October

Becky Hagenston

 

On a cool October afternoon, Jenny’s cousin Francesca came to visit for the last time. Jenny’s mother had gone to the Giant for groceries and her father was outside raking leaves when the car—a wood-paneled Brady Bunch station wagon—lurched into the cracked driveway, a full hour ahead of schedule. Jenny watched from her bedroom window as Francesca’s father’s bald head emerged from the car, then Francesca’s mother. And finally, Francesca herself, with a wail Jenny could hear through her closed window two stories up.  Francesca was eleven, the same as Jenny; she had a Dorothy Hamill haircut, and her parents let her wear turquoise tights to school. Jenny’s mother called her Famous Francesca, which made Jenny jealous even though she knew her mother didn’t mean it in a good way.

            Jenny stepped away from the window, feeling ill with shyness. “Dad?” she yelled, though she knew he couldn’t hear. The doorbell rang, and for a moment Jenny considered not answering it; maybe her cousin and her aunt and uncle would get back in their car and drive away. But of course they didn’t. The doorbell rang again; then there was knocking, the sound of Francesca’s father shouting, “Anybody home?”

            “Yes, yes!” Jenny called, forcing herself to run down the steps.

            “Why, hello!” cried Aunt Renee, when Jenny pulled the door open. Aunt Renee was solid and red-haired, like Jenny’s father. She leaned down to kiss Jenny on the cheek, then stepped aside to let her husband, Uncle Tim, do the same. Behind them, Francesca was pouting and staring at her shiny black shoes, holding a blue suitcase in front of her with both hands like an orphan. When her parents came into the dim foyer, Francesca stayed where she was.

            “Don’t mind her,” said Uncle Tim. He was tall and skinny and stank of cigarettes. Jenny had almost forgotten that smell, and how her mother would wrinkle her nose and wave her hand in front of her face when Uncle Tim kissed her hello. “She’s having a moment.”

            “Oh,” said Jenny. Francesca had yet to even lift her eyes. Jenny wasn’t sure if she was supposed to leave the front door open—a breeze whiffled some dead leaves on the porch—and so was both relieved and confused when her aunt reached out and slammed it.

 

Famous Francesca and her parents stopped in western Maryland once a year, on the way from their home in Alexandria to visit Uncle Tim’s parents in Syracuse. They usually came for the Fourth of July, but this summer something had happened—Jenny thought it had to do with Uncle Tim’s restaurant—and so they didn’t. For the Bicentennial, Jenny’s mother had bought Francesca a Betsy Ross dress that exactly matched Jenny’s own, and it hung now in Jenny’s closet, the white, beribboned cap pinned to one puffy sleeve.

            Jenny had been looking forward to telling Francesca about the Bicentennial Parade, how she had marched behind the Uncle Sam float, twirling her baton. There had been Rocket Pops and sparklers and fireworks on the lawn of the high school; Jenny and her parents sat so close that burnt pieces of paper had floated down on them like wreckage. Jenny had wanted to ask Francesca if she’d ever sat that close to fireworks, because she was pretty sure she hadn’t.

            But now something had happened that made fireworks and Betsy Ross seem very unimportant, something so awful and shameful that Jenny hadn’t even dared write about it in her green Dear Diary. The only person she could possibly tell, she knew, was Francesca—because it was the sort of thing Francesca had possibly done herself, and because she would leave tomorrow and not come back for another year, by which time the horrible, shameful thing would be a distant memory, or perhaps not even a memory at all.

            “Which is worse,” Jenny planned on saying, when she and Francesca were tucked into their sleeping bags on her floor, “your naked front or your naked butt?” Jenny hoped she would say the front—Jenny’s mother had bought her a training bra over the summer—but she feared it was, in fact, the butt, and it was this part of herself that the man across the street had quite possibly seen. It was this part of herself that, despite her mother’s warnings to pull your blinds down when you undress, you’re a big girl now!—she had deliberately wiggled right up next to the window, shades up and lights on, one evening last month. She had absolutely no idea why she’d done it.

            Maybe, she thought, Francesca had done something similar and could tell her it was okay, and that Jenny wasn’t a crazy pervert. Or that it wasn’t, and she was.

 

Francesca’s parents knew exactly where the guestroom was, so they disappeared down the hall with their suitcases, leaving Jenny standing in the living room by the front door. It was four o’clock on a Saturday; the cuckoo clock above the sofa made its hourly strangling sound—the little dancing boy and girl had been trapped behind the tiny wooden doors for years, ever since Jenny had tried to pry them out for her dollhouse. She put her ear to the door: Francesca was still on the porch, humming a song Jenny almost recognized. Jenny was debating what to do when she heard her mother’s car pull into the driveway. Then came her mother’s voice: “Francesca! What are you doing out here?”

