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She's Come Undone (Oprah's Book Club)by Wally Lamb
I was on the brown plaid sofa, watching TV and scotch-taping my bangs to my forehead because Jeanette said that kept them from drying frizzy. Across the room on the Barcalounger, my mother was having her nervous breakdown.
Ma sat hunched over one of our fold-out TV trays, working constantly on a religious jigsaw puzzle without making any progress. She wore her knee socks and her quilted pink bathrobe, despite the early summer heat. She ate nothing but cubes of Kraft caramels. For two weeks, I had been reaching over and turning up the volume, trying as best I could to ignore the private curse words she'd begun chuckling to herself, trying not to see the litter of caramel cellophane that was accumulating around her chair in a kind of half circle.
It wasn't that Ma hadn't put up a fight. In Daddy's absence, she'd repainted the downstairs hallway and exercised in front of the TV with Jack LaLanne and cried and kicked the lawn mower until it eventually started. Her efforts at going it alone led her back to Sunday Mass and through a succession of brief jobs: convalescent-home cook, bank teller, notions-department cleric at Mr. Big's discount store. When winter cold burst one of our pipes, Ma called and called until she located the random yellow-pages plumber who got out of bed to come fix it.
But we'd done nothing about maintaining the pool the previous fall. Leaves had fluttered down onto the surface then sunk and rotted; by springtime, the pool water was brown soup.
One morning in May, Ma went downstairs and found Petey dead at the bottom of his cage. "Why me? Why always me? she was still sobbing when I got home from school. She hadn't gone to work that day and didn't go the next day either. At the end of the week Mr. Big's called to say they were letting her go. By then she'd already begun living in her robe.
It was Ma's hair that finally got to me. At school I sucked breath mints and carried a small bottle of Tussy deodorant in my purse for whenever I could get my hands on the lavatory pass. Ma's unwashed hair, matted and crazy, alarmed me enough to suspend the cold war against my father and contact directory assistance in Tenafly, New Jersey.
It had been almost a year since my father's move to Tenafly where he'd opened a dower shop with his girlfriend, Donna.
"Good afternoon, Garden of Eden," Donna said. I had spoken to her only once before, phoning the day my parents' divorce became final to call her a whore. The two prevailing mysteries in my life were: what Donna looked like and why, exactly, my father had traded us for her.
"May I speak to Tony," I said icily. "This is his daughter, Miss Dolores Price."
When my father got on, I cut through his nervous chitchat. "It's Ma," I said. "She's acting funny."
He coughed, paused, coughed again. "Funny how?" he asked.
"You know. Funny peculiar."
Neither Donna nor I wished to live under the same roof, and neither the Nords nor my father would entertain my proposal that Jeanette and I live at our house for the summer and Mrs. Nord drive over with our meals and clean laundry. It was decided I would move to my grandmother's house on Pierce Street in Easterly, Rhode Island, until Ma got right again.
On the one-hour drive to Grandma Holland's, I clutched my notebook filled with addresses of girls from whom I'd forced promises to write me regularly. Daddy kept sneaking nervous peeks at me and at the rearview mirror. Behind us, the U-Haul trailer wobbled and swayed frost side to side. In silence I waited impatiently for the tragic highway accident that would paralyze me but wrench both my parents back to their senses. I pictured the three of us back home on Bobolink Drive, Daddy pushing my wheelchair solemnly up the front walk, eternally grateful for my forgiveness. At the doorway, Ma would smile sadly, her hair as clean and lustrous as a Breck-shampoo girl's.
Daddy didn't say much to Grandma. He deposited my bike and suitcases and cartons in the front foyer, kissed me on the forehead, and left.
Grandma and I were cautiously polite to each other. "Make yourself at home, Dolores," she said hesitantly as she opened the door to what had once been my mother's bedroom. The room smelled dry and dusty. The windows were stuck closed and there were little rows of insect carcasses along the sill. When I sat down on the hard mattress, it crackled under me. I tried to picture my mother in this room as a twelve-year-old girl like me, but all I could see was Anne Frank on the cover of her paperback diary.
With each trip up or down the front staircase, I watched the portrait of Eddie, my dead uncle. His blond hair was pushed up into a spiky crew cut. His eyes peeked out from beneath two bushy brows and followed my steps with eerie cheerfulness. His smile was almost a smirk, as if he might reach out from the frame and jab me in the ribs as I passed.
For supper we ate meat loaf and creamed spinach, the two of us sitting in a silence broken only by the occasional clink of fork against plate or Grandma's clearing her throat. When she got up to make herself some tea, she addressed the stove. "She's not cuckoo, you know," she said. "He's the one with the mortal sin on his soul, not Bernice."
