May '03 [Home]
"Where shall I put this?" They always asked that. "Do you need me to serve it? There's choir practice tonight, but I've got a minute." He wondered how anyone's butt could get to be so huge.
Until Betsy got to be so much older, having her girlfriends over, and kicking Bleecker out of her bedroom; until Amy got to be so popular, they'd still talked about such things.
In 1963, they were still close enough that they'd talk, in the family room during commercials or over Monopoly or Hearts in the living room, all summer.
They could talk about things like Mrs. Parris's butt, and the Texas heat; things like horny toads and what genus they were; things like what kind of God would create such a thing as the armadillo; things like the boy they knew who drowned at Lake Dallas, or about monks who could float in midair, tales their mother used to tell them about the early Christians in exotic places— Ephesus, Istanbul—who, through the purity of their faith, through their love of Christ, performed miracles, or bled from their Crowns of Thorns, their piercéd sides, as they suffered torture and death, in the name of Christ.
"That's okay, Mrs. Parris. Dad'll bring your dishes to the church tomorrow."
"All but the pie-plate. I'm baking a pie for Russ's Kiwanis luncheon tomorrow, and this is my best plate. I'll just put the pie on another plate."
He handed her one of the new Melmac his mother had bought after their move to Denton. Apple pie. His favorite.
His father's father was a family doctor from Pennsylvania who always wore a suit and a vest, smelled of Old Spice and cigars, had a 12-hour shadow. Grandpa Donne would say, 'Now, Girlie, just what kind of pie do you have?' And the waitress would list all their pies: apple, pecan, mincemeat, pumpkin, cherry, lemon meringue He'd always let her go through her entire list and then say, 'Well, Girlie, how about a little piece of that apple pie? And maybe just a slice of cheese on top.'
"Here's the casserole," Mrs. Parris said as he set the table, thinking about how forks had been introduced to the Greeks in AD 900 by the Byzantines. "We'll put this on warm in the oven 'til y'all're ready. You know, this reminds me of a joke I heard the other day, just the silliest, most darling joke. Would you like to hear it?"
He got the aluminum iced tea tumblers down from the cupboard; electric-colored—green and blue and orange—they, too, were bought new after their return stateside from Korea. She sliced the pie.
"There's this second-grade class, and the teacher says, 'Okay, y'all, it's Show and Tell, and you're to bring up something about your religion, something from your faith, and show and tell. Who's first?' And this little Jewish boy comes to the front of the class and says, 'I'm Jewish, and I brought this here menorah, a candlestick that we use in my faith and worship.' And the teacher says, 'All right, Jacob, that's very nice. Y'all, clap your hands for the Jews.' Next, a little Chinese boy comes up to the front and says, 'I'm a Buddhist, and we have this here Buddha, and that's my faith and my worship.' And the darling little yellow boy shows the class his fat little Buddha, and all the little children applaud Buddha and all the little yellow children around the world who worship him. A little girl comes up and she has this darling little blue blazer on and a white blouse, and she says, 'Well, y'all, I'm what you call a Catholic, and this is my rosary, and I pray to the Virgin Mary with this here bead necklace, and I have faith in this rosary, and this is my worship.' And the teacher, she says, 'Children, let's give the Catholics a hand.' They pick up on her lack of enthusiasm and barely clap, and the little girl takes her rosary and sits herself down. 'Now, then, one more. Come on up and share your faith and your worship.' And this little boy comes up and he says, very bold and proud, 'Y'all, I'm what we know as a Presbyterian, and this here is my casserole dish.' Now i'n't that the darlingest little Presbyterian joke you ever heard? My 'casserole dish.' I'n't that a riot?"
She'd rinsed the pie-plate and was wiping it dry.
"Mrs. Parris, did you bring any ice cream?"
"Why, I didn't think about it. Don't y'all have any ice cream, Sweetie? You like cheese on your pie, maybe?"
"No, but my grandpa used to. He always had a slice of yellow cheese on his apple pie, and a scoop of vanilla. He died last year."
"Oh, I'm sorry. I truly am sorry, Sweetheart." She placed a hand on Bleecker's shoulder. He thought she was going to cry. "Where're your sisters?"
"In their rooms doing homework."
