I was eight when Perry Cole moved into Blacksburg. She was special ed. She was tall with string for hair, and no one even saw her. All the special ed kids were invisible, except when they weren’t and we’d snicker and watch our boys toss paper at them, make kissing faces at the skittish girls. She wasn’t dumb, not even slow. Perry was quiet, silent really. She never answered her teachers before coming to our town—at least that’s what I figure now because I’ve talked to her. I don’t mean to say that I was her friend, but just that I knew maybe a bit of her.
At eight, kids already know who they are and who they’re supposed to be according to all the grown ups, yes, but also all of the other kids. And they know where those two people—the real and the intended—intersect, and where they fall terribly short of expectations. I was falling short in all sorts of areas. First of all, I was clumsy. Second, I was not pretty; surely every mother worth half her salt tells a daughter she’ll break hearts—mine never did. Third, my handwriting was for the birds. These are the ways in which an eight year old fails her parents, friends, and self.
We were in the latter half of second grade which meant lessons in cursive. My hand cramped up every day and once I even landed on the nurse’s cot for the afternoon. That’s where I met her. She was in there sitting on the bed’s pillow, her back against the wall. She made me nervous with her pale face and corduroy jumpsuit. Of course I knew her from recess and reading times after lunch, when all second and third graders came in for Little House on the Prairie read to us alternately by the third grade teachers. But she’d always trailed in behind rocking boys or shaking girls—each one of them clinging to a rope that with the way two boys in particular rocked back and forth, must have given a terrible burn to the palm. She wasn’t like them that was clear, at least to me. Nevertheless, I was eight and knew so much of the workings of our miniature society.
During recess, Jana, Michelle, Caroline, and I played four-square. Jana was always king; I was always in the dunce square. There was social order on the blacktop, too. The one four-square grid went to us. The blonde boys swung around on the monkey bars. Those who were almost blonde, almost rich, and almost smart, hung around each circle just hoping we’d call red rover. Girls with curly hair dragged their toes in the dusty path along the field, tugging at the drawstrings of their sweatshirt hoods while their counterparts, the curly-haired boys spat and tussled over who said what and why. And most of the special ed. kids trailed around the playground equipment holding hands, running off when one of the regulars moved near.
Jana’s parents were rich. My father was a chemist at the university. I could not compete in hand-me-downs from cousin Dale. Jana’s headbands were satin ribbons to match every outfit. Mine were thin plastic bands that often snapped in my hands by lunchtime. She wore black and white saddle shoes and pink and green Sportos on rainy days. I wore blue canvas sneakers from the $5.00 bin at Woolco. Jana was mature. I threw temper tantrums for dracaena marginatas or parrot shirts or my own camera; my mother often left me at the store. My position, even as dunce, was precarious; my straight yellow hair maybe my only saving grace.
So it was Jana we watched. She never got out in four-square, and as king always made up the most creative, though frequently terrifying, rules. “Double bounces only!” Jana shouted. “Say your middle name between each bounce!”
She served into Michelle’s square. Bounce, “Anna,” bounce.
To Caroline. Bounce, “Abigail,” bounce.
A names: very respectable. We all smiled for them.
Caroline threw into Jana’s square; we never let too many throws go by without Jana being part of them. Bounce, “Margot,” bounce. And she pronounced the T. How lovely, how exotic.
To me. Oh, God. Bounce, “Lallage,” chicken feet. My own bounce landed on my own feet and skidded to the swings and then was gone down the hillside. It was bad enough I’d had to tell them Lallage. I ran after the ball, hearing Caroline and Michelle behind me: “Lallage?” “She said ‘Lallage.’” “Sounds like a disease.”
You see, these weren’t my good friends. These were my make do friends. I didn’t have good friends, and while sometimes I got confused and was surprised by them saying my middle name sounded like a disease that involved hair falling out and eyeballs drying up into rocks, I mostly expected that sort of thing.
