By Bettyann Moore
“You know, maybe if you fixed yourself up a little … some makeup, a haircut … maybe wear a skirt once in a while …. Pass the peas, would you, Jim?”
Kathie Hudson glared over the top of her granny glasses at her sister, but the look was lost on Marie, who continued to jabber on.
“It’s a new life, a new place,” Marie declared. “You can reinvent yourself! With the right look, the right attitude, you could make new friends.”
“The right friends, no doubt,” Kathie said, even though she knew the sarcasm would be lost on Marie. Her brother-in-law, Jim, gave her a look, but went back to shoveling food into his face.
“Exactly!” Marie said, going into the kitchen to retrieve more bread. “I mean, why get involved with the same kind of people that you knew back home? Jonathon, sit up, please; you’re slouching. I saw that, Frank, quit trying to hide your peas.” Marie set the bread basket on the table and hooked her hands under her oldest son’s armpits and hauled him up straight.
Before she’d come to live with her sister, Kathie had never really noticed the ten years’ difference in their ages. When did Marie becomes such a … an … adult? True, they never really lived in the same house together for very long, but Marie was fast becoming a real drag. Kathie tried to keep her mouth shut; it was a huge thing for a 27-year-old to take on the care and feeding of a wayward teenager, but seriously, a new haircut? Wear a skirt? It was 1971, for cripes sake. Marie was poodle skirts and sweater sets to Kathie’s embroidered blue jeans and tie-dyed t-shirts. Maybe I should have just kept on running, Kathie thought.
“Can I be excused, Mom?” Jonathan said. “Can Auntie Kathie play Uno with us?” he added.
“Yes, you may,” their mom said, “but I think you should ask your Auntie Kathie about Uno.”
Kathie smiled at the two eager faces. That was one good thing, the nephews. They were naughty, snotty and oh, so much fun. Jonathan looked shyly at his aunt.
“Will you?” he asked.
“This’ll be our billionth game in less than a week, but sure, what the heck,” Kathie said, smiling.
“Yay!” the boys chorused.
“Wash up and put on your jams first,” Marie scolded, causing a louder chorus of of ‘awwwwws.’
Ten games of Uno over (Kathie) the dishes done and the kids put to bed (Marie), Kathie finally settled onto her “smoking porch,” the tiny second-floor balcony that no one used but her. Cigarettes were her last vice, having simply abandoned other drugs and alcohol. Not that she used any of it in great quantities.
If it weren’t for the railing, Marie would have knocked Kathie off the small space when she came barging through the door.
“Gimme one,” she demanded, holding out two fingers in the universal smoking symbol.
Kathie looked up and hesitated.
“A cigarette? You want a cigarette?” She was already pulling one from her crumpled pack. “Won’t Jim be upset, disown you and all that?”
Marie leaned up against the railing. She grabbed the offered cigarette and lighter and lit up, inhaling deeply. “He’s in the shower,” she said, nodding her head toward the window. “I only smoke when you’re around.”
“Oh, so it’s my fault?” Kathie said, only half-teasing. “If I jumped off this balcony, would you follow me then, too?”
Marie waved smoke from around her head. “Don’t be silly,” she said. Marie had never been good at recognizing sarcasm or nuance.
“So, anyway, like I was saying at dinner, I’d be glad to help you buy or make some new clothes. It’d be fun.”
“Fun for you maybe,” Kathie said. “I’m perfectly happy and comfortable wearing what I wear. ”
“Pffffft,” Marie said, blowing smoke out at the same time. She gave her sister a sidelong glance. “Make new friends at school yet?” she asked.
“I’ve only been there two weeks!” Kathie said. “Give me time. People in this town are weird anyway.”
“It’s like they’re not curious about anything!” Kathie said. “It’s like no one’s ever been anywhere or done anything and the really weird part is that they seem perfectly fine with that.”
Marie shrugged and took a long last draw off her cigarette. “You have to admit that we’re the weird ones here; most people haven’t lived in four different states on opposite ends of the country or gone to 12 different schools in 12 years. That’s what it’s been for you, hasn’t it?”
“So dazzle them with your experience, talk about your travels.”