That evening I thumbtacked my Dr. Kildare collage to the wall and unpacked my clothes. Grandma had placed little sachet pillows in the dresser drawers. As I yanked each drawer open, the smell of old ladies from church — with their powdered wrinkly necks and quivery singing voices — drifted up toward me. In the bottom bureau drawer I discovered a little red ink message hidden in a back corner, written right into the wood. "I love Bernice Holland," it said. "Sincerely, Alan Ladd." Twice during the night I put the light on and got out of bed to make sure it was still there.
Grandma turned her TV to thunderous volume and told me I mumbled. She was still an "Edge of Night" fan. Sometimes I'd grab a Coke from the refrigerator and slump down on the couch with her, slurping intentionally from the bottle.
"I hope you don't sit like that in school," she said. "It's unladylike."
I thumbed through the TV Guide and reminded her I was on summer vacation.
"When I was your age at the Bishop School, I received a medal for deportment on Class Day. A girl named Lucinda Cote thought she was going to get it — told me as much. She was a big piece of cheese, very stuck on herself. But no, they gave it to me. And here is my very own granddaughter who can't even sit correctly on a divan."
"What's a divan?" I said, swigging my Coke.
"A sofa!" she said, exasperated.
She watched in silent horror as I stuck my thumb over the Coke bottle opening and shook, then let the foam erupt into my mouth. "Can I turn the TV down?" I asked. "I'm not deaf, you know."
Evenings after the dishes, Grandma hobbled around the house with her frayed prayer book which was held together with rubber bands. Then she'd settle in front of the television to watch her westerns — "Bonanza," "Rawhide" — while I sat out at the kitchen signing corny get-well cards to Ma and pages of complaints to Jeanette.
In our first week together, Grandma told me it was a sin the way I wasted hot water, toilet paper, my spare time. She said she'd never heard of a girl who had reached my age without learning to crochet. I retaliated by shocking her as best I could. At breakfast, I drowned my scrambled eggs in plugs of ketchup. Evenings, I danced wildly by myself to my 45s while she watched from the doorway. It was mostly for Grandma's benefit that I mouthed the declarations of the girl singers: My love is like a heat wave . . . It's my party and I'll cry if I want to! One night Grandma wondered aloud why I didn't ever listen to singers who could carry a tune.
"Like who, for instance?" I scoffed.
"Well, like Perry Como."
"That old dinosaur?" I snorted.
"Well, how about the Lennon Sisters then? They can't be much older than you are."
I lied and told her one of her precious Lennon sisters — Diane, the oldest, her favorite — was having an illegitimate baby.
"Pfft," she said, flicking away the possibility with the flap of her wrist. But her lip quivered and she left my room making the sign of the cross.
Pierce Street smelled of car exhaust and frying food. Glass shattered, people screamed, kids threw rocks. "Jeepers Christmas," Grandma would mumble as cars squealed by at emergency speeds. She told me she had warned her husband, my grandfather, that they should follow the doctors and lawyers and schoolteachers who had moved out of the neighborhood after the war. But Grandpa had put it off and put it off and then, in 1948, had died, leaving her with teenage children and a two-family home with a leaky roof. "This house has been my cross to bear," she was fond of saying. She had come to see her staying on amongst the "riffraff" as the will of God. He had placed her here as a model of clean Catholic living. She was not obliged to speak to any of her neighbors, only to offer them her good example.
At dusk each evening, Mrs. Tingley, Grandma's third-floor tenant, clip-clopped down the side steps with her bug-eyed Chihuahua, Cutie Pie. "Come on, Cutie Pie, go poopy," Mrs. Tingley always said, while the dog circled nervously on his tether. In all the years Mr. and Mrs. Tingley had rented from my grandmother, Grandma had assumed he was the drinker, not her. But after Mr. Tingley's death, the package-store man had kept pulling up to the curb as usual. My bedroom ceiling was Mrs. Tingley's bedroom floor. The only sound from above was the click of dog toenails, and I pictured Mrs. Tingley up there lying in bed, sipping in silence.
