From BAUMFREE THREE

(A novel in progress)

Grace’s newest good friend was Lou—short for Louise—but she had never been in Lou’s house because Lou didn’t have one. That is, her parents didn’t have one because Lou lived intermittently with her aunt and uncle, a much older couple whose only son was grown. Lou’s mother was divorced and mentally ill. Before she was institutionalized, Betty Jean spotted the KGB everywhere from the grocery store to a school picnic and reported regularly to CIA headquarters. “Betty Jean Haggerty, over and out,” you might hear her mutter as her eyes darted furtively left and right, seemingly unaware that her covert communications were audible. Grace’s own mother might scream so loudly that the windows needed to be shut, but Betty Jean was living in her own world, and it was populated by killers with Slavic accents.

They had met at church, where in one of her lucid periods, Betty Jean had decided that she needed to “get some faith” in her life not for herself, but for Lou. “My people don’t have religion,” she had told Grace’s mother at coffee hour after Sunday service. “Kids need that. The world is cruel.”

Grace’s mother had studied Betty Jean’s oily face as if she were riveted by every earnest word. But when Betty Jean’s eyes trailed, Grace’s mother took in the unevenly buttoned shirt that smelled of stale perspiration, the bobby pins holding back the uncombed hair over her ears, as if she had forgotten to take them out, and the long thin hands that twisted a soiled handkerchief while she talked.

            “Our girls are in class together,” said Betty Jean.

            “That’s lovely, Mrs. Haggerty,” said Grace’s mother in a church voice dripping with compassion and concern.

            “Call me Betty Jean.”

            “Of course, Betty Jean,” said Grace’s mother with a light insincere chuckle.

            Grace had looked over at Lou and rolled her eyes in a non-verbal apology, and Lou made a “don’t worry” wave with her hand.

            “Let’s get some coffee,” she said to Grace, who didn’t drink coffee. It was an adult drink. So of course Grace said, “Okay.”

            “I’m used to the way people talk to Betty Jean,” said Lou over the table of store-bought cookies. “They don’t know what to say. I get it.”

            Another kid who used her mother’s first name.

            “Why do you call her Betty Jean and not Mom?”

            “Because sometimes she doesn’t even know that she is my mom. But she always knows that she’s Betty Jean.” Lou sipped black coffee and studied Grace as she loaded hers with sugar and milk.

            “Your mother is pretty.”

            “What?” exclaimed Grace.

            “I mean pretty in that motherish kind of way. Like she knows how to cook and bake and takes you places. And hangs Christmas stockings. That kind of pretty.”

            Grace glanced over at her mother, in low pumps and an aquamarine A-line dress. No lines or lumps, thanks to Playtex, and a pinned-on hair piece that added two inches to her teased bouffant. There was no fox-eye in church, but there was lipstick, which Grace noticed had left a pink smudge on her mother’s front teeth.

            “She does do all that stuff,” said Grace. “But it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. She looks calm right now, but when she gets pissed, it’s—”

            “Ugly. That’s what you were going to say,” said Lou.

            “Yes, ugly,” Grace replied, deciding that word made as much sense as what she had been thinking, which was crazy. But she had remembered Betty Jean and broke off before saying something offensive.

            “I don’t mean ugly like the opposite of pretty,” Lou continued. “I mean we see a side of them that is damaged. You know?”

            She met Grace’s eyes. Grace’s were brown, and Lou’s, she noticed, were green and guileless.

            Lou put a hand on Grace’s arm.

            “We’re best buds now,” she said.

Despite her mother’s mental illness, Lou was beautiful, well dressed, and very, very smart, but not like Mimi’s older sister Nella, who was a bookworm. Lou was good at math and science, and she was also a straight-A student. Mimi hovered in the A-minus range, and Grace’s own average was B. Grace was smart enough to do the work, but she could rarely find a quiet place to do it. And if she didn’t like a subject or the teacher was such an overly fascinating character that she couldn’t concentrate in class, her grades suffered. Socrates Taseos, their geometry teacher, for example had a verbal tick and kept his yellow nut-like gallstone in a glass jar on his desk. No way to focus on math in that class. Their science teacher was as thin as Gumby and so gray-skinned from smoking that his nickname was Pencil, and their middle-aged French teacher Miss Bordeau, who regularly shared that she had once been a beauty queen, had a visible mustache and such enormous boobs that they brushed against the chalkboard when she wrote on it. It was impossible to conjugate the French verb avoir when Miss Bordeau’s perfume saturated and gigantic bosom made its way down the aisle with chalk marks like eyes staring out from her chest. Grace would observe these adults through a studious frown, wondering who married or kissed them, what they looked like naked, and most especially, what made them tick. Did they know they had gray skin and chalk on their boobs and spittle on the lip from too much lip-licking, and if they did, did they truly not get how utterly gross all of that was? And if they got it, why not clean up their acts? Strange. At least Betty Jean Haggerty had an excuse; she was crazy. But these people who were educators seemed pretty clueless. And if they were clueless, how could Grace trust anything they said?

Lou especially didn’t care about such idiosyncrasies, probably because of her mother. Learning came easily to Lou, as if having a mentally ill mother was so hard that everything else was a piece of cake. And teachers loved her. She wrote neatly in big fat letters on her homework, raised her hand regularly to participate, and hung around the teacher’s desk after class to chat amiably about this, that and the other thing, as she called it. Often a teacher asked about her mother, but Lou was perennially chirpy and precocious about that, as if having a mother who believed she was a secret agent was No Big Deal. 

“That poor child,” said Grace’s mother. “I hope she doesn’t inherit whatever her mother has. They say that stuff runs in families.”

“Lou is the smartest one in my class,” said Grace.