“Around here, mentioning that you’d hitchhiked from Maine to California – twice – just makes everyone think you’re a freak.”
Marie laughed and pulled a small bottle of breath spray out of her apron pocket and aimed it into her mouth, then coughed.
“You still smell like smoke,” Kathie pointed out.
“I know, but I’ll just blame it on you.” Marie smirked. “Oh, I came out here for a reason!”
“You mean besides bumming a smoke off me?”
“Ha, smart ass. Yes, besides that. Now don’t kill me ...”
“Oh crap, now what?” Kathie lit up another cigarette and saw the envy in her sister’s eyes.
“It’s just I felt so bad that you’re so lonely ...”
“I’m not lonely!”
“Sure you are,” Marie forged on. “So, I have this friend who has a nephew; he’s a couple of years older than you are ...”
“No, you didn’t!”
“It’s no big deal,” Marie insisted. “It’s not like it’s even a real date. Just lunch.”
“Yes, at the First Congregational Church. On Sunday. It’s their annual fundraiser.”
“What? Where? A church? You’re kidding, right?”
“I thought it would be sort of, I don’t know, safe and, well, wholesome,” Marie said.
“Argh! I can’t believe you did that!” Kathie cried. “Wait, Sunday? This Sunday? Two days from now?”
“Yes, this Sunday, goofus. His name is Pete or Paul or something and he’ll be here at 11:30 to pick you up. I don’t think jeans and t-shirt are a good idea for a church function ...”
“Oh, so that’s what all that crap about new clothes was about!”
“Well … sort of.” Marie saw the light in the bathroom window go out; Jim would be wondering where she was. “Oh, and he’s going to call you on Saturday, you know, to get to know you a bit.”
“Oh for fuck ...” Kathie stopped and rolled her eyes. “Marie,” she said, “I know you’re doing what you think is best. And I appreciate you taking me in and all, I really do. So, I’ll go out on this non-date with some dork, but hear this: Never, ever get involved in my personal life again. I’m almost 18, I’ve been making my own decisions for a long time now. You lived with Mother once, you know what I mean. And, yeah, I messed up a little, but just let me get through this last year of school and I’ll be out of your hair.”
Marie cocked her head and reached out and stroked her sister’s cheek. “Oh, sweetie, I don’t want you ‘out of my hair.’ I love having you here! But I hear you, I’ll back off. Probably.” She chucked Katie under the chin, grinned and went back inside, humming.
“Oh crap.” Kathie sat down on the cold cement and crushed out her cigarette in the tuna can that served as her make-shift ashtray. She was just so damn tired. Tired of making it up as she went along. Tired of running. Tired of being the ‘bad girl.’ She pulled her knees up and rested her head on them. Maybe her sister was right. Maybe she needed to remake herself, see if maybe hanging around with the ‘good kids’ would turn things around. She snorted and lit up another cigarette. “Maybe so,” she said aloud, “but I’ll bet they’re not half as fun.”
“Oh, Kathieeeeee!” Marie sung out the next evening, “there’s someone on the phone for youuuuuu!” She held out the receiver as Kathie uncurled herself from the floor where she’d been trying to teach cribbage to her nephews. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes as she took the phone from her sister.
“Uh, hi, um, this is Peter, uh, Johnson. Uh, we’re, uh, going to a ….”
Trying to get over the name Peter Johnson – who would do that to a child? – Kathie broke in. “To a church luncheon tomorrow?” she supplied.
“Yeah, yeah, that.”
“Oh, hi,” Kathie said, shooting daggers with her eyes at her sister. “Nice to hear from you.” Ack, she thought, how inane!”
“Oh, right, yeah, my aunt thought ...”
“Sure, a good idea,” Kathie broke in again. She hoped she could just chalk off the stammering to being nervous, though the guy was two years older and all. “So, do you go to the Congregational church?” she asked, feeling like she was dragging stuff out of him. “Just so you know, I’m not much of a church-goer.” Marie was in a fit of silent laughter, so Kathie turned away from her.
“No, uh, that’s, like, my aunt’s church. Me and my parents go to Holy Redeemer. We’re Catholic.”
