Rikki braced herself as the traffic light at 73rd Avenue and Parson’s Boulevard turned yellow. With one hand on the door and the other gripping the passenger seat, she held her breath as Rita leaned forward and gunned the gas. Three pigeons nestled in the middle of the road broke into flight as the red Ford Mustang blasted through the intersection.
Rikki was furious. “Why did you do that? Didn’t you see those birds? You could have hurt them.”
It was an overcast November morning in Queens, New York, and Rikki was being driven to school by her grandmother, Rita Goldenbaum. The weekend had been unusually cold, warming late Sunday afternoon for the dark clouds to release the season’s first snowfall. With the temperatures hovering above freezing, the powdery white which had beautified the brick and cement neighborhood turned gray and messy in Monday morning’s rush hour.
Rita let out an exuberant laugh. Her bright red hair, set in curlers and wrapped in a clear plastic kerchief, matched the chipped red nail polish on her chubby hands. Rikki thought the color particularly unbecoming on a woman of Rita’s age. “Honey, don’t you know pigeons are just rats with wings? Filthy animals spreading disease wherever they go.” A lit cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth, bobbing with each word.
Rikki rolled her eyes. “Why do you have to be so mean?”
“Mean?” There was a tone of innocence in Rita’s voice as she shifted the cigarette from her mouth into her left hand. “There’s not a mean bone in my body.”
Never mind, Rikki thought, disgusted. She wasn’t in the mood to play Rita’s game.
“No seriously,” Rita said, slipping the tip of the Salem 100 out a slim opening of the driver’s side window. A bit of ash flew off. “I really want to know. What did I say that was so terrible?” She looked over at Rikki. The two large brown saucers feigned innocence as the car drifted from its lane.
Rikki had come to accept Rita as a woman of many opinions. Mostly, that life was unfair. A native New Yorker, born and raised in the Bronx, Rita spoke her mind. Good, bad, or indifferent, she wore her opinions like a badge of honor. There was no filter. If it was on the brain, it came out her mouth.
“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about,” Rikki said, hating Rita’s denial of reality almost as much as she hated her smoking.
Rita’s voice raised an octave. “About vermin?”
Rikki shifted. “About everything. You’re so negative.”
“I’m witty,” Rita insisted, eyes focused on the road. “New Yorkers have an edge. That’s just the way it is. After four years of living here, I’d have thought you’d be over all that Michigan niceness,” she sniffed as if being polite was to be avoided at all costs. “You’re still not one of us. My goodness.” Rita took a drag off her cigarette. “You’re one stubborn young lady.”
“I’ll never be a New Yorker. Never,” Rikki muttered, a sadness gripping her heart, as she rolled down her window to let in some fresh air.
The Mustang stopped at a red light. “Now honey, don’t get all emotional on me.” Rita’s tone softened. “You’ve got to grow a thicker skin to survive in this world. Trust me. I know. I’m the expert,” she boasted. “You know that I love you. Right?”
Rikki took a deep breath. Whenever they had words, Rita defaulted to pronouncements of love.
“Oh no,” Rita said with a giggle as the light changed to green. “If you don’t think I love you, you must really be mad. What else can I say, my darling? I keep forgetting. I have a very serious granddaughter.”
Rikki barely listened as Rita rattled on. Her thoughts shifted to the upcoming day. School had proved a hard adjustment. A junior, she struggled to fit in, but there were so many students and for a shy girl, it was simply overwhelming. As the car approached the next stop sign, Rikki grew increasingly anxious. Queens Hospital loomed ahead. They were near the half-way point. Soon she’d be in front of the school.
Rita let out a hacking cough, easing up on the gas pedal, before clearing her throat and once again accelerating. “And here I am, encouraging all your nonsense,” she said, cigarette held high in the air as she took a deep breath. “You should be taking the bus like the other kids. You know your problem?” Rita lectured. “You’ve been raised like a fragile doll. Well, you’re just like everyone else. The sooner you realize it…the better we’ll all be. That imagination of yours…”
“I didn’t imagine it,” Rikki quickly defended herself. “It happened.”
Rita waved the cigarette as if by doing so, she could dismiss Rikki’s truth. “Whatever happened, you’ve made too much of it…just like you always do. A big brouhaha over nothing.”
Rikki pressed her eyes tightly shut. Why did Rita have to bring it up again? At the end of her sophomore year, walking to catch the bus in the morning, she’d been accosted by a young man. At first, she thought he was going to ask for directions. He blocked her path forward. When he grabbed her by the arm, she became hysterical, dropping her school books and struggling with him until he let her go. She ran the rest of the way home.
The encounter had only intensified her fear of strangers.
“This is such a safe neighborhood,” Rita insisted as they passed a group of teenagers huddled at the corner waiting for the light to change. “Look at them,” she pointed. Two of the four were in the midst of a pushing match. The smaller one tripped and dropped to a knee, struggling to break his fall. “They’re laughing and horsing around. Doing all the things kids do. Do they look afraid?”
Rikki peered to see if she recognized any of the faces. No. None of them looked familiar.
“You should be over this nonsense by now,” Rita griped. “I shouldn’t have to drive you to school every day.”
“I can’t help it,” Rikki answered, mindful that she was still uncomfortable negotiating the streets of Queens.
Rita repeated her familiar mantra. “There are lots of people in this world. The quicker you learn that, the better.”
