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Frit\-college years, autumn 1956 or 1957
There were already four of us by the time Ida arrived, on an unusually cold summer's night. Thanks to a nearly full moon, it was still so bright out at two a.m. that we could count the freckles on each other's noses. We had vowed not to go to sleep until we'd heard the new baby's first cry. We had taken chips and Cokes up to our attic bedroom and had put on our warmest flannel pajamas.
I had made myself a comfy nest on Kester's bed with a stack of pillows. To kill time, he and I were reading a Batman comic book together. He would give me a soft poke in the ribs when it was time to turn the page. Our sister Billie, at her usual post in front of the mirror by the clothes closet, was engrossed in snipping off the split ends of her long black hair with nail scissors. And Carlos was on his feet in his crib crooning with excitement, groggy with sleep, his tummy bulging over his drooping diaper. We called him Carlos because as a baby he'd been the spitting image of that gawky English Prince Charles.
It was getting toward the end of the summer holidays-I remember it vividly. Every night you'd discover fat leathery ticks between your toes which, if you believed Billie, had to be twisted out counterclockwise, or you'd get Rocky Mountain spotted fever. We had been out picking blueberries that day; our teeth were still blue. Kester was the only one who had brushed his. Of late, my brother had become embroiled in a grim struggle with the world's dirt. He scrubbed his armpits daily, his face too, but he still smelled, and he always managed to look like some smudged old scrap of newspaper. To show him it didn't bother me, I'd loll against him every now and then as we were reading.
He was sitting cross-legged on his red bedspread, his feet pulled up under him. His toes had recently begun sprouting stubby black hairs, which embarrassed him no end. Having lost interest in the outcome of the Batman story, he picked up Billie's nail file from the floor and began digging under his nails with it.
Our beds were pushed against the four walls: we each had our own domain. Sometimes, if we were having a fight, we'd draw lines on the floorboards with chalk to mark off our territory, or we would conceal rank, slimy finds that we'd fished out of the pond under each other's sheets.
"Is it going to take much longer, do you think?" wondered Billie, sitting down next to me.
Kester drew the file backward with his thumb, then shot it, humming, in her direction. "Shouldn't we be boiling water or something?"
"It's not the High Chaparral here," said my sister, scratching at her calf, bored.
We sat slumped together for a while, too tired to think of any good new distractions. Finally Kes offered in English, "You don't have to love me, Scarlett. Just kiss me."
Billie cried out, "Oh, Rhett! Darling! Don't get killed!" She toppled over backward, wringing her hands and moaning. Then she bounced upright again, saying, "Wait, now I have one for you."
"Casablanca," I explained to Carlos, who was rattling the bars of his crib.
Billie and Kes started laughing, God knows why. Billie's long hair rippled over her shoulder like a pennant, and I could smell Kester's socks. And for some reason my heart suddenly gave a little lurch, like an old clock pendulum that has to be nudged into ticking again. What a miserable summer it had been. It had all started with Carlos's accident-no, it had started before, on Easter Sunday, after the egg hunt, when my father abruptly announced there would be a new addition to the family. He kept taking his glasses off and then putting them on again, one of his little quirks when he couldn't come up with the right words, and peered at each one of us in turn with a shy, triumphant look. I had this feeling that we should shake his hand and congratulate him or something.
We were all sitting around the kitchen table, about to dive into our Easter breakfast. My mother said, "You children may come up with a name."
"Ramona!" I blurted out. It was a song by the Blue Diamonds, Ramona! Ramona! Oo-hooh!
"What if it's a boy?" asked Kester.
Startled, I pushed a twist of hair into my mouth and began to chew on it: didn't he like the idea of another sister?
Billie said indignantly, "There's no room in the attic. If there's another one, I want my own room."
"Oh, darling," said my mother absently.
"I'm fifteen!" yelled Billie, as if that explained it.
We all looked at her in surprise.
"I need a little privacy!"
"A little what?" asked Kester.
Later I asked my mother what Billie had meant. "I don't know exactly, Ellen," she said. "That you're all growing up, I suppose."
In my diary I noted, fuming, that I did not care for "such vague answers." I was fond of foreign expressions like "privacy," which was why I couldn't stand it that Billie, who was only at the local high school, had employed a new word before I'd had a chance to acquaint the family with it. When the holidays were over I would be entering a fancy prep school. I'd be translating Livy and Homer. "Was the ancient world familiar with the concept of 'privacy,'" I wrote in my diary, "or is that a modern-day notion?"
I usually got an A for my essays; I suspected the reason was that my teacher probably had to consult a dictionary in order to follow my train of thought. Actually, my cleverness was often a little much to take, even for myself. "Are we what we think?" I wrote in my diary, and, in all honesty, I hoped the answer was no.
We were all proud of our house, with its yellowed-newsprint smell and its filing cabinets stacked up to the ceiling. It was a lovely old-fashioned house back then, before that horror of a renovation, with steps out front and a tiled hallway and a basement kitchen. Seeing it sitting there always made you feel happy and safe as you pedaled home along the quiet oak-lined lane that curved languidly up to the old riding stable. In winter we'd race our sleds down the middle of the street, that's how little traffic there was. To think that was only twenty-five years ago!
Practically the entire house was taken up by the archives, so there was no question of clearing out one of the rooms for Billie: what on earth would we have done with all those files? The only space that had never been swallowed up by my parents' clippings service was the cellar beneath the kitchen, because of the damp.
After a heavy downpour, water would seep through the cellar walls, collecting in dismal puddles that flickered with oily patches of yellow and blue. This did not deter Billie, however. She began moving in the very next day, on the Monday after Easter. She laid a grid of platforms and gangplanks over the cracked cement floor, using wood she found in nearby dumpsters-old doors and wormy shelves. You could see the water glistening underneath. She hung up burlap to hide the mildewed walls. She burned incense to mask the musty air, and there were candles smoldering in every corner.
We were allowed to come and visit her new abode just once, and then we could get lost.
Kester said she'd catch gout in that stalagmite grotto and then she'd grow twisted as a corkscrew. Out of spite he built himself a treehouse in the walnut tree behind the house. On its rickety door there hung a large sign: "no entry to unauthorized persons." Every time I read those lopsided letters, I could hear his new, breaking voice squeaking in my head, the voice that had been giving him as much trouble as the hair on his toes.
Billie and Kes adamantly shut themselves up in their bastions for the duration of the Easter holidays, and so there was no one to show my report card to, with its six A-minuses and two A's, and the rubber stamp of a little raccoon wearing a hat. I couldn't figure those two out at all. I pictured Billie sitting at the bottom of the slippery cellar stairs: her face both sullen and indifferent, her skin pale from lack of daylight, her hair all matted from the humidity. What on earth was she doing down there?
Was she practicing to be a mermaid? And Kes, in his tree, was he studying to become an orangutan?
I started brooding about the little creature in my mother's belly who was responsible for all this, and impulsively told my father that they should call her Ida, because it was the ugliest name I could think of, Ida rhymed with spider, and if you twisted the letters around and added a few more, you got diarrhea. How she'd be tormented, later, at school! Serve her right.
Every night, before bedtime, I'd prepare two plates of sandwiches. One I set down by the cellar door, the other I'd take outside. I can still feel the grass wet with dew beneath my bare feet and hear the garden's cryptic silence under the stars. Sometimes there would be the startling hoot of an owl, a noise that for some reason always brought me close to tears. It seemed to me that the nighttime universe was just too vast, too infinite for Kes, who had such a hard time with math. He was just hopeless when it came to numbers. The worst thing was, I couldn't think of a way of letting him know that his existence was important, important to me anyway, out there in his treehouse. What I did in the end was pry open my bicycle bell and pull out all the little cogs; I left it in a rusty little heap in the grass where he couldn't miss it. Kes never knew what to do with himself if he didn't have something to keep his hands busy. Give him two nuts and a bolt, though, and he was in his element. He might not be the world's greatest genius when it came to the times tables, but when you saw those fingers of his at work, you just had to admit you had an extraordinarily talented brother. He could also play a tune on the musical saw. Which is more than most people can say for themselves.
For Billie I always tucked in one of my father's Lucky Strikes next to her sandwich.
Then I'd take a few big gulps from the bottle of gin in the hall cupboard. That way I'd be sure to pass out as soon as I got to bed and wouldn't have to think about the fact that it was only Carlos and me now, up there in the attic. Carlos was nearly three and never got tired of asking questions. "Why are the cows in the meadow?" "Why is the grass green?" With every why, his eyes would bulge at how big and mystifying the world was.
To me, those two weeks were what the world generally was to Carlos: a confusing, hostile muddle. I did not understand then that all things do pass in the end, and that, funnily enough, they usually do so without any help. And that is exactly what happened this time. One fine morning, Billie simply showed up again at breakfast, in a skintight sleeveless ribbed turtleneck, without offering us any explanation for her subterranean sojourn. Nor did Kes mention his own treehouse exile when he too suddenly reappeared at dinner, worn out and smelly. I was sure their return to the house had something to do with my twelfth birthday the next week-a celebration neither of them would dream of missing, of course.