            “Hi, Aunt Teresa!” Francesca said cheerfully. “I was just waiting for someone to let me in. Oh, hi there, Uncle Ricky!”

            Jenny’s mother shouldered her way inside, a bag of groceries in each arm. Behind her, Jenny’s father was holding the door with one hand and the rake with another. Francesca swept into the house and curtsied at Jenny for some reason. Jenny was too surprised to curtsy back.

            “Why didn’t you open the door for your cousin?” her mother said crossly. It was too hard to explain, so Jenny didn’t say anything. Instead she said to Francesca, “You want to come up to my room?”

            Francesca twisted a finger in her dimple. “Well, doy,” she said, which Jenny took to mean yes.

 

The last time Francesca visited, she had brought her older brother’s MAD magazines, which she had stolen—she informed Jenny—from his underwear drawer. There were other magazines in the drawer, too, but when Don went to college they’d disappeared. “Naked people,” Francesca had said, breezily. But today Francesca had brought ballet books, which she spread over Jenny’s bed—full color paperbacks featuring skinny-armed women in white tutus. “You can pick one to read,” she said. “And then I’ll show you my toe shoes, and then you can try them on if your feet aren’t too big.”

            Famous Francesca, Jenny always managed to forget, was exhausting. “Did you find any more naked magazines?” she asked, but Francesca was standing in front of the mirror with her arms in a circle and seemed not to hear.

            “What were you yelling about before?” Jenny tried.

            Francesca rose on her tiptoes. “My parents were being assholes,” she said. “I wanted to stay home and go to Cathy’s slumber party, and they told me I’m too young to be alone, but I’m not. I’m not a baby. I’m not going to burn the house down.”

            “Babies shouldn’t play with matches,” Jenny said, in a mock-stern voice. Francesca rolled her eyes. Jenny thought of herself as having a sense of humor—her teacher Ms. Grimm was always scolding her for making jokes in class—but Francesca sucked the wit right out of her and made her feel strange and stupid. Jenny had carefully stashed her Baby Alive doll in the very back of her closet, along with the packets of bright green and yellow powder that turned into baby food, then baby poop and vomit.  The doll was an eleventh birthday present from her grandmother; even though Jenny knew she was too old for it, she enjoyed the way the doll would chew at her fingers, like a kitten. She had placed the respectable toys—Perfection, Pay Day, and Mouse Trap—in a neat stack by her shoe tree.

            From downstairs came The Carpenters on the record player. Her father and his sister Aunt Renee were laughing in the same cackling voice. There would be drinks: red wine and whisky with ice. Jenny’s parents never drank, except when Aunt Renee and Uncle Tim came to visit, and then they drank a lot. She had been to their house only once, a red brick mansion (“It’s not a mansion,” said her father.) with white carpets and a stereo in the living room and a rumpus room with beanbag chairs and a full wall of glasses and bottles. Francesca’s bedroom was pale pink, with a canopy bed and posters of Andy Gibb and Leif Garrett on the walls. Jenny’s mother wouldn’t let her have posters of “shirtless boys,” as she called them, so Jenny had taped a tree frog and a sloth from Ranger Rick magazine above her bureau. At night, it seemed like their big eyes glowed in the dark, even though she knew they didn’t.

            Francesca was flopped on Jenny’s bed reading one of her ballet books, twisting her hair into ringlets. She yawned.

            “Do you want to see the Betsy Ross outfits?” Jenny said. “There are caps and everything.”

            Francesca shrugged, not looking up.

            From downstairs came more laughter, the smell of meat frying. Outside, the sky was already dark. Jenny pulled the curtains wider; across the street, Mr. Todd’s house was lit on the first floor but not the second. She had never seen a Mrs. Todd. A jack-o-lantern glowed on the front porch, even though Halloween was two weeks away. “Do you want to spy on the man across the street who showed me his butt?” Jenny said.

 

Many years later, Jenny would ask her mother if her father had been jealous of Uncle Tim—his restaurant, his big house, his two children. “Your father was perfectly happy with just one child,” was her only response, which suggested to Jenny that this was what he regretted the most, much more than his job as a car salesman or a hundred-year-old house that flooded with every rainstorm. She never knew why she had no siblings, and was too embarrassed to ever ask.