But Rikki couldn’t help but be afraid. The borough of Queens was a giant melting pot of skin colors, religions and ethnicities. Blacks, Hispanics, and whites. Jews, Italians, Indians, Greeks. Vietnamese. More diversity than Rikki had ever been exposed to in suburban Detroit where everyone had been mostly white.
“I know,” Rikki meekly answered as they stopped for another light. Two boys ran past them, a third in close pursuit.
“You should be riding the bus,” Rita added as they passed a stop where a group of children waited.
Rikki hated taking public transportation. The bus during the morning rush hour was too densely packed. Unable to get a seat, she dreaded touching the germ-infested metal bars, holding her breath as strangers pushed past her, not wanting to breathe in their exhalations. As the bus bounced up and down, bags, umbrellas, and sometimes, wandering hands rubbed up against her.
“There’s no reason to be afraid,” Rita insisted. The red tip of her cigarette glowed brightly as she took another drag.
But Rikki was afraid. Since moving in with her grandmother, she’d struggled to adjust to the world around her. Now and then, she’d have an inkling of a happier time. But it was merely the dimmest of memories. The doctors had promised it would all come back to her eventually, but so far it hadn’t. She had a terrible sense of a before and after, in which Queens was most definitely the after. And yet she did have flashes of recall about a life in Michigan. A lovely two-story brick house on a quiet tree-lined street. A flagstone walkway that led up to a front door the color of gingerbread. Such memories contrasted sharply with the high-rise buildings that now surrounded her. The cement sidewalks that choked any bit of greenery from the landscape. When she asked Rita about what was wrong with her, Rita would become annoyed.
“Rikki, we’ve been through this over and over. There’s nothing wrong with you. You just need to live in the present. That’s all we’ve got. This moment. No more.”
“I want to go back to the doctor,” Rikki had begged.
“That psychiatrist was a quack,” Rita had insisted. “You’re done with all that now. I won’t have you up at night crying because you think something’s wrong. You’ve just had an emotional upset. Plenty of people lose their mothers when they’re young. Madonna. Rosie O’Donnell. They’ve gone on to have successful lives. And so will you.”
Given time, the crying did eventually stop. As puberty kicked-in, Rikki’s body changed and so did her focus. Looking in the mirror, she cringed at her oily skin, untamed wavy brown hair and hopelessly oval face. The small gap between her two front teeth made her unwilling to smile. Convinced that she wasn’t pretty, she’d recently gained weight, and because her breasts were still not fully developed, her figure remained awkward. She hid in oversized, baggy clothing. The bigger, the better.
“I told your mother that living in that lily-white suburb was a bad idea,” Rita said as the car hit a pot-hole and bounced. “But your mother was so set in her ways. ‘Detroit isn’t lily white,’ she’d say. ‘Maybe not,’ I’d tell her. ‘But Birmingham, Michigan, sure is.’”
“It wasn’t all white,” Rikki protested, eager to defend the mother she couldn’t quite remember.
“It may be green in the summer,” Rita snapped, “but Birmingham, Michigan, is white, white, and white. It might be a lovely place to live, I’ll give you that, but it’s not the real world. The real world is Queens.”
“No,” Rikki whispered as she rebelled at Rita’s assertion. “That’s your world.”
“Don’t be fresh,” Rita snapped as the light ahead turned yellow. “I still have my hearing, thank you very much.”
Rikki braced herself. “You better slow down.”
Rita gunned it, just barely making it through as the light turned red.
“Stop telling me how to drive,” Rita complained. “How about we listen to the radio? Maybe that’ll get your mind off of the road.” She reached over and fumbled with the dials, ash dropping onto the leather console.
Rikki pushed her grandmother’s hand away as the car drifted from its lane. “I’ll do it. Pay attention to your driving.”
With the turn of a knob, Rush Limbaugh’s voice bathed the car in warm, somber tones. Rikki winced. “How can you listen to him? He gives me the creeps.”
Rita took another drag on her cigarette. It was getting down to the end. “You know I love Rush. Next to Bill O’Reilly, he’s the only one who can make any sense of this crazy world.”
“But he’s a drug addict,” Rikki insisted. “All that doctor shopping for prescriptions.”
“That poor man was in pain. You don’t know what it’s like when you’re older. Everything hurts. And when a doctor prescribes painkillers, you’re supposed to take them.”
“I thought you weren’t old?” Rikki turned off the radio in the middle of Rush’s diatribe about Obama. “Maybe I should call you grandma from now on?”
“Don’t you dare,” Rita flared, taking her eyes off the road just long enough to offer her granddaughter a sharp glare. Rita passed what remained of her Salem 100. “Now stop teasing me and get rid of this.”
Rikki took the smoking stub from her grandmother’s outstretched fingers. She rolled the passenger window down. “You promised you’d stop smoking.”
“I know,” Rita said.
“When do you think that might happen?”
Rita shrugged a shoulder.
“It’s such a disgusting habit,” Rikki said as she tossed the butt out the passenger window at the precise moment that a gust of wind spiraled the hot poker back into the car. “Oh, my God,” Rikki screamed, wildly flailing, lifting herself up, arching her back, struggling against the seatbelt that was secured about her waist.
“What?” Rita yelled as she looked over at Rikki. “Are you okay?”
The car bounced up on to the curb as Rita let out an “Oh, my God,” She struggled to straighten the wheel. Back on the road again, she overcorrected, sending the Mustang into a spin. As Rita and Rikki screamed, the car spun across two lanes, crossing the median, parallel to oncoming traffic.