Kathie’s mind raced. He had a bad grasp of grammar, first of all. He likely lived with his parents. And they belonged to one of the most patriarchal institutions in the world. Nice match-up, Marie, she thought.
“Ha, well, the one and only time I was in a Catholic church, I got stalked. It was in Mexico City, at the Metropolitan Cathedral. Ever been there?”
“No. Never been south of Dixon.”
“You mean the Mason-Dixon line?”
“No, Dixon. Dixon, Illinois? Family has a farm down there. Governor Ronald Reagan was born there.” Peter sounded proud.
Kathie’s heart sunk. Reagan, the B-movie actor, the guy who eliminated free schooling in her home state? Ronald RAYguns? Ugh. She went on anyway.
“Yeah, so it’s this huge, gorgeous place with all this sculpture, a gold altar and stained glass, carvings and amazing art everywhere. I was there with a bunch of kids from Spanish class. You ever take Spanish?”
Silence. “Huh? Uh, no, I took shop.”
“Right,” Kathie went on. “So we’re following a tour guide around and suddenly I feel someone, like, right behind me, breathing down my neck. I turn and it’s this guy and he’s looking at the art like he doesn’t even notice me. So I sort of squeeze my way through the group and get closer to the guide. But it happens again and again. Even the kids in my class start noticing because he gives up pretending he’s taking the tour and just stares and stares at me.”
No comment from Peter. Maybe this wasn’t the best story to tell, Kathie thought, but went on anyway.
“Finally, I tell one of the chaperones and she grabs my arm like it’s my fault and drags me out to the bus and makes me stay out there with the bus driver until everyone else is done with the tour. That was even scarier because the guy comes out of the cathedral and he stands right outside the bus and stares into the windows. I’m all hunkered down in a seat, but I keep thinking the only thing standing between me and being abducted is the bus driver who doesn’t speak any English and keeps a bottle of tequila under his seat.”
“Wow,” Peter finally said.
“Yeah, well, it turned out okay, obviously, because I’m here, but that was my one and only time in a Catholic church.”
“Holy Redeemer doesn’t have no art,” Peter said. “Except maybe the stuff the kids hang outside the Sunday school room.”
“There’s no statues of Jesus or Mary or stained glass or anything?” Kathie asks.
“Well, yeah, stuff like that, but no art.”
Kathie took a deep breath. “Wow, look at the time!” she said. “I’ve got homework I need to finish, so I better get to it. Good-bye, Peter, nice talking to you!” Kathie hung up the phone before he could get another word in.
“Holeeeee crap, Marie!” she said, throwing herself into an armchair, “what have you gotten me into?”
“Auntie Kathie said ‘crap’,” Frank said, elbowing his brother.
“Frank,” Marie said, giving him a warning look. “Why don’t you two head up and brush your teeth? I’ll be right up.”
“Aw, do we have to?”
Marie waited until the boys were safely up the stairs. “Little pitchers have big ears,” she said. “How come I never heard that story about the cathedral before?”
“I got a million of ‘em,” Kathie said flatly. “And quit trying to change the subject! I think I’m going to be sick by tomorrow.”
“Oh, come on, he can’t be that bad. Besides, you only had one little conversation with him and from where I was sitting, it was pretty one-sided.”
“For good reason!” Katie said. “The boy took shop! He likes Ronald Reagan! He lives with his parents! He’s never been south of Dixon … Illinois, in case you’re wondering.”
Marie got up from the floor and stretched, groaning. “Since when did you become such a snob?” she asked.
“Snob? Me?” Kathie sputtered.
“Yeah, you.” Marie bent down and picked up the game. “So he’s a little rough around the edges, so what? He sounds sweet and loyal; he’d probably treat you like gold. Not like that last guy. What was his name? John? Judas?”
“Jonah, his name was Jonah,” Kathie said. “Don’t go there, sister of mine.”
Marie sighed. “Fine, I won’t go there, but I think you see my point. Just go out with the guy one time and that will be that.”
Kathie buried her face in her hands. “Fine,” she said, her voice muffled. “But only because you said that if I did you’d butt out of my business. Right?”
Marie was flitting about, straightening things that didn’t need straightening.
“Right, Marie?” Kathie took her hands away from her face.
