Saturday, September 16, 2006

1. Fritz

The next day, I started my job with the Youth Conservation Corps, YCC. YCC assigned our crew to the nature center, where we began building a new boardwalk. Lots of snakes lived in the swamp around the boardwalk: garter snakes, ribbon snakes, milk snakes, and water snakes. The water snakes weren't very friendly. I saved a number of them from the crew. It was, after all, against the rules to kill animals at the center. The kids on the crew seemed to think they were exempt or something. I made sure they knew they weren't.

I might not have been successful at saving the snakes, if it hadn't been for my allies, Billy White and Beardsley Beardsley. Billy didn't particularly like snakes, but he defended them because I liked them. Beardsley liked snakes. He liked all nature. Like me, he didn't like to see anything killed. But he didn't have much clout with the other kids, who called him Bee, Beebee or Bobo to mock him out for his double name.

Billy had told Beardsley and me about the YCC job. He found out about it through his father, who owns the Messenger, our town paper.

Billy was a tall, thin boy with dark hair and deep-set, dark brown eyes. I always believed, even when we were much younger, that he had a crush on me. Sometimes, he ignored me, or acted cold and withdrawn. Other times, he followed me around looking at me with his fathomless eyes, never smiling. It seemed as if he was just soaking me in, soaking me so hard that it seemed as if I might disappear into his mysterious eyes.

When he did speak, he always said my name slowly, as if it were a gold coin he was turning in his hand. "A-LEE-shee-a," he would say, slowly, looking deep into my eyes. It never failed to give me the shivers.

I liked him a lot, but he scared me. Something a little strange about him made me want to avoid getting too close. Friends, yes. But when the thought of romance with Billy occurred to me, as it did fairly often, I put it aside. We went to the movies, a concert, a play or something fairly regularly, but I never thought of it as a date. I did often let him pay my way, because he had more money than I did, and he wanted to. Sometimes, he tried awkwardly to kiss me or touch me, but I never let him, even though I sort of wanted him to. Occasionally, we held hands like little kids, when he seemed playful instead of dark. There was a lot about Billy to like, but I particularly liked his sharp intelligence and generally gentle nature.

Billy worked as a reporter for his father's paper, and also had a column in The New Environment, our local environmental paper. I read his stuff; he was an excellent news writer. He also wrote poems, strange, scary poems and gooey love poems. I didn't like them. The scary poems made me nervous, and so did the love poems, in a different way. I would find them folded up in my knapsack when I got home. They were always dedicated to "Angela," but I was 99% sure they were written to me. Not a hundred percent sure, though.

Beardsley liked me, too. I had started dating him when I was fourteen, and had dated him on and off for four years. Although people sometimes thought of us as a couple, we were more like really close friends. I did occasionally kiss him. But his kisses didn't make me feel the way I thought a boy's kiss should feel. No thunder and lighting.

I had a hard time making the transition from a tomboy kid whose very best friends were all boys to a dating teen when the same boys who were my best buddies and comrades suddenly wanted to kiss me and touch my body. It was confusing, to say the least, and I hadn't reconciled it. I wanted Beardsley and Billy to continue to be my pals, but at the same time I sometimes wanted to kiss one or the other, or both. Not at the same time, though.

Beardsley was lots of fun. He had none of Billy's darkness, either physically or emotionally. His hair was such a pale "platinum blond" that it was almost white. His eyebrows and eyelashes were brilliant blond. His eyes were a pale but striking bright blue-white, almost like a malamute or an Australian shepherd. His skin was pale and often pink from sun. His face was round, his nose slightly turned up, and he looked about 12. He was always happy and excited and eager to do a variety of things like hiking, swimming, photography, science experiments, etc. He was an ultra nerd, and the kids teased him mercilessly. He wore his pants at his waist instead of at his hips like other teenage boys, and so they also called him "High Pockets" or "High Water."

When I was alone with him, I always had fun and enjoyed his company. He took me on the most interesting dates. One time, we went for a ride in a small plane and flew over our houses and school and the lake and took pictures. Another time, we went for a ride in a glider, which was towed by a plane and then released. We flew utterly silently though the air. I felt like an eagle.

Sometimes, in a group, I wished he wasn't quite so nerdy and weird. And what were his parents thinking when they gave him the first name, Beardsley? Especially when that was his last name. Of course, his father also was named Beardsley Beardsley, and so was his father. So he was Beardsley Beardsley the Third. But he didn't look that important.

Billy, on the other hands, also known as William Radcliffe White the fourth, looked very distinguished and sort of preppy. Actually, they dressed similarly, but what looked preppy and distinguished on Billy looked nerdy on Beardsley.

Beardsley Beardsley wasn't the only kid at our school with a double name. In the senior class alone, there was also Charles Charles, Wilson Wilson, and Gregory Gregory. And there were others in the other grades. For example, Beardsley's brother's best friend was William Williams. And most of them don't come from retarded redneck families. I can't understand why a parent would do that. I'm glad I'm not Alicia Alicia or Taylor Taylor. But that's just my opinion. Obviously not everyone agrees.

