Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Wow! Windy looked different.
When she came flying out of the front door of her house, bounding across the lawn to my Ford pickup, I couldn't tell why for sure. Not her clothes. She was wearing what I expected for an afternoon outdoor birthday party on the Memorial Day weekend: blue T-shirt, gold shorts, white deck shoes.
Blue and gold are State Center High School colors.
I wore cutoff jeans, sneakers, and my gold polo shirt with the blue collar. We were dressed nearly alike. Like a brother and sister. Like our mom had dressed us for a party.
Not until Windy landed next to me in the pickup, slamming the door, smiling, did I understand what was up.
She was wearing makeup. Not a lot. Just enough. Delicate touches of blue eye shadow and mascara highlighted her eyes, and berry-brown lipstick gleamed on her lips. Tiny pearl earrings perched in her earlobes. Cool.
She slid the tip of her tongue around her lips. "What are you looking at, Billy?"
She'd been my best friend forever. Really, since birth. The things we usually did together like hunting, fishing, and canoeing didn't require makeup.
"What's with all the makeup?" I said.
"What do you mean all the makeup?"
She yanked the rearview mirror around. Peered at herself and ran her hand through her spiky black hair. Made a pouty mouth. "Don't I look okay?"
"Like a princess."
For the first time that I could remember, she was wearing nail polish, berry brown, the shade of her lips, and suddenly the scent of her perfume danced in front of my nose. Gardenia. She didn't often wear perfume.
She smoothed out her shirt and shorts. "If we're going to prove to the Witch you're finished with her, I have to look like a girl who wants to keep her man, and you have to at least pretend this afternoon I'm your girlfriend. You up for that, Billy?"
"I can handle it."
I readjusted the mirror. I slipped the Ford into gear and headed out of town on County Y28, a hilly blacktop winding through the Iowa countryside. Newly planted black-dirt fields of corn and soybeans stretched for miles on either side of the road.
It was Saturday—sunny, bright, and warm. Only four days of school left, and I'd be a graduate. Not Windy. She had a year left. She was sixteen, I was seventeen. Eighteen next month.
"You're really up for this?" Windy repeated. "Being my boyfriend for an afternoon in front of the Witch?"
"You don't have to call her a witch."
"I played on the same volleyball team with her for five years. She's a witch."
"We'll hold hands, kiss—whatever it takes. I'll prove she can't yank me around any longer."
"That's what I want to hear."
"I don't know how I got invited to her birthday party, anyway, I don't fit in."
"Duh! So she can sink her claws into you again."
Lisa Wells, the Witch, lived off a lonely tree-lined gravel lane in the country named Castle Drive. Her dad was president of State Center University. Lisa told me once he craved solitude and that's why he rejected the idea of living in the house on campus provided by the university.
I braked the Ford to a stop off the lane and parked on the grass. Gleaming in the dappled sun, fifteen or twenty cars had parked ahead of me.
I climbed out and glanced at my watch. Two o'clock. The invitation had said the party started at one.
"Lots of people are here already," I said.
Windy stepped around to the front of the Ford. "Maybe she wants to tell you she's pregnant, that's why she invited you."
"She's on the pill."
"You know what they call a guy whose girl's on the pill?"
I tried to ignore that, but Windy dished out the answer with a smile: "They call him Daddy."
Windy's hand was warm as it snuggled into mine. "I'm your girlfriend now, got it? Act like I am."
We crunched along the gravel lane for nearly a block, following it as it veered to the left, and suddenly I found myself in sight of Lisa Wells's house.
I'd never seen it in daylight.
Flanked with woods in the back and on both sides, the house was a two-story structure of wood, glass, and stone. Lots of peaks, porches and decks, it perched on the top of a grassy hill that sloped fifty yards down to a lake. The Wells had no neighbors. The place sat aloof on the top of the hill, a symbol of Dr. Wells's position and importance at State Center University.
In back of the house, on a flat, wide expanse of lawn, kids romped, playing volleyball, badminton, and horseshoes. Close to the side of the house stood an open-sided tent, bigger than a small barn, sheltering a dozen or more long, cafeteria-style tables and chairs. Gold-and-blue tablecloths draped the tables, and music blared from speakers hung from the eaves of the house.
"Wow!" Windy said. "What a layout."
I remembered seeing the inside of the house for the first time with its fireplaces, thick rugs, and lighted paintings on the walls, and I'd thought to myself, Lisa lives in a palace!
I'd never seen the house from this vantage point. Meetings between Lisa and me had always occurred at night in her bedroom after I'd paddled across the lake in a canoe.
The outside of the house with its shrubs, grass, woods, and lake impressed me as much as the inside.
