4. The Queen of Ugly
Seven years passed. Teresa had recently turned thirty-five. Frances and Linda were both in high school and still supposedly “best friends”. Michael had graduated and still worked at Grenelli Collision, and, strangely, Linda had become Michael’s girlfriend while he was still in high school.
Eventually, as I’d gotten older—and stronger in Alison’s friendship, though I’d never told Alison of the so-called “doctor” visits—I gained the ability to tell Teresa No more! Whatever illness I’m supposed to have I’ll live with. I may have even had the courage, at some point, to tell Teresa I was going to ask the school nurse about the treatments. I was surprised but thankful when the “doctors” miraculously stopped coming to the apartment.
I hated sixth grade, and all the other grades, as much as I had hated Sister Razor Blade’s kindergarten class, except for Alison (who now went by Al), of course. And it got worse when Al zoomed past me in school. Her father Andy had made her take a test which proved her to be a genius, though she didn’t like that label. She preferred the word advanced. The schools called her gifted. Andy had hired a slue of private tutors for her. It was some new thing they were doing with what they called whiz kids, and Al graduated high school while I still fought the battle that was grammar school. I had always known Al was smart but never realized it was that serious. When she told me she couldn’t go to school with me anymore, school became a real hell.
It was a cold Saturday afternoon in March as I sat alone on my bed, with Teresa passed out on her bed in her room. Nobody else was home. I dug in between the mattress and box spring for the black and white composition book I used for a diary. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, I opened my diary and reached over for my new Bic ballpoint pen in the nightstand drawer. Today’s my birthday, I wrote. I’m twelve. I know Michael’s the only one who will remember. I love him so much. I hope we can always live together, far away from Teresa and The Thing. We would never have to be separated. Ever.
I stopped writing. Someone was in the room. I looked up. Frances. She stood there, watching me, then, in a fast moment that moved in slow motion, she pounced on me and snatched my diary right out of my hands.
“What are you doing?” I yelled. “Give me that!” But she was already gone. “Give it back to me!” I yelled and ran after her. She raced toward the bathroom. I darted across the living room and jumped on her from behind. She pushed me hard, and I fell back against the living room wall. She ran into the bathroom and slammed the door behind her. I heard the lock catch. I threw myself at the door and pounded my fists on it. I pulled on the doorknob, shaking the wooden door on its hinges.
“Open the door!” I screamed over and over. “Open it! I hate you!”
A few minutes later, the latch clicked, the doorknob turned, and the door flew open with a force that sent me back against the wall. Before I could move, Frances pushed past me, through the kitchen, and out the apartment door, laughing her high-pitched cackle and yelling, “Linda’s gonna love this!”
Linda? What is she doing? I clung to the wall, frozen. There was no way to stop her. She was fat, but fast, and she already had too much of a head start. She was going to show my diary to Linda. I slid down the wall onto the floor.
Just then, Teresa’s bedroom door opened. I pulled myself up, still leaning. Teresa appeared, in a bright pink bathrobe with a cigarette hanging from one side of her mouth. Her voice scraped my entire body like fingernails on a blackboard.
“What’s going on out here?” she said, squinting through the smoke. “What’s all the lousy noise about?”
I kept my eyes on the open bathroom door.
“What are you doing? What’s the matter with you?”
“Leave me alone,” I said. “Please go back to bed.”
“Don’t tell me to go back to bed! Don’t you ever tell me what to do! You hear me?”
“Yes, I hear you.” I’ve heard you from the day I was born, I thought but didn’t say. I kept staring into the bathroom until she gave up and disappeared back into her cave, then I slid down to the living room floor again and stayed there a long time, until I heard footsteps coming up the stairs. I jumped back up. Frances was back already?
“Hey, Shorty. How ya doin’?” Michael, in his work clothes, Yankees cap, the faint scent of his English Leather cologne still with him since he’d gone to work that morning, and, of course, the ever-present cigarette between his fingers.
“What are you doing? You okay?” He sounded like his usual cheerful self, except for the pulsating veins on either side of his forehead, usually a sign of trouble.
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said.
“You sure, Goofy? You look kinda funny.”
I didn’t want to know what he meant by that. “No, I’m fine,” I said. “Um, did you see Frances outside?”
“No, thank God. Why?” He bounced over to the couch and sat down. By now, Teresa had reappeared and was staring at Michael with her usual begrudging look. He ignored her.
“Um, she just left here a little while ago,” I told him. “I thought maybe you saw her.” I stayed propped up against the wall, trying not to slide down again.
“Nope,” he said. “Why? Does it matter?” Even though he was sitting, he kept moving as if restless.
“No, it doesn’t matter,” I said. I realized Michael would have been driving up the block with Frances running in the opposite direction. The wind outside blew right through the walls and into my bones. I didn’t know if I had stopped hugging myself, or rocking or shaking. No wonder Michael had said I looked funny.
“Oh, here,” he said, and jumped back up and into the kitchen. Teresa took the opportunity to steal his place on the couch. He returned to the living room with a package about two feet long and wrapped in red paper.
“Here’s your birthday present.” He poked my stomach with it, though his smile turned down when he glanced over at Teresa.
“Here,” he said. “Take it, will ya? You want your birthday present, don’t you, ya little goofball?” He smiled again.
“Yeah, I want it,” I said. Boy, did I want it. But the image of Frances and Linda shuffling through the pages of my diary flashed inside my head, and turned around in my stomach.
“Aren’t you going to open it, Shorty?” he asked. “You don’t look too excited.”
“Oh, I’m excited. I’m very excited.” I knew my smile was crooked because I could feel my face all twisted up. I tore open the thick red paper and stared at the cardboard box for a minute, confused. Then through the cellophane I saw what it was—a fishing pole, in two pieces in the box, and just like Michael’s but brand new with a shiny, dark green chrome reel. I wished we could run right then with it to Hamilton Beach.
“You like it?” he asked with a big smile. He put out his cigarette in Teresa’s ashtray and took out another one from the crumpled Camels pack in his shirt pocket and lit it.
I nodded. I wanted to say thank you, but couldn’t make any sounds.
“Hey, kid, what’s wrong? Are you crying? Don’t you like it?”
“I love it,” I blubbered out. “It’s the best fishing pole in the world.” I sounded as if I had just turned two, not twelve.
END OF EXCERPT 10 FROM CH. 4, The Archangel of Hamilton Beach