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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR - For Calvin Bushnell Contents


The Circus Comes to Town

"Two more days," Walt says, taking a toke on the joint. "Two more days of freedom, and then it's over."
"What about the summer?" Maggie asks.
"Ah yes. Maggie's long summer," Walt murmurs. "Tanning by the pool, basting herself with baby oil--"
"Putting Sun-In in her hair--"
"You put Sun-In in your hair," Maggie says, rolling over.
"True," I concede.
"This is boring." Lali gets up off the couch. "Bunch of deadheads. Give me a hit of that."
"I thought you'd never ask," The Mouse says, handing her the joint.
"Are you sure you want to smoke?" I ask teasingly. "The last time you ate an entire pound of bacon. Remember?"
"It was three strips!" she exclaims. "God, Carrie. Why are you always making things up?"
"Because it's fun?"
The six of us--Walt, Maggie, The Mouse, Lali, Peter, and I--are hanging out in the old playroom above The Mouse's garage. It's New Year's Eve, and we're smugly congratulating ourselves on being too cool to bother going out to a party. Not that there's a party we'd want to go to anyway. There's a dance for old people at the country club--"Deadly," according to The Mouse--there's a movie night at the library--"Middle-brow conservatives who want to pretend they're intellectuals," according to Walt--and a fancy dinner party at Cynthia Viande's where the girls wear long dresses and the boys rent tuxes and they supposedly drink Baby Champs and pretend to be grown-ups. But it's limited to twenty of Cynthia's nearest and dearest friends, if you can categorize the two Jens and Donna LaDonna as bosom buddies. None of us have made the cut, with the exception of Peter, who was only asked at the last minute because Cynthia needed an "extra man." In order to spare Peter this indignity, we decided to gather at The Mouse's to smoke pot, drink White Russians, and pretend we're not losers.
"Hey," Peter says to Maggie, tapping on his bottle of beer. "The extra man needs another brewskie."
"The extra man can get it himself," Maggie says, giggling. "Isn't that what an extra man is for? To do all the extra work?"
"What about an extra woman?" Lali asks, passing the joint to me. "How come no one wants an extra woman?"
"Because an extra woman is a mistress."
"Or a third wheel," adds The Mouse.
I cough and slide off the old easy chair where I've been stationed for the last hour. "Anybody want another drink?" I ask, giving The Mouse a look. She shrugs, knowing exactly what she's said.
If Lali is offended, she doesn't show it. "I'll have another. And make it a double."
"Coming right up." A bag of ice, plastic cups, and various alcoholic potions sit atop an ancient card table. I begin mixing two drinks, filling Lali's cup with vodka. It's slightly evil, but I've been feeling slightly evil toward Lali ever since Sebastian informed me that she took my clothes. We laughed it off, but there's a quiet tension between us, like the shadow of a cloud on a beautiful summer day. You look up and suddenly realize you're in for a thunderstorm.
"When is Sebastian coming back?" Lali asks with deliberate casualness, which may be a reaction to The Mouse's "third wheel" comment after all. She knows Sebastian returns from his family vacation tomorrow. And she also knows that on Sunday, we have those tickets to see Aztec Two-Step at the Shaboo Inn. She hasn't been able to stop talking about it. Until now.
"Tomorrow," I say, as if it's no big deal. What Lali doesn't need to know is how desperately I've been counting the days until his return. I keep playing our reunion over and over again in my head. He'll pull up to my house in his yellow Corvette. I'll run to him and he'll sweep me into his arms and kiss me passionately, murmuring, "I love you." But when I imagine the scene, instead of picturing me, I see Julie Christie in Dr. Zhivago instead. I'm in my early twenties, I have dark hair, and I'm wearing a white ermine hat.
"What time is it?" Walt asks suddenly.
"Ten fifteen."
"I don't know if I can make it till midnight," Maggie groans contentedly.