As Windy and I strolled across the lawn, Eric Benson—Lisa's father-approved boyfriend—strode out from under the tent toward us.
"Oh-oh," Windy said. "Trouble already."
"He's an arrogant jerk. He thinks he's God."
A senior like me, but a football jock and a brilliant student, Eric was this year's student body president. His father was a full professor in the Law Department at SCU. The word was Eric intended to enroll at the University of Michigan to study law and walk on as a football player. After he graduated, he intended to set up his own practice here in State Center.
"Wondered if you'd show." Eric stopped in front of me and pushed his glasses in place on his nose with his forefinger.
He was taller than me, solidly built, but not as thick and wide as me.
I kept my face blank.
He tucked his thumbs in the front pockets of his shorts. "What a great honor."
"I was invited. Same as you."
"Not wearing bibs today?"
I felt myself tense. Eric might think himself a stud, but there's no way I was going to let him push me around. He hadn't worked on a farm all his life. Hadn't wrestled with a hand-powered posthole digger five, six hours a day in the July sun. Lifting weights and playing football didn't measure up. Not in my book, anyway. No Irish in him, either. No O'Reilly.
Windy wrapped her left arm around my waist. She pulled me close and smiled up at me. "We almost didn't make it—nearly slipped our minds, didn't it, sweetheart?"
"Thought we'd drop by a minute," I said. "See what's happening."
Eric scowled at me. Leaned close. "I know all about you and Lisa." I smelled alcohol on his breath. That didn't surprise me. Eric liked to party.
Windy kissed me on the cheek. "That's over. He's mine now."
Eric looked surprised, and I gave a start, hardly expecting a kiss from Windy so quickly.
Eric adjusted his glasses. "Lisa's been under a lot of pressure lately, getting ready to graduate, trying to choose the right college. She lost sight of her goals and started doing some stupid things for a while." He eyed me.
"Like hanging with me? Forgetting about you?"
Windy squeezed my hand, signaling me to relax.
"But she's over that now," he said. "She realizes how stupid she was."
My lips thinned.
"So stay away from her," he said. "Stay in your place."
"Cows, sheep, pigs—on the farm! Away from Lisa."
My face heated up. I'm a blusher. It's the curse of being Irish—redheaded, freckled, and light-skinned.
My hands started curling into fists, and I felt Windy flinch as I crunched her knuckles before she wrenched her hand free of my grip.
"My place," I said, "is any place I want it to be."
Windy tugged on my sleeve, backing me up a step. "Let's mingle."
"You mess with Lisa again," Eric said calmly, "you're dead. Fucking dead. After today don't ever come back here. I'll take care of you personally."
"Recruit the rest of your football team."
Windy yanked on my arm, trying to drag me away. "Billy, I'm thirsty."
"Don't forget what I told you, farm boy."
I gritted my teeth.
Eric spun on his heels and marched toward the volleyball players.
I wanted to kill him.
"Look!" Windy said, jumping around in front of me, stomping her foot. "We're trying to prove you've broken the hold Lisa had on you. You've moved on."
"I know that."
"Why didn't you say you could care less about her? Why didn't you kiss me? You've never ever kissed me."
"I don't have to eat Eric Benson's shit."
"I'm trying to help you out here, Billy. At least make an effort to stay out of trouble."
We wandered over to the tent. Windy exchanged smiles, hellos, and high-fives with some of her volleyball buddies. I nodded and mumbled hello to everyone. I knew them because I'd watched a lot of Windy's games. My watching volleyball is how Lisa and I'd first met.
I knew hardly anyone else at the party, though. I didn't expect I would. Most of the kids here were university kids and/or jocks.
The thing is you have to understand the unique situation at State Center High School. The school features three cliques: university kids, whose white-collar parents teach at SCU and live in wooded subdivisions; city kids, whose blue-collar parents work mostly in the service industries supporting the university and live in the surrounding little towns; and farm kids, whose bib-and-boot parents live and work on farms. If you're a farm kid, you don't hang around much after school to play sports. Your butt's needed at home on a tractor.
Windy fit in because she was a jock. A non-jock, I'll bet I was the only farm kid here. Invited personally by Lisa Wells, the most beautiful, talented, and popular girl in school. Imagine that.
Under the tent, I dug out two Pepsis buried in ice in a Coleman cooler and handed one to Windy. I was still fuming about Eric. I rubbed my ice-wet hand across my forehead, held the cold can up to my cheek.
"You need to calm down," Windy said. "Your face is pink."
Suddenly two more of Windy's volleyball teammates descended on her, laughing, giggling, squealing, wanting to drag her away to play softball on a makeshift diamond behind the house. A ball hit into the woods was a home run. They needed one more girl.