“Right, right,” Marie replied vaguely. A thump sounded overhead. “I really need to get those boys to bed before they kill each other. You know how siblings are.” She smirked at her sister and headed up the stairs.
Kathie grimaced at her image in the mirror. “I’ll never, ever let her talk me into something like this again,” she said to her reflection. She knew the curlers were a bad idea, she wasn’t sure just how bad until now. She grabbed an elastic band then brushed, pulled and smoothed the wildness into submission. She looked like a school marm, but what the heck, she was going to a church social after all. At least she’d put her foot down about wearing a short skirt and heels; the long gauze skirt and loose-knit blouse were comfortable and hers, not her sister’s.
“God, you look like a refugee from Little House on the Prairie,” Marie said when she saw her. “You sure I can’t find a bonnet for you?”
“Very funny,” Kathie said. “I’m not out to impress anyone. What you see is what you get.”
The doorbell rang and Jonathan jumped up from his circle of Tonka trucks and ran to get to it first, Frank close at his heels.
“Me, let me!” Frank said, pulling on his brother’s shirt. “Mom! Tell him it’s my turn!”
“Boys ...” Marie cautioned. She nudged the boys out of the way and opened the door herself.
Peter Johnson was big, hulking big. The corduroy jacket he wore barely covered his wrists and strained across his shoulders. Kathie was relieved that he wasn’t wearing a tie and that his brown suede shoes needed a good brushing. He reminded her of the wrestlers at school; it looked, in fact, that he’d had his nose broken a time or two. If he was a jock – Kathie hated all sports – that would definitely put the nail in the coffin.
Marie ushered him inside, babbling inanely about his aunt, the boys, how nice it was to meet him.
“And this,” she said, turning to Kathie, “is my much younger sister Kathie.”
If Marie was looking for some sort of compliment about how young she looked for her age (and she was, Kathie knew), she was barking up the wrong hulking tree. Peter offered Kathie a limp hand to shake without really looking at her.
Jonathan tugged on the big man’s coat sleeve. “Do you like trucks?” he asked. “I have a zillion Tonka trucks.” He held one up for Peter to see.
“Hey, that’s a 1964 Mighty Dump,” Peter gushed. “The first and the best.”
“Yeah?” Jonathan said. “It was my dad’s even though he was too old to play with trucks.”
Kathie could see this turning into a marathon. She wanted to get this over with.
“Well, we better get going,” she said before Peter could be drawn down to kid level. “I’m hungry already.”
“Uh, sure,” Peter stammered, looking like he’d rather be on the floor playing with the boys. “Uh, nice to meet you Mrs. Hunter.”
The car waiting at the curb was a big brown Oldsmobile with brown interior. Kathie was surprised not to see Peter’s father at the wheel; it was obviously his dad’s car.
“Nice car,” she murmured as she settled in her seat, making sure her skirt wouldn’t get stuck in the door.
“Oh, yeah, thanks.” He started up the car and pulled away from the curb, even using his blinker.
“Just bought it a week ago at Rhode’s.”
“Oh.” There went the father’s car theory.
“You ever been?”
“No, can’t say that I have. I haven’t been here that long and I don’t drive.”
“Rhode is good people,” Peter said. “Never cheats a guy. It was between this and a TransAm.”
“And you chose this.” Kathie tried to keep the incredulity out of her voice. It seemed that young Mr. Johnson could talk after all, as long as it was about cars or Tonka trucks.
“Yep. Them TransAms are for jocks. I ain’t no jock.”
Kathie was pleasantly surprised. “So, you didn’t wrestle or play football in school?”
“Me?” Peter took his eyes off the road for a second to give her a look. “Oh,” he said, noticing how she looked at his face. “My nose. That’s from my Pa.”
“Your dad hit you?”
“No, he was carrying a two-by-four and he stopped short. I sort of run into it.”
It wasn’t funny, but Kathie had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing.
“Here we are,” Peter said, parking on a street that looked a lot like Marie’s street. Kathie couldn’t get used to how close everything was.
The church hall, a low-ceiling ed, beige room with black and white floor tiles, echoed with the hum of people talking much too loudly. It smelled of overcooked chicken, old cabbage and sneakers.
