Friday, March 24, 2006

"The Lesson"

By Robin Slick

Today I'm thrilled to be featuring a story by my good friend, Robin Slick. Robin has one of the most natural, engaging voices of any writer I know. If you're not already familiar with her blog, I issue this caveat: it's addictive. Once you click in, you're her loyal reader forever.

Here's a wonderful story to sample:



The Lesson
By Robin Slick

I do it in a different place every afternoon. Sometimes, I use the gas station. Another day, the bus terminal or in a cubicle at the mall. Once even upstairs at my Aunt Helen’s house. My favorite, though, is doing it at old Mr. O’Brien’s apothecary. He’s got those ancient wooden booths in there. That’s where I am today. My heart beats wildly as I pick up the receiver and dial.
“Hello? Hello? Oh man. Who is this? Will you stop it already? Please!” The phone slams down hard in my ear. I clutch it to my chest. Oh Steven, Steven, Steven. Hearing his voice makes me weak. I sit with my head in my hands. I’m a really sick girl. Demented. I should probably tell my mother.

The reason I do not tell my mother is painfully apparent when I walk into the house. My mother is smoking a cigarette and dancing to some horrific electronic music. She waves and giggles and flicks her long frosted hair when she sees me, but doesn’t say hello. Her heart shaped butt is squeezed into tight, slinky jeans. Rosy polished toes peep out of metallic high-heeled sandals. She will be thirty-two years old next month, two days after my fifteenth birthday. My mother is a child.

“Please tell me this isn’t how you’re going tonight,” I say to her.

“Going? Where am I going?” she asks, her brow furrowed. I once overheard my Aunt Helen tell my Aunt Shirley that “Gloria is not all there”. I know what they mean. My mother is very beautiful, but it’s like she was bounced on her head. Hard. She doesn’t read or watch the news or care about anything beyond clothes and movie stars and soap operas. I realized at a young age that she was not very bright.

No one has a clue about my father. Apparently, neither does my mother, or at least she’s never said. Either there were too many boyfriends, or it was someone scary evil, like a family member or something. These are my deductions; I get no information from the aunts at all. We live in my grandparents’ house, where my mother grew up. They left it to us when they retired and moved to Florida. So between that and my mother’s job at the mall, at least she’s able to feed and clothe us. But it’s up to me to be the smart one.

“You’re going to my school tonight. Don’t you remember anything? It’s parent-teacher conferences.” I draw an exasperated breath and my mother makes a face at me.

“Why are you making me go to this thing, Cricket? Aren’t you like an honor student or something?”

My mother cursed me for life by naming me Cricket. She thought it sounded like a name for a beauty queen. How ironic that the name fits more because my thighs slap together and make a noise when I walk.

“Because it’s important to me! Don’t you care how I’m doing in school? Or how my teachers feel about me?” I feel tears well up suddenly, and I push my glasses up hard on the bridge of my nose, as if this will stop the flow.

“Ugh, Cricket. I don’t understand why you won’t take me up on my offer of contact lenses,” she replies instead.

There are times I cannot abide her shallowness.

“Because if you studied the eye like I did, you’d know that they can give you horrible infections that can lead to blindness.”

“Oh, who told you that?”

“Mr. Jacobs, my science teacher.”

“Teachers don’t know everything, Cricket. And stop chewing on your hair. You’re never going to get rid of those split ends,” she adds, patting her own perfect mane.

I stomp upstairs to study for a few hours and when I come back down, my mother is still smoking and dancing.

“You should really go soon, Mom. The conference starts at six o’clock.”

I watch helplessly as she shrugs into her rabbit jacket. It’s cheap and the fur is all mottled. I consider getting into one of our usual animal rights arguments, but I don’t want her to be late and miss talking to anyone. Especially Mr. Barron, my English teacher, the only person who’s ever paid special attention to me. He always says how brilliant I am, and that if I keep it up, great things are going to happen. He makes me feel like no one has ever made me feel in my entire life. Please, please, please let my mother remember every word he tells her.

I’m so edgy after my mother leaves that I pace back and forth, back and forth, until finally, I decide to take a walk to the diner. My mother would not be happy about this, not because I’m going out at night but because I’m going out alone. She doesn’t understand why I don’t want to be with my friends. It’s just that ever since this girl Jeannie Burko came to live in our neighborhood, I don’t feel like hanging out with anyone. I think Jeannie is loud and stupid but for some reason, all of my old pals think she’s way cool and they worship her to the point where it makes me gag. My mother, as usual, doesn’t get it. She thinks I’m upset because I’m comparing my looks to Jeannie’s.

“Don’t worry, Cricket,” was her advice. “When you get older, you’ll see. All the pretty girls get ugly and the awkward girls get pretty.”