So I took my time getting the ball which I’d lost sight of down the hill beyond the blacktop. That’s where I first saw her close-up. She was at the bottom of the little hill holding our red ball. Truly, she wasn’t really ugly. Maybe only partially ugly, or maybe I’m veering here, being too kind to myself. What frightened me was being near her. We had theories as eight year olds, about touching and breathing near kids who were different. We held our noses. We sucked our arms tight to our sides to avoid the slightest brush against any kid with white hair, an even-out shoe for a leg four inches too short, or gold chains around the necks of nine year old boys.
There was a boy named Will who started that year with Jana and Michelle and Caroline and me. He stunk something awful, like chemicals and basements and my house’s felt-floored screened-in-porch when it rained. His hair was slick with oil, finding its natural clumps and cowlicks in so much body extrusion. He was late every day, all day long everywhere we went he was late getting there. He lived far out from school I’m sure, in the mountains with no running water and those house-raising pig roasts. Really, I have no idea—it just seemed to me that he had to be a Grit in his silky shirts unbuttoned to the second rib, and tight, baby-blue jeans.
One morning when he was extra late and our teacher, Mrs. Gorman was extra frazzled, she told us he peed on himself regularly and that’s why he smelled so bad. She was like that, couldn’t keep a secret to save her life, resented us failing to memorize our vocab words. The least little thing could trigger her, and so when she sat down at her desk that day and let out one of her endless sighs, we knew it was coming, we just didn’t know who it would be this time. We began dropping things—erasers, crayons, SRA readers. We couldn’t take that long moment of not knowing. We toe-tapped and rocked the feet of our desks and felt our eyes wet and our cheeks hot. But that time it was Will, not even there that day. We were safe, each one of us, and seemed to form a pact that quietly swore we’d never miss a day of school, and blamed him for this little trauma to our fragile psyches. A kid can’t live down such a thing when all the desks around his inch farther away each day. He lasted only one week more at Margaret Beeks. Then he was off to Christiansburg where, no doubt, he fit in just fine.
So there I was standing at the top of the hill when I saw Perry down at the foot of the hill—tall and still growing, big enough to do something if that’s what was in her. What I’d like to say is that I thought of all the ways she and I were painfully the same. Rather, in my head I measured distances between her and me, between her mouth and the red ball, between our eyes. And that necessary distance came up short. I ran back to the four-square grid where the girls were chalking in suns and moons, and ponies on daisied hillsides. I told them the ball was gone.
I made myself lose Perry offering up the ball to me, made myself forget that she might bring it up to us. I grabbed a pink piece of chalk, though I wanted blue—concessions were in order—and rubbed a heart with an arrow through it, then printed each of our names, first names only, in my square. Perry came back up from the hill and sat on a swing watching us, her knees cramped with how low the swing put her long legs to the ground, our ball spinning in her hands.
Caroline saw her and whispered something too soft for me to hear. Michelle swore, “I’m never playing four-square again ‘til they get us a new ball. With the stickers still on—just to be sure!” Jana turned her back to the swings.
The girls teased me with my middle name from then on. I was never again Elizabeth or Liz or Lizzie or even Betsy. I was Lallage—Lallie when they were feeling affectionate, which wasn’t very often. All the kids picked this up. Even Mrs. Gorman, who wrote Lallie on my assignments when I forgot to write any name at all.
So this year was rough on me already. Now there I was, locked in by the nurse and arm’s length from Perry.
You see what the problem was, don’t you? Some sort of muscle spasm in my right hand, my writing hand. I couldn’t finish the lessons, found myself stumped by the middle of the page. I could feel Mrs. Gorman stroll by, then come back, then stand there behind me while spelling out new words in the sentence to the rest of the kids, while I struggled with an uppercase Q. Mrs. Gorman loved throwing in the Qs; little girls in her sentences were always quiet; she began every sentence Quite possibly. Not to mention all the quick quills.
So I was already dangerously close to being on the outside of my own classroom. I clung to that line. I tried. I practiced my letters at home, with Mother shut into her bedroom, Daddy napping on the sofa in his den—but still my hand would clench up so fast, and my loops never were graceful, were always hard triangles. Jana had already painted her name in all cursive onto a pair of white canvas Keds. My mother bought me a pair of plastic cream colored slip-ons, but I could only print. And so I wrote Lallie for them to see I was willing to give in on quite a lot.
