UNTIL THE DAY I made two girls cry in speech class, I always thought I left no impression. My stepsister Carla, also a sophomore, broke the news at the dinner table.
“Ricky made two socialites cry today,” she said, smacking the serving spoon flat onto the mashed potatoes. The pud it made matched the phlegmy sound of her voice.
I looked up from my plate. Carla and I didn’t acknowledge each other at school. She was a burnout with low-slung torpedo tits. I was cautious, featureless, a bus stop stand-alone holding his breath, beneath anyone’s notice.
“Georgie Porgie, puddin’ and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry,” said my mother in singsong, handing green beans one at a time to my baby half-sister in her highchair.
“It was all over school, Sue Larsen and Robin Baver bawling in class,” said Carla.
“All over Herrick’s Lake, you mean,” I countered. Carla and her friends got high at lunch in a forest preserve across the street from school.
“It’s pretty creepy,” she said.
“No one told them to cry. Jesus Christ,” I snarled.
The Lord’s name focused my mother somewhat. “So tell us what happened in school today, Rick.”
“Nothing. I read a story out loud in speech class. It was an assignment. It’s called Oral Interpretation, okay? I did a good job, okay?”
“He almost cried too,” announced Carla, trying to pull her father in, but for now Carl was working through his chuck steak. Instead of holding his fork between his thumb and forefinger, my stepfather ate with it stuck through his fist like a drill bit.
“I was interpreting the story orally. Sue and Robin got emotional.”
“Tracy Sawicki told me you really got into it too.”
A smear of dried zit cream under Carla’s collarbone cracked with the heaves of her fake sobs. She shouldn’t have bothered with the cream. Blemishes weren’t a problem on the third biggest chest at Wheaton-Warrenville. I could have made instant friends by giving out her bra size, but then kids would know we lived in the same house.
“Nah, I was only pretending to get into it, like Steve does when you’re on a blanket in the arboretum.”
“Eat shit and die, Ricky,” she said, giving me the finger.
My mother shifted her eyes to see whether Carl would reprimand his daughter for her language. When he didn’t, she pretended she hadn’t heard Carla over Lisa’s shout for more green beans and asked me what the story I read was about. I sighed like nothing in my life was worth an explanation and stared at the orange coffee grinders and horns of plenty on the glossy wallpaper. Carl had picked the pattern. My mother called it her Polish wallpaper behind his back. So easy to keep clean, she’d say, making a tiny face.
“It’s about a kid who lets his crippled brother die in the woods during a hurricane,” I said finally.
“That doesn’t sound very nice. Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s ashamed. He pretends he doesn’t hear his brother calling for help and when he comes back, Doodle is dead and bleeding by a nightshade bush.”
“Doodle?” snickered Carla.
The story I read in speech class was called “The Scarlet Ibis.” I’d done what Miss Schuette, the student teacher, said to do, which was to pretend I was the narrator looking back on the accident. I was supposed to see and feel everything he described. She said to find a reason why I had to tell the story, to make my listeners feel how I had loved my little brother Doodle as much as I hated him and wanted him to die.
Reading aloud I pretended that the words were painted on the back wall of yellow cinderblocks in Room 100. I made eye contact with the foreheads of three classmates, left, center, and right, like Miss Schuette told me to. When it was over and I was heading back to my desk I noticed that Sue Larsen’s shoulders were twitching and Robin Baver’s mascara was leaking into a Kleenex she held over her nose. From under the clock Miss Schuette was giving me a big thumbs-up sign. Mr. Wegner, the real teacher, kept clearing his throat at the podium. It was obvious that until then I was only a name in his attendance book. He mumbled something about the power of literature, and then it was someone else’s turn.
Robin Baver, so popular she could talk to anyone she wanted, turned around, her eyes like wet beetles. She mouthed, “Thank you.” Crying in class at a story a four-eyed nobody read probably made her feel soulful. I hoped that her boyfriend, Paul Hicks, wouldn’t think this soft spot of hers was a good excuse to punch me out in gym class. I rushed the door as soon as the bell rang.
“Why don’t you read it to all of us after supper?” suggested my mother in her “Let’s make this second marriage work” voice. She was big fan of Redbook’s monthly features on family togetherness. Carla made a gagging sound.
“I left it at school,” I muttered.
“I don’t believe you, son,” she said mildly, clocking plates to see if the food was disappearing to her satisfaction. “I’d sure like to hear it.”
“Went over better than the artichoke speech, huh?” said my stepfather.
I stiffened in my chair. I looked at the thick, freckled forearm guarding his dinner plate, at the dead black nail on his right forefinger. My mother was smiling as if to say, “See, he does pay attention. Now say something nice back.” I stared at the stripe of red roots in the part of his fake blond hair until my eyes blurred. I’d dug the box of Miss Clairol out from under their bathroom sink as proof that he dyed it, but my mother pretended it was hers.