I stared at my mother like she was from outer space. She really had no idea about me at all.

At the diner, I forget about the loose flesh around my waist and order ice cream. I sigh and wish I didn’t use food as comfort. I learned all about that in health class. I knew I should be eating whole grain breads and fruit and vegetables but I live with a person who considers the golden arches a culinary treat. So I’m doubly doomed.

Of course on the walk home I see Jeannie Burko and all my old friends hanging on the corner. I take a detour across a neighbor’s yard to avoid them. They’re all smoking; I see the orange glow ash from their cigarettes in the darkening sky.

My mother arrives home five minutes after I do and throws me her coat which I catch with a look of disdain.

“So I hear you’re really good in school,” is what she says. She spreads out her hands, as if she has no clue at all how this is possible.

“What did Mr. Barron say?” I blurt, although I had every intention of playing it cool and acting like I didn’t care. Because when it comes to stuff like this, my mother for once has amazingly astute radar. “Oh, Cricket…he’s so gorgeous! And I notice he doesn’t wear a wedding band. Where did he get those eyelashes? He really does look like a Steven, doesn’t he?”

Steven. Hearing his name coming from her lips makes me physically ill. It’s as if she’s taken something sacred and then spit all over it.

“He looks like a Hollywood actor, Cricket. Oh man, I don’t know how you can concentrate in his class.”

“Tell me exactly what he said, Mom, okay?”

“Oh, I don’t remember everything, honey. He just went on and on about how you were really special and the most talented high school kid he ever taught, he just went on and on about that, and then we started talking movies and music, and that was it. Sorry, I didn’t get to see any of your other teachers, it was just too crowded. Now if you don’t mind, I am exhausted and I want to go lay down. I have to work a long day tomorrow,” she sighs, and leaves me standing there, holding her horrible dead rabbit jacket in my hands.

But after she goes to bed, I rehash the little she told me over and over in my head. Steven thinks I’m special.

I only discovered his name was Steven about a month ago. I found out while walking in the halls at school; he was talking with my science teacher and I heard him say “Have a nice weekend, Steven.” Steven. I swooned and as soon as I got home from school that day, immediately opened up the phone book. There he was, listed plain as day. Steven Barron – 476-2235. I committed the number to memory, repeating it to myself several times along with his name.

And like some kind of evil force, the number wouldn’t leave my brain. I knew I had to call him. Just to hear his voice, that was all. I’d only do it the one time, and that would be it.

The first time was from the booth in O’Brien’s drug store. My heart was beating so loud in my ears I thought I was having some kind of coronary attack. I sat there for a few minutes, scared witless, yet knowing I was going to go through with it. And then, it was as if some weird thing took over me, something so powerful I still can’t comprehend it. I picked up the receiver and dialed.

“Hello? Hello?”

Oh my god, it was him. I was filled with sudden panic and quickly hung up. What made me do that, I wondered. It was so idiotic and babyish. It was so wrong. I took a deep breath and tried to relax. And realized that underneath the fear and the loathing, I was feeling an odd thrill. I broke out in gooseflesh and my nipples grew hard. I made a false promise to myself that I would never do it again.

But the next day, the number roared in my brain, over and over, 476-2235. I couldn’t stop it, I couldn’t think of anything else. I went to the diner that time, the phones were way in the back, by the bathroom.

And so it began. I couldn’t get through one day without calling him. I would try to stop myself, I really would. I couldn’t even think to myself what kind of person I must be, how damaged, how mentally ill—it was too terrible to contemplate.

There was something about doing it that excited me.

I was so paranoid about getting caught that finding a different place to call him each day became a game to me, a challenge. I would end up in discount department stores, gas stations, bus terminals, diners. My aunt’s house. Each time I did it, I felt a terrible shame. And yet…

Tonight, the words “Steven thinks I’m special” echoing in my ears, I squeeze my pillow between my legs and rock back and forth whispering Steven oh Steven until I finally gasp and fall into a restless, sweaty sleep.

During English class, I am the picture of academic perfection. If only anyone knew what was going on in my head.

After school, I go to the mall, which is about a half hour walk. I know from experience and the phone book that Steven only lives a minute or two from school, so by the time I make my call from one of the pay phones there, he will already be home. But just as I am getting ready to do that, I see Jeannie Burko and my old best friend and Jeannie Burko clone Suzanne Kelley walking toward me. They are both wearing tons of makeup and big hair. I will myself to be invisible, but Suzanne spots me.

“Cricket, hi, whatcha up to?” she smiles. Jeannie looks bored and lights up a Marlboro in spite of the No Smoking signs everywhere. I mumble something about being at the mall to look for some new clothes. I hear Jeannie mutter under her breath to Suzanne that I need more than that. “After you’re done shopping, why don’t you come over Jeannie’s house with us,” Suzie drawls in her new Jeannie Burko voice.