The day Mrs. Gorman sent me to the nurse my hand began shaking even before she gave us quince. Michelle shot me a look. My fingers clutched the pencil and would not pry open even when Mrs. Gorman bent over me trying to settle the hand. My paper swung all around my desk for my hand rocking as it was. I tried with my left arm to reel it in and steady myself. But then I thought about Will and his one day gone from here. My pencil tip gauged the paper and ripped long gullies down the page. They all knew, something was terribly and permanently wrong with me. When Mrs. Gorman whispered to me that I should go to the nurse, I walked the whole hallway with the pencil still in my clutch.
Medicine of every level, save veterinary, was casual in Blacksburg. I’d broken my ankle just the year before and after convincing my parents to take me to the hospital—for hours they insisted I should still be crying if it were truly broken—my leg was wrapped in such a loose and slanty cast that when I was again allowed to walk on the foot without crutches, the whole leg almost gave out from under me; I’ve been spraining my ankle regularly now for years. Our school nurse was no more interested in careful pursuit of the tenets of medicine. She had no intention of calling my mother or checking me for a fever or speaking soothingly to lessen the terror living in my hand. She read Mrs. Gorman’s note—in beautifully-looped cursive, of course—took a look at the pencil sticking out of my fist, pointed me towards the second cot in the other room, and shut the door. And as I’ve said now a couple of times, there was Perry Cole.
The room was yellow for the hum and glare coming through the swirled plastic sheeting of the light-box overhead. The walls were tiled pool-green halfway up. The beds were skinnier than real beds. They creaked and inched around on their rickety feet when you tried to get in one. There was a little white enamel sink chipped around the faucet and drain, glass canisters of cotton and tongue depressors, and thermometers in electric blue wash, all squeezed onto the backsplash. The door pushed in at us every now and then, still latched in its frame, just the life of the outer door breathing, making it try to move. A first grade blackboard was on the backside of our wall, and Miss Kelly’s chalk went on scratching it. So near the lunch room, we could smell the pizza and canned corn, the little bricks of brownie. We could hear the single-file feet marching through the hall. And we could feel the way we weren’t a part of it so profoundly, as a real terror of who says what when one is absent, for cause. Soon the green air of this closet room overtook lunch, and that’s all there was.
We. She was there, as I said.
You see here is where I have trouble, and so, hoping any of my circumstances might matter, I tell you about cursive lessons or my mother, how awful my friends were to me or the panic of being shut away from a class that may very well be hearing that you once stole a freshwater pearl ring from Dottie’s desk before she was held back for screwing up the tail end of the alphabet, or that sometimes you can’t fall asleep without your angry mother folded onto your tiny corner chair reading the paper and hating you. Perry isn’t someone I like to think about. But I’ve been thinking of her an awful lot lately, and trying to reconcile who I am and who I think I am. I cannot do that without thinking of Perry. So here she is.
She was sitting up on the bed, her back against the wall. She wore a green corduroy jumpsuit that zipped up the front. Her hair was maybe blonde with shadows or grease. And she looked right at me. I remember the sound of the cotton paper over the mattress. I sat on the other cot, hoping it wouldn’t tip. I remember being afraid of her so I smiled. I remember worrying that whatever she had were catchy. I remember wanting to go to the nurse and ask to go back to class, though I knew she’d never let me; clinic was like prison—release had nothing to do with wellness, but with a teacher’s note walked down to the office, an arbitrary time she considered served, whatever crime—cough, spasm—forgiven but remembered for parent conference day. I lay down.
What happened then was that Perry Cole talked to me. The girl everyone else thought retarded and mute talked to me. “Why didn’t you want your ball back?” she said slick as all. I couldn’t answer her. I stared up at the ceiling for what seemed like all of lunchtime and half of recess.
I pretended to sleep, squinted up my eyelids to make her go away. But she wouldn’t. She didn’t even stop talking. “You’re not asleep,” she said. I squeezed my eyes even tighter. “A person doesn’t sleep with her eyes all screwed up like that. It’s supposed to be real natural, real easy.” I breathed deep and let it out as natural and easy as I could. Perry Cole laughed. She laughed at me. But not a mean laugh. Not a Michelle kind of a laugh. A nice laugh, a laugh you make when you like someone. I opened my eyes and looked right at her.