"You have to," I insist. "Just because we're losers doesn't mean we have to be lightweights."
"Speak for yourself." Walt picks up the bottle of vodka and takes a swig.
"Walt, that's gross," Maggie scolds.
"You didn't think it was gross when we swapped spit," he says.
"Hey!" Peter jumps to his feet, making boxing motions in the direction of Walt's head.
"Take it easy, homeboy." Walt looks at me and takes another gulp of vodka.
"Do you want a glass?"
"Nope." He places the bottle back on the table and claps his hands. "Okay, everybody," he says loudly. "I have an announcement to make."
Crap. This is it. The moment we've all been waiting for. I glance at The Mouse and Maggie. The Mouse is making tiny nods of encouragement, smiling kindly the way you would at a five-year-old who has just shown you a stick figure drawing of his family. Maggie has covered her mouth with her hands and is looking wildly from me to The Mouse, as if hoping someone will tell her what to do.
"You got into Penn," Peter says.
I move behind Walt and glare at Maggie, making a face as I put my finger to my lips.
"Hey--what's going on?" Lali says, catching me. "I know. You're taking over as the manager of the Hamburger Shack."
"A pox on you," Walt replies. It's a phrase he's never used before but probably picked up from Randy.
"This surprise is much better," he continues, swaying slightly from side to side. "I was going to wait until midnight, but I'll probably be passed out by then." He looks around the room to make sure he has our complete attention. Then he casually drops the bomb:
"For those of you who haven't figured it out, I'm now officially gay."
For a moment, it's quiet, as we all ponder how to react to this information, given our previous knowledge of it or lack thereof.
It's broken by a low chortling sound. "That's it?" Lali declares. "You're gay? That's news?"
"Thank you very much," Walt says with faux indignation.
"Congratulations, man," Peter says. He crosses the room and hugs Walt gingerly, patting him on the back. "When did you find out?" he asks, as if Walt has just announced he's having a baby.
"When did you find out you were straight, Peter?" I ask, giggling.
"Well," Maggie says coyly. "We knew it all along."
Actually, "we" didn't. But luckily, ten days after "we," meaning Maggie, found out, she got all caught up in planning a camping trip with Peter, and completely forgot about Walt's insult to her womanhood. I raise my cup. "To Walt," I cheer.
"To Walt!"
"And to us," I add. "To nineteen eighty--"
There's a loud knock on the door.
"Shit." The Mouse grabs the marijuana paraphernalia and shoves it under the cushions of the couch. Peter hides the vodka bottle behind a chair. We run our fingers through our hair and dust the ash off our fronts.
"Come in," The Mouse says.
It's her father, Mr. Castells. Even though he's kind of old, I'm always struck by how handsome he is. The Mouse says that when he was young, he was known as the Cary Grant of Cuba.
"I hope you're having a good time," he says politely, striding into the room. I can tell by his manner that this is not a social call. "Carrie?" he asks. "Your father is on the phone. He needs to speak with you immediately."
"Apparently they have an old car that nobody uses. They didn't realize it was missing until I called," my father says. His face is white. He's in shock--probably terrified.
"Dad, I'm sure it will be fine," I say, praying he won't notice that he now has two juvenile delinquents for daughters--Dorrit, the runaway, and me, the stoner. Except I feel frighteningly sober and clearheaded. "How far could they get? Neither one of them has a license. How can Cheryl even know how to drive?"
"I know nothing about these people other than the fact that Cheryl's mother has been married three times."