The morning of my birthday I was so excited that I woke up at the crack of dawn. From his crib, Carlos was whimpering his first why of the day. The curtain wasn't drawn all the way, and a shaft of dusty light fell on his blond curls, which made him look more like a cherub than ever, if a miserable one.
"Why what?" I whispered.
"Why isn't it my birthday?"
"Because it's mine." I had asked for a dog. Billie was going to teach me to smoke; she had been promising me all year. From now on I was going to start making a fuss over my hair; you were supposed to spend hours making your hairdo look as casual as possible, if you didn't want to be a loser. I'd start having pimples on my chin and crabby moods. Everyone would say, "That Ellen is getting to be such a big girl."
I was also sure that starting today I would no longer get that sour feeling in my stomach at the thought that Billie was the oldest, Kes the firstborn son, Carlos the youngest, and I was the only one who didn't have a special position in our family, which meant that nobody would miss me if I suddenly disappeared. "But the third child is the best child," my father used to console me. "The third child is the cement."
Every time I was down in the dumps, I would write in my diary about being the cement, but I'd have preferred it if my father had just pulled me onto his lap, with my cheek against the scratchy tweed of his jacket, so that I could listen to the thumping of his heart, the contented heartbeat that said, I am your father and I like you just the way you are.
He had turned twelve himself, once. So he ought to understand how important this day was to me. Only Dad was the kind of man who didn't ever say very much, even though, like some other mild-mannered people, he could totally lose it at times, and lash out at you out of the blue.
I couldn't stay in bed a minute longer. In the back pocket of my jeans there was a long list of dog names I'd been working on since Christmas. Some were underlined in red. As soon as I saw my dog, I would know which of them was his name.
After getting Carlos dressed and taking him downstairs, I saw that the door to the pantry was closed. I listened intently for any sound of clumsy puppy paws scrabbling on the tiles. To give myself something else to think about, I quickly set the table, taking the blue plates from the kitchen cupboard. Mother had designated those as our party dishes. When it was nobody's birthday, we used the white ones.
Just as I was finishing, Kes came into the kitchen, a monster zit on his cheek. He didn't look at me but softly whistled "Happy Birthday" as he stood buttering a slice of bread.
Nearly choking with excitement, I filled the kettle at the tap and put the water on to boil.
"Maybe we'll go to the movies this afternoon," my brother ventured after several minutes, his mouth full.
I gave a yelp of delight.
"Me too!" shrieked Carlos.
I grabbed a cracker and began smearing it with butter. "No way, silly piggy, it's my birthday."
"I say," said Billie, from the doorway. She was wearing a long white Indian-cotton dress, with red embroidery around the neck that had little mirrors worked into it. Sometimes she was so beautiful that you just couldn't believe someone as good-looking as that could be your sister. I knew she had been making out with boys at the swimming pool every summer since the age of thirteen, and that she currently had two boyfriends: one had a motorbike, the other his own room. They weren't supposed to find out about each other, and this had already netted me Billie's entire collection of makeup samples.
She glared at me severely. "You haven't by any chance peeked in the pantry, have you, Ellen?"
I shook my head no. My heart was pounding in my throat; my longing pierced my rib cage like a lance.
"Shut your eyes," said my big sister.
With my hand on the pantry handle, I squeezed my eyelids so tight that I saw white sparks.
"So, young people," came my father's voice out of the blue.
I opened my eyes, and there were my parents standing in front of me, their hair uncombed, the sleep not yet rubbed out of their eyes.
"It's my birthday," I said breathlessly.
My mother was smiling as she came toward me. Her robe hung open over her pink nightgown. Underneath you could see her stomach, which already stuck out a bit. When she bent down to kiss me on the top of my head, I got a whiff of her special smell, an indefinable odor that I used to find vaguely disturbing. It wasn't until four years later, when I lost my virginity to Jasper Staalman in the bicycle shed of the Rainbow, that I was finally able to place it: it was the tepid scent of sex that used to hover about my mother every morning.
"Good God," she said, abruptly standing up straight, both hands clutching her belly, "I feel the baby! For the first time! Here, give me your hand, Ellen, feel. Isn't that a wonderful birthday present?"
"Me too!" yelled Carlos. He jumped up, arms stretched out.
"Watch out!" I screamed.
But in his wild rush Carlos had already knocked into the stove where the kettle was whistling up a storm. It capsized. Boiling water gushed over my little brother and poured, steaming, down his neck and chest. He opened his mouth wide in pain and disbelief; he gasped for air, and he roared.
Billie pushed my mother aside and flung herself on top of him.
