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.
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At school, Tess’s class watches a puppet show on how to know if your parents are abusing you. It’s about Billy and Billy’s mom. In the story, the Billy puppet realizes that the Billy’s mom puppet is abusing him. He sings a song about it, and afterward Dirk and Deborah teach the song to the class so that they can all sing it together while Deborah plays the guitar.

Von Maxwell leans over from the desk beside Tess’s and holds his face close to hers so that she can smell the chocolate cake from lunch souring on his breath. “You’re ugly,” he whispers, and sticks her arm with the point of his pencil. “You have big, ugly ears.”

Tess’s ears prickle. They are pink and naked at the sides of her head like two cupped hands sticking out through her hair. She stares straight ahead at the Billy puppet, at his flat, lipless mouth and blank circle eyes. It is the same puppet that played Andy last week in a show about how to know if your friends are selling drugs.

When the song is finished, Deborah asks if anyone has a question. Beth, whose mouth is always wet and spitty in the corners, raises her hand. “Does Billy’s mom ever hit him with a rolled-up newspaper?” she asks.

Dirk frowns. “Mmm, maybe,” he says. “But mostly she does really bad things, like hold his hand on a hot stove.”

Dirk and Deborah pack up their puppets and squeeze between the rows of desks on their way to the back of the classroom. As they pass, Deborah winks at Tess and gives her the thumbs-up sign.

“What’s with that?” Von asks.

Tess stares down at her hands. “Who knows?” she says. “They’re such retards.”

Tess is going to be nine soon. This is the way her father begins the conversation. Tess can tell that it is going to be a serious conversation, because her father asks her to sit at the kitchen table with him, and mealtime is hours away.

Tess’s father says that an active imagination is a wonderful thing to have. But you have to know the difference between what is imaginary and what is not. “Do you understand about truth?” he asks.

Tess looks into his face and tries to think what the right answer might be.

“Your mother,” he says, and taps his fingers lightly on the tabletop. “She isn’t dead. She isn’t sick. She’s just gone.” He holds up the palms of his empty hands to show her—gone. “Do you understand?”

Tess understands that she sometimes tells lies. She does. But they are little, unimportant lies. Sick. Dead. Gone. What do her lies matter to anyone else? Why does the world care?

Her father reaches across the table and squeezes Tess’s fingers in his. “Some things are real, and some things aren’t,” he says. “Part of getting older is learning to understand the difference. OK?”

Tess’s head feels heavy on top of her neck. Her brain is smooth and shiny like plastic. Her blood is ketchup. She could hold her own hand against a hot stove and not feel a thing. “OK,” she says.

The morning of Tess’s birthday, she stands in front of the mirror in her pajamas. She is exactly the same as she was yesterday—big-eared.

When she passes her father’s bedroom, she can make out the shape of Meredith’s body pressed against his in the bed. Her father sleeps with one leg thrown across Meredith at the hip, his face buried in the tangles of her hair.

Downstairs in the refrigerator, she finds a rectangular box wrapped in balloon paper—a present from Mrs. Stuart. Tess opens the package on the kitchen table and takes a step backward. It is a lunch box, bright red, with a picture of Raggedy Ann riding a bicycle. Raggedy Ann is smiling wide with her pink cartoon lips and black cartoon eyes. The sky is blue. The sun is shining.

Tess can’t express what will be done to her if she shows up at school carrying this lunch box. No one will kick a girl. No one will hit her or push her or throw a clump of mud at her head. But they will laugh at her. They will stare. They will stand to the side and watch her be alone.

When she goes to the hall closet for her raincoat, the stripe of red stops her. She pictures her father’s square hands, open and empty—just gone. She slides her mother’s coat off the hanger, thinking it might smell like soap or perfume. But when she sniffs at the cuffs and collar, nothing of her mother remains. The coat smells like the closet. The hem falls to Tess’s ankles, and she has to roll up the sleeves, but as she looks at herself in the hallway mirror, she thinks that the coat does not look so wrong on her. It might have belonged to her the whole time. She walks through the front door in the red coat, leaving the child’s lunch box on the kitchen table.

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