            But she felt certain that her father was, in fact, jealous of Don in College, Francesca’s older brother. She had met him once, in Alexandria—a tall, ruddy boy who had stayed downstairs with the adults while she and Francesca played Battleship upstairs on the pink canopy bed. Much of the dinner conversation this October night centered around Don: his soccer team, his studies, his new car. Francesca kicked at Jenny’s legs under the table. “Stop it,” Jenny hissed, because she was feeling sophisticated with her wine glass of cranberry juice.  Francesca kicked her again, raised her eyebrows. After Jenny had told the lie about Mr. Todd, Francesca had said, “We should prank call him.”

            “Well, no,” said Jenny.

            “Yes,” said Francesca. “You’ll see.”

            There were white candles in the middle of the table; the steaks looked bloody in the flickering light. Uncle Tim made his way around the chairs with a wine bottle and pretended to pour some into Francesca’s and Jenny’s glasses. The adults were speaking very loudly—about cars now, the price of gas.

            “I’ve got gas,” Francesca said, grinning, and Jenny was surprised when her mother laughed and said, “Good one.”

            Her father belched, then opened his eyes wide. “Who did that?” he said, looking around the table. Sometimes, watching her parents get drunk, Jenny began to feel drunk herself, her head full of bubbles. She giggled, knocked over her water glass. Then Francesca knocked hers over. “Woops,” she said. Neither girl moved as the water and ice crept toward the edges of the table.

            “Girls,” said Aunt Renee: a warning, but not a real one.

             “Go get a rag, please,” said Jenny’s mother. When Jenny stood, Francesca jumped up, too. The two girls went into the kitchen, where the fat from the steaks and the chopped ends of asparagus filled the sink.  There were two forgotten apple pies sitting in their cardboard boxes, empty paper bags strewn on the floor.

            “Let’s call your neighbor,” said Francesca, lifting the yellow phone off the hook on the wall. “Hello?” she said into it. “Can I see your butt again?”

            Jenny peeked out the swinging door: the adults were gathering themselves up from the table, her mother leaning against her father’s shoulder, Aunt Renee picking up the bottle of wine. They would be heading into the living room, where there was already a bottle of her father’s whisky on the sideboard, and wrapped chocolates in a bowl. This is where they would stay for the rest of the evening, drinking and playing records.

            She felt a pinch on her arm and turned to see Francesca wearing a paper bag over her head. “I’m the evil bag head,” came her hollow voice.

            Jenny was relieved that the idea of prank calling Mr. Todd seemed to be forgotten. “No, I am!” she said, putting a bag on her own head. From inside, the paper smelled like tin cans and celery. Her voice sounded too loud.

            She never remembered whose idea it was to put on the Betsy Ross dresses, or how they managed to get past the grownups and up the steps without being caught and made to go back for rags to sop up the spilled water; she wouldn’t remember whose idea it was to use her safety scissors to cut identical round holes in each bag—two for the eyes, one for the mouth—and roll each bag up around their necks. The little white caps wouldn’t fit now, but that didn’t matter. They held hands as they walked silently down the hardwood steps and stood barefoot in the living room.

            It seemed to take a very long time for the adults to stop talking. From her eyeholes, Jenny thought the world seemed both larger and smaller, and she had the odd thought that she wanted to wear a paper bag mask all the time, just to see everything in this strange way. Her mother, she noticed for the first time, was wearing a green dress that revealed a swath of upper thigh; there was a rip in one black stocking. Her father’s nose and Aunt Renee’s were a revelation: they were the exact same ski slope, and in a flash Jenny saw them as they must have looked as children. Her father’s mouth was open; his eyes looked red. Everyone else had taken their shoes off, but he was still wearing his. Uncle Tim’s forehead was sweating. His wine glass was chipped on the stem.

            “What have we here?” said Uncle Tim, breaking the spell.

            Jenny and Francesca hadn’t talked about what would come next; they stayed silent.

            “I think it’s two little girls,” said Aunt Renee. She laughed tightly. “But damn if I can’t figure out which is which. Francesca, where are you? Yoo hoo? Is my daughter in there somewhere?”

             They didn’t answer. Jenny realized she didn’t know if she could answer. Then she felt Francesca tug her hand, pull her down the dim hallway toward the kitchen, past a row of photographs that Jenny couldn’t see but knew were there. They stopped in front of the hall mirror and looked: Two bagged heads, blank round eyes; O’s for mouths. A ruffle of ribbon at their throats. One of the bag-heads was slightly taller, but Jenny didn’t know if it was her or Francesca.

            Laughter poured from the living room and still neither of them had said a word. Then Francesca was pulling her into the kitchen and out the back door. The pavement was a shock of cold on bare feet. Jenny stuck her tongue through her mouth hole and followed Francesca across the lawn—the brittle grass, the slime of slick leaves—then across the street to Mr. Todd’s house, half-hidden by golden-leaved trees. Mr. Todd was older than Jenny’s parents, quiet and dark-haired. He came over with their newspaper when it ended up on his step. It occurred to her that she didn’t know if Todd was his first or his last name. He was their closest neighbor; the other houses were set back from the road behind long, leafy driveways.

