MAY 1998 | VOLUME 2, NUMBER 1
RECENT FICTION | Teenager fights to stay above water when mysterious
ailments shatter his beliefs:
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JOHN CURRY, a teacher of composition and literature at Santa Monica College, is from Santa Monica, CA. He is a contributing writer to Renaissance Online Magazine. more
When Billy heard the door bell chime, he sprang off his bed and trotted down the staircase, avoiding the dozing cat by leaping into the foyer. He yanked open the front door and saw the familiar image of curly blond hair, backlit by soft morning light slanting through the screen door. At fourteen, she was twice his age. She smiled down on him as he grabbed her hand and led her, like a lover, from the foyer to the adjacent family room. Before sitting she curtsied, he bowed, and both giggled. Billy dashed to the base of the stairs, formed a tunnel with his hands and yelled up: "Marianne's here!"
The black-and-white cat rolled onto its back, aiming its white belly at the ceiling. Billy raced back into the family room, pulled the piano stool near Marianne's chair, sat and spun around until he was even with her pale blue eyes.
"What do you want me to help you with?" he asked, spinning another revolution for the thrill of it.
"I've got French class first period. You could try to quiz me on the vocabulary."
"I can do that."
As she ruffled through several notebooks, he admired the neatness of her uniform: crisply ironed pleats on her checkered skirt, a starched white blouse, more stylish than his sister's, and shiny saddle shoes. She handed him the textbook covered in grocery bag paper and labeled in cursive with black Magic Marker: Marianne Kilgallen, French Three, First Period, Madame Hamilton.
"Page sixty-three, Billyboy. Give me the English and then I'll give you the French. And tell me I'm right--"
"Even when you're wrong!"
They shared a laugh. Billy pushed off the stool and adjusted his pajama shorts that had twisted toward his rear end during the aggressive spinning.
He nodded his head and then concentrated on the page. Positioning his index finger near the first word, he pressed down with an intensity that turned his fingertip white.
" To agree."
"You're doing fine, Billyboy. That one's tromper ."
A door slammed shut upstairs; the textbook fell to the floor. Billy looked into Marianne's eyes with an alarm that signaled it had begun. His mother's and sister's voices echoed through the house.
I'm not asking, Beth.
Billy was staring up at the ceiling. The arguments always began and ended without warning. He glanced over at Marianne as she picked up the French book and rearranged various colored folders, achieving an order. He walked over to the yellow drapes and opened them, the warm sunlight filling the room. Gazing out of the bay window, he surveyed the front yard. White dogwood trees and pink azalea bushes had been planted with careful attention to color. All had grown tall, enveloping the sloping hill beneath an umbrella of foliage. Billy was proud of his gardening abilities. He'd helped his father plant the dogwoods three years before, and each time his father returned from a month-long business trip, they'd inspect the trees' growth and congratulate each other on the flowering results.
Let's not start--
You're afraid of me, Mother!
Billy wished their voices would stop. It frightened him each morning they argued. The violence in their tone made him feel threatened, trapped inside his own home.
"There's a robin's nest in the big dogwood," he announced.
"Have you seen the babies yet?" Marianne asked.
"They're still in the eggs. They're light blue with black dots. I climbed the tree yesterday when their mom was away, but I didn't touch them. Dad said never to touch them."
"The mother would be upset, huh?"
"She'd leave them to die."
Another door slammed upstairs, and Billy began pacing the room. Marianne rubbed her hands together as if she were outside in the cold of winter and needed to warm them.
Explain it to me, honey.
You just don't know!
Marianne squinted and said, "What are you up to, Billyboy, playing softball this year?"
"Yeah." He turned to face her. "Dad's coming home Saturday. He's going to watch me play second base. I lost out to Billy Conway for short. We have three Billies in the infield. Billy Ryder plays third. Bobby O'Connor is the only one not a Billy--he plays first. I don't count the pitcher and catcher."
"They sort of have their own relationship, don't they?"
"I guess so.... We're the four B's! When we whip it around, we call out B1, B2, B3, B4. It's pretty funny."
"You're B2, aren't you?"
"How'd you know?"
"I play softball too, young man."
I don't like going there!
It's to help you.
It's to help you, Mother.
Billy hopped over to Marianne and climbed on her lap. "You're getting heavy, Billyboy."
He worked himself into a comfortable position and ran his fingers through her hair, occasionally plucking at a curl. The voices upstairs grew louder, and he hugged her glancing out the window to the street, resting his chin across her slender shoulder. As the voices crescendoed, Marianne held him tighter and he squeezed back. He pretended it was Saturday morning and his dad was walking home in a stylish three-piece suit from the Metro station that linked to the airport downtown. He carried his gray-woven suitcase and black leather briefcase. Billy ran up to greet him, lugging the briefcase to the front door and on the way, telling him about his triple last week and about the blue eggs he'd discovered in their dogwood tree. When his dad hugged him tight, Billy smelled his cologne and felt whiskers tickle his cheek. He released a giggle.
"You okay, Billyboy?" Marianne asked, lifting him up to check his face.
As she ruffled his hair, they heard feet shuffling with enough emphasis to know that the fighting continued, though unspoken now.
Billy often envisioned his mother striking his sister, slapping her face when she talked back or swore, but he knew his mother wouldn't, just wasn't her way. When he thought real hard about things, he always came up with the same wish, that his dad would stay home, not just for a weekend once or twice a month and holidays. Billy wanted him to find a new job that didn't take him to those foreign countries which had names that were difficult to spell. He wanted to watch him shave, eat dinner, and work in the den by the brick fireplace.
I know, love. That's why we go.
Billy's bedroom was sandwiched between his sister's and parents', and some nights he awoke to his parents' arguing. He would slip out of bed and crouch near his Peter Pan night light to listen. He had trouble understanding their entire conversations, but soon discovered that their arguments most often concerned his sister. She had some disease called severe emotional problems which sounded life-threatening to Billy.
"I don't want your hug!"
Down the stairs thunderous pounding vibrated into the family room. The cat had vanished. Billy scooted off Marianne, who stood and smoothed out the pleats of her skirt.
"See you tomorrow, Billyboy. You have you a terrific day at school," she said, punching his shoulder like one of the infield B's.
The door swept open from the force of a sturdy kick. Beth entered and stood with her legs wide apart.
"Let's go," she ordered Marianne. Her face was flushed, her breathing short and quick. "What are you looking at 'Billyboy'? Billy. . . boy. That's such a baby's name."
"I'm the one who gave it to him, and I like it," Marianne said.
Billy was embarrassed no longer. The hurt had become familiar so that he was able to prevent the blush from appearing, the tingling, the urge to cry.
He simply stared out the window toward the asphalt street where he spotted his cat celebrating its freedom with an intense licking bath in a carefully chosen circle of sun.
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