Harry Aldon was tired. He hated getting up early to walk the dog. But living in Phoenix, Arizona, that’s what he needed to do. Tender paws burnt easily on super-heated pavement, and even though it was mid-November, and the intense triple-digit summer heat had long since dissipated, dogs are creatures of habit with built-in alarm clocks and a demand for consistent routine. At six a.m. Harry opened his eyes. Beetle, his wire-hair fox terrier was wide-awake and whining. The little dog’s torso was pressed up against the adjacent pillow. His head rested on two front paws as he stared into Harry’s eyes.
Beetle stretched, projecting his little body back into a downward dog before standing up on the bed with a brisk shake.
“Okay, okay,” Harry conceded. “I’m getting up.”
Harry lifted Beetle off the bed. “Good boy,” Harry said as sixteen pounds of squirming energy wiggled intently in his arms. He lowered Beetle to the carpet. “No more jumping for you, old friend. We’ve got to keep you intact.”
Grabbing a pair of black Nike gym shorts and an old gray tee shirt, Harry lumbered into the ensuite to wash his face. A nearby night light offered the softest of illumination as he looked into the mirror. He was fifty-five years old. Still vigorous. Still lean. His blue eyes, clear and bright. Tiny wrinkles were just beginning to appear around his eyes and mouth, and despite his age, he remained surprised by their presence. His dark gray curly hair, a crushed bed mess, had recently turned an interesting salt and pepper, making him, he believed, appear even older. He ran a hand through the thick curls, pushing them away from his face, only to watch as they bounced back and covered his forehead.
“Got you, buddy,” he said, lifting Beetle up and carrying him off to the garage where he attached a leash to the terrier’s collar. Beetle’s tongue hung out of his mouth as he panted with excitement. Harry could feel the dog’s rapid heartbeat in the palm of the hand.
Collar secured, the garage door went up. It was dark outside. The cool November air embraced Harry and Beetle as they made their way through the Arizona Biltmore neighborhood. The sweet scent of new winter grass, freshly planted and watered by early morning automatic sprinklers, flooded Harry’s senses as he strolled quickly behind Beetle, who despite his ten years, seemed fiercely energized by the morning hour.
Turing a corner on the path, a distant figure loomed. Harry closed his eyes. He wished he didn’t have to run into anyone at such an early hour. It was hard to be congenial when the power of conversation seemed beyond his ken.
“Yoo-hoo,” waved the figure of a woman as the dawn began to break in the east.
“Hello,” Harry politely said, alarmed that his tongue seemed stuck to the roof of his mouth.
It was Lil. Lil Turner. He’d run into her off and on for the last few weeks. Lil was new to the neighborhood. She’d introduced herself one morning as Harry rambled by quite oblivious to her perky figure. Though she tended to wear her shoulder length blond hair tucked behind her ears, on this particular morning, it was rolled tightly in a bun high atop her head. With no makeup, and in her fitted, pink yoga outfit, flat midriff fully exposed, Lil appeared much younger than her fifty years.
“It should be a beautiful day,” Lil offered, examining the sky. She held a newspaper, wrapped up tightly in plastic, like a baton.
Harry nodded, hoping he might pass Lil without much interaction.
“You’re awfully quiet this morning,” Lil said, as Beetle sniffed her fluffy pink slippers. “Hey there Beetle, you sweet thing. How are you this morning?”
Harry wondered what Beetle might do if he ever got ahold of those slippers.
“I just woke up,” Harry said in his own defense. “I’m not much for talking in the morning.”
Lil laughed offering a disapproving glance. “Oh, Harry Aldon. You’re such a dud.”
“Thank you, Lil,” Harry said sarcastically as he pushed past. “So nice of you to say.”
Lil laughed again. “Honestly, some men,” she called out.
Harry looked back and waved, hoping to signal the end of the interaction.
“Do you have plans for lunch?” Lil called, hands on her hips, newspaper tucked under her arm.
“I’m working on my novel,” Harry said, wishing Lil would leave him alone.
Unable to take a hint, she continued. “So, you’re not going to eat?”
Harry shook his head no.
“What’s a girl to do?” she asked, disappointment heavy in her voice.
Harry ignored her as Beetle went into a modified sit, dropping a deposit. Harry bent down to pick it up as Beetle took two steps forward and kicked some loose dirt backward, catching Harry in the face. “Jesus,” Harry yelled, yanking on the leash. But Beetle offered one more kick before wandering over to sniff a nearby bush.
“That’s rich,” Lil laughed as she strolled over to Harry. “Someday that dog is going to hurl something bigger than dirt in your face Harry Aldon. And you’ll deserve it.” She wagged her newspaper, like an index finger at him. “Women don’t like men who play games.”
Harry blushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Lil.”
“Oh, yes you do,” she insisted, turning sideways in a provocative pose.
Harry sighed. “Lil … it is six a.m. Give me a break.”
And then, as if on cue, Beetle whined. He was ready to continue the walk. It was time to move on.
“Are you okay?” Rita asked, clutching the steering wheel of the car as they straddled the median.
A large city bus had stopped just short of the passenger side. The bus driver glared down at them through the bus windshield. Rikki looked away, embarrassed by the man’s angry face.
