Beverly was having a bad summer. If I didn’t dislike her so much, I would feel sorry for her. Her face erupted into a berry patch of pimples as soon as she turned sixteen. Then she failed her driving test, not once but three times. This is especially humiliating for her because all her friends have their drivers’ licenses. When you’re sixteen, nothing is more important than getting “the license.” She’ll probably kill herself if she isn’t able to pass the test before she starts the eleventh grade.
And then, of course, she fights with mother. Every day they argue and bicker. You’d think mother would know better but she is worse somehow than Beverly. When she gets started she just won’t stop, as if she’s really enjoying it. Sometimes I just go out to the back yard to get away from them.
What do they fight about? Anything and everything. Beverly’s skirt is too short, her lipstick too dark. She didn’t vacuum the hallway and she forgot to send grandma a thank-you note for the birthday money. She put the glasses away with splotches on them. She put the stamp crooked on the envelope. She went out with a boy who was too old for her—he was at least nineteen but might have been as old as twenty-one—and thought mother would never know. (She always knows.)
My parents were going to be gone for three days. Mother’s niece was getting married in a neighboring state. She trusted to leave me alone for that long, but not Beverly.
“I want you to keep an eye on her for me,” mother said.
“I’d rather not,” I said.
“You can help me out here if you only will.”
“I’ll stay as far away from her as I can and pretend she doesn’t exist. How’s that?”
“I just want you to tell me if you notice anything out of the ordinary.”
“She has any unusual visitors or she goes out late at night after you’ve gone to bed.”
“You expect me to stay awake all night and watch her?”
“Within reason. Don’t be obvious about it.”
“Do you also have her watching me?”
“Of course not. You’re a responsible boy and she isn’t. I’ve trusted you since you were eight years old.”
“Why don’t you just drop her off at the county prison on your way out of town? They’ll keep an eye on her for you.”
Mother had hired a painter to paint the upstairs bathroom. He was going to do the painting while she was gone, so she also wanted me to “keep an eye” on him to make sure he did what she was paying him to do. She was always naturally suspicious of anybody she thought might be in a position to take advantage of her.
Mother and father left early in the morning before I was awake, but I was up by nine to let the painter in with his ladder and buckets and point him up the stairs to the bathroom he was supposed to paint. I was hoping he would work quietly and leave me alone and not have any questions that he thought I might have answers to. I would just give him the standard don’t-ask-me-it’s-not-my-bathroom line of reasoning.
A couple of hours after the painter arrived, Beverly finally rolled out of bed and came downstairs. I was lying on the couch in front of the fan reading The Scarlet Pimpernel.
“Who’s that man?” she asked.
“The man in the bathroom upstairs.”
“I didn’t see any man in the bathroom upstairs. I think you’re hallucinating.”
“I nearly died. He saw me in my shorty pajamas.”
“Are you sure you didn’t plan it that way?”
“I had to run back to my room and get my robe.”
“You’ll have to use the downstairs bathroom until he’s finished,” I said. “It’s supposed to take two days.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“You didn’t ask.”
About the middle of the morning I went upstairs to see how the painter was faring. I stood in the bathroom doorway quietly until he stopped what he was doing and looked at me.
“Anything wrong?” he asked.
“No. I just wanted to make sure you have what you need.”
“My parents are out of town.”
“My mother told me to check with you and make sure you have what you need.”
“I’ll be out of your way as soon as I can.”
He was in his twenties, muscular and on the short side. He wore a spotless white T-shirt with no sleeves and white pants. Even his work boots were white. I noticed he had a Marine Corps insignia tattooed on his bicep.
“You were in the Marines?” I asked.
“Yuh,” he said.
When he didn’t say anything else, I went back downstairs to get something to eat. Beverly was sitting at the table, polishing her fingernails. She looked different, somehow. She had taken the curlers out of her hair and had on a red blouse and her white pedal pushers instead of the usual ratty jeans and T-shirt.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I asked.
“None of your business,” she said.
I fixed myself a sandwich and sat down at the table across from her.
“Did you see him?” she asked.
“The man painting upstairs.”
“I saw him. What about it?”
“His name is Finch.”
“How do you know that?”
“I was talking to him.”
“I’ve seen him before. At the bowling alley. It turns out his family owns it.”
“The bowling alley.”
“I didn’t know you were a bowler.”
“I’m not. I was there with somebody else.”
“After I’m done doing my nails, I’m going to go talk to him some more.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Only you would ask such a stupid question!”