To graduate from high school in Illinois in the seventies you had to pass two quarters of what they called Oral Communication. I was presently taking Oral Com II. Freshman year we had started Oral Com I with how-to speeches. One December afternoon, after a girl made origami Christmas ornaments and a jock waxed his skis, I pulled a foil package and a thermos of melted butter out of my book bag to show my classmates how to eat an artichoke.
I wasn’t trying to be original. I just liked artichokes, which I’d learned how to eat when my mother was still married to my father and we lived in Downers Grove, a ritzier town ten miles east of Wheaton. I began my speech by explaining the origins of the vegetable, the two different kinds, and how long it took to steam them in a double boiler, a utensil I drew on the blackboard with colored chalk. I tossed away the bitter skirt of outer leaves, then plucked off some edible ones and sieved the meat with my teeth. After detaching the choke in one piece with a knife and cutting up the heart, I invited everyone to come up for a taste.
Not one single person would try it. I was so surprised I walked down the aisle with the plate balanced on my fingertips. Begging isn’t pretty. Mrs. Widmar took one to be polite and pronounced the taste “different.”
Different is the kiss of death in high school, especially gray-green chunks of it speared by frilly toothpicks. Telling my mother and stepfather about it that night compounded the humiliation, so naturally it was the kind of thing Carl Schwob, the licensed psychologist who held his fork like an ape, would remember and bring up ten months later. He checked to see if he’d got me. I looked to the right, selected an awl from the collection of antique implements my mother had hung on the kitchen wall, and punched a new seam in his skull.
It was Carla’s night to clear and load. I went up to my room, sat in my beanbag chair, and tuned my radio to WLS. I could hear my mother and Carl getting ready to go bowling with the McClellans. If my mother was still married to my father, I would be eating real steak, not chuck. My classmates and teachers would know what an artichoke was, and I would know how to wax skis.
I grunted through the door at my mother’s cheery goodbye, but then she came in.
“Is the skirt crooked?” she asked, knowing it wasn’t. Her frosted pink fingertips glowed against the acid green pleats.
I shook my head.
“I think it’s wonderful that God gave you this talent.”
God? Did Redbook have a religion page? I flicked my metal beer mug trashcan to make it ping. And what talent was she talking about?
“Funny it should be for speech,” she continued.
“What do you mean, funny?”
I knew what she meant. I didn’t talk until I was nearly three years old. Not even “mama” or “dada” or “gimme,” supposedly. Family legend went that I didn’t have to, so perfectly were my mother and I able to communicate without words. My father and her mother finally broke us up by sending me down to Grandma’s house in Washington, D.C., where I was forced to talk. It was that, or no lunch.
What’s funny is that all these years later I can remember my grandmother standing by the open refrigerator door in her long, narrow kitchen, and me pointing at the bright yellow bottle on the shelf in the door. I can remember the tickle of her bracelet charms against my arm as she closed my hand in hers, and the flowery smell of her face powder as she stooped to tell me that she didn’t understand what it was I wanted. What I can’t remember is saying the first thing I ever said—”I’d like some mustard for my sandwich, please.”
Little Rick could talk all along. He just hadn’t needed to. Or wanted to. My father thought that was hilarious, especially the “please.” As I grew up, and listened to him repeat the story of the historic bologna and cheese in Washington, D.C., I began to take offense. Had he thought I was retarded? Eventually the implications—mama’s boy times ten—embarrassed me too.
My mother, stalling at the door, was wanting me to say the mustard line now. I did that sometimes just to cheer her up. She didn’t like bowling, I knew, or the pizza after, or Ron McClellan and his permanent five-o’clock shadow. We still didn’t need words to tell each other stuff like that. I rolled my eyes, splitting the difference. She shifted her ball bag to her other hand and blew a kiss.
I went down to warm Lisa’s bedtime bottle. Lisa was definitely saying “mama” and “dada” and “whazzat?” I had a list of words I was going to teach her, starting with “birth control.” I was pretty sure she’d been an accident, and once my mother was pregnant Carl made no secret of gunning for a boy. I liked to think Lisa heard him from the womb and decided to be a girl on purpose. It made her an ally.
I was feeding her when Steve Hendrie came by for Carla. While he waited, I told him about Sue and Robin crying in speech class. He leaned against the wall and pulled at the toothbrushes of hair at the corners of his upper lip. He used to listen to my stories.
After Lisa fell asleep I went to my room and undressed. I kicked my clothes across the hall into the dirty laundry pile at the bottom of the linen closet. Then I removed the finial from the curtain rod holding the psychedelic rug up over my bed and withdrew a crumpled, crusty baby sock. I set it on top of the clock radio and started jerking off. I didn’t think about anyone or anything except how to make it last. It took seven songs on the radio, plus commercials. The first shot hit my collarbone, not a record, but nearly.