"Billy and I just got here," Windy said, shaking her head. "We're together." She clutched my arm.
"Come on!" Mary Alice pleaded. "I've seen you hit the ball a mile in gym class. The woods isn't that far."
"Go ahead," I said.
Windy stepped up and whispered in my ear: "The Witch's got to see us together. Especially when she spots us the first time."
Barbara Templeton grabbed Windy's hand and started dragging her away. "C'mon before they find someone else."
Windy looked at me, begging me to rescue her.
I smiled. "Go, slugger. I'll be over to watch in a bit."
"You going to be all right?"
"Don't worry about me. Everything's cool."
I snapped open my Pepsi can, took a few icy swallows, and wandered out from under the tent. My eyes scanned the yard, lake, kids.
Where's Lisa? Why haven't I seen her yet?
I spotted Lisa as she slammed out of the front door of the house and raced down the grassy slope to the lake, where a dozen kids splashed in the glimmering water.
She ran by without seeing me, her body tan and sleek, and my heart jumped.
At the water she stopped and looked back, like she sensed I was staring at her from fifty yards away. I was sure she saw me now.
She wore a short, white, terry-cloth robe. She shrugged her shoulders and the robe dropped to the grass.
She was tall, willowy—a lithe athlete. A white, two-piece bikini clung to her.
Even at that distance, the sight of her knocked me breath-less. I remembered the first note she'd left in my locker back in April—April Fool's Day, in fact—and how the note had blown me away: Let's meet, Billy. I know you probably think I'm a stuck-up snob, but I'm not. Where'd you get all that red hair? You should let it grow. And those blue eyes? Please meet me at Hollyhocks Park in Eldridge after school. Four-thirty. I think you're a person who's real...so genuine...
Someone touched me on the back of my shoulder, jolting me.
I whirled and lost sight of Lisa splashing in the lake.
"Lovely, isn't she?"
Dr. Malcolm Wells—Lisa's father, the president of the State Center University—stared at me with dark eyes.
My Pepsi nearly slipped from my hand. I clutched the cold can tighter. "Hello, Dr. Wells."
"I'd like to talk to you, William."
Dr. Wells's baritone voice was smooth, resonant. He was dressed like most of the kids: a gold State Center High T-shirt, blue shorts, and sandals. And he was built. Probably spent a lot of time in the gym. A weight lifter maybe.
"You, William." His square jaw was tight, his eyes level with mine. I'm six foot.
I'd never spoken to Dr. Wells before, and I felt my throat tightening as I tried to say, "All right."
"In the house," he said. "Where we won't be disturbed."
In Dr. Wells's study, I sat in a huge black-leather chair.
The air-conditioning chilled me.
Sunshine filtered through the drawn curtains lighting the room dimly. The room smelled of lemon polish and wood. Bookcases housing hundreds of hardcover books lined the walls.
In front of me sat a mahogany desk, and behind the desk in a high-backed, maroon-leather chair studded with brass buttons sat Dr. Wells.
He drummed the carefully manicured nails of his right hand on the glass covering the desktop, the sound grating on my nerves. "Are you having a good time at the party, William?"
"Just got here, Windy and me, but, yeah, we're going to have a good time. Softball, badminton, swimming—all kinds of things to do."
"Keep young people busy, I say, and you can keep them out of trouble. We're going to trap shoot soon. Do you shoot?"
"Um...I hunt a lot, I've shot trap a few times."
"You've seen my gun collection?"
I felt a cautious smile creeping across my face.
I knew instantly what Dr. Wells was trying to do.
He wanted to trick me into admitting I'd been in his house before. The fact is Lisa'd shown me through the house the first night I'd been here—he'd been out of town. I couldn't have missed the gun collection. In a recreation room complete with bar and pool table, ten glass-doored walnut gun cabinets lined the walls. Shotguns and rifles, new and old—Browning, Ruger, Winchester, Ithica, a Parker double barrel—stood at attention in the cabinets.
I gathered my courage now and said, "What is it you want, Dr. Wells?"
The drumming stopped. Silence filled the room.
"I know you've been seeing my daughter."
"Not any longer."
"That I know is also true. I believe you've been in this house before." His voice was low. Like a purr. "I have a good idea what's been going on."
Heat rushed to my face again. I felt my Adam's apple bob.
"I can't police my daughter every second. She is sometimes a very foolish, impulsive child—it's not the first time she's made a an error in judgment." Dr. Wells eased back in his chair. "I haven't announced it yet—I will this afternoon—Lisa is going to attend school right here at State Center. My university."
"That's not where she wants to go," I said. "She told me that. She wants to go far away from here."
Dr. Wells nodded slowly. "Lisa has unlimited potential. I have done very well with my own life, and I've worked long and hard to make sure her future will be brilliant."