“What’s wrong with your hand?” Her voice was like Caroline’s or even Jana’s—casual and happy and confident it would never be turned away. I remember that surprising me. And so I answered her against all the better judgment in me that let me hold my breath to pass right by the Grit table in the lunchroom so I wouldn’t inhale their pungent smell of unclean bodies and hormones coming too soon—they were always being held back so their bodies were years ahead of the rest of us—and the better judgment that hoped my mother would bring home the right shoes, the satin hair ribbons instead of yarn.
“Cursive,” I said.
“Oh,” and the way she said it turned the world on end. She said oh as if she felt sorry for me. As if she saw what was wrong with me just as clear as if I rode the special ed. bus to school every day. I cried. I turned in to the wall, buried my face in the pillow, and sobbed for all the ways I was not Jana.
Perry touched my back then, she said I shouldn’t be afraid of it, and I had no idea what she meant.
“They’ll hold me back,” I whispered when I had enough breath to speak at all. “They will.”
You won’t believe what she said next. She had this way of talking that mystified me, that still seems so wise. And it is possible that I’ve recast her as swami over the years, rewritten and adjusted her to make my life easier. But this old-woman girl is truly how I remember her. “You’re afraid to be marked,” she said. And all I could think then was that she must be older than me, than us, that she must be in fifth even sixth grade.
She watched me and talked to me as though she’d been waiting a long time for me. Like I’d made appointments with her before but never showed. And now here I was and for some reason that mattered to her. She saw me in a way my make do friends never did. To them I was their reflection but slightly off. I wasn’t a person, an eight year old girl failing cursive, but nice and smart even if her shoes were plastic or blue canvas, even if her mother tied her too-wispy pigtails in fat yarns. I’m not sure what I was to Perry, but maybe years and years before, maybe I was her.
“We just moved from Concord,” she said.
“It’s nowhere,” she said. “Sarah—that’s my mom—said we probably won’t stay for long either.”
“My mother’s name is Sarah. Do you really call her by her name?”
“Sure,” she said like that wasn’t unnatural at all. “We’re like that.” Then Perry looked down at her feet, sort of twisted her ankles around on the paper. “My mother is the ugliest woman you’ve ever seen,” she said.
“Do you love her?” I asked, because a question like that made sense to me.
“Sure,” she shrugged, “sometimes. Sarah says we’re all of a sort—her and me, yeah, but everyone, really. Even you.”
“What sort of a sort?” I asked not sure I’d like the answer.
“She says no one is ever satisfied by her, but that that’s not particular to her as a person. She says to quit wishing for it.”
“To feel happy. To feel loved,” Perry said, leaning forward now, excited. “Don’t you see? It will come but then go, and Sarah says it’s coming and going both have nothing to do with a person, with her, with me, with you.”
“With me?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, “yeah. We’re all bound to get knocked around; we’ll all have to pack up late into a night and then start driving even though it’s not even light yet and Sarah can’t see to drive well in the night. We all have to get away quick sometimes. Sarah says that’s the order of things.” Then she looked me up and down real good. “Maybe,” she said, “your bruise sits in your hand, Lizzie.” She said Lizzie. There I was before her my own self.
The bell rang and the nurse opened the door. Perry went one way. I went the other, my head swimming. But on my walk home, I barely listened to Caroline, barely noticed anything around me, except for the honeysuckle fearlessly climbing the kudzu sweet with hope. All I could think of was Perry and her mother.
At supper, I watched my own mother bring in the plates, her name resting between my tongue and teeth. I think I almost said it several times. And at one of those moments I became suddenly aware of how easy it would be for our Sarahs to be the wrong Sarahs. I could have been the one moving from nowhere-Concord, the one nobody knew, the one playing dumb to teachers because I didn’t feel like answering their questions. My plastic slip-ons were no different from Perry’s corduroy jumpsuit.