"Sybille!" my father cried. "Under the cold shower with him. Hurry!"
We all ran after them, Kes and I ahead of the others. Carlos's screams echoed through the stairway. At the top of the landing, through the open bathroom door, we could see Billie crouching next to him under the shower. She was trying to hold the thrashing little body under the ice-cold jet; the red embroidery on her dress was beginning to run and her bra-strap showed through the wet cotton.
"Charlie!" I cried. "Know what? You can come with us to the movies this afternoon, OK?"
Billie looked up. Her wet hair was plastered all over her face. In a muffled voice, she was saying something inconceivable. She was saying, "Sorry, Ellen. I'm so sorry."
I shoved my hand into Kester's palm. I had bitten my tongue: my mouth was flooded with the coppery taste of blood.
"Call the ambulance, Kes," Billie said calmly.
"His neck is coming off," my brother stammered.
"Shhh. It's only his skin."
On the landing we bumped into our parents. My mother was asking something in a worried voice, still clutching her belly. Under that stretched skin of hers lay Ida. Lay Ida plotting even more mischief.
Without bothering to answer my mother, Kes and I stormed down the stairs. The muscles in my fingers still ached days later, that was how tightly I was hanging on to his wrist. We had to toss a ton of clippings off the little hall stand to find the phone, but somehow the ambulance did get there, complete with its team of spirited paramedics. They stuck needles into my little brother, slung slippery bags of fluids over sharp hooks, and rushed him to the hospital. And from that moment on, it was as if Carlos had never existed.
The thought that he might die was so unbearable that I couldn't stand to think about him. So I just canceled him out altogether; I scrapped him from my memory banks, him and that little voice of his always asking questions, and that grubby teddy bear he used to suck on so noisily in bed. The ambulance hadn't even turned the corner before I had forgotten all about my little brother. Everything was right as rain with me. I was the only one who didn't walk around with red-rimmed eyes. My only problem was that I couldn't for the life of me figure out what to call my dog. Instead of the endearing little puppy I had anticipated, for whom I had composed my list of forty-six promising names, he turned out to be a great big black brute from the pound. A secondhand dog. Seeing that he must have noticed my disappointment, I had quite a job reassuring him. "You're fine just the way you are, really you are," I swore. He wagged his tail glumly.
Since there was no way I could fall asleep anymore, not even after chugging down twelve gulps of gin, I'd often go out to the garden at night with Dog. We got into the habit of lying facedown in a hollow under Kester's treehouse. There we would lie side by side, motionless, listening to the lupines sprouting, the earthworms and the slugs grubbing. We could hear moles burrowing and the loathsome bishop's weed sending out new, furtive roots into the flower beds my mother had planted with larkspur and columbine. Underneath us, some sort of colossal peristalsis was at work, an unstoppable force driven by nothing but the need for survival. The fact that life went on was a given, but that didn't mean you had to expect it to make any sense or expect it to be fair.
Next to me, Dog sighed. His breath smelled of old raincoats, and, out of contrition, I vowed I would make him happy. I pressed my cheek against his velvety nose. After all, he had no one but me in the world.
Lack of sleep made me giddy, but more than that, it imbued all my good intentions with a certain feverishness. Every night I would come up with some new resolution, something big and momentous, like the one about Dog, though in the light of day I never managed to carry out any of my objectives. Every day I disappointed myself all over again-I couldn't even keep my stick-insects alive by remembering to supply them with fresh ivy leaves. I kept finding them lying dead in their glass tank, and then I'd quickly cover their eggs with warm sawdust.
When the time finally came for Carlos to come home, I had no nails left to bite and my lips were chewed to shreds. It was June, the hydrangeas were in bloom, cream cakes had been ordered, but I was not happy. The fact that my little brother was still alive only meant that I could lose him all over again, a thousand times over, in a thousand diabolical ways. All things considered, it was better not to have a little brother at all.
When I made these thoughts known, Kes said I was well on my way to becoming a Buddhist. Billie thought I was just being a negative creep and twisted my arm behind my back to make me repent. Then she let me try on her new nail polish: "Miss Helen," a lurid pink, in a little potbellied bottle she'd stolen from the drugstore. Carlos was supposed to come home sometime midmorning. Mama and Dad had gone in a taxi to fetch him. Billie prepared a pitcher of juice made from greengage plums and set it, together with six glasses, on the table in the garden. Skin transplants, she informed us, pulling up one of my socks and tucking Kes's shirttail into his pants, took time to heal. Seeing Carlos might give us a shock, but we mustn't let it show.