“What do you think the mean age is?” Kathie said as they searched for a place to sit down. “75? 80?”
Peter frowned. “Just cuz they’re old doesn’t mean they’re mean,” he said.
“No, I meant … oh, never mind. There’s a couple of spots over there,” she said, nodding to a table.
The elderly people at the table barely looked up from their plates of chicken, coleslaw, beans and bread. The food was served cafeteria style; Peter volunteered to go get their plates while Kathie held their chairs.
“Light on the beans,” she told him. She looked around the table and saw a blue-haired woman dressed in an orange and blue kaftan eying her.
“Such a sweet boy,” the old lady said. “He must love you bunches.”
“Well, actually, this is the first time we met,” Kathie told her.
The woman elbowed the man next to her, causing his fork, which had been mid-mouth, to clatter to his plate. “You hear that, Malcolm?” she said. “Boy doesn’t even know the girl and he’s waiting on her hand and foot.”
“Eh? Your foot bothering you again? Give it a wiggle or two and leave me be.”
The woman nodded at Kathie. “See?” she said. “You got it good. Latch onto that one.”
Peter appeared and set a heaping plate of food in front of Kathie; his had even more. She should have told him she only liked white meat.
“I can get more if you want,” Peter said, tucking a napkin under his shirt collar.
“Hmm, I’ll think about that,” Kathie said dryly, trying to separate the slaw from the beans.
“Such a gentleman,” the old woman said, elbowing Malcolm again. Peter blushed and the old man grunted.
“Such a pretty girl,” the woman said to Kathie. “I don’t recognize you, though. Who’s your family?”
The other people at the table, including the woman’s husband, raised their heads.
“You probably don’t know them,” Kathie said. “They’ve only been hear a couple of years. My sister’s family, the Hunters?”
“There’s Jake Hunter out on Wilkins Road,” another woman chimed in. “His family up and left him, though.”
“Hunter … Hunter … they in that Church of Ladder Date Saints?” another old man piped in.
“No-o-o-o,” Kathie said, smiling. Peter kept shoveling in the food.
“What about you, boy?” Blue-hair asked. “You have kin?”
Peter swallowed and took a long drink of milk before replying. “My grandpa was Steward Johnson, lived out on Knoll Hill?”
“Papist,” one of the old guys muttered and went back to his plate.
“Oh my, Stewie Johnson,” Blue-hair crowed. “Why, he used to be keen on me back in the day.” She fluffed her stiff hair and gave her husband a meaningful look. He gnawed off a hunk of drumstick.
“My Aunt Doris goes here,” Peter said, nodding to indicate the whole church.
“My yes, she’s in the choir. Voice of an angel,” Blue-hair said. She reached over and patted Kathie’s hand. “Family tells,” she said, nodding sagely. “A keeper,” she added, whispering.
As it was, Kathie and Peter never really talked during lunch. That was okay with Kathie; she only knew so much about cars. It was just after one o’clock when they pulled up outside her sister’s house. Given it was daylight, Kathie didn’t worry about that “after date kiss.”
“Thank you for the nice lunch,” she said, reaching for the door handle. She thought she saw the curtain move in the living room.
“Yep,” Peter said.
Kathie hopped out of the car, gave a little wave and headed into the house. Glad that’s over, she thought.
“So?” Marie asked at the door where she’d obviously been waiting.
“So nothing,” Kathie said. “We ate, we came home. He’s not my type, Marie. Nice in a boring kind of way, but there’s just no spark.”
“Oh, come on! You barely gave the boy a chance!” Marie was following Kathie up the stairs. All Kathie wanted to do was get into some jeans, take some Alka-Seltzer and play trucks with the boys. She stopped on the step above her sister and turned to face her.
“I did what you wanted me to do,” she said. “It’s done. Now keep your part of the bargain.”
“But what if he calls?” Marie asked. “Then what? What should I say?”
“I don’t care,” Kathie said, going to her tiny room. “Tell him I have scurvy. Tell him I died. Besides, he’s not going to call, trust me.” She shut her door firmly behind her.
“He’s going to call!” Marie yelled through the door. “Sister’s intuition!”
Unfortunately, Marie was right.