“Yes,” Rikki answered, her mouth dry, her nerves shaken. Feeling between her legs, she retrieved the cigarette butt, now extinguished, and pitched it out the window. “I have a hole in my jeans,” she said, poking about with her finger. “I think I burned my leg.”
Car horns blew as Rita revved into action. Shifting into reverse, she slowly backed off the median. With a bump, the car was back on the road. She maneuvered the wheel until they faced the right direction. More horns blared as she shifted into drive. “Keep your Goddamn shirts on,” Rita shrieked as if any of the other drivers could hear her. She accelerated, reaching twenty-five miles per hour before pulling her foot back off the pedal.
“You should pull over and let everyone pass,” Rikki suggested, turning around to see the line of cars behind them.
“If I do, you’ll never get to school,” Rita said, even though she did as Rikki suggested. As the cars whizzed by, Rita held a middle finger up to the driver side window and wildly shouted, “Here’s a present for you.”
Rikki blushed crimson. “If it hadn’t been for that cigarette …” She decided there wasn’t any point in saying anymore. Her heart pounded as she relived the car spinning. She’d never liked amusement park rides. They made her nauseous.
“I know,” Rita quickly agreed.
“Then why?” Rikki blurted out, unable to contain herself. “It’s 2005. Everyone knows cigarettes cause cancer. How can you still be smoking?” She’d asked the same question the night before when she caught Rita sitting on the terrace, a cigarette burning brightly.
Rita opened her mouth as if she was about to speak, but nothing came out. Arching her eyebrows, she seemed to struggle to find the right words. “It’s such a hard habit to break. I’ve been doing it for so many years.”
Rikki thought she made no sense. “So, when are you going to stop?”
“I can stop anytime I want,” Rita quickly answered, a lilt to her voice. “Stopping isn’t the issue … I’ve stopped a thousand times. It’s quitting that’s tough.”
Typical Rita, Rikki thought, irritated. Not taking any of this seriously.
“Trust me,” Rita went on, “If I could, I would. It’s so darn expensive. When I think of the money I’ve wasted on those cigarettes.” Rita shook her head. “It just makes my blood boil. But I’m addicted. Maybe we should look on the bright side. It could have been heroin.”
Rikki was shocked. “You’ve tried heroin?”
“I didn’t say I tried it,” Rita said indignantly. “But if I had, I’m sure it would have been worse than these damn cigarettes.”
Rikki couldn’t help but laugh. It was the kind of absurd remark Rita was especially adept at manufacturing. And despite all of Rita’s failings and Rikki’s struggles with her, there were moments of levity that they shared. Rita could be entertaining. That, and the fact that Rikki had nowhere else to go. Rita was home.
“I hope you won’t be too mad at your old grandma,” Rita offered, her tone sincere and contrite even as she referred to herself in a way that Rikki couldn’t.
“You only use grandma when you’re trying to manipulate me,” Rikki pointed out.
Rita smiled. “See. You’re just like me. Sharp as a tack. No one can pull the wool over your eyes.”
Rikki doubted that was true. Her grandmother was just humoring her.
“I’m proud of you,” Rita said, turning to give Rikki a warm smile. “You’re an intelligent girl. You mark my words. Being smart will come in handy. Let the other girls be pretty and silly. Not my Rikki. You keep to your studies and someday, you’ll be a big success.”
If Rita had taken a knife and stabbed Rikki, it couldn’t have been more painful. Rikki heard that Rita thought she wasn’t pretty.
“Now let’s get you to school,” Rita said as Queens High came into view.
“Let me off over there.” Rikki pointed to the corner.
“Don’t be silly,” Rita answered. “I’ll drop you in front of the school.”
“No, here,” Rikki insisted. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
Rita shrugged. “Anyone would think you were embarrassed to be seen with me?” She patted the plastic kerchief encasing her spoolies. “Is it my hair? Is that the problem?” She peered into the rear-view mirror.
Rikki sighed. Some truths were best conveyed with silence.
“Okay, no one has to tell me the score,” Rita sulked. “Wait till you’re my age,” she said as she pulled over to the curb. “You think it is easy being Miss Queens, the reigning beauty of the neighborhood?” She barely controlled a guffaw. “You have to work hard to look this good.”
“I’m sure,” Rikki said as she dismissed her grandmother who was now boldly laughing. She leaned over and gave Rita a fast peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you later.” She stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her. Looking back, she could see Rita Inside, wildly waving.
Through the gates and up the stairs of Queens High, Rikki merged into the rush of students. The hallways were packed. Slightly out of breath from climbing to the third floor, Rikki headed to first period English. Slipping into the classroom was a relief. Among the crush of students, she’d felt intensely uncomfortable. Was she moving too slowly? Too fat? Not pretty enough? Was she taking up too much space in the hallway? Gnawing self-doubts were always with her but nowhere as magnified, or powerful, as in the halls of Queens High.
The class had been reading Dreiser’s American Tragedy and Rikki had a well-worn used copy atop her books. Rita had taken it out of the library. “There’s no point in buying a new book,” Rita had scolded, “when there’s a perfectly good library nearby.”
Rikki had read well ahead, eager to be absorbed into the burgeoning love affair. But the book was nothing like the movie A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift which she’d watched breathlessly with Rita on Turner Classic Movies. In the film, the character’s names were different and Rikki didn’t recognize much from the novel. Would they ever get to the love story, she wondered, her fingers dancing playfully across the cover of the thick paperback.