I glance over at Jeannie, expecting her to be vigorously shaking her head “no way” at Suzanne, but she just looks back at me and shrugs.

“Okay,” I surprise myself by saying, hoping I don’t sound too anxious. I forget about my call for the moment and tag along with them instead. I feel like I’m in someone else’s skin, nothing feels right or comfortable.

At Jeannie’s house, we sit around talking. Well, I don’t talk, mostly I listen to Jeannie and Suzanne talk. They cover just about every kid in the ninth grade—who’s hot, who’s not, who’s doing it, who will never do it. I start to get desperate. I have absolutely nothing to add to this conversation, and I can only picture that I will be the next “who’s not hot who will never do it” the minute I’m out of their earshot. Much to my amazement, I find this bothers me. A lot. And so, I make what will be a fatal mistake.

“What do you think of Mr. Barron?” I ask, trying to sound adult sophisticated.

“Way cool. Definitely way cool,” Jeannie replies, coloring slightly. “Oh, isn’t he?” Suzanne chimes in.

“His name is Steven, did you know that?” I inform them like some kind of weird proud peacock.

“No, really?” Jeannie says, but I can see this is no big deal to either her or Suzanne. So I take it a step further.

“He’s listed in the phone book. In fact, I call him all the time.”

Suzie looks at me with new respect.

“You do not,” says Jeannie.

“Oh yes I do. Wanna see?” Do I have any idea at all of what I’m saying here? Am I completely losing my mind?

“What do you say to him? Do you have long, sexy conversations?” She giggles, but it’s a nasty laugh, and I don’t like it.

“Well, no, actually. I just call him is all. When he says hello, I hang up.”

Jeannie gives a disgusted cackle; Suzanne just looks confused. I feel utterly pathetic. But I’ve started a fire and now I have to stand there and watch it burn with morbid curiosity.

“What’s his number?” Jeannie is daring me, I can hear it in her voice.

“476-2235.”

“Why don’t you call him now? From here?” Suzie and I will get on the other extension.” .

“What if he’s got caller i.d.?”

“We have an unlisted phone number,” she grins.

I feel trapped and totally powerless. Suzie and Jeannie are smirking as they go into the kitchen and pick up the other line. I dial Mr. Barron’s number and wait in tense anticipation for him to pick up the phone.

“Hello? Hello?” His voice is tight; he sounds really angry. “Now listen…”

Suddenly, there is a giggle on the other end, and Jeannie Burko, loud and clear as a freaking bell, blurts out “It’s Cricket! It’s Cricket!” And simultaneously, we all slam down the phone.

“You didn’t just do that to me. You didn’t!” I cry, the tears are flowing down my checks and leaving wet splotches on my t-shirt.

“Oh what’s the big deal, Cricket. He has no proof that it’s you,” Jeannie sniffs.

But I’m destroyed, I’m terrified, and I run out of her front door in hysterics. I don’t know how I get through the rest of the evening. I think about cutting school the next day, only I have a science test that counts for half of my grade and I’ve spent weeks studying for it. I tell myself that maybe Mr. Barron won’t think it’s me, because I never would have identified myself like that, and it wasn’t even my voice. But deep down inside, I know I’m in trouble. Big trouble. I have absolutely no idea how I’m going to handle it if he confronts me. I entertain fantasies all night long about tearing Jeannie limb from limb, until she is nothing more than a pile of big hair that I sweep into a dust pan and deposit in garbage filled dumpster.

I wake with dread and somehow force myself to go to school. I walk into English class with my head hung low. I don’t hear a word Mr. Barron says to the class, I can’t even look at him. I pretend to be searching in my text book for something the entire hour. Finally, the bell rings and I jump to my feet, hoping to make a quick get away. But I’m not that lucky.

“Cricket,” he says, an ominous tone in his voice. “Wait after class for a moment, will you?”

My face blazes and I feel like a condemned prisoner as everyone else files out the door. He sits on the edge of his desk and crosses his legs.

“Is everything okay, Cricket? You weren’t yourself in class today.” .

I shuffle my feet nervously and look away. The laughing, shouting voices of the other kids fade as they head for their next period class and the old clock on the wall above ticks loudly, echoing in the empty room. When I finally meet his eyes, he’s looking at me with a curious expression.

“It was you, wasn’t it,” he says softly, his voice tinged with disbelief.

I can’t answer him. My tongue is so thick I’m afraid I may choke. What’s he going to do to me? What’s going to happen? Will I be suspended, expelled…what? Or will he give me the dreaded I’m-so-disappointed-in-you speech. I now know the meaning of the term breaking out into a cold sweat.