I nod, staring at the road ahead. Despite its being New Year's Eve, the streets are dark and mostly deserted. I'm convinced that somehow this new crisis with Dorrit is my fault. I should have been paying more attention. But how was I to know? She said she was going to the library for the movie event--my father even dropped her off at four and waited until she met her friend Maura, who we've known for years. Maura's mother was going to pick them up at seven and drop Dorrit off at home on her way to a party. But when she arrived at the library, Maura told her mother that Dorrit had gone to the mall and was going to get a ride home from me. When she wasn't home by nine, my father started to panic. He tried calling Maura's mother, but there was no answer until after ten. He called Cheryl's house, guessing Dorrit might have snuck off with her, but Cheryl's little brother said his sister wasn't home and his parents were at The Emerald. So my father called The Emerald, and Cheryl's mother and stepfather went back to their house and found the car missing. And now we're on our way to Cheryl's house to try to figure out what to do.
"Dad, I'm sorry."
He says nothing, only shakes his head.
"She's probably at the mall. Or the golf course. Or maybe the meadows."
"I don't think so," he says. "She took fifty dollars from my sock drawer."
I avert my eyes as we turn off Main Street and drive past The Emerald, as if I've never even noticed the place. We continue a bit farther onto a narrow road crowded with nearly identical houses and stop in front of a Colonial with peeling paint and a recently remodeled front porch. Light pokes around the edges of the drawn blinds, and as we examine the house, a man peers out, glaring. His face appears bright red, but it could be the lighting.
"I should have known," my father says grimly. "Mack Kelter."
"Who's he?"
"Local contractor," my father says, as if this explains everything. He pulls into the driveway, behind a truck. At the side of the house is a rundown two-car garage. One of the doors is open, the inside illuminated by a bare bulb.
"What does that mean?" I ask.
"Mack Kelter is what's known as a shady character." My father unbuckles his seat belt and takes off his glasses, delaying the inevitable encounter. "Your mother refused to deal with him. She had a few run-ins with him over some building construction. One evening we found Mack Kelter standing in our driveway with a crowbar."
I'm shocked I don't remember this. Or maybe I do. I have a vague recollection of hysteria and of us three girls being told to hide in the basement. "Did you call the police?"
"No. Your mother went out and confronted him. I was scared to death, but she wasn't. You know Mom," he says, getting teary. "She was a little thing but tough as hell. No one messed with Mimi."
"I know. And she never had to raise her voice," I add miserably, recounting my line from our familial stories about my mother.
"It was something in her manner.... She was a lady, through and through, and men knew it," my father says, doing his part. He sighs. "She had a few words with Mack Kelter, and he skulked away with his tail between his legs."
That was my mother--a Lady with a capital L. A Lady. Even when I was little, I knew I'd never be one, not like my mother. I was too rough and tumble. I wanted to go every place my parents said was bad, like New York City. I made Missy and Dorrit burn their Barbie dolls in a bonfire. I told my cousins there was no such thing as Santa Claus. I suspect my mother always knew I wouldn't make it as a lady, that I'd never be like her. But it never seemed to matter.
"Do you think Dorrit knows about Mack Kelter? And what Mom thought of him?" If she does, it could explain something about Dorrit's behavior. "Dad, I think Dorrit needs to see a shrink."
I've made this suggestion several times before, but my father always resists. He comes from a generation that thinks shrinks are bad. Even in this dire circumstance, my father still won't have it.
"Not now, Carrie," he says. And looking as if he's going to an execution, he gets out of the car.
The door opens before we can knock, and Mack Kelter stands in the entrance, blocking our passage. He's handsome in a kind of dirty way that makes you feel slightly ashamed even looking at him.
"Bradshaw?" He smirks. "Yeah," he says, answering his own question. "Come in."
I hope he doesn't have any crowbars lying around.
"In there." He motions toward the living room with a bottle of beer. We sidle in tentatively, not knowing what to expect. Along one wall is an enormous television set, flanked by two speakers. There's a brick fireplace, a scattering of toys on the white shag rug, two small yellow poodles with runny eyes, and a long modular couch. Sprawled across it with what appears to be a gin and tonic in one hand and an ice pack in the other is Cheryl's mother, Connie.
"My little baby," she wails when she sees us. She puts down her drink and holds out her hands, which we have no choice but to take. "My little girl. She's just a little girl," she sobs.
