bed. Juliet stared at the Monday three weeks away—already circled with her blue pen—the first day of eleventh grade.
At the suggestion of her teachers, Juliet was about to skip the second half of tenth grade. She was thrilled. She adored the promise of a fresh start, sometimes reading only the first chapter of a book so that her mind could chart its own course through the drawing rooms of London or the dark, crowded streets of the French Revolution. In this way the story never ended; the characters lived in her mind like the cat in Schrödinger’s quantum box, in a glorious state of perpetual possibility. Juliet would, years later, think that as she lay there in her room that night, she, too, existed in perpetual possibility. So much was taking shape around her but only touched her once her door opened and Tuck, all hulking six feet of him, stood in the threshold of her room. The moment she saw his face she knew that something serious had happened. He still wore his football uniform, the knees grass stained, shoulder pads uneven.
” He walked to her bed and sat on the edge, raking his hand through his thick curls. The sight of him always dazzled Juliet. Where she was awkward and sinewy, her brother was muscular, vigorous. His face was broad and square; his dark-brown eyes were set unusually far apart. He was not handsome in the classical sense, but his robust masculinity drew an endless stream of girlfriends. At
seventeen, he was the captain of the football and basketball teams. Walking, pacing—even waving good-bye—could be, for Tuck, an athletic display. He always made her feel safe, but something in his expression at this moment made her heart constrict uncomfortably. While the sound of the radio drifted up from downstairs, he twisted the corner of her coverlet.
“It’s the news, isn’t it?” she said. “What happened?”
Tuck looked at her. “I don’t know what’s going on now. But earlier today the Japanese bombed some American ships in Hawaii. It’s serious, Jules.”
“How many ships?”
“How many planes attacked?”
“I don’t want to give you nightmares.”
“Come on, Tuck. You should have seen me this afternoon. I’m a maker of explosive devices. I don’t scare easily.”
“Hundreds. There were people on the ships, Jules. And nearby. A lot of people. Innocent people.”
Juliet remembered an airplane accident she had once seen: when she was nine, riding in the car with her father, a biplane above them suddenly growled and smoked and hurled swiftly, nose first, into the ground; it flipped several times, dropping two of its passengers, and finally crashed into a barn from which people ran screaming. Her father had instructed her to stay in the car while he rushed to the flaming debris, hoping to find someone he could save. For weeks afterward, Juliet had trouble sleeping, recalling all those shrieks for help.
“Are we part of it now?” she asked.
Tuck nodded slowly. “The country is at war.”
The words seemed to hang strangely in the air. They had discussed so many things over the years—their mother’s death, their father’s drinking, Pearl’s uncomfortable presence in the house—but nothing of this magnitude.
Tuck tugged off his shoes and lay back beside her, sinking heavily into the mattress. Juliet inched close. The radio downstairs had quieted. Her brother breathed noisily, thoughtfully staring at the ceiling.
“I’m sorry I missed the big experiment.”
Outside the light was fading, and a wintry purple sky sprawled beautifully behind the darkening treetops. For a moment the world seemed utterly silent. Entirely peaceful. The thought of a bombing was wildly improbable. Juliet turned on her side, faced her brother, and drew her knees snugly to her chest.
“We’re at war,” Tuck said again, as though studying each word. He brought his hands together and slowly thrummed his fingers. His eyes narrowed and his jaw worked itself in a tense circle, and she sensed in his expression something more than anxiety. It was the look he had before a big game: excitement.
Juliet closed her eyes.
TUCK RESIGNED AS
football captain right before the state championships. Within weeks, he had quit all sports to devote his time to scrap-metal collection; after school he went from house to house wrestling old washing machines and car parts into the back of a truck. He arrived home in rust-smeared overalls, his palms blotchy with engine oil. At night he volunteered with the Coast Guard Auxiliary, monitoring the sky from the cold decks of shrimp boats. Juliet was proud of her brother but saw less of him than ever before.
Normally she would have thrown herself into her chemistry experiments, but the Science Fair had been canceled. The winter carnival, too, was called off. War efforts gripped the town, and it was understood that every event would serve a patriotic purpose. Blood drives, recruitment rallies. People moved through the gray January streets with a sense of urgency, their coats clutched nervously.
Sitting alone in the school cafeteria, Juliet listened as her classmates rattled off the names of boys from the previous year’s senior class who were enlisting. They told excited tales of patriotic eleventh graders from Beaufort and Savannah who, having lied about their ages, were shipping off to Africa at a mere sixteen years old. The German family who owned the bakery, they claimed, had fled town in the middle of the night.
By spring, there were whispers of pregnancies, proposals. Everyone knew which boys had been deemed 4-F, and there were endless speculations as to the reasons for these classifications: asthma, shortness, tendonitis, poor coordination.
A boy named Bobby Lee Fincher, after being declared 4-F, was found on the school steps one morning, his jaw bloodied, his nose broken.
He was a homo.
It was the first time Juliet had heard the word. And though unsure of what the word meant, she felt sorry for the boy; when she was ten, she’d once had her arm twisted by two girls, but nothing was broken, nothing had bled, and the girls had been sent to the principal. No one was punished for hurting Bobby Lee because he wouldn’t say who had done it.
June came, bright and muggy. Globular red roses tangled over trellises. The azaleas and camellias seemed to pulse with life, and in them, Juliet couldn’t help but feel, nature was signaling her about excitement ahead.
After school, she walked over to the scrap center, where she had decided to volunteer with Tuck. A vast warehouse once used by shrimpers was devoted to sorting soup cans and chewing-gum wrappers and scraps of aluminum foil. The smell of brine filled the crowded space. Seated on an old fish barrel, Juliet scooped kitchen lard into oil drums alongside girls from her school. A Victrola often played in the corner, which, combined with the clank of cans and the occasional ball of aluminum foil sailing through the air, lent the warehouse a sense of boisterous festivity.
But Juliet never quite knew how to join the fun. She had imagined that moving into the eleventh grade would give her a chance to reinvent herself, to be more outgoing, but first she struggled to figure out how, and then the war had taken hold of everyone’s attention, and now it was too late. Her classmates were so accustomed to her reserve that they never thought to include her in their conversations. Instead, Juliet worked diligently, scooping lard faster than anyone else at her table, trying to imagine her next beginning.
In a haze of daydreaming she could lose track of her work for an hour, picturing the gleaming lecture halls and vast research libraries
of colleges in Savannah and Charleston. Mr. Licata had given her an old brochure, faded and dog-eared, for a girls’ college in Atlanta, which Juliet kept in her bag. On her breaks at the scrap center, while the other girls smoked cigarettes, Juliet studied the photographs of the dormitories and the dome-topped Science Hall, imagining life after high school, a life surrounded by people like her, a life where she could meet
the word quickened her heart.
One afternoon, while Juliet was studying her brochure, Beau Conroy walked into the warehouse. He was holding hands with a cheerleader named Patty, her hair swept back in a gingham kerchief. Over a pink blouse she wore belted gray overalls. She wasn’t particularly pretty, as far as the cheerleaders went, but her earlobes and neck glinted with gold, and she leaned flirtatiously into Beau as they both surveyed the center. When Patty pointed out a space where they could work, he kissed her knuckles.
“Hey, Jules, you seen a ghost?” Tuck had come by to say hello. Juliet still hadn’t told him about kissing Beau. She sensed that if she told him, he would only say that Beau was a jerk, that he had tricked her and played a mean game. Juliet didn’t want it to be true. She wanted her first kiss, she deserved her first kiss; it was the only thing of consequence that had happened to her in months. And having bent and bowed her memory of the encounter, it had become something in those long lonely days she could cling to.
Juliet stared at Beau and the cheerleader and set down her lard scoop. “It’s hot, Tuck. I’m tired. Can we please go home already?”