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, no one knows that today is Tess’s birthday. She has not brought cupcakes or cookies. She is not wearing a new dress. During craft time, the children in her class make silhouettes of Lincoln’s head out of black construction paper, then glue the black paper heads onto white paper. The work isn’t hard, just tracing, but somehow Tess’s head looks more like a duck than like a president, and she has to stay inside during morning recess to do it over.

“If you’d drawn somebody like Jefferson or Washington,” Miss Morris says, “I wouldn’t care so much about you redoing it. But Lincoln was a really important president.”

Tess is nearly finished with her second Lincoln head when Dirk and Deborah come through the classroom door with their guitar cases and puppet bags. They are wearing headbands with fuzzy pink balls attached to spring antennae. Tess looks over her shoulder at them. They are not supposed to be here today.

Deborah holds her arms out from her sides. “There’s the birthday girl!” she cries, and Tess’s whole body goes dead.

“Are you here to do a show?” she asks.

“A special one,” Dirk tells her. “Just for you.”

The recess bell rings, and Tess can hear feet pounding toward the building. Her mind spins in circles, searching for an answer. The nurse’s office. She needs to be sick. She needs to be injured. She looks down at the scissors and thinks about jamming them into her leg, but they are schoolroom scissors, short and fat with round, plastic tips. Useless. Dirk and Deborah pile their bags on a table at the front of the room and begin to unpack their puppets as Tess’s classmates tumble through the back door in a noisy, muddy stew.

As a last resort, Tess turns to God. She does not go to church, does not pray before bed or meals or spelling tests. But she prays now. She prays to burn with a fever or shake with a deep, phlegmy cough. She knows that girls can make themselves throw up (she saw a puppet show once), but she is not clear on the technique, and as she wills her stomach to turn and seize, she knows that this hoping is fruitless. She is not sick. She is not dying. God hates her.

And then, maybe for the first time since she was born, God looks down from heaven and sees her. She can feel the moment, the exact instant when God knows that she is there, that she needs help. Tess looks over her shoulder and there, standing in the doorway, is Meredith. She holds up the Raggedy Ann lunch box. “You forgot this,” she mouths, and Tess knocks her chair over as she runs to the back of the room. By the time she reaches Meredith, she is already crying.

Meredith squats down. “What?” she asks. “What’s happened?”

Tess points to the front of the classroom, where Dirk is untangling felt limbs, his pink antennae bobbing above his head like two wads of cotton candy. “Those puppets are gonna sing to me,” she gasps, between hiccups. She prays that Meredith will understand, that she will hear the words Tess cannot find.

Meredith looks over Tess’s head at the front of the classroom, then at Miss Morris, who is helping Beth unjam the zipper of her jacket. “Grab your coat,” she says. The rest of Tess’s classmates are slipping out of their muddy shoes and making their way to their desks. No one sees Tess and Meredith leave.

In the car, Tess pulls her knees to her chest and cries until she thinks she is going to break. “Maybe you need to eat something,” Meredith suggests, and cracks her window to light a cigarette. This is not exactly convenient for Meredith—she says so several times while Tess is crying into her knees. She doesn’t have time to take Tess all the way back home. Tess will have to come along.

Tess turns her face sideways. “To the ballet?” she asks.

“To the rehearsal,” Meredith says.

But Tess does not want to go anywhere. She closes her eyes and waits for the world to disappear from the inside out, to swallow itself inside of her and go away forever.

“So,” Meredith says after a minute, “do puppets sing to you a lot?”

Tess opens her eyes, and they are still driving, the windshield wipers beating against a backdrop of drab sky. “Today is my birthday,” she says.

Meredith winces. “Oh God, I totally forgot,” she says. “Happy birthday.”

“Thanks,” Tess sniffs.

Meredith exhales a silvery stream of smoke through the slit at the top of the window. “Did you get anything cool?” she asks.

Tess looks down at the Raggedy Ann lunch box on her lap, and her face spasms into a fresh wave of tears, her shoulders heaving.

“Oh no.” Meredith covers her mouth with her hand as she starts to laugh. “I’m not laughing,” she says.

“It’s from Mrs. Stuart,” Tess says.

“Well, it’s truly awful,” Meredith says. “Relax, though. Your dad got you some good stuff.”

“Did he get me a dog?” Tess asks.

Meredith flicks the end of her cigarette out into the rain and rolls up her window. “No.”

Tess traces her finger around the edge of the lunch box. At one time she would have carried it without a thought, back when her shoes had Velcro straps and her mother put her hair in braids before she left for school. Back then, Tess could accept blue skies and bright suns and cartoon worlds where she could expect nothing but happiness. She cannot remember who she was then. “Sometimes,” she says, “I start crying and I can’t stop.”

Meredith glances sideways at her. “Well,” she says after a minute. “Welcome to the wonderful world of womanhood.”

They pull into a gas station, and Meredith hands Tess a quarter. “Call your father at work,” she says. “Explain.”

Tess crosses the parking lot to the phone booth, the rain soaking the back of her neck. Inside, she slips Meredith’s quarter into the slot and dials the number. The phone rings, and Tess thinks about what she will say to explain. Dirk and Deborah were wearing headbands, they brought guitars. Of all the things that had ever happened, this was the thing Tess would not have been able to survive. It would have killed her.

But these are all the wrong words. Her father will not understand. He will say that the puppet show would not have killed her, that she was being impossible. He will tell her to go back to school. “Good morning,” her father’s voice says, and Tess clicks the grimy receiver back onto its hook.

“Copacetic?” Meredith asks, when Tess climbs back into the car.

“Everything’s fine,” Tess tells her, and blows a chilly circle of fog onto the window. “Don’t worry.”

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