Mr. Rosenfeld, a middle-aged man with gray hair and a matching mustache and goatee, stood at the front of the class and waited for the last of the stragglers to take their seats. Dressed in a bright red sweater and a black bowtie with white polka dots, the sternness of his manner was in direct contrast to the boldness of his clothing choices as he assessed the students before him.
As soon as the bell sounded, Mr. Rosenfeld expounded on Dreiser’s narrative, and though Rikki was enjoying reading the novel, she felt a certain sleepiness come over her. When Mr. Rosenfeld turned his back to the class and began to write on the blackboard, Rikki was thinking about handsome Montgomery Cliff. She jumped when her daydream was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder.
“Rikki, I’ll meet you in the cafeteria for lunch later,” Barbara whispered from behind. “I have something important to ask.”
Rikki turned about.
Barbra Winer smiled, revealing a mouth full of silver. Her hair dyed a gothic black, was piled high atop her head, knotted loosely, strands falling here and there. She wore dark red lipstick which clashed with her olive-green blouse covered in ruffles.
Rikki thought she looked like a pirate in a beehive hairdo.
“That girls on her way to becoming a tramp,” Rita had said on more than one occasion when Barbra had visited. “That rat’s nest. And those clothes. And the way she swoons over boys. Her mother needs to get that one in hand,” Rita had warned Rikki, a finger in the air. “You mark my words. She’s bad news.”
Rikki had given up reminding Rita that Barbra’s mother was long dead.
Barbra leaned forward, arms resting on the desk, stretching herself forward awkwardly. “It’s a gift from my step-mother,” she said defensively as Rikki’s eye fell upon one of her sleeves. “She forced me to wear it today.” Barbra made a face as if a bad odor had come over her.” Isn’t it perfectly awful? I tried to say no, but she kept pushing. And you know how she is. If I don’t do what she wants, she talks with my father. It was just easier to wear it.” Barbra shrugged as if it was all fine.
Rikki nodded that she understood, but if Rita had ever made her wear such an ugly blouse, she was certain she’d skip school altogether and spend the rest of the day in Flushing Meadow Park roaming the empty pavilions that had once hosted the 1964 New York City World’s Fair. Rikki loved the park with its iron spheres and weathered pavilions. So peaceful and quiet.
Mr. Rosenfeld was done on the board and called the class back to order by tapping a wooden pointer on the edge of his desk. Rikki joined the others as she spun about to full attention.
“Can anyone,” Mr. Rosenfeld asked, his voice edged with excitement as he looked onto the assembled class of juniors, “tell me what Dreiser’s motivation might have been for telling this particular story?” He held the hard copy of Dreiser’s book pressed to his chest.
There was silence.
“Well, it certainly is a wonderful story,” he said with a big grin. “It’s a classic tale of America. The hopes and dreams of a young man who struggles to better himself. So today,” and Mr. Rosenfeld turned to the chalkboard where he’d written IDENTITY. “We’re going to discuss who we are as Americans and what it means to be an American in Dreiser’s world?”
Rikki felt herself growing impatient. She didn’t want to talk about Dreiser’s America. What was the point? How could a discussion about another time and place be instructive? She started to doodle mindlessly in her open notebook.
“So let’s begin,” Mr. Rosenfeld said, his voice rising to an excited pitch. “Who’d like to start? Who can tell me what is driving Clyde to leave Kansas City?”
The classroom was quiet. Rikki drew a dinosaur which looked an awful like Dino from the Flintstones. Then, she heard her name being called. Startled, she looked up to find Mr. Rosenfeld standing before her, looking down.
“Rikki, let’s start with you. What do you think? Why does Clyde want to leave Kansas City?”
“Well,” she began, “he’s unhappy.”
“Yes,” Mr. Rosenfeld nodded. “But a lot of people are unhappy. That doesn’t necessarily make them leave home.”
“But there’s nothing for him there,” she said somewhat indignantly, her heart beating rapidly, hoping that Mr. Rosenfeld might turn his attention elsewhere. “It all seemed so hopeless.”
“Is that the only reason?” Mr. Rosenfeld asked. His dark eyes looking through her.
Rikki thought for a moment. “And he was running away from that accident. The car hit a little girl and killed her. And even though he wasn’t driving, Clyde was afraid he might be prosecuted.”
Mr. Rosenfeld nodded his approval.
“But he was always afraid…” Rikki continued, as she realized the driving focus of the character. “Afraid he’d never rise above his parent’s station in life. That he’d always be the poor son of missionaries. Trapped in a life that he didn’t want.”
“Yes,” Mr. Rosenfeld smiled, shifting his attention from Rikki to the class. “Dreiser is exploring the class system in America. And this is but one story of a young man who wants more.” He raised the book high in the air. “Clyde represents everyman. He’s all of us,” Mr. Rosenfeld declared just as his wrist suddenly gave way and the thick novel plummeted to the ground landing hard on his foot.
Nervous giggles filled the classroom.
“Okay, everyone,” he said as he attempted to restore order, an expression of intense pain on his face. “Start reading the assignment for tonight and I’ll be right back.” And with an awkward step and hop, and then two larger hops, he exited the classroom.
“How’s he doing?” Harry asked Dr. Newbar.
Harry held Beetle in place as the little dog squirmed on the vet’s examining table, head hidden under Harry’s arm, butt facing Newbar. Harry stroked Beetle’s hind quarters in a steady motion trying to calm his little buddy.