“What were you thinking of, Cricket? Why did you do it?” What makes it worse is that he sounds condescending yet concerned, like he’s worried I’m a psycho.

“I don’t know,” I mumble miserably.

“You must have had a reason. If you needed to talk to me, all you had to do was talk. Why did you keep calling and hanging up? I just don’t understand…”

I stare out the window behind his head. Outside, two seniors are kissing under a cherry blossom tree. My heart hurts.

“Cricket? Are you listening? I’m trying to be sympathetic here…but you aren’t making it easy. Didn’t you realize what you were doing? Didn’t you stop and think of the possible consequences?”

All I can do is shake my head no like some kind of moron. I’m perspiring so badly that I wonder if I’m not peeing myself, too. I feel a wet spot on my jeans, and I’m too horrified to check. I look back outside at the two lovers. The boy is cupping the girl’s chin in his hand. Something tightens in my stomach. Mr. Barron turns around and follows my gaze and sighs.

“Look, Cricket. I can tell your life is a little bit different. I can tell by your comments in class, by the way you write. I understand. Maybe you might want to talk to your counselor here, but I’m not going to force you. I’m going to take this as a silly mistake by a young girl who now feels very badly. So look. I’m going to let you slide this time. I think you’ve learned your lesson here. You’re a good student. As long as it doesn’t happen again, we’re both going to forget we had this talk, that this whole thing ever happened. Deal?”

“Deal,” I gasp. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Barron. I’m so, so sorry. I’ll never do it again. I promise. I really do. I promise, I promise, I promise. I really have learned my lesson. I have!” I am crying now, my nose is running, I wish he would hug me but I know he can’t –that’s the last thing he will do.

“Okay, then. Now get to your next class before you get a late slip. We can’t have our budding genius getting detention,” he smiles.

I am so weak-kneed with relief and I’m so grateful I almost throw myself into his arms anyway, but I control myself, thank God. If he’s forgiving me this easily, maybe he does care! Maybe he even loves me a little, almost as much as I love him. He said I’m a budding genius! My heart practically thumps right out of my chest and I’m almost skipping as I turn to leave.

“Oh, and Cricket?” he calls out after me. “Be sure to say hello to that pretty mother of yours for me, will you?”

I freeze statue still in the doorway.

“You’ll remember? To give her my regards, I mean?” he says, his voice unfamiliar and husky.

Somehow, I manage to nod.

# # #

This story first appeared in In Posse Review

To learn more about Robin's work, visit her website, robinslick.com, or her Publishers Marketplace page. Better yet, go straight to the source and order Robin's hot and hilarious Three Days in New York City. You'll be an instant fan, I promise.

12 comments:

Myfanwy Collins said...

LOVE, love, love it! Cricket is such a poignant, wonderful character.

Susan Henderson said...

oh.

I'm all tied in knots.

Ellen said...

So glad you like it, Myf and Sue. I read this story years ago, before I ever met Robin. I fell so in love with it I actually wrote her a fan letter! I'm sure she thought I was crazy, but that's our Rob. This story ROCKS.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Awesome story, Robin! I am impressed by the ease with which you inhabit so many different voices.

xo
J

katrina said...

Oh yes! I LOVE this story. Robin's writing has always impressed me--so honest and direct.

kojak said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Niall Wilson said...

Powerful piece. You feel the world coming down on her head when her friends give her away...and I think, in teh writing, you and Susan H. have a lot in common in the way you create the minds of young girls in words....

But..(heh) This sounds like Robin and Neil Gaiman too...should Neil worry? I wonder if he's getting any hang-up phone calls, or empty anonymous e-mails. (lol)

DNW

RobinSlick said...

Hey, thanks. When I re-read this story, I realized how dated it was. I wrote it in maybe 2000...when there were still things like phone books and phone booths. I can't believe how much society has changed since then. I can't believe how much I've grown as a writer since then. Of course now I'm dying to rewrite it and maybe I will.

But thanks so, so much for posting it. This is really a very cool thing that you are doing for all of us.

Okay, Ellen. Whose post did you delete? I need to know whose eyes I need to scratch out. Ha!

kim said...

I didn't want Cricket's story to end! I could have kept reading.
Terrific! I Love it!

Ellen said...

Rob, the deleted post was from some blog slut promoting herself. Had nothing to do with your story, so I trashed it. Also, I do NOT think the story is dated. Surely there are still phone booths with phone books out there. And the writing DEFINITELY resonates, so no worries!!!

Jordan, Kat, David, Kim ... so glad you like this story!!

Katie said...

I LOVE this story. I've read it before, and I think I remember telling Robin that at a certain point in the story, I actually yelled out loud, "NO, CRICKET!"

SusanD said...

Great story, Robin!