Billy and Beardsley were best friends, and had a number of things in common. They both like photography, science, and the out-of-doors. Billy leaned more toward writing and journalism and Beardsley toward science and computers, but they complimented each other and often worked together on independent cooperative projects with no adult supervision.

Billy lived near the Nature Center, and he invited me home for lunch that first day of YCC. He said he had to talk to me about something very important. I wondered if it had to do with the events of last night, and in the midst of the sunny day, I felt that strange darkness invading my mind again.

It was a perfect day. The sun was softly warm, a gentle breeze was blowing, and the air smelled of honey and roses. As we walked along East Mud Lake Road, a bee flew out of the fields and stung me. A bee had never before stung me, and I remember clearly how shocked I was.

I stood there repeating, "That bee stung me," over and over as if it had been a terrible mistake.

"Let me see if the stinger is still there," Billy said. It was there, still pulsing, still injecting its poison into me. Billy pulled it out for me. He got some mud from the ditch and put it on the sting.

"I'm disillusioned, Alicia," he joked. "I thought you were in perfect communion with all of nature." He recalled how I picked up bees and wasps in my hands and took them out of the classroom, all through school, for years. I'd led a charmed life when it came to bees.

I told him how I would go down to the beehives with Beardsley, who lived next door to me. Beardsley raised bees for 4H. He would be wearing a white suit that covered him from head to foot, with screening over his face and head. I would walk down barefooted, in shorts and a halter-top, and stand beside him. The bees swarmed around me, but they never stung. Beardsley always somehow managed to get stung, even through all his protective gear.

"Animals like me," I remember saying to Billy, somewhat smugly as we continued toward his house. A moment later, Martins' German Shepherds came charging out of their yard. Billy had never liked those dogs, but they didn't bother me. Until that day. The bigger one, Fritz, ran out around Billy, growling ferociously, fangs bared, and attacked me. It ripped through a brand new pair of super-thick Levis I'd gotten for work and laid open my thigh. Brave Billy managed to beat the dog away after it knocked me down and was going for my throat. I think I was screaming, but I'm not sure about that part. I've never been much of a screamer. Lying in the road with the dog at my throat felt somehow familiar. So did Billy on his white horse, look strangely, ironically unfamiliarly familiar.

Billy's father took me to St. Joseph's Hospital, and I missed most of the afternoon of my first day of work. But the more disturbing part is that I was taken into a little office with a nun. She had crinkly skin and a wide face that was as white as if it had been powdered with baby powder. There were all these beautiful nature posters on the wall, with saying about God on them. One of them said something like "With God as my shepherd, whom shall I fear?" I remember at the time thinking that God didn't always seem to be hanging around helping. He must be looking the other way some of the time. It wasn't a fully articulated thought, and yet the sense of it still remains.

The nun, Sister George, asked me if either of my parents ever hit me. When I looked shocked and said, "Of course not," she uncovered some bruises--I was covered with bruises--and I had no idea how I got them. "Not my parents!!" I kept insisting, but had no other explanation to offer. I didn't mention the gumballs the night before, the strange events and the big dark gap in my mind. I didn't see any point in telling her when I couldn't tell her what I was telling her.

I had twenty-nine stitches. Before I saw Sister George. I remember thinking, as I watched the curved needle going in and out of my skin, that whatever had happened at the lake last night had used up all my luck. If people had something equivalent to nine lives, eight and a half of mine had been used up last night at the lake. I wondered if you could regain any of them--I didn't like that feeling of teetering on the edge. I couldn't remember what had happened, but it had been a real strain on my guardian angels. That's why the bee had stung me; that's why the dog had bitten me. I felt as if I could relax a little, now, though. I'm not superstitious, or anything, but everyone knows that bad things happen in threes. Perhaps, I would be safe for a while.

That night, lying in my bed unable to sleep, watching how the moon silvered all the lawns and trees making everything look sort of like one of those old fashioned photos that Billy's father collected, I began to remember just a little bit about what had happened that night at the lake. I remembered some of the events that led to my leaving the party. It wasn't a pleasant memory. The "dirts" had gotten drunk and raided Billy's party. For some reason that I couldn't remember, they had come after me. I didn't really want to think about it, but I expected that my parents would be asking me, and probably the cops would, too. One thing was sure, I wanted to talk to Billy about it, and I was sure that's what he had intended to talk to me about at lunch.

In the morning, my clock radio came on to wake me for work. Just as I was about to punch the snooze and catch another five minutes of sleep after a restless night, I heard something that shocked me completely awake. Four of my classmates had been killed, drowned, when their Volkswagen bug went off the road at the overlook at Beaver Lake Nature Center. It was two nights ago, and I had been there, wet, but alive.

They announced the names: Rudolf Heath, Michelle Sawyer, Wilson Wilson, and Nicholas Smith. I sat up in bed and started crying, and then wailing. I had never wailed in my life before, I just wasn't that kind of kid, but the idea of Shelly being dead was just too awful. I couldn't believe it. It was Scratch's fault. I knew it, because I'd been there. I saw what happened. Oh, Michelle, Michelle.