“Good,” Newbar announced, removing the stethoscope from Beetle’s underbelly and looking up. His kind hazel eyes belied his formal demeanor. The certificates on the wall indicated that he’d graduated from veterinary school with high honors and yet he was as easy to talk with as any average Joe on the street. “Everything seems normal,” he said, patting Beetle on his haunch. “Of course, he still has that heart murmur.”
“He’s had that since he was a puppy,” Harry pointed out.
Newbar nodded. “As for the coughing, I think it’s just a little choking. Dogs get it as they age. It happens to people too. We begin to forget to fully swallow. Hasn’t that ever happened to you?” Newbar asked without waiting for Harry to answer. “So we cough.”
Harry took in the news. “So I’m worried about nothing?”
Newbar broke into a big grin. “At least for today. Yes.”
“Oh good,” Harry lifted Beetle off the table and nestled him in his arms.
“See boy, it’s nothing to worry about.”
Harry breathed a sigh of relief. Working out of the house, he’d come to rely on Beetle to keep him on schedule. The life of a writer can be all consuming; once the imagination is fired, the world melts away. But Beetle kept Harry grounded; connected. One yelp and Harry knew it was time to take Beetle out. A whine and Harry grabbed a treat stored in a blue jar embossed with the word Cookies that sat on his credenza.
If it weren’t for Beetle…and Richard… Harry was certain he’d be completely isolated from the rest of the world. Good news, he thought as he stood at his vet’s check-out counter waiting for his credit card to clear. Richard, we’re so lucky. It was nothing at all. Just a cough.
Rikki hurried along the school corridor pushed forward by the crowd. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once. A cacophony of sounds echoed through the building making it impossible to recognize the English language in the babble. It was noon and Rikki’s next period was lunch. She stopped at her hall locker to drop off her books. Pressed up against the cold metal, she twisted out her locker combination, glancing over at the nearby trophy case. She was grateful for the glass display. Without its presence, she doubted she’d be able to find her locker so quickly.
“Rikki, can I have a word with you before you go to lunch?”
Mr. Rosenfeld had followed her.
She glanced at her watch. “Sure,” she said as she placed her books in the locker, holding on to the brown lunch bag. She turned to give him her full attention.
“You have a real talent,” he said, his smile warm and engaging, “and I think you should consider entering the District’s writing contest. It’s a $1,000 prize. And, it comes with a college scholarship.” He winked, his blue eyes sparkling. “You should give it a shot.”
Rikki nodded passively. She hadn’t considered entering. She hadn’t thought she really had any talent. And certainly not as a writer. Rita had always stressed the importance of being able to support oneself. Rikki knew whatever she did in the future, it had to pay well. You can’t rely on a man, Rita’s voice echoed in her head. Men come and go. Don’t wind up like me, working retail … spending your days in Lady’s Shoes. Get an education and become a professional.
Rikki wondered if being a writer paid well.
“You’re talented,” Mr. Rosenfeld repeated. “Don’t waste it,” he said before hurrying off down the hall at the sound of the bell.
Rikki glanced at the trophy case. She wondered about the students whose faces were immortalized behind the glass. Where were they now? Had they achieved their dreams? How did they manage to survive all this confusion? She peered into her open locker. The cold, dark space, seemed suddenly warm and inviting. If only she could climb inside, close the door, and hide.
The moment passed.
She headed to the cafeteria with the books she needed for her afternoon classes. The brown paper bag perched precariously on top, pressed to her chest. Navigating her way down the steps to the basement, she kept her eyes cast downward, only looking up when she heard the clanging of metal serving utensils against casserole-sized serving dishes of lasagna and meat loaf. She gagged at the funky smell; warmed over spices - cumin, pepper, paprika – mixed with what she thought was a hint of wet dog. Students shuffled in winding lines, trays sliding along. The air squeaked with the high-pitched sound of chairs; metal tips scraping against the linoleum floor.
She shuddered at the chaos.
On the other wall of the cafeteria, she spotted a stack of trays on a nearby conveyor belt. There were remnants of lunches half-eaten; browning apple cores, juice boxes, and milk cartons; plastic wrappers entangled with empty chip bags. She swallowed hard, numbing herself to her surroundings as she walked past the cafeteria and into the noisy lunch room. Mouths moving, bodies twisting and turning; the room was a snake pit of pulsing energy. She was desperate for an open spot in which to settle.
“Rikki,” Barbra’s voice called. “I’m over here.”
Barbra waved Rikki over to a table at the back of the room.
Grateful to be out of the middle of the room, Rikki experienced a terrific sense of relief. She no longer was lost in the crowd. She had escaped the middle of the room. Found a place along the edge.
“I don’t see why your grandmother can’t also drive me to school,” Barbra complained. “I promise to be on time.”
Rikki picked at a BLT on white toast as Barbra ate out of a plastic container. Some sort of salad emanating a strong smell of Italian dressing. “You kept her waiting,” Rikki reminded her. “She doesn’t like to wait.”
Barbra wiped her mouth with a napkin. “That happened once. And it was weeks ago.”
Rikki shrugged. There wasn’t much point discussing it any further. Once Rita made up her mind, there was nothing she could do.
“You should see me in the morning,” Barbra said as she speared a large piece of lettuce and shoved it into her mouth. She continued to talk. “I run all the way to the bus. I keep looking over my shoulder for that man. Tell me again?” she said with a great flurry of drama. “What did he look like?”