"She's not that little," Mack Kelter scoffs.
"What if they've been kidnapped?" Connie blinks rapidly. "What if they're lying in a ditch somewhere--"
"Put a lid on it, Connie," Mack Kelter says. "They took the car. They went drinking. When Cheryl gets back, she's going to get a walloping. That's all."
My father, meanwhile, has politely managed to extract his hand from Connie's and is standing stiffly, as if trying to pretend he is not in this situation. "Have you called the police?"
"Why do we want them involved?" Mack Kelter asks. "They'll only cause trouble. Besides, they don't investigate missing persons until they've been gone for at least twenty-four hours."
"By which time they could be dead!" Connie cries out. She puts her hand on her heart, gasping for air. "And this is my reward for a life of misery. I've got a juvenile delinquent for a daughter and a deadbeat drunk for a husband."
"You want one upside the head?" Mack Kelter asks. "I told you to zip it."
My father and I glance at each other in horror.
"I think we ought to look for them." I check my watch. "It's ten forty-five. They've been gone for about three hours--"
"They could be all the way to Boston by now," Connie exclaims. She looks over at her husband.
"I'm heading back to The Emerald," he announces. He takes in our shocked expressions and grins. "Hey--she's not my kid. And there's a man called Jack Daniel's waiting for me at the bar."
My father, Connie, and I drive all around town looking for Dorrit and Cheryl. We check out the meadows, the country club, and several little bars Connie knows about, although why she thinks anyone would serve alcohol to thirteen-year-olds is a mystery to both me and my dad. But we keep searching anyway, to no avail. At two a.m., we finally give up.
"Did you find her?" Missy squeals hopefully as we walk into the house.
"What are we going to do?"
"What can we do?"
"How could this happen?" Missy wails.
"I don't know. If she's not back by six a.m., we're going to the police."
We stand there in terrified silence, and then I tiptoe across the floor and peek into the den where my father has retired to suffer alone. He's sitting on the couch, slowly turning the pages of the old photo album my mother started when she and my father became engaged.
I return to the kitchen, ready to fortify myself for a long night, taking bread and cheese and mayonnaise from the refrigerator to make a sandwich.
The phone rings.
The sound is loud and jarring and somehow expected. I drop the bread and grab it.
"Carrie?" says a male voice.
"George?" I ask in shock. And then I'm disappointed. And angry. Why is George calling now--way past midnight on New Year's Eve? He must be drunk. "George, this is not the time--"
He cuts me off. "I have someone here who wants to talk to you."
"Happy New Year," Dorrit says, giggling into the phone.


Lockdown at Bralcatraz

All morning I've been avoiding the phone.
I know I have to do the right thing. And the sooner you do the right thing, the better. You get it over with, and you don't have to worry about it anymore. But who does that in real life? Instead, you procrastinate and think about it and put it off and think about it some more until that one little pebble grows into a giant block inside your head. It's only, I remind myself, a phone call. But I have so many other important things to do first.
Like cleaning out the space above the garage, which is where I am now, wearing a down coat, fuzzy gloves, and a mink stole. The mink belonged to my grandmother, and it's one of those really creepy ones where the heads and tiny paws of the little minks are attached at each end. I put the two heads together and make them talk to each other.
"How are you?"
"Not so good. Someone took my tail and back legs."
"Eh--who needs a tail, anyway?"
I found the old stole when I was digging through a box filled with my grandmother's things, which, with the exception of the stole, have turned out to be a treasure trove of fantastic old hats with net veils and feathers. I put one of the hats on my head and pull the veil down over my nose. I picture myself walking down Fifth Avenue, stopping in front of Tiffany on my way to lunch at the Plaza.
With the hat still on my head, I push aside a few more boxes. I'm looking for something, but I don't know what. I'll know what it is when I find it though.