My mother was coming in to make sure I hadn't punched the snooze too many times, and she sat down on the bed next to me. I buried my face in her shoulder and cried and cried and cried, and she put her arms around me and rocked me. My mother's not the overly demonstrative or huggy type, but she can be there for me when I really need her. She just quietly held me and whispered little motherly inanities.

I was crying for Shelly, but suddenly, I realized the others were dead, too, Weed and Scratch and Nick, and I started bawling all over. I could hear my own crying, it sounded different suddenly, angry as well as sad. And then, more angry still, because I just knew it was Scratch's fault that Shelly and Weed were dead—he had killed them. He had killed Shelly just when she finally, for the first time in her life, had something to look forward to. My wailing began to sound more like roaring, like a lion roaring. For a minute, like remembering a dream, I almost knew what happened. The whole terrible thing slid through me in an instant and away again.

At work that day, Billy told me, and later everyone else, that there was going to be a Memorial service Saturday for the kids that died. It would be at the Unitarian Church. That's where our town always held multi-denominational services. He whispered to me that all the funerals were going to be private, for the families only.

Saturday, he and Beardsley came by and picked me up about 9:30. I had been rummaging through my stuff and had located five pictures of Shelly, two of Shelly and Weed, a really and out of focus picture of all four of them, and one of Scratch by his motorcycle. None of Nick. Billy had a few more, including one of Nick that actually made him look like an almost decent human being. Beardsley, who takes more pictures than anyone I know, had a bunch, too. When we got to the church, we put the pictures up on an easel, for people to look at. I was wondering what the preacher would say about Nick and Scratch. They weren't exactly exemplary students or particular nice people. Weed was a few notches better than Scratch and Nick, but not great. Shelly was actually nice, but she was rough around the edges and not many people liked her, other than Beardsley and me.

It turned out that the preacher had no idea what to say. He came around and talked to those of us who showed up. There weren't many people there. Some scuzzy looking adults I had never seen before, a few of the other dirts from school, and a few of the kids who try to like everyone, even the creepy kids. So I had to try to think of nice things to say. I kept talking about Shelly, how far she'd come, how hard she'd worked, how excited she had been to get into college, the scholarship she'd won. And then I moved on to Weed, and how much he'd liked Shelly and how hard he'd been working, and how his grades were coming up.

The only nice things I could think to say about Nick were the time he had shared his lunch with Shelly when she lost her lunch money down the storm sewer drain and the time he had given Ryan a whole bunch of packets of honey roasted peanuts, which were Ryan's favorites. That was when Nick was in 4th grade and Ryan was in third grade. Later, we found out that Scratch had stolen them and passed them on to Nick, but that wasn't Nick's fault. I didn't tell the preacher that part.

Scratch was smart. No one could deny that. A few other people said stuff about them, too. And from our fragmentary memories, the preacher got up and made his remarks.

When he started talking about Shelly, I burst out crying. I couldn't help it. But I gulped down my tears and after that, I was pretty much dry-eyed.

They served refreshments afterward, which seemed weird. I know now that funerals and memorial services often have food, but at the time, it seemed strange to me, as if we were celebrating their deaths instead of mourning them. They had little quarter sandwiches where the crusts had been cut off, like in kindergarten. I found some ham on pumpernickel that tasted outrageously good and kept taking another quarter and feeling guilty that I was enjoying it so much. There was potato salad and macaroni salad and potato chips and really good fruit punch. Punch! It just didn't seem right to me.

Billy was going around talking to the other people, and when I picked up my 6th sandwich quarter, I decided to join him so I wouldn't be tempted to take any more. When I joined him, he was talking to the skuzziest looking people in the room. I could smell them as I walked up. I guessed they were Scratch's parent, and I was right.

They, like Scratch, seemed articulate in an uneducated way. They also seemed dazed somehow, not altogether with it. I know that sounds strange and contradictory, but they'd be conversing normally about something and then stare off into space. In the middle of a sentence.

Weed's parents looked like they were right off the old homestead and dressed in their Sunday go to meeting clothes. His father was old and leathery looking, and his mother plump and rosy-cheeked.

I had already met Shelly's parents, separately, but that day, for a few minutes, they were standing together. Her mother was looking bewildered and her father looked angry. We made our way over to them and I said how sorry I was. And started tearing up again. Her mother thanked me for all the time I spent with Shelly and I said, truthfully, that Shelly was my friend and I loved spending time with her.

I have to say, though, that I was not very good at making small talk, at knowing what to say, so I was glad Billy was able to pick up with the sorts of polite things you say at these times. He seemed so much better at it.

Beardsley had been talking to some of the kids and joined us when we were talking to Shelly's parents. He knew Shelly really well because he had been teaching her photography, which she had discovered that she loved. And he had been helping her on the computer, which she was also taking a liking to. Beardsley was a total computer nerd.

People began dispersing, and Billy told me no one had come for Nick, no parents, no relatives, no friends. And though I never liked Nick, I felt really sad. Someone should have cared about him.

From After the Party or The Hepetologist (Turtle story)

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