Across from Grandma's was a tin-roofed store divided in two. One half was a barbershop. The barber, a thin, jowly man, sat sadly at the window most of the day, reading his own magazines and waiting for customers. The other half was the Peacock Tattoo Emporium. It was run by a skinny, older woman with dyed black hair and red toreador pants. On my second afternoon at Grandma's, she waved me over from where I was sitting on the front porch, waiting for the mailman. She introduced herself as Roberta and asked me to run to the store for a pack of Newports. When I returned, she waved away the change and proceeded to dazzle me with her exotic life story. She had once been married to a sword swallower who was now in jail where he belonged. Her second husband, the Canuck, God love him, was dead. Roberta had traveled with the Canuck to both Alaska and Hawaii and liked Alaska better. She'd dreamed President Kennedy's assassination the week before it happened. She had been a vegetarian since the day in 1959 when she opened up a can of beef stew and found a baby rat.
When Grandma came outside to sweep the porch, she spotted me through Roberta's plate-glass window and motioned me home. Back inside, she hit me on the head with a rolled-up newspaper. "Don't you say another word to that piece of garbage," she said, her face flushed in anger. "Don't you listen to another word of her malarkey."
"I have a perfect right to make my own friends!" I shouted back.
"Not with chippies like that one you don't!"
The center of activity on Pierce Street was Connie's Superette, a little market housed on the bottom floor of a large, asbestos-shingled apartment building. Connie, a fat woman with Lucille Ball red hair, sat behind the counter on a webbed porch chair. She kept a whirring electric fan trained on herself and was careful not to risk breaking her two-inch fingernails as she grudgingly rang up people's stuff. Connie's nephew, Big Boy, was the butcher. He whistled through his teeth and wore madras shirts and an apron smeared with blood. He looked like Doug McClure on "The Virginian."
Grandma traded at Connie's because she had never learned to drive a car, but she held a grudge against Big Boy, who had said to her one day in front of a whole storeful of customers, "What'll it be, tootsie?" When I moved in, she was only too happy to make me her errand girl. Daily, she folded money into my palm and sent me down the street for Tums or cornstarch or prune juice. As I headed out the door, she never failed to remind me to steer clear of both Big Boy and the dirty-magazine aisle.
The Pysyks lived in the apartment above the superette. Their twin daughters, Rosalie and Stacia, were the only two girls my age on Pierce Street. They hung out on the upstairs porch, where they danced and giggled and flicked their middle fingers back to neighborhood boys who shouted vulgar remarks up to them. They had a portable record player with a plastic polka-dot case and one scratchy record, "Big Girls Don't Cry," which they played nonstop at top volume. Both girls wore short shorts and frilly midriff blouses and were Q-Tip skinny, although they seemed forever to be eating and drinking something. Their whole day was like a party — a private one. I was both jealous of the twins and petrified of them. Grandma had once thrown a pitcher of water at the girls and called them "dirty DP's" when she had caught them ringing her bell and hiding behind her catalpa tree. The Pysyk sisters took an immediate dislike to me, and my daily treks to the store became nightmares.
"Hey kid!" Rosalie shouted down to me on my very first trip to Connie's. Her sister hung over the railing, smirking and eating from a bag of potato chips. "You stuck-up or something? Got a broom up your ass?" Behind her, the Four Seasons wailed in their scratchy falsettos.
"Oh, hi," I called up, smiling stiffly. "Gee, that's a good record you're playing. I'm really enjoying it." Already I could see the three of us walking home from school together, me lending them my 45s.
"'That's a good record you're playing. I'm really enjoying it,'" Rosalie mimicked back. Both girls brayed like donkeys.
"What's your name?" Stacia shouted down.
"Dolores." It came out shaky, like a request.
"Oh," she said. "I thought it was Fucky Face."
Her sister squealed in horrified delight, pulling off a candy wrapper with her teeth and spitting it over the rail at me.
Each day it happened again. "Hi, Pukehead," one would yell as I approached the store. "Say hello to all them cooties for us," the other would call as I left minutes later with Grandma's groceries. My heart raced. My grandmother's change went sweaty in my fist. I smiled Anne Frank's brave smile and checked my urge to run. Back in the house, I studied my face in the medicine-cabinet mirror for clues as to why they hated me. I accepted each of their hundred imagined apologies. One night I woke up shaky from a dream in which the twins had lured me up to their porch with offers of friendship and then attempted to hurl me headfirst over the railing.
"What are DP's, anyways?" I asked Grandma one night. She was at the kitchen table, mumbling her rosary while I dried the dishes.
"Displaced persons. People we took in from Europe after the war. You'd think they'd be grateful, wouldn't you?"
I understood why they weren't. A displaced person myself, I was not so much grateful to Grandma for her charity as disgusted by her liver spots and quiet belches, the way she could reach into her mouth and, with a gurgle, remove her top teeth. Dolores Price, DP: we even had the same initials. Still, the Pysyks gave no sign of wanting to meet me on common ground.
Copyright © 1992 by Wally Lamb
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