Rikki put her sandwich down. She didn’t want to think about the assault.
“You should have waited for me that day and there wouldn’t have been a problem,” Barbra said emphatically. “I’d have kicked him right in the balls.”
“Well good,” Rikki said, annoyed that Barbra seemed to view her nightmare as a form of lunch time entertainment. “Then you should be totally safe walking by yourself in the morning.”
“God Rikki.” Barbra rolled her eyes. “What’s the point of being best friends if we can’t ever talk? You always get mad at me when we talk about this.”
Rikki shrugged as she bit into her sandwich. A stringy piece of bacon slid out and dangled about her lips. She quickly pushed the bacon into her mouth hoping no one other than Barbra had seen her.
Barbra leaned forward. Her voice lighter. “So how was homeroom? Did you see him? What was he wearing?”
Rikki pretended innocence, even though she knew darn well what he had worn. A pair of denims and a tight pink shirt, slightly open at the collar. Like Barbra, she too was fixated on the same boy. But she didn’t want to appear quite as silly. For Barbra, he wasn’t any boy. He was the boy. Barney. The boy who made most of the girls in school ignite with excitement.
Rikki had giggled when she first learned his name. “Really? Barney? Is he purple? Can he sing and dance? Does he have dinosaur friends?”
Barbra hadn’t laughed.
Rikki wiped her mouth. “Yes, I saw him. Tall, dark and handsome as ever. Nothing’s changed since you saw him yesterday.”
Rikki and Barbra had been friends for three years … ever since Barbra had moved from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn to Queens. A friendship formed less by choice and more to proximity.
“You should get to know her,” Rita had suggested. “She just lives three floors below us. You’re practically new here. She’s new here. It seems that you two girls are destined to be friends.”
But Rikki didn’t want to befriend Barbra. Not because Rita had made the suggestion, though that alone could be grounds for resisting, but because Barbra seemed too weird. And being keenly uncomfortable with her own lowly social status among the kids who lived in the building, Rikki had no interest in being friends with a new girl who looked even odder than she did. For Barbra had frizzy, bright orange hair before she discovered black dye and an iron, and her clothes were desperately in need of replacement, patched here and there. Her elbows and knees appeared darker than the rest of her skin, and there were some days when Rikki picked up on an unsavory scent emanating from the new neighbor. In short, Barbra was the perfect dork. A walking, talking carrot stick, in need of a good bath. But Rita was not to be put off, and in her typical boisterous way, she bullied her granddaughter into befriending Barbra. It wasn’t until later that Rita changed her mind. But by then, it was too late.
Barbra stopped eating, wiping the corner of her mouth with a napkin. She focused her attention on Rikki as her voice began to rise. “Did Barney talk to you? Say hello?”
Barney Appleton rarely talked ... a fact Rikki knew only too well since she sat next to him in homeroom. She’d made a study of his poor communication skills, often wincing at the way he handled himself. He seemed to struggle with a devastating shyness, surprising in someone so good-looking. He frequently glanced down, offering one-word answers when one word was the least he could say. His favorite utterance seemed to be yes, and delivered so softly, Rikki was certain she’d mistaken his merely taking a breath for saying the actual word.
Barney hardly spoke to anyone.
He sat quietly, brown wavy hair falling angelically about his ears, framing the angular face with its strong jaw line and high cheek bones. His blue eyes seemed to peek out onto the world oblivious to the powerful effect of his physical presence.
When Barney focused his attention on Rikki, which was rare, she became instantly uncomfortable, desperately wanting his admiration while praying he’d look away and not see the blemish on her nose, or her mismatched sweater and blouse, or an uncontrolled eye twitch, or the one-hundred and one flaws she imagined herself to possess every morning when she awoke. Ugh. I should be in a freak show, she’d think, all the while desperate to attract Barney’s attention.
And though it was hard work to get Barney to talk, it was even harder to sit next to such a handsome boy and say nothing. So Rikki engaged in small talk. She asked questions. Endless questions. And though it was awkward. Rikki soldiered on.
“Isn’t it a nice day?” she’d say.
He’d look over and smile.
“Did you walk to school this morning?”
He’d nod to the affirmative.
“Would you like an apple? I have an extra one.” She blushed. It was a bold-faced lie. She didn’t have an extra apple. She didn’t even have one apple. She breathed a sigh of relief when he declined.
It was hopeless. Dull questions followed by disinterested head nods peppered with a yes, every now and then, before Barney Appleton finally appeared ready to say something. Rikki’s heart swooned as Barney smiled, the corners of his mouth lifted upward to reveal the most beautiful pair of dimples as he formed his precious words. Rikki’s world seemed brighter. Time stopped as she glanced at those perfect lips, watched as they parted. She held her breath.
“Aren’t you nosey?” he said, head slightly titled, before turning to look away.
Rikki winced at the memory, “We didn’t talk this morning,” she lied to Barbra.
“Oh, Rikki … if he was sitting next to me,” she twirled her long black hair about her finger, “I’d be unable to control myself. He’s so freaking gorgeous. I’d probably sit in his lap.”
Rikki wondered what that might be like. “No. I don’t think I could ever do that,” she said somewhat disappointed in herself.