"Well, say howdy, won't you? And enjoy your dinner. I cooked a green-bean casserole, with cream of mushroom soup, just like your daddy says y'all like it. And some okra."
"Thank you for the dinner, Mrs. Parris," Bleecker said as he showed her out. "Especially the pie."
He felt bad about asking for ice cream when she didn't have it. But he didn't feel bad about not laughing at her stupid joke. Too much make-up, and perfume! Almost all the women at the church and too much hairspray. The joke, Bleecker thought as he held his breath and opened the door for her, should have been, 'I'm a Presbyterian, and I wear too much perfume!'
"Bets! Amy! Dinner!" His shoulder smelled where she'd patted him; he changed his shirt.
Amy and Betsy were talking about all kinds of things: The Music Man (which movie they'd already seen 12 times in the last year, and had memorized every song and bit of patter in the whole thing, and which would be on television for the first time ever the next Friday); about the first week of school; about which girl in what grade had a crush on which boy in what older grade; and at great length about Amy's cheerleading tryout that day. She'd find out next day whether she'd made the squad or not.
"Well, Ame," Betsy said, serving a second helping of okra, "please, don't be disappointed if you don't get it. Promise me! It's only your first tryout. I've tried out for cheerleaders three times, and I've never gotten it. I don't know why I keep doing it. So, just be prepared."
Betsy was a pretty girl, with a bright smile and their mother's eyes. She was two years older than Bleecker, four older than Amy. So, she was the voice of experience, and a real leader to her younger siblings. Always had been, and, especially now, when they were left on their own so much.
"I think I'm gonna get it," Amy said. She, too, was very pretty, an ebullient and friendly girl, shapely for an 11-year-old, but Bleecker didn't think of her that way.
"The only others as good as me are already on the team. There's three openings, and I think I'm better than Carla, and I'm better than Sandy (who's better than Carla), and we're all much better than JoEllen, so I don't think she has much of a chance. Same with Molly and Gay and Cassie. And we're all better, everybody, even the mascot, I'm sorry to say, is better than Denny. Her legs are too fat, anyway. I feel sorry for her. I mean, she's great as a friend! I just can't see her as a Colts Cheerleader. Know what I mean, Jelly Bean?"
Both Betsy and Amy had adjusted beautifully to life in Denton, and had lots of friends, and liked school well enough. Bleecker was miserable. Everyone made fun of his accent (or lack of one). He was at the awkward age of 13, had low self-esteem, and that didn't help matters. He was artistic, sensitive. The bullies had a great time with him.
He missed Korea terribly. He missed his old school. He missed the green hills and the late summer rains. He missed fiercely the blazing sun that scorched the beach at Taechon; he missed scrambling then, after it had westered, up the 110 steps to the Shaw's cabin, its cool interior, stripping off his salt-water-heavy trunks, and washing the sand and the salt off his body and out of his hair with the cold water from the dipper in the wooden-slatted stall.
"Don't you miss Korea?" Bleecker asked in the middle of the girls' cheerleading discussion.
"Yes," they both said.
"Then how can you like Denton so much?"
They looked at him blankly.
"You are such a queer," Amy blurted. "One thing doesn't have anything to do with the other."
"Yes it does," Bleecker insisted.
"Well," Betsy said, "it does, and it doesn't. I miss our home in Seoul, and I miss Homsey and Songsey and Kimsey, and Pam and Vic (of course, they're not in Korea anymore) and the Scotts (but we'll see them in a week), but I also like Denton and our new house, and I've got new friends, and I'm forming a band, so, yeah, I like it here."
Amy said, "You need a better class of friends, Bleecker. Then you'd like Denton, too. All you have is that queer Luke Arrowsmith."
"You shut up."
"You shut up."
"You both shut up," Betsy said.
"Bleecker, you forgot to put ice in the glasses," Amy said crossly as she got up for the ice tray. "Whose turn is it to do the dishes?"
He had to admit there were some things in Denton he liked: going outside after dark when it was still humid, before the weight of the day's heat had quite lifted. But it had lessened, and that made all the difference.
He liked to walk alone in that dark heat to the park and just sit there and listen to the crickets sing or the june-bugs whir (or whatever sound it was) and look up at the stars, when just looking up made him cooler.