My nose is assaulted by the sharp musty smell of old paperbacks as I lift open the flaps on a box bearing the fuzzy imprint of Del Monte canned corn. My grandmother always described herself as "a great reader," and prided herself on reading five books a week, although her choice of reading material consisted largely of romances and Greek mythology. On the summer weekends we'd spend at her cottage by the shore, I'd be right behind her, devouring those romance novels like candy, thinking, I could do this someday. I'd turn the books over and study the photographs of the authors with their teased hairdos, lying on pink chaises or propped up in four-poster beds. Those lady authoresses, I knew, were fantastically rich, and unlike the female characters in their books, made their own money without needing a man to rescue them. The idea of becoming one of these lady writers filled me with a secret excitement that was nearly sexual, but also terrifying: If a woman could take care of herself, would she still need a man? Would she even want one? And if she didn't want a man, what kind of woman would she be? Would she even be a woman? Because it seemed if you were a woman, the only thing you were really supposed to want was a man.
I guess I was about eight then. Maybe ten. Even twelve. Inhaling the scent of those old paperbacks is like inhaling the little girl of my childhood. I've learned one thing since then: No matter what happens, I'll probably always want a guy.
Is there something pitiful about that?
I close the box and move on to another. And suddenly, I find it: a rectangular white box with yellowed corners, a dry cleaner's box for men's shirts. I lift the cover, take out an old composition book, and turn to the first page. The Adventures of Pinky Weatherton is printed in my sloppy young hand.
Good old Pinky! I invented her when I was six. Pinky was a spy with special powers: She could shrink herself down to the size of a thimble, and she could breathe underwater. Pinky always seemed to be getting washed down the drain in the sink, and then she'd swim through the pipes and pop up in someone's bathtub.
I carefully take out the contents of the box, laying them on the floor. Besides Pinky, there are drawings and homemade cards, diaries with metal locks (I never managed to write more than a few entries in any of them, although I remember chastising myself for my lack of discipline, knowing even then that writers were supposed to keep journals), and at the bottom, my attempts at stories, crudely typed on my mother's Royale typewriter. It's like a surprise party, suddenly coming into a room filled with all your friends. But it's also the sign, I decide, picking up the box and carrying it down the stairs. It's the sign that I really do have to call George.
"You need to call George" were the first words out of my father's mouth this morning.
"I will, Dad. Don't worry about it." It made me kind of angry. I'd vowed never to talk to George again, not after what he'd said about Sebastian. Even if I did end up at Brown, which was looking more and more likely as I hadn't managed to come up with a viable alternative, I planned to avoid him. And yet, once again he had managed to insert himself into our lives--my life--and it wasn't right. I didn't want him there. I knew my feelings were wrong--it wasn't George's fault--but I was convinced he was still somehow to blame. If he hadn't paid so much attention to Dorrit when she was arrested, if he hadn't been so nice, then Dorrit would have never developed a crush on him. It was only one of those mewling irrational crushes that young teenage girls develop for pretty-boy singers, but why George? He was cute enough, but certainly not pretty. He wasn't even dangerous.
Maybe it wasn't danger Dorrit was looking for but stability.
And perhaps there was an element of competition. Dorrit had grown bolder with each infraction, starting with stealing earrings and lip gloss, and moving on to my mother's bag. Maybe it made sense that George was her final conquest.
Back in the house, my father is in exactly the same position I left him in two hours ago, seated at the little desk where we keep the mail, staring down at a blank piece of paper with a pencil in his hand.
"Did you call George yet?" he asks, looking up.
"I'm going to. Right now."
"You owe him a phone call. What would have happened if George hadn't been there? And now I need to find a way to repay him."
I have a terrible thought: Perhaps I should offer myself as repayment, like one of those heroines in my grandmother's romance novels whose family forces her to marry a man she doesn't love. And then Sebastian will have to rescue me. Except he can't, because my father has forbidden any of us to leave the house without adult supervision. We're not even allowed to talk on the phone unless we clear it with my father first. I thump up the stairs to my room, hating my father, Dorrit, and most of all, George.