“You’re going to flirt with him, aren’t you?” I said.
“This is one of the reasons,” she said, “why you’ll never have a girlfriend.”
“I don’t want one if they’re all like you.”
“You don’t know what instant sexual attraction is like between a man and a woman.”
I could see myself writing it down in a little notebook: instant sexual attraction.
“He’s a man, all right,” I said, “but I don’t see a woman anywhere.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to even begin to understand. You’re only in the ninth grade.”
“You’d better stay away from him and let him do his job. He doesn’t need to be bothered by a pest like you.”
“Why don’t you just mind your own damn business?”
“Why don’t you just shut up and go to hell?” I said.
When I went to check on the painter in the middle of the afternoon, he had taken off his shirt and was working bare-chested. Beverly was sitting on the side of the tub with her legs crossed smiling at him.
“What’s this?” I said as I push the door open.
“The wall’s wet!” the painter said. “Don’t let the door touch it!”
I grabbed the door before it made contact with the wall.
“You dope!” Beverly said. “Why do you think he had the door pulled shut in the first place?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s the trouble with you. You never think.”
“No harm done,” the painter said.
“What are you doing in here?” I asked Beverly. “You’re bothering him.”
“I was just keeping him company,” she said.
“It’s no bother,” he said. “It makes the time go by faster when I have somebody to talk to.”
“I took you for the taciturn type,” I said.
“Nobody knows what that means except you,” Beverly said.
“I know what it means,” the painter said.
“Weren’t you supposed to go to the store this afternoon?” I asked Beverly.
“It can wait until tomorrow.”
“Don’t you have some work to do downstairs in the kitchen?”
“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “I’ll be down later.”
A little while later the painter, again in his shirt, told me he was leaving for the day and would be back to finish up at nine in the morning.
For supper we had corn dogs, pork and beans and store-bought cupcakes. After I ate one corn dog, Beverly asked me if I wanted another one.
“What do you have to smile about?” I asked.
“Was I smiling?”
“Most of the time you look like a rain cloud.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Does it have to do with the painter?”
“Could be,” she said, thinking she was teasing me, not knowing that I really didn’t care.
“Did he ask you out on a date?”
She blushed and covered her face with her hands.
“Does he know you’re a minor?”
She looked at me and frowned. “Why do you always have to ruin everything?” she said.
“What did I ruin?”
“You always have to say something ugly. Just like daddy.”
“I just asked a simple question.”
“Mother’s going to call tonight to see how things are going. Do you want me to tell her that you and the painter are…what is the word?”
“Tomorrow when he’s finished painting, I’m going to leave with him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s going to take me away from here.”
“Is that what he said?”
“Not exactly, but I know he will when I ask him.”
“Have you lost your mind?”
“No. I can’t stand another minute in this place! I have to get out of here or I’m going to go crazy!”
“I think you already are crazy!”
“When mother calls, don’t tell her what I said. I want them to find out I’m gone when they come home. Maybe then they’ll be sorry they were so mean to me.”
“You can’t just run away with a strange man you don’t even know! You’re in high school!”
“Don’t try to discourage me,” she said. “I’ve already made up my mind.”
“It’s your funeral,” I said.
We didn’t say anything else about it and after we were finished eating she went upstairs to her room and closed the door.
The next morning she was up before I was, dressed, and I could tell she had spent a long time at her dressing table fooling with her hair and getting her make-up just right. At nine when I heard the knock on the door I went to let in the painter.
He was still clean, compact and tidy, but today there was something different about him. He wasn’t alone. He had a small boy with him.
“This is my son,” he said.
“Hello,” I said.
“I had no other choice but to bring him with me to work today. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said.
Beverly was standing behind me and I knew what she was thinking: a little kid thwarted her plans for romance and escape. She came around from behind me, though, all smiles.
“You didn’t mention you had a son,” she said.
“It never came up,” the painter said.
“I guess this also means you have a wife?”
“So it’s possible to have children without being married, isn’t it?”
“It happens all the time,” I said.
She took the little boy by the hand. He was holding a small stuffed elephant that he dropped to the floor.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Dill,” the boy said.
“That’s a nice name.”
“Have you had breakfast?”
“Would you like some scrambled eggs?”
She let the boy pick up his elephant and then she led him by the hand into the kitchen. She didn’t look at the painter again for the rest of the day or ever again. She was over him. Just like that. We’ve all seen it happen before.
Header photograph: By Downtowngal (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons