Authors: Susan Perabo
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for Brady and Chase
When they gave us lumps
of clay in art class, I made a pencil holder in the shape of a giraffe, and Louise made an ashtray. She molded and baked it, lopsided and heavy as a brick, as a birthday present for her mom, who smoked Kents vigorously and ground them flat with a callused thumb. So Louise had made this poop-brown ashtray, but she'd left it in the art room cooling outside the kiln and didn't remember it until after school, halfway through softball. When practice ended I yelled to my mom to wait on us and we ran back into the buildingâthe side door was always open until five, so kids with softball and soccer could peeâand thundered down the stairs to the basement where the art room was. We didn't know if it would be unlocked or not, but we thought we'd give it a shot.
Louise reached the door firstâit was one of those doors with nine little windows, to give kids nine separate chances at breaking something. No sooner had she put her hand on the knob and her face to the middle pane when she reeled back from the door like someone had grabbed a fistful of her long red hair and
“Bullshit,” she said, for this was our favorite swear word, and we used it indiscriminately.
“What?” I, too, stepped to the window and was repelled back a step by what I saw inside: our principal, Dr. Dunn, was standing in the archway of the supply closet with his pants crumpled at his ankles and his hands clawing through the short black hair of Ms. McDaniel, our art teacher, who knelt in front of him with her mouthâwell, I'd seen enough. I turned to Louise and we both stared at each other in horror and mute shock for what must have been ten full seconds. Then, at once, we both exploded into riotous laughter and burst into motion away from the scene of the crime, ran full blast down the hall and up the stairs, laughing and gasping for air. By the time we slid into the backseat of my mother's paneled station wagon we had our poker faces set, but the image of what we'd witnessed was so vivid in my mind I couldn't believe my mother couldn't see it herself, reflected with perfect detail in the pools of my eyes.
I had two little brothers, Nick and Sam. Their lives revolved around farting, Indian burns, and the timeworn torture of repeating everything you said, repeating everything you said. Someday I would enjoy the company of them both, my mother assured me, but until then I would need to exercise tolerance.
“Time for Grade Your Day,” my father said from behind the curtain of steam that rose from his baked potato. “Anne?”
Though research had not yet proven it, my parents were certain that a well-balanced dinner together and a thorough discussion of the day's events would make us confident and bright children. They didn't know it would actually raise our SAT scores, but they were on the right track.
“B,” I said, forking a stalk of asparagus.
“D-minus-plus-minus-and-a-half,” said Sam. He was six.
“A-triple plus!” exclaimed Nick.
My father raised his eyebrows. “Win the lottery?”
“Nuh-uh.” Nick grinned. “Two fifth graders got in a fight. They were both named Ben, and one of 'ems tooth got knocked out and flew about fifty feet down the hall.”
“How awful,” my mother said.
“Did Ben start it?” my father asked, winking at me. Though I was only three years older than Nick, I got to be in on all my father's jokes. “How 'bout you, kiddo?” he asked me. “News of the day?”
“Mrs. Payne subbed in math.”
“Oh no,” my mother said. “I thought they'd finally gotten rid of her.”
I shrugged. “She was there.”
“Mrs. Payne is a pain in the butt,” Nick said, and Sam snorted.
“That's original,” I said. “Only every single person ever to go to our school for the last hundred years has said that.”
“Learn anything?” my father asked, undeterred.
I had learned what a blowjob (or BJ, as Louise told me on the phone before dinner) looked like. I had learned that men didn't actually need to remove their underpants to have sex.
“I learned how to bunt,” I said. “At practice.”
“Just hold the bat out there,” my father said, pretending his steak knife was a Louisville Slugger and wiggling it over his slab of meat. “Just let the ball hit the bat, right?”
“And keep your fingers out of the way,” I added.
“That's the most important part,” my mother agreed, for my mother was a dodger from way back. In supermarket aisles, she was always the one scooting her cart around to make room for everybody else.
I was regarded with bemused suspicion in the Hanley home, because when Louise and I were in first grade my parents had voted for Richard Nixon. They'd staked a big red sign in our front yardâ
âwhich is how the Hanleys even knew about it in the first place. Now, even with a Democrat in the White House (a peanut farmer, my father was forever pointing out, with a brother on
) Mrs. Hanley still couldn't let it drop.
“There she is again,” she would say wryly, smoke puffing from her nostrils. “President of the Young Republicans.”
“MomÂ .Â .Â .” Louise would sigh. “Anne is notâ”
“âanything,” I would finish. “I'm not anything. I swear.”
On the mantel, in the place where most people had photos of grinning offspring, Mr. and Mrs. Hanley had framed pictures of John and Bobby Kennedy, looking contemplative and doomed. There was a Spiro Agnew Velcro dartboard on the refrigerator and a faded bumper sticker slapped crookedly across the oven window that said “50 Americans Died Today In Vietnam.” The Hanleys got at least four different newspapers and apparently felt the need to keep them handy for quick reference; there were waist-high stacks of them in every room of the house except for Louise's bedroom. Mrs. Hanley always sat at the dining room table scouring the articles and smoking her Kents, and when Mr. Hanley came home from work he sat on a tattered lawn chair in the middle of the backyard with his feet soaking in a little yellow tub and read until dark.
My mother called them eccentric; she didn't like all the time I spent there, and she often pumped me to find out if Mrs. Hanley had said anything unusual or confusing, anything that had left me feeling
. I never gave a thing away; I'd learned earlier than most that the less your parents knew about the concrete details of your day, the better off you were. My father thought the Hanleys were lunatics, but unlike my mother, he believed it was important for me to be exposed to lunaticsâprovided they were harmlessâin order to be a well-rounded adult.
The day after we saw what we saw in the art room, Louise and I holed up after school in the Hanleys' basement. Ever since Louise's sister had left for college, we had the basement to ourselves: the paneled walls, the matted shag carpet, the stale air of twenty-thousand cigarettes smoked by unhappy members of the generation that directly preceded ours.
“Ms. McDaniel should watch out,” Louise said. She was sucking on a Charms Blow Pop, twirling it back and forth over her tongue. “She could get a disease doing that.”
Louise knew things. Her sister, Donna, was seven years older, a freshman in college, and willing to talk. Plus, the Hanleys let Louise see R-rated movies and read whatever books she wanted. I'd looked at
at her house one time, right at the dining room table. My mother wouldn't even let me read
in checkout lines.
“What kind of disease?” I asked.
“You don't even want to know,” Louise said, which was her answer when she herself didn't know. “I wonder if they do that every day.”
“I bet they do other things, too,” I said, and with no warning whatsoever a vivid picture flashed into my mind of Ms. McDaniel carefully painting Dr. Dunn's penis with the very same blue watercolors we'd used last week on our skyscapes. I blushed at my own fantasy: I hadn't even known I had the capacity to create such an image.