His eyes narrowed as he leaned forward. Still a purr, but now threatening, his voice lowered a notch. "You see, she's not leaving this area, and I'll not see her future jeopardized by her fooling around with you. Or with anyone else I don't approve of."
"Everybody has the right to choose their own friends."
"Don't entertain any more ideas about seeing her. Is that clear?"
Suddenly a doorknob behind me rattled, and someone straight-armed Dr. Wells's study door open. "We gonna shoot?"
I swung around in my chair. I'd never seen Rodney Wells before, but I knew the rat-faced skinny guy with shoulder-length dishwater blond hair must be Lisa's stepbrother, home for the summer from college. She complained bitterly about him all the time.
A limp cigarette dangled from his mouth.
Dr. Wells's voice suddenly rolled out of his throat like thunder. "Rodney! When a door is closed, you knock before entering. And I've told you not to smoke in this house."
Rodney scissored his cigarette between two fingers and pulled it from his mouth. "Who's this dude?" He swaggered into the room in his black concert T-shirt and faded knee-torn jeans. "This the dude my sister's bopping?"
"Rodney!" Dr. Wells spit the kid's name. "This is a private conversation. Get rid of that cigarette!"
"Where do you want me to throw it, Dad? On the floor? No ashtrays around." Then he smirked, and to me he said, "I've been hearing them argue about you all day."
"Rodney—!" Dr. Wells heaved from his chair and stood, his fists clenched on his glass desktop, knuckles down. "Get out, Rodney!"
"We gonna shoot? Gimme the keys and I'll lug some guns out. Maybe I can win a few bucks."
"I'll take care of the guns."
Rodney smiled at me, his teeth small, yellow, and even. "Hang in there, stud." He poked the cigarette back into his mouth, puffed a cloud of smoke. "But don't let him catch you—he's fucking mean."
"Rodney!" This time, Dr. Wells bellowed the kid's name.
Through another cloud of smoke, Rodney winked at me, marched out of the room, and slammed the door.
Dr. Wells was shaking.
He turned away from me, hands at his sides, clenching, unclenching. When he was threatening me, he'd kept his voice calm and cool. In the face of his stepson, he'd become rattled. Suddenly I didn't find Dr. Wells quite as fearsome as before.
His face appeared pinched. "Rodney is rather undisciplined." He moved to the curtain, pulled it back, and looked out. A patch of brilliant sunlight splashed on his desk.
"I'm going back to the party," I said.
He released the curtain and faced me. "I told Lisa not to invite you."
"She slipped the invitation into my locker at school through the door vents," I said. "I couldn't disappoint her."
"I'm in charge," he said, his voice calm again, controlled. "I'll not tolerate your presence in her life. That's my final word."
"Because I'm a farm kid?"
"She'll be socializing only with peers."
My face burned. "Ones you pick for her? Like Eric Benson? Someone with a pedigree."
"I know what your truck looks like, William—I don't want to see it parked around this estate again. I know where you live—I'll inform your parents as to what kind of young man your are."
I pivoted and stalked toward the door, leaving him behind me, stone-faced.
I hated Dr. Wells's threats. I hated being told to stay out of Lisa's life. First by her boyfriend. Then by her father.
Yet deep in my heart, I understood Dr. Wells's reasoning.
Lisa was destined for greatness. Besides being beautiful and an all-state athlete, she was an all-A student. No way could I fit in with her plans. Her life. Not Billy O'Reilly. Farm kid.
And no doubt Rodney was right: Dr. Wells could be mean. Fucking mean.
Stay cool, I told myself. Stay with the plan. Hang out with Windy at the party. Prove it's really over with Lisa. Prove you're fully recovered, Billy.
I was headed for the front door. I stopped dead in my tracks by the black-stone fireplace in the living room.
My eyes wheeled round.
My head swung and lifted. My heart went Wham!
Shivering at the top of the stairs in her wet bikini, her robe clutched in one hand, her blond hair clinging to her face, Lisa beckoned me up the stairs with frantic waves of her other hand.
Whoa, Billy! No way.
I shook my head.
Dr. Wells might come storming out of his study any second, right behind me. Rodney could be lurking somewhere in the house. Or Eric. Someone might wander in from outside.
"Billy, I've got to talk to you. Please!"
Now Windy's words sailed through my mind: At least make an effort to stay out of trouble.
As if it didn't belong to me, I had no control over it, my head swiveled left, right. Down the hallway. Toward the kitchen. Then at the front door. My eyes searching all the while.
I drew a breath. My heart slamming against my rib cage, I bounded up the stairs two at a time. Smiling, Lisa held her bedroom door open for me.