I was imagining dinner with Perry’s Sarah, sitting across from her, looking at my plate of casserole instead of her face. I wondered if pieces of her face were missing or just rearranged. What did it take to be the ugliest woman alive? But then I thought of her plainly: a woman without a spark—Daddy was always talking about spark those days, something lit beneath the skin—just a nothing face, nothing eyes, just nothing everywhere you looked—not so much painful, then, but painless. I wasn’t sure Daddy would notice if our Sarahs were switched, but I knew I would.
When she was in the kitchen rummaging, I asked him because I was flirting with it, with the idea of not fence-sitting anymore. “Am I ugly?”
“You’re lovely. Eat.” He pushed the noodles around on his plate. “Your mother, well . . . .”
They’d been sullen for days and I never knew why. Just sometimes they didn’t care a whole lot and so he would find a way to tell me he could have done better, or just maybe differently. I can’t remember a time I didn’t know that.
“May I please be excused?” I lay my napkin aside my plate and left him there alone.
I went to my room, worked at my Qs but they were no good so I dragged my tangled fingers through the letters in the two names I couldn’t lose that night, and then brushed my teeth for bed. She came to me just as I slipped inside the covers. I expected her and the flourish of her tugging the blankets up to my chin, her knuckly fingers wiping at my bangs, a few kisses scattered in my hair. “He loves me, you know,” she said, and I pulled at the blanket trying to cover my head but I could still see her and feel the way she wanted me to look at her. None of it was fair. “You don’t hear it all, Lizzie. At night, he says he still dreams of marrying me. That I’m the one he loves and there’s no undoing it.”
“Please,” I moaned, begging her to stop. I wasn’t a part of them.
She tugged against my grip on the satin binding. “You need to know this. I don’t want you thinking . . . he hates me.” She stood up from my bed and stormed out. Divorce wasn’t ever a possibility for us, so that’s what I dreamed of.
The next day Mrs. Gorman sent me back to the clinic when my hand seized up again. And I was glad for it, Perry was all I’d been thinking of and I just knew she’d be there. I could feel her all around me.
She sat up when I walked in, smiled with half of her face like she knew a secret, and found her place in yesterday’s conversation just as though we’d never left each other, never lay in beds farther apart, never practiced the other’s name in cursive letters that littered our exercise tablets, never dreamed our mothers dancing barefoot and trailing ribbons from tambourines.
“Sarah’s bruise sits on her face. Where everyone can see it, shapes her skin really.” She raised her hand to her cheek, but then rubbed at the worn elbow of her jumper instead, seeming not to want to touch her real self. “‘That’s how we die,’ Sarah says, ‘little words break us down until they’re all we are.’ And then we die.”
“I don’t want to die.” I was scared. Something was happening inside Perry Cole and it seemed to involve me, even maybe depend on me. I could see all her words plain as day in her face before she said them, before she even knew to say them. She was becoming in that little closet room, lying back on the wrinkled paper sheet, she was coming to conclusions about her world.
“Sarah barely spoke on the drive, barely even breathed,” she said. “When we pulled in behind grocery stores and slept tucked against the spare tire, I often woke alone and saw her crying under the midnight lamps.” Perry stopped a minute, pulled her jumpsuit zipper up and back.
I wondered, when she could string a sentence like that, why she chose to be silent all the time, especially knowing the trouble it got her in. Even more, I wondered who I was to be told. “Where’s your father?”
“We don’t talk about him,” she said. “We did, then we didn’t, then we went back, now Sarah cries at night and wears cowgirl boots out to the bars.” She said this staring up into the yellow glow, her pupils gone small as pricks in paper; she said it as though speaking of strangers. “There was someone else she started picking up the house for, and dancing his name around, but he didn’t last I guess. She woke me up one night too late and said we were going back to my dad. That was all wrong, too. It’s just us now. Sarah says that’s best ‘because the fewer people around, the less hurt each one of us is.’”
She could have meant me. And I wondered if I was part of them, or part of us. I didn’t mention the ball. But for all the times I’d looked at Perry Cole and held my breath, I ached. I held my stomach and squeezed my arms around my sides.