            Jenny stood on Mr. Todd’s lawn and watched Francesca walk up the two steps to the front porch and push the doorbell—a low, jangling sound. She grabbed the glowing jack-o’-lantern and then vanished from Jenny’s line of sight. She’s going to smash it, Jenny thought, turning in a circle. There was a rustle to her left, a soft giggle. It was getting hard to breathe in her bag; her mouth hole was damp. She started to say, What is it? and that’s when she saw Francesca squatting on the ground, lifting up her Betsy Ross dress. Her underpants were around her ankles. There was the soft hiss of liquid on flame. Francesca stood up and carefully stepped over the now-dark jack-o’-lantern.

            Mr. Todd was standing in the bright doorway, staring down at them.

            “Run,” said Francesca.

            And then they were around the side of Jenny’s own house, clattering up the back porch to the kitchen door and into the shocking warmth and brightness. She tore off her bag to see Francesca’s red and stricken face panting at her.

             “What is wrong with you?” she said.

            “What’s wrong with you?” Francesca snapped.

            “He’s going to come over,” Jenny said. “He saw us run over here.” She could feel her heart pounding in her throat, as she waited for the sound of the doorbell, or pounding on the front door, or yelling. “We’re going to get in so much trouble.”

            But there was nothing but the sound of laughter from down the hall, “Hotel California,” the clink of ice. Finally, Jenny left Francesca standing in the kitchen and went back to the living room.

            “Oh, there you are,” said her mother. Her eyes looked glassy.

            “Nice to see your lovely faces,” said Aunt Renee.

            “Why don’t you girls go upstairs and play,” said Uncle Tim.

 

Jenny and Francesca were silent as they put on their nightgowns, after two half-hearted games of Pay Day. Jenny had checked three times to make sure the blinds were drawn tight, and the next day she would realize that the maple tree in front of her window would have blocked Mr. Todd’s view of anything.

            “He’s not coming over,” Francesca said, flicking her little plastic car across the room. She sounded disappointed.

            “We should be glad,” Jenny said, but she wasn’t glad, either. What should happen was a spanking, or maybe her mother screaming, or Mr. Todd calling them a couple of monsters. She said, “You can keep the Betsy Ross dress,” but Francesca put it in the dirty clothes hamper and murmured, very politely, “No, thanks.” She gathered up her ballet books and stacked them on top of her blue suitcase and began unrolling her sleeping bag on the floor. Jenny climbed into her twin bed and punched her pillow. She wanted to ask, Why did you do that? But she was afraid Francesca would say, Why did you? and that would just make her even more confused.

            “You girls are quite the team,” her mother said, when she came to tuck them in. Aunt Renee said, “Couple of weirdos.” She sounded amused. “Maybe you’ll be actresses in the movies.”

            “Or maybe we’ll die young,” said Francesca solemnly, after the mothers had left.

            Yes, thought Jenny—maybe we will. It seemed to her then that there were three choices available to them, and to all children: die young, become monsters, become famous.

            The next year, Francesca got to stay home and go to her slumber party; the year after that, Uncle Tim was busy opening another restaurant. After that, they saw each other only at weddings—Don’s—and grandparents’ funerals. Uncle Tim and Aunt Renee would eventually divorce; Jenny’s parents would stay married until she was out of college. She would never figure out what was happening that October night between the adults—maybe, probably, nothing. Mostly—even more than Francesca peeing on Mr. Todd’s jack-o’-lantern—she would remember the shock of seeing her and Francesca’s bagged faces in the hall mirror and not knowing who was who.

            On Halloween, she dressed as a gypsy fortune teller and went trick-or-treating with her friends Sarah and Carol, who were both dressed as Wonder Woman. She couldn’t look at Mr. Todd as she held out her plastic bag for a handful of Smarties. He was smiling, cheerful. “Great costumes, girls!” he called to them. The jack-o’-lantern was still sitting there, a new candle flickering inside it. Jenny and her mother had tried to carve a pumpkin, but it was a disaster. “We’ll make a pie,” her mother had said at last. Later that Halloween night, dividing her candy into chocolate and non-chocolate piles, Jenny thought of Mr. Todd carving his jack-o’-lantern all by himself at his own kitchen table. How carefully he must have worked to make the eyes and nose such perfect triangles, the teeth so sharp in that soft, surprised mouth.

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