Fiction Fiction 2008

Nine

If Tess takes ballet lessons, Meredith will give Tess tights and toe shoes, and marry Tess’s father. She will stay forever.

At school, Miss Morris chooses people to act out the assassination of Lincoln. She tells the class how Lincoln studied by candlelight and ended slavery and always told the truth. “Honest Abe,” they called him, because he could not tell a lie. Miss Morris says that after Lincoln was shot, they saved the bloody pillow he died on, and you can still go see it. “Of course, they keep it covered with plastic now,” she says.

At Tess’s school, they don’t like guns or toys that look like guns, so the boy who plays John Wilkes Booth points his finger at the back of Lincoln’s head and says, “Bang!” Von Maxwell, who is playing Lincoln, has taken a packet of ketchup from the cafeteria, and when John Wilkes Booth shoots him, he slaps the packet against the side of his head so that a little stream of ketchup burps onto the floor. “You got me!” he yells, and drops sideways out of his chair. “I’m a goner now!”

Today is Tuesday, and after social studies Tess has to leave (Thpeech Therapy). But her lisp is only pretend, and she does not go to the speech therapist. Instead she goes to see Dirk and Deborah. Dirk and Deborah are new at the school this year. They have an office next to the janitor’s closet, with kitten posters on the wall and little bags of animal crackers that they let Tess eat while they ask her questions about her mother or about what color she thinks her insides are. Dirk and Deborah keep felt puppets in their office that they try to make Tess talk to when she doesn’t want to talk about her mother or her insides, which is always. Once a week Dirk and Deborah bring their puppets into Tess’s classroom and put on shows to teach the children about things like not talking to strangers and what to do if you catch on fire.

Today, Tess tells Dirk and Deborah about Honest Abe and how they shot him and saved his bloody pillow. Dirk sits on his desk with his legs crossed Indian-style and asks if learning about the assassination made Tess sad, because she can tell them if it did. Or if it didn’t, Deborah says, Tess can tell them that too. When Tess does not answer, Dirk and Deborah glance at each other, and Tess knows that she is going to have to give them something soon. She does not want to talk to the puppets. Last week, Dirk put a puppet on his arm and made Tess sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round with him. He wouldn’t shut up until she did it.

“My birthday’s soon,” Tess says. “Two weeks from now.”

Dirk and Deborah’s eyebrows lift, and their mouths open into happy gaping holes. This is wonderful news!

Tess shrugs. Certain ages are more important than others. Seven, for example, was an age you could really sink your teeth into, so much older than six. Ten would be the same—a whole new world. Nine is just one of the bald-headed numbers in between. Tess could take it or leave it.

Deborah writes the date down in her calendar. “We’ll remember to bring you something special that day,” she says.

The other kids in Tess’s class do not like Dirk and Deborah. They call them “queers” and “retards” and shoot tiny balls of paper at their heads with rubber bands while they perform their puppet shows. Tess is always careful to keep her eyes on her desk, to not show that she knows Dirk and Deborah better than anyone else. But now, in their office, Tess imagines Deborah at the mall, picking out a night-light or a bracelet with Tess’s name on it, then taking it home to wrap it in white paper and a pink bow. She feels like crying. “It’s all right,” she tells them. “You don’t have to.”

Deborah leans forward and squeezes Tess’s knee. “It’s OK to be happy about the good things,” she says. “It’s OK if something makes you feel like smiling.”

Dirk nods. “Or if it doesn’t,” he says. “That’s OK too.”

After school, Tess watches One Life to Live with Mrs. Stuart. Nora is recovering from brain surgery alone in her beach house, and Todd Manning, who has been out for revenge ever since Nora sabotaged him during his trial for raping Marty last summer, is stalking her. Tess sucks on one of the butterscotch Life Savers that Mrs. Stuart keeps in her purse, while Nora wanders through the beach house in her nightgown and neck bandage, stumbling into walls and tripping over furniture. Todd Manning is coming for her, waiting around every corner, hiding in every shadow. The lights have gone out, and Nora falls to the floor.

When the show is over, Mrs. Stuart goes into the kitchen to make dinner for Tess and her father, and to pack Tess’s lunch for the next day. The television is off, and through the curtains, the light looks blue, as if the room were under water. Tess closes her eyes and imagines blindness, entrapment, a loose bandage on her neck. As Mrs. Stuart chops vegetables in the kitchen, Tess thinks of her mother’s raincoat hiding in the hall closet like a bloody stranger. When her father gets home from work, Tess will make him feel her head for tumors. She will make him check her bedroom closet for men with knives.

But when her father gets home, a woman is with him, and he says that he will feel Tess’s head for tumors another time, when they don’t have company. The woman’s name is Meredith. She is tall and thin, with pale hair and so many freckles that, up close, her skin looks like the pink marble steps at the public library. Meredith stands in their kitchen with one hip cocked, swirling the red wine in her glass. “Your daughter has tumors?” she asks.

Tess’s father coughs into the back of his wrist. “Oh,” he says. “She’s just being funny.”

While Tess and her father eat, Meredith sits at the table, moving the food around her plate with her fork. Tess’s father says that Meredith is a dancer with the city ballet and maybe they can go see her perform sometime. Won’t that be fun?

Tess has been to the ballet before. When she was little, her mother took her into the city to see The Nutcracker. Tess wore a green velvet dress, and her mother carried her good purse. They sat together in the darkness, watching girls in white dresses twirl beneath fake snow. Tess fell asleep halfway through. She cannot remember if she had fun or not.

While her father clears the dinner dishes, Tess watches Meredith from across the table. Her sweater dips down into a V, and Tess can see the bones, like a ladder, on her speckled chest. Meredith lifts her wine to her lips, and the cuff of her sleeve falls away from her wrist, exposing a bone as small and perfect as a glass marble. “Are you anorexic?” Tess asks.

Meredith sets her wine back on the table without drinking. “Are you rude?” she asks.

“You can die from it,” Tess says.

Meredith leans her chin into the cup of one freckled hand. “You’re the expert.”

Tess and Meredith watch each other across the table, and Tess feels a tickling in her spine as Meredith lifts one pale eyebrow into a perfect arch. They do not like each other. This will be their secret.

“I have low blood sugar,” Tess says. “If I don’t eat, I faint.”

“Wow,” Meredith says.

“Sometimes I throw up,” Tess adds. “While I’m fainted.”

Tess’s father makes a pot of coffee, and he and Meredith sit at the table smoking cigarettes. Tess stands behind her chair, and her father pinches her on the ribs to make her laugh. When she goes to kiss him good night, she can smell wine and cigarette smoke on his lips. In times past, Tess would wrap her arms around her father’s neck to kiss him, but now she only touches her mouth to his—not a real kiss, but something that looks like one. Tess knows that even these pretend kisses will stop soon. She will be nine, then 10, then 11. Soon she will be too old to tickle. And then they will not touch at all.

Tess says good night, then stands outside the door, listening.

“She’s adorable,” Meredith says.

“Thank you,” Tess’s father says.

“What happened to her mother?”

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