“I suspect Sarah’s wrong about a lot of things,” she said. From her cot Perry reached her raggedy fingers over to me and pulled that day’s pencil from my hand. My fingers unfolded and my white palm stretched the long slick impression there. I told her we’d be best friends. I said she should come home to my house to play. I wanted to grab hold of her, hold on tight for when I’d forget and see Jana’s perfectly full, shiny hair, or Michelle glaring back at me knowing what a fraud I was.
I told her we would walk home on the bike path together. I said she could stay for dinner. I told her she was pretty because, in a way, she was. There was breath to her. There was life.
Mrs. Gorman’s favorite, curly-headed David, came with a note for me a half hour before school was over this second day. Caroline and Jana asked if I was all right, though Michelle kept her distance. When we left at three, they were all too near to me. Perry Cole was waiting on the side steps, the ones the four of us passed every day on the way to Michelle’s bus and Jana’s mother waiting for her in the yellow Volvo. Caroline and I always walked the bike path together. There was only so much planning an eight year old could do, I suppose, and I’d thought of none of it.
When she saw me, Perry stood up, her corduroy jumpsuit greener than ever in the April light. She smiled. She hopped down each step and started towards us like it would all be okay. I wanted to run. Out in the air, in the light of Blacksburg, out front of Margaret Beeks Elementary, where just months ago we’d each one of us released floating balloons tied with names of books we’d read and Principal Morgan noted my card especially for its lengthy list of books I’d never even opened—out in the universe of that world, where buses braked and gassed and waited, where everything around me had hold of me, I simply could not find a place for Perry Cole.
I kept on walking, and though she approached the four of us, and though she dared to see us, no fissure of sidewalk swallowed me up. Caroline did not whisper, “Cooties.” Jana did not giggle.
I walked faster, trying to get us past Perry before we’d meet up. I looked down, to the side, across the street—anywhere but at Perry’s face. But it was too late, she’d jumped the hill and was straight ahead, willowy tall as an eighth grader.
I braced myself for what would surely happen now. She was coming right at us but Michelle did not try to stare her down, did not suggest tripping Perry Cole. In fact it was as though each of my make do friends would smile as they walked right past her, would curtsy and kiss my glorious friend.
She stopped right there before us, foolish as all. She shoved her hands in her pockets. “Is this the way?” she asked me still believing.
Then I remembered the red ball, Perry at the foot of the hill, measuring distances. I imagined what I looked like standing there, deciding if I should let her toss it to me. I saw myself—me in green jumpsuit, me with snarled and unclean hair, me too tall and old for second grade or fourth grade, me too tall and old and ugly, yes I was ugly, too ugly for any real friends. I was Perry Cole.
I did what I had to do then. There was no choice. I was an eight year old reflection if exceedingly off, failing everyone I knew, dependent upon my make do friends for any chance at surpassing my natural situation. Even if they weren’t themselves that day.
And so I said it. I thought of Sarah at home, ugly ugly but knowing everything there was to know. And I proved her right. I planted my feet squarely to Perry Cole. It didn’t matter that I was in love. I looked her in the eye though what I saw was black come over the world. And I shouted: “Go home, Retard.”
What kills me is that she was ready, even maybe expected it in me. I don’t think I was even hurting her, the way she looked right inside me she just knew it was who I am. Perry Cole knew exactly what was happening, what would happen to me for the rest of my childhood after my second year attempting cursive.
“Go on,” I shouted. I could feel Jana watching me, embarrassed, ashamed, seeing me. Perry Cole and I stood square to each other. There was nothing more, except that she never seemed to move out from in front of me, steadily watching to see what I’d choose all these years, to see how wrong she’d been to talk that once in the clinic. And in my dreams, our mothers, our Sarahs dance barefoot with ribbons trailing from tambourines.
I heard last year that Perry’s married, five daughters. I can’t imagine it. In spite of all the ways I proved Sarah right, somehow she was wrong for Perry. I don’t understand how a thing like that can happen—though Daddy knew it, something about spark maybe. Perry Cole moved again shortly thereafter. And I suppose she did a lot of thinking things through out there in the way back of Sarah’s Impala parked under the lamps. And so all I know of social order and progression is clearly wrong. Station means nothing. But even circumstance—nothing. It’s Daddy’s spark that drives the soul. That’s where Perry shines and I barely flicker.