“Yes, well, you never know,” said her mother. “Your cousin Jeanette, for example. Her father had the shock treatments years ago. And now she’s all messed up too.”

Grace didn’t know enough about mental illness to make a snappy comeback, but she was irritated.

“Well that won’t happen to Lou,” she said. “She sees a counselor.”

It was a lie, but it shut her mother up.

Living as she did at her aunt and uncle’s house, Lou didn’t have a permanent address, but it didn’t seem to bother her. One Saturday Grace’s mother dropped Grace off at the house of Lou’s Aunt Pearl and Uncle Walt. The house smelled like old people and cigarette smoke, Grace thought, as Lou led her through the living room where Aunt Pearl sat in an orange housedress and knee-high pantyhose, watching Let’s Make a Deal while she sucked on a cigarette. She waved at Grace and Lou and called, “Have some Jello pudding, Louise—I made it for Walt, but there’s enough for you girls. It’s got milk in it.” Grace barely had time to say thank you as Lou took her upstairs to a bedroom that had belonged to Lou’s much older cousin Rod. There was a curling poster of Jimi Hendrix in psychedelic pink and purple on the wall and a set of metallic model cars with a fur of dust on the dresser. Lou had two cardboard cartons of stuff, one with its top open and a shirt or two spilling out. The rest of the room—the bed cover, the curtains, the scatter rugs—were gingham and floral, or more accurately gingham and plastic floral, since the flowers in the crystal vase by the bed were fake. A welcoming gift from Aunt Pearl who was, Grace decided, sadly out of touch with teenagers.

“Hey Gracie, I want you to listen to this,” said Lou, holding a record so that Grace couldn’t see the label. She opened Rod’s portable record player and snapped it on, then put the record on the turntable. Then she and Grace lay down on the floor.

“Close your eyes,” said Lou, “and just listen. Then I want you to tell me what you see.”

            In a minute they were listening to the familiar voice of Grace Slick making its byzantine dips and curls.

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small,
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all.

            Listening to Jefferson Airplane made Grace feel cool and subversive. Like she was way older and wiser than her parents, who still mostly listened to Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, and her father’s favorite, Kate Smith. “White Rabbit” was art, and Grace Slick was trampy and irreverent and brilliant. Not as beloved as Linda Ronstadt, whose voice could gallop up and down notes like a pony and whose button-brown eyes and tresses Grace envied. No, Grace Slick was like the kids who smoked out back behind the school. Their long hair just greasy enough to be impudent but not gross, and most of them, smart. They just didn’t care, which scared Grace but also intrigued her.

            “What do you see, Grace,” asked Lou as they lay with their eyes closed.

            “Colors,” said Grace, straining to see something as cool as what Lou wanted her to see.

            “I see colors too,” said Lou. “And space, like I’m whizzing through space.”

            “Yes,” said Grace, unsure of what else to say.

            Next they listened to “People Are Strange.” Jim Morrison growling. Grace had seen the cover of The Doors.

            “He’s handsome,” she said.

            “He’s dead,” said Lou.

People are strange when you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly when you’re alone
Women seem wicked when you’re unwanted
Streets are uneven when you’re down

“People are strange, Gracie,” said Lou, and Grace wondered if she meant her mother. But she knew what Lou was talking about.

“Yeah,” she said. “Mimi’s mom is a wicked weirdo. “Have you ever heard of brewer’s yeast? She makes Mimi and Nella take that every day. Which is hypocritical because she smokes, and smoking is a filthy habit. Ms. Newbold used to smoke, and she quit. Duh.”

Lou rolled over and propped herself up on her elbow.

“You know, you shouldn’t focus on these other people so much. People are strange, Gracie. That’s the thing. But we aren’t.”

“Okay,” said Grace and got quiet. She didn’t want to annoy her smart new friend.

“You know I love you, Gracie,” said Lou, putting her hand on Grace’s arm. “I feel like we are destined for greatness. If we could just see past all the bullshit. The Doors—the doors of perception. Like in that book by Aldous Huxley. We only see what’s in front of us, and it’s bullshit.”

She waved an arm around.

“I love Pearl and Walt, but of course I hate this. All she does is watch TV and make pudding. But what am I going to do? Get pissed? She does what she knows how to do. The real question is, what are we going to do? What are you going to do, Gracie?”

Lou looked at Grace with something like love, and Grace felt a little more confident. She propped herself up on her elbow, and now they were face to face.

“I don’t know what I want to do, but I can feel it. Like there’s something bigger. Like I’m plugged into electricity that I can’t see. And nobody else can see it either, but I feel it and they don’t.”

“Yes,” said Lou. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

Grace felt emboldened to say more.

“Do you ever feel like there are a lot of things you’re not supposed to do, just because you’re a girl?”

“Like what?”

“Like be smart or say what you think.”

“No problem there,” said Lou wryly, “because Betty Jean is schizophrenic. And Pearl and Walt—their whole world is my cousin Rod, who’s in the Navy. That’s all they talk about.”

Lou was Grace’s first friend with divorced parents, and since she and Lou were divulging confidences, Grace got up the courage to ask.

“When did your mother and father get divorced?”

“Betty Jean’s not divorced.” Lou sat up and bent over to touch her toes. “This feels good. You should try it.”

Her face almost touched her knees and her voice was slightly muffled.

“Betty Jean never got married. She just tells people she’s divorced because, well, you know.”

She sat up.

“The whole sex-before-marriage thing.”

Grace still said nothing.

“Illegitimacy. Fatherless babies. Slutty women.”

Grace’s eyes widened at the s-word. She had never heard it in polite company. Only from the dirtbags who shouted out car windows as she walked to school: “Sit on my face, slut!” which not only enraged her, but made her feel ