It’s Saturday, the middle of the night, way past my curfew, and I’m standing in an alley just outside the Fleishman’s backyard with Anthony Ware and his skinny friend Jack Burns. I’m ready to hop the fence with them and break into the Fleishman’s house. The plan is to make it into the bonus room, where skinny Jack says Mrs. Fleishman’s diamond watch waits for us in an unlocked drawer, where on a high shelf sits a shit load of Dr. Fleishman’s booze that Jack swears he’ll never miss.
It is said around school that the Fleishman’s still have their daughter Michelle’s ashes in an urn on their bedroom dresser. Some eight years later and they’re holding on, rumor has it. Claire Carmichael, who used to clean their house, told us an elaborate story about how she once found Mrs. Fleishman sitting on the bed in just her bra and jeans with the urn in her lap and her hand inside the urn like a kid playing in a sandbox.
It was lunch time and a whole group of us were sitting at a long table in the cafeteria, listening to Claire. You were friends with her, Evelyn, weren’t you? she said, looking at me.
Not really, I said.
You were too, someone said.
Damn, she was mean, Claire said.
We all nodded, remembering our own sour moments with Michelle: if you fell down outside the lockers, it was her exaggerated laugh that pierced the air and made its way to your heart, it was her smart and hurtful nicknames, and if she imitated your walk, you never felt right in your own shoes again.
You could hear Mrs. Fleishman’s wedding ring clanking around in the urn. I swear, Claire told us.
Where were you? I wanted to know.
Their bedroom door was cracked open and I was in the hall watching. Mrs. Fleishman might have been drunk.
Maybe she was on pills, someone said.
Mr. Fleishman is a doctor, someone else said.
What were her titties like? a boy asked.
We all looked at him.
What? he said. Claire told us about the bra.
Shut up, someone said.
Let Claire talk, I said.
All I know is that Mrs. Fleishman’s hand was in that urn and then it was out of the urn, and she was letting her kid’s bits pour through her fingers. It was gross, really gross, Claire insisted.
Soon after Claire lost her job and kids at school were saying that she’d been stealing money and jewelry from Mrs. Fleishman but Claire swore to us she hadn’t stolen a thing, that Mrs. Fleishman was just embarrassed being caught like that, and Claire said that she’d be taking the Fleishman’s to court for breach of contract and maybe even slander.
That woman was playing with her daughter’s bits, Claire said adamantly, and then she popped the last of her corndog in her mouth, using her teeth to scrape the last inch from the wooden stick.
Standing at the Fleishman’s fence I’m imagining Michelle’s urn right there next to Mrs. Fleishman’s jewelry box and earring tree, right next to Dr. Fleishman’s stethoscope and reading glasses, and reminding myself that Michelle Fleishman might be dead, sure, but she was the meanest bitch in school. Standing here, ready to commit a crime, I’m reminding myself of just how mean she was—with helpers and minions, of which I was one for a short while in elementary school before I knew any better. I’m telling myself that even though her parents were always outwardly kind to me, inviting me to dinner when I came over on Wednesdays after Girl Scouts, that down deep inside they must have been mean, that when the doors closed their true horrible selves must have emerged, or else how would they have raised such a mean daughter? I’m telling myself that because Dr. and Mrs. Fleishman are mean it’s okay to steal one watch and a bottle of vodka.
How do you know Dr. Fleishman won’t miss the booze? I say.
‘Cause he’s in AA with my mom and dad, Jack says.
Why keep the liquor around then? I press. Why not throw it out?
In case he changes his mind, Jack says.
So, if he falls off the wagon, he’s bound to miss it, you’re saying. And Mrs. Fleishman will certainly miss the watch. Maybe we should just take the liquor, I say.
The watch is broken. It’s been in that same drawer forever, Jack says.
Jack knows the watch is broken and in that drawer because he, like me, was mean Michelle’s friend, which really meant that we did what she said and didn’t ask questions.
Maybe we should—I begin, but Anthony’s obviously heard enough and cuts me off.
Come on, Evelyn. Stop asking so many questions, okay? he says sweetly. I thought you said you were up for anything, he coos.
I am, I say. No one said anything about changing her mind, I tell him.
Good girl, he says.
I just want to be careful, I insist.
Don’t get nervous on us, Evelyn, Anthony says, play punching me in the shoulder.
I’m game, I say. I’m ready.
I hope so, Jack says, looking at Anthony with a weird grin on his face.
I look from one boy to the other boy and get the sense that there’s a story I haven’t been told. What? I say.
Nothing, they say in unison.
Good girl, Anthony says again.
Obviously I am not a good girl. Only a bad girl would stand here with these two in the middle of the night. Only a bad girl would sneak out her window and follow them down the street to Anthony’s truck. Only a bad girl would break into a dead girl’s house and steal from her parents.
Still, the way I see it being bad is different than being mean. Being bad might be a phase, but being mean is something in the core of you, something you can’t change or grow out of. Being bad is shoplifting and skipping your homework and lying to your parents because you want to go to a party. Being bad is signing your dad’s name on a tardy note or going to the mall when you should be at school or paying for one movie at the multiplex but seeing all three. Being mean is worse, I’m thinking, and Michelle Fleishman was mean. Being mean is calling the lisping boy who wears the same clothes nearly every day Homeless Homo right to his face and calling the girl with the disease that means she can’t process food right Bitch of Bones and calling our teacher The Hunchback when really Mrs. D’Angelo was a sweet woman with osteoporosis.
Hey listen, Anthony says, their house is just like my house—I know my way around. Popping the sliding glass door is a cinch, and he spits a little when he says the word cinch, spraying my cheek. I pretend my cheek is dry, and that this adventure is just one of my many adventures because I like Anthony and want him to like me back, want him to be my boyfriend, if not for forever, then at least until the sun comes up.
Anthony’s body is long and lean, and he’s curving forward, his hair brushing my chest, his spine a perfect C. He’s clasping his hands together so that I can step up, and I’m doing just that, one white sandal in his clasped palms, my hand on his shoulder, hoisting myself up, and looking into his face, which is prettier than my face, I’m thinking, although I am a girl and should be the pretty one. His puffy, pink lips are prettier than my lips, and his eyes are so glassy green that even in the dark of this alley they glow like a cat’s.
I can still smell the sweet joint the three of us smoked an hour ago on his breath, the beer, and the rum too, which, at his request, I chugged three times. Go, go, go, Anthony said—skinny Jack joining in—until it was a song the two of them sang, Go, go, go, they sang, and I did.
I am failing math and I am failing English, and my parents’ marriage was failing, but is, as my mother says, on the mend. We’re on the mend, she said this morning, all cheerful, her back to me at the stove, pouring batter into the waffle iron, waving her hand around for effect—like that’s all it takes, one declarative statement and a fancy breakfast to make it so. Not even eight in the morning and already her lipstick was on, which was, I believed, part of her apology to my father, trying to look good for him.
I don’t know what’s going on with your grades, Evelyn Jane, my father said moments later. He stabbed at a pair of sausages on a plate in the middle of the table. Your IQ is higher than both of ours, he said, looking over at my mother, who was sitting there with us but seemed to be somewhere else all together. She could do this, change from an apologetic, lipsticked woman to a woman whose lipstick was faded, only a drawn red line around her mouth, a woman who wanted to get the hell away from us. I need to shave my legs, she said, reaching down and running her hand along the stubble.
Who’s stopping you? my dad said.
No one’s stopping me from anything, she said, far away again.
My dad refused the waffles. Instead, he buttered a piece of toast and then salted it which used to make my mom cringe. She’d offer up warnings about his health, his heart and arteries, but now she only watched the grains of salt pour from the shaker and said nothing. You can’t let your grades go, Evy, just because your parents have problems. His eyes were tired and his lips were greasy from the sausage and he needed to shave.
My parents are better people when they live across town from one another and my mom sees me only on the weekends. My dad gets sulky and withdrawn for a couple of weeks, but eventually his personality emerges, and when it does, I’m waiting for it with the Scrabble game open and all set up—the dictionary on the table, the bag of tile between us, the way we like it. I’m there with two cold cans of soda and restaurant suggestions.
My mom moved back in a week ago, leaving her boyfriend Edward, the widower, in that big six bedroom beach house—this time for good, she swore for the third time.
When a man’s wife dies, he shouldn’t steal another man’s wife—he should know what it is to be abandoned. A man should grieve and weep and miss the woman, is what he should do, my father said.
No one stole me, my mother said, scoffing. She was walking to the front door, pulling her suitcase behind her, its little wheels rusty and making noise. Someone found me, you son-of-a-bitch, she said slamming the door on the two of us.
Now that she’s back, my dad is in the constant state of trying to forgive her. He tries to forgive her before he leaves for work, on the porch, leaning in to kiss her cheek, and when she turns her head and tries to meet his lips with her lips, he turns his head too, insisting on her cheek because that’s as far as he’ll go and she barely deserves that. He tries to forgive her at dinner when the three of us sit in an uncomfortable silence trying not to think about her boyfriend, and then the phone rings once and only once, and we know it’s him, that widower who almost became my stepfather, and we try to eat our peas and chicken, and my dad goes all the way back to step one, thinking about forgiving her all over again.
In the alley, a block away from the Fleishman’s house, Anthony and Jack sat on the dirty ground while I crouched beside them, wanting Anthony to look up my miniskirt which I think he was doing. I accepted every swig from the bottle of rum he offered up, which seemed to impress them both. I drank two beers. I took the joint from his fingers and my fingertips touched his fingertips, and I thought that everything I imagined happening with him would really happen, that it was only a matter of time, getting into that house, snatching that watch and a bottle of booze, and then safely getting out, using the front door this time, proving myself.
I agreed to sneak out my bedroom window and break into the Fleishman’s house because I wanted Anthony to know me better on Monday, I wanted to have a thing in common, this thing we did together on Saturday night, this bad thing, and imagined us looking at each other during second period P.E. and again in third period History and we’d have a secret, and that’s how relationships begin, at least some of them, I think.
I drank those beers down, and after the second one, told the two of them that I was up for anything.
And now, here I am, one foot in Anthony’s clasped hands, my hand on his shoulder and another one on the fence, and I’m getting splinters but ignoring each slivers’ bite because Anthony Ware is lifting me up, helping me up, and the beers are sloshing around in my stomach and I’m dizzy, and his hands are on me, first on my hips and then on my butt, pushing me up towards the sky, into the night, pushing me up finally, up and over the fence, and he’s promising to follow.
Only when Jack starts laughing and Anthony starts shushing him do I realize that they never intended to follow me, not when they got me to sweet talk that old slimy guy going into the liquor store to buy our beer and rum, not even when they came to my front door and asked me to come out and play—that’s the word Anthony used, winking when he said it—and I realize when I fall with a thud to the Fleishman’s wet grass that the plan was always to leave me here alone.
And now, through a hole in the fence, I see Anthony’s lips moving, and that’s all he is then: two pretty lips suspended in the air, a circle of mouth saying, Come here, Evelyn, listen to me, I’ve got something to tell you, come closer, and I do, my ear so close to the fence that he could bite it. That’s right, there you are, Evelyn Jones, that’s what you get for tripping me in the second grade.
I am amazed that he can hold a grudge for that many years, and here’s what’s even more amazing: I still like him, despite all of it, and am not as afraid or sorry as I should be.
The moon is a fat white ball in the sky and the wind is picking up or I’m just now noticing it, and the water from the Fleishman’s yard is soaking through my miniskirt, wetting my bare thighs, and the sky is black and the dog that is running towards me, growling, is black too. And I hear Jack’s flip flops slapping the pavement and I hear Anthony’s heavy boots too, both boys running away, and I can picture them hopping into Anthony’s blue truck and laughing while they zigzag out of the tract of homes, and down the boulevard, and I can imagine the radio on, and Anthony tapping his long fingers on the steering wheel, and Jack rolling down the window, letting the wind slap his skinny face, and I can imagine what they’ll tell the kids at school, the story they’ll recite on Monday, and I decide that I won’t ever go back to that school, those walls, those classes that I’m failing anyway, I decide that I’ll stay home and try to help my mom earn my dad’s forgiveness, and I’ll take the high school equivalency test like that counselor suggested, and I’ll tell my mom to let him win at Scrabble once in a while, and I’ll show her how to cook his favorite thing, pork chops and sautéed spinach, and I’ll demonstrate, making them with just a touch of olive oil and fresh garlic, and I’ll go on a diet maybe like all the other girls at school, eating only a half of one pork chop myself, and I’ll try to forget about Anthony and maybe I’ll forget about boys all together.
The truth is I’m not at all sure that it was me who tripped Anthony that day in second grade. I think it was mean Michelle Fleishman. We called her Shelly then. And maybe even Anthony has a sense that it wasn’t me or me alone, and that’s why he picked the Fleishman’s house.
Yes, now that I think about it, I’m almost certain that Shelly Fleishman did the work. I can see her sneaky grin; see her sly leg shooting out into the aisle, her dark and shiny boot.
I was just watching—and maybe I laughed, which is, I guess, bad enough, which is, I guess, something that calls for punishment.