Barbra sighed and then offered up a half-eaten powdered donut as the bell rang. It took a moment for Rikki to grab it out of Barbra’s fingers and pop it into her mouth. The dusty sugar coating stuck to the roof of her mouth as she gathered up the remnants of her lunch, book pack, and headed off to her next class.
In Phoenix, Lil finished a second cup of green tea seated at her kitchen counter. The warmth of the liquid calmed her as she closed the newspaper and stared out onto the patio and her small garden filled with potted plants and hanging baskets where a gray dove perched atop a brown wicker chair. In the summer, Lil enjoyed her tea outdoors before the heat of the sun took its full effect. Only recently had she opted for the warmth of the house as the mornings had grown decidedly cooler with the onset of November.
She checked her cell phone. No new messages. That was good. Her first yoga class was scheduled for eleven o’clock. She still had a few hours.
She wondered if her business partner had arrived on time to open up the studio. The summer morning when Julia had overslept, the place was blazing hot. Lil couldn’t help but giggle at the memory of her middle-aged patrons, stretched out doggy style, sweating profusely. She had to admit, it seemed like the appropriate punishment for those adults who had let their bodies go to hell. But then, that was back in August when triple digit temperatures plagued Phoenix.
Yoga had become her second career after working as a grade school teacher in the Phoenix inner-city. Eight years of standing in front of a room of seven and eight year-olds had proven more than she could handle. There had been too many moments when she felt more like a referee than an educator. She hadn’t realized until her final year of teaching that she didn’t particularly like children. It hit her hard one day when she was struggling to maintain order. Sweet cherubic faces, arms outstretched, vibrating little bodies with mouths constantly moving, desperate to release their pent-up energy. There was no impulse control in the room and instead of being the person in charge, she’d grown weary of the struggle. Tired of the little hands, little eyes, and the constant talking, she realized if she didn’t do something different, she’d go completely mad.
And so she found yoga. And then Julia. And then the yoga studio. And that was fifteen years ago.
She wiped down the counter as the doorbell chimed. “Who could that be?” she said aloud, tossing the sponge in the sink. She opened her front door in time to see the UPS driver pull away.
Why, she thought, couldn’t it be Ed McMahon with Publisher’s Clearinghouse? If it were, she’d be on her way to the vineyards of Italy or France. Soaking up the beauty of the countryside. Enjoying everything the world of travel had to offer. Wine, food, and adventure. And men. Handsome, dark swarthy men.
She shouted out a “thank you” even as the UPS truck disappeared around a turn.
She picked up the small package and pressed it close to her chest as she thought, at least there are still available men in Phoenix. Like that delicious Harry Aldon.
The mere thought of her sexy neighbor put a smile on her face.
“We’re back,” Harry called out as Beetle lumbered over to his water bowl. The house was still. Harry opened the fridge and peeked inside. “Geez,” he said, eyes scanning the empty shelves. “I’ve got to get to the supermarket. There’s nothing here.”
Check the bin. There’s fruit.
It was Richard’s voice. Deep, warm, and reassuring. The voice in Harry’s head.
“Oh yeah,” Harry answered. He’d put on a few pounds as of late. “A healthy choice until I get back to the gym.”
If you don’t take it off now it’ll be harder later.
Harry had no doubt.
“Beetle’s okay for now,” Harry said as he pulled out a Gala apple from the refrigerator and inspected it. Beetle searched the kitchen floor for fallen scraps.
That’s good news. It’s not his time. But when it is, I’ll be there.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” Harry said emphatically, his eyes glistening as he glanced out the kitchen window and spotted a dove waddling along the flagstone around his pool. “I love this time of year,” he said changing the subject.
Beetle looked up and cocked his head as if Harry were talking to him.
Harry washed the apple. He reached for a napkin into a large blue bowl decorated with lemons that he and Richard had purchased on a trip to Italy in 1987. Harry fingered the bowl. “Remember when we bought this? Were we in Portofino? It was a beautiful day. Afterward, we went up to the roof of the hotel and sunned ourselves. And all those European men were wearing skimpy bathing suits.” Harry smiled at the memory. “That was sure a lot of eye candy.”
Yes, I remember.
“That was a special time,” Harry reflected as he took another bite of the apple. “We were young. Invincible. Nothing could stop us. I thought I’d never find anyone to share my life with. Then you came along. And you just took a hold of me.”
You were so innocent. I couldn’t resist myself.
Harry leaned against the counter as he savored the last of the apple. Beetle was nearby in a sit position, staring up at him. “Innocent,” Harry repeated. “You certainly brought me out of my shell.”
Hey, I didn’t bring you out … I launched you out.
“You were never ashamed of who you were?” Harry remembered. “Never wished to be anything but who you were.”
Who else could I be? It’s too silly to even imagine.
Harry nodded. “You’ve always been a mystery to me,” he said tossing the apple core into the trash. “I don’t think I’ll ever know how you managed to be so confident.”
It helped that I’m not nuts like you, the voice echoed.
“I suppose so,” Harry agreed as he added water to Beetle’s bowl. “There you go, boy. How’s that?”
Beetle lapped at the bowl, splashing liquid on the floor. Harry grabbed a paper towel and wiped it up.
“Okay … come on boy. Let’s get to work. We can’t stand around all day talking if we ever expect to finish that book.”
Beetle looked up, giving Harry his full attention.
“Come on,” Harry repeated and with a wave of his hand, Beetle charged down the hall and disappeared into Harry’s office.