There was Abbey's Swimming Pool, out on Bonnie Brae, way on the other side of Denton from where they lived. He had to ride his bike every day to get there, but that made it that much more delectable. When he dove into the crystalline chlorinated pool, the cool shock made his head ache. They played all the top forties over a loudspeaker at Abbey's. Over three summers, he'd progressed level by level to the high-dive. Just this week he'd finally made the dive, and landed with no concussion. Stomach in his feet, but he had done it!
Their first summer, Bleecker and Amy had pitched a backyard tent of blankets on clotheslines and actually slept out there before the mosquitoes nearly killed them; the cool of the air-conditioned house had been such relief that Bleecker would never know anything quite so exquisitely, pervasively sumptuous, sweat evaporating from every pore and crevice, frigid contentment washing over him in a waterless cascade.
There was the Boots family, dear friends from the church, who always had them over to swim in their pool and eat Texas-style barbecue.
There was the band, and Bleecker's Baritone Horn.
Amy was wrong. He had more friends than just Luke Arrowsmith, and they were all in the band: He was good friends with Andrew Krëvy (who would die of AIDS 23 years later); he was friends with Herschel Turner and Glenn Voorhees (who would both become brilliant professional trumpet players and die in a plane crash on tour). Debra Wentrcek, a clarinetist, would be his first girlfriend, whom he'd French-kiss, and almost get to second base with before her father walked in on them. Later that same year, when the Donnes would move from Denton to Southeast Asia, it was Debra Bleecker would buy a jade tiger for in Tokyo, en route to Bangkok, and mail her, and to whom Bleecker would write his weekly lovelorn aerograms, crying to the Beach Boys singing, God Only Knows. But that would only last for six weeks, and all this would not happen for four more years.
There was the lush smell right after the lawn sprinklers came on at dusk, and the texture of the felt-backed chairs at the Campus Theater, where Bleecker spent the whole air-conditioned summer of 1963 watching The Great Escape.
Yet, Denton was not Korea. Denton was not New York. Denton, Texas was not even Davenport, Iowa, where they'd lived before Korea. It made Bleecker sad to think of all they'd seen and done before Denton.
Just before Denton, all of them—Dad, Mom, Betsy, Amy, Bleecker (and older brother Steve, now in the Navy)—had traveled through Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe on their way back from Korea. They'd left there with three other missionary families, and met up with them here and there: now in Jerusalem, but not in Lebanon; in Cairo, but not in Athens. Bleecker had gotten lost in Athens, sprained his ankle in Geneva, and kissed Pam Croft on the rooftop of the YMCA in Cairo. Dad was nearly killed by a herd of camels stampeding in the desert; a Frenchman kissed Mom on the hand (which made her husband very angry, but delighted her); they saw the premiere of the movie Grayfriars Bobby in Scotland, where the story takes place.
All of it—Korea, New York, Paris—was nothing but memories. It angered Bleecker to think that nothing, nothing lasted.
He had little international soldiers from each place they'd been: the little Greek soldiers with their tasseled boots and funny skirts like tutus, the little Scots soldiers in their kilts and bagpipes. He had his BOAC book with his junior flyer's pin attached and all the pilots' signatures in it. Dad had all those slides of all their travels. But the places themselves, their sights and smells, the damp streets of London, the moldy rugs in the lobby of a 300-year-old hotel in Calcutta, beggars asleep on every inch of it, they were nothing. They were traces in his memory. They were less than nothing.
Bleecker dished out three slices of apple pie into an aluminum foil pan, covered it, and put it into the oven on warm. He sat down to the table and scooped out his first helping of casserole.
"You guys want any more of this?"
"No, thanks," they said together.
He chewed, tasted, and spat the terrible bitterness out onto his plate with little punctuated percussions of his lips, as though toning the embouchure in his mouthpiece to play the Baritone.
"Bleecker!" Amy screamed.
"Those beans are rotten!" How could they not notice?
"Gross," Betsy said.
"Would you stop it? Go do that in the kitchen!"
Wiping his mouth, Bleecker reached for his tea tumbler, electric-green and sweaty with condensation, and gulped until the ice clicked against his teeth.
He replaced the tumbler on its coaster, looked at them, but said nothing, then got up and stormed off to his room.
"He is such a queer."
Paul Hindman lives in Colorado. This is his first appearance on the magazine.
(Creek, high after the spring thaw.)