I do remember Anthony—a skinny, nerdy boy with braces and too big hair—flying through the air and landing on his stomach in front of the whole auditorium, and I do remember the auditorium itself, the biggest room I’d ever seen, I remember the yellow stars and orange planets being projected onto the screen and Mr. Winkle pointing out Saturn’s rings, and I remember wanting to live there, imagining moving far, far away, and now I’m wondering how Anthony morphed into the beautiful green-eyed boy he is now, and when he turned mean himself, when he turned into a boy with a five o’clock shadow by two o’clock, a boy who’d leave me here on the wrong side of the fence.
The black dog I was so afraid of is harmless, friendly and dumb, nuzzling at my head which I’ve got protected in my arms, elbows bent, in bomb shelter mode, and when I finally look up I see the mutt’s happy red tongue lapping at my shirt sleeve.
Who the hell’s there? Mr. Fleishman says, coming out of the house in his boxers, tying his robe on the way over to me. He’s wearing just one slipper and his one exposed foot is white and sad, I’m thinking. He’s pointing a flashlight at me and screaming, Just what are you doing here?
I was with some friends, I say. And they left me here.
Are you drunk? he says. Are you high? You smell like gin, he says.
Rum, I say.
He’s only inches from me now, pointing that flashlight in my face. Oh, you’re the Jones’ girl, he says.
I’m Evelyn, I say.
I know your name, he says. You used to play with my daughter, he says.
Yeah, I say.
What did you come here for?
I want to tell him that his daughter Shelly was the meanest girl in school, always doing hateful things to the weaker kids, which was every single one of us. She called me Fatty Jones when I wasn’t really fat just a little bit chubby, and I had a choice to make: become her friend or forever be a girl she made fun of.
But Shelly got sick, that mean blood of hers finally being mean to even her. And in the six months it took her to die, she never relented, never told anyone she was sorry for anything. Once, near the end, I was sitting by her bed holding a bunch of balloons my mother made me carry over and I asked Shelly what she was going to miss most. She mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out, but at the time, I thought she might have said, Anthony.
What she said next was clear though. Get out of here, Evelyn. Take your stupid balloons and go.
And at her funeral, everyone stood up and said how sweet she was, how much she’d be missed, even the kids she punched and taunted, even the girl in whose hair she pressed a big pink wad of bubblegum, stood up and said how sweet she was, how life wouldn’t be the same, and how much she was loved, and I saw that the best way to make friends and to be admired was to drop dead.
Now, I’m looking at Mr. Fleishman, who’s pointing that flashlight right in my face, staring at me, and I’m sitting on his grass and it’s so late and I’m so tired and his wife is hanging out the upstairs window, saying, Harry, who’s there? Are you okay, Harry? I’ve called the police. Oh God, be careful, she says. She’s got fat rollers in her hair and her breasts are low and visible in the light.
Are you a thief? he says.
I don’t say anything. I’m just sitting here with the dog sitting next to me and I’m petting his soft black head.
Fido, Damn it, Fido, Dr. Fleishman says, scolding the dog, whose looking up at me like I’m an invited dinner guest.
I didn’t know people still use dog names, I say. Seems like everyone uses people names for dogs. That’s pretty weird when you think about it, I say.
But Dr. Fleishman obviously doesn’t want to engage in a dialogue about naming one’s pets because he asks me again if I’m a thief.
I hear the sprinklers struggling to turn on, and instead of answering his question, I feel myself getting all choked up. I don’t want to cry. I want to be a girl who doesn’t always cry, so I say, You already watered the grass, Mr. Fleishman. I’m sitting on your wet grass. What’s with the sprinklers?
They’re broken, he says, running a hand through what’s left of his gray hair, and I remember when his hair was black and full, and Shelly loved him, even though she was mean, I remember that she loved him, and I say, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, and he says, Why are you here, Evelyn Jones? What were you going to do? And I open my mouth to say, Nothing, I swear, I promise, nothing, and I think about saying, Your daughter was worse than me, I may be bad, but she was mean, and mean is worse than bad. She was a mean, mean girl, I want to say, but she loved you, Mr. Fleishman, you might have been the only one here that she loved. What I finally say is, I was going to do anything Anthony told me to do, and more. I would have done anything that boy said.
Mr. Fleishman just nods.
He waves to his wife that it’s okay, makes a face which I take to mean that I may be bad, but I’m anything but dangerous.
Close the window, Marsha, he says.
You sure? she says.
I’m sure, he says.
I’ll be up in a minute, he tells her. He clicks his tongue again, looks at me, and says something about kids being kids.
I remember you, Evelyn. I remember those balloons, he says.
He drops the flashlight in his robe’s pocket, still on, and it illuminates his face, a yellow light, and I can see every line and pore, every year he’s lived without her.
He reaches out his hand to me. And I take it.