I shove the box of stories under the bed and pick up the phone. Maybe George is still asleep. Or out. At least I can say I tried. He answers on the second ring.
"How are you holding up?" he asks.
"I'm okay."
"And Dorrit?"
"Locked in her room." I pause. "Anyway, I want to thank you. We couldn't have managed without you." I do my best to sound sincere on this last statement, but I don't quite succeed. George doesn't seem to notice, however.
"No problem," he says, full of good cheer. "These things happen. Glad I could help."
"Thanks again." Having done my duty, I'm about to ring off when I make a fatal mistake. "George," I ask. "Why did she pick you?"
He laughs. "That almost sounds like an insult."
"It isn't. You're a great guy--"
"Am I?" he asks eagerly.
"Well, sure," I say, trying to figure out how to get out of this trap. "But she's thirteen. It seems so extreme to steal a car and drive all the way to Providence--"
I hear a telltale ping indicating my father has picked up the extension below and is listening in.
"I've been meaning to talk to you about that," George says, lowering his voice. "I could come by next week."
"I'll have to check with my father," I sigh, knowing my father will say "yes," and surprised he hasn't already broken into the conversation.
When George and I hang up, I head downstairs to confront my father. "Are you going to listen in on every conversation I have from now on?"
"I'm sorry, Carrie, but yes. And I'm not listening in. I'm monitoring."
"Great," I say sarcastically.
"And if you were thinking about seeing Sebastian later, forget it," he adds. "I don't want that little S-H-I-T anywhere near this house."
"But, Dad--"
"I'm sorry, Carrie."
"He's my boyfriend!"
"That's the way it is," he says, unmoved by my obvious distress. "No boys. And that means no Sebastian, either."
"What is this? Alcatraz?"
My father says nothing.
My anger is like some rudimentary, single-celled beast, an exploding virus of fury that paralyzes rational thought and blinds me to everything except one single goal....
"I'm going to kill you!" I scream, rushing upstairs to Dorrit's room. I leap on top of her, but she's prepared, having raised her legs into a defensive position. I know that somewhere in the world, in truly perfect families, sisters don't fight. But we're not one of them. We used to be regular pugilists, kicking and twisting arms and chasing each other with shovels and rakes and locking each other in the car or out of the house, shaking each other out of trees, hiding in closets or under the bed or running each other down like rabbits. "I'm going to kill you," I scream again, raising a pillow over my head as Dorrit kicks my groin.
I try to get the pillow over her face, but she squirms away, landing on the floor. She gets up and tries to jump on my back. I buck like a horse but she won't let go. I struggle to stand up and we both fall over. We land on the bed with me lying on top of her.
Then the dam of emotion bursts and we're laughing hysterically. "It's not funny," I insist, tears running down my face. "You've ruined my life. You deserve to die."
"What's going on?" Missy says, appearing in the doorway. Dorrit points at her, which is not funny either, but manages to send us into another round of hysterics all the same. "Stop laughing," Missy scolds. "I just talked to Dad. He's thinking of sending Dorrit to reform school."
"Will I have to wear a uniform?" Dorrit shrieks with laughter.
"Dad's serious this time." Missy frowns. "He says he's not kidding. We're in big trouble. All of us. We're not even allowed to have friends anymore."
"We're in Bralcatraz," I say.
"Ha," Dorrit says dismissively. She gets off the bed and looks at herself in the mirror, twisting a strand of blue hair in front of her face. "He'll get over it. He always does," she says viciously.
"I don't even know why he's the one left," she says. "He should be dead. And Mom should be alive." She glares defiantly at Missy and me, at our shocked expressions. It's a sentiment we've all felt but never expressed.
"And I don't care if I do go to reform school," she adds. "Anything would be better than being stuck in this family."
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