I’ve spent years looking for her—hoping all those words weren’t really killing her, wanting to see Sarah and prove her wrong about the number of people one has around increasing the amount of hurt to astronomical proportions. But I know she’s not wrong.
Now I wish I’d slipped into her life, Perry Cole’s. Taken her Sarah, who’s been dying all her life, for mine. Slept in grocery lots all along the Appalachians while my mother cried for a man or something, some other life. But none of it is transferable, all that wisdom in the school clinic years ago, from mother to daughter to me, a momentary friend—it was all lost, just words, no way for absorption, no way to alter the soul of a person. There are those who dance, and then there are those fearing the rhythm and blood. I think I’ve never been more than that.
Out front of the school, that’s not where it ended. I had to see her. Glimpse her. The ugliest woman I’d ever seen—I had to see her. So I followed Perry home one day. The opposite direction from the bike path and Tech campus. Over near the K-Mart and the house with Shetland ponies behind a four foot chain-link fence. Some newer row houses gone up just a year before a block away. But Perry’s house was older, a nondescript beige square of a house with white shutters and door, a green asphalt roof. A gravel drive and a water-blue station wagon parked a little askew, like maybe she’d been rushing.
I sat on the curb across the street, tried to blend in to shadow beneath the silver of a truck’s bumper. She was in there, had to be. So I waited. Near dusk Perry took out a black sack of garbage to a can in front of the car, the side-door banging shut behind her in and out. I bit at the corners of my mouth, sucked them, pushed at them with my fingertips, ached with sitting in almost dark so far from home. I was ready to start back when it happened.
On came the side light. Out she came. Sarah Cole, the ugliest woman ever. Her nose hard, swollen, and bumped in several places. Her eyes slightly uneven while also being too close. Her mouth a mess of car-wreck teeth. Her body one long lump of unrecognizable bulges. And top it all off with those clunking boots and a stained and sunken-in cowboy hat. Dressed in a red tee-shirt and tight, painfully too-tight straightleg blue jeans with scuffed and worn knees and seat.
I didn’t notice Perry in the doorway watching her ‘til she called, “Ma, don’t go tonight.”
“Perr, give it a rest.”
“There isn’t anybody out there.”
Sarah didn’t answer, just stood still a minute.
I could barely hear Perry now, so quiet through the screen. “There’s nobody out there, Mama. Please.”
Sarah dangled her keys, tossed an enormous purse onto the front seat and was off, the red of her taillights all over me.
Lights came on, one two three, for Perry walking through the house and not wanting to be alone in the near-dark. Then she was in a window, looking to be washing dishes. I mapped out just what I’d say, rehearsed it just like next year I’d be singing timestables before the whole class. And if she wouldn’t open the door or if she started to slam it in my face, I’d beg and plead and tell her what a miserable, wrecked, dreadful thing I was.
I was not prepared for her to smile at me. To offer me macaroni and pop. To want me in her house. Even without Sarah there to know it was me the other day. Without anyone to point with.
“Lizzie,” she said and sort of hugged the open door.
I swallowed wrong and gulped a minute to get the spit out of my lungs.
“You wanna watch ‘Alice?’”
I still couldn’t straighten out my breathing and swallowing enough to think what to say or even be able to start saying it.
“Do you wanna eat? We already ate, but I’ll make another box.”
This wasn’t Perry. So much talk before, so much wholeness and clarity. All of Sarah’s words and this was what they amounted to? A blue station wagon parked too fast, worn-out Levi’s, boots and a big purse going out to lay next-game quarters and her strange hips on the pool games of college boys at Mr. Fooz; this too-tall girl wading through her days quietly thinking it all through, coming up with all the answers, knowing it all, knowing everything about me and Jana and everyone’s mother. And this was who she was. A little girl bleating mama like a lamb.
Wanting someone like me to sit with her, no tricks or traps. Just wanting me to sit beside her and eat her box mix of macaroni and cheese. Wanting to tell me everything again and again. Because maybe that’s all that ever mattered, making sense of it in her head. Passing Sarah’s words through her mouth even though they didn’t change Sarah at all. Didn’t change Perry. Didn’t even change me. So I walked away. I went home.