The weather was odd, oppressively warm and yet windy. It got to be noon, and a couple of drowned wasps were already bobbing in the pitcher among the melting ice cubes when Kes suggested, "Do you think they could have had an accident?"
Billie said if he didn't shut up she'd flip her lid; I went to the far end of the yard and plonked myself down on an upside-down bucket. Oh man, I kept saying to myself, oh man. That usually helped. Oh man: you could pretend to be Trini Lopez or John Wayne. Their faces were familiar to us from the clippings, and nothing ever seemed to bother them, ever. I liked Richard Burton; Sean Connery too, I really dug him. Kes and I would interview each other in English with an empty toilet paper tube. "So, Sean, did you like being double-oh-seven?"
"No, actually, Ellen," Kes would answer, poker-faced, "to be quite honest with you, I hated every minute of it." That would set us off; we'd be doubled up with laughter, literally doubled over, the way I was now from lack of sleep.
At two o'clock a taxi stopped in front of our house.
Our parents had taken Carlos into town for ice cream and they had bought him two boxes of Legos. The sun made them squint as they clambered out of the car, Dad carrying Carlos in his arms, followed by Mama and her fat belly-as if they were emerging from a different, more intimate reality and now had to reconcile themselves to the fact of our existence, a fact which seemed to take them by surprise, to put it mildly.
Dad carried Carlos to the largest wicker armchair on the terrace and carefully lowered him into it. Our brother was smothered in bandages from his chin to his waist, which made his shirt bulge all the way around.
"Hey, Quasimodo," said Kester. Then turned crimson.
I was such a bundle of nerves that I burst out laughing. Dog started to bark, loud and shrill, as if to make me behave.
"Welcome home, sweetie-pie," said Billie. She rushed up to him in her bell-bottoms, which she'd made herself from an old pair of Levi's that she had ripped open along the seams to insert triangles of fabric printed with forget-me-nots. She hunkered down beside him and grasped his naked little knees, which looked so pale and defenseless. They should have been sunburned and covered in dirty scabs. Oh man. Without warning I was suddenly that close to tears. A little boy of three with spotless knees, didn't that just blow your mind?
"Billie," asked Carlos, squinting against the light, "why is the sun shining?" He sounded listless and no longer glared at you furiously with that helpless urge to understand the world. His big blue eyes were still in the same place, as were his mouth and his nose, and even the little dimple in his chin was still there, unscarred, but he didn't look like Carlos anymore. He looked like Clint Eastwood, the way Clint Eastwood might have looked if he had spent the whole winter at the North Pole with all the cows from Rawhide, clubbing baby seals to death to survive. Oil and blubber, that's what you needed against the cold.
"The sun is shining so it can show you its happy face," chanted Billie, "so that little boys-"
"Wrong, you idiot," I yelled, incensed. "The sun shines because the earth turns, because everything turns, all the planets, and the stars too, and the moon, and the Milky Way, and God!" Suddenly I saw it all before me, plain as daylight: all that spinning and careering up there in outer space-it was a wild scene, that was why every once in a while something or other was bound to topple over and crash. They might swear to you that your brother was still alive, but you could see perfectly well with your very own eyes that the old Carlos was dead.
"Ellen," said my mother, "try not to spoil the atmosphere, will you?"
I was speechless with fury. It was that mongrel Ida that had brought this disaster on Carlos, not me. In ancient Greece, families were permitted by law to leave their unwanted offspring on the garbage heap. In Sparta, babies that did not pass muster were sometimes flung off cliffs or carried up to Mount Taygetus. That's what it said in the dog-eared ancient-history tome that my father and I had picked up at the secondhand book sale held in my prospective school's auditorium. We'd felt so out of place there that we'd both been sweating like pigs. I had clung to his hand as tightly as I could.
"Would you like a yummy éclair, Michael?" asked my mother.
"Carlos," I said loudly. "His name is Carlos."
"Ellen!" my father warned.
I was so enraged by now that my head was throbbing. The idiots should never have named my brother Michael Adrian. If your name didn't fit you, you didn't stand a chance. Fate wouldn't know where to find you if you needed protection: it was like being on the wrong list; it led to the most dreadful accidents.
That was when Carlos looked up at me. I got goosebumps all over as we gazed at each other for the first time. I wanted to say, Carlos, you're fine just the way you are, I mean it, really. But that would have been a lie. So I turned and wretchedly started passing around the éclairs. Reprinted A Heart of Stone by Renate Dorrestein by Permission of Viking Books, A Member Of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (C) 2000 Renate Dorrestein. All Rights Reserved. This Excerpt, Or Any Parts Thereof, May Not Be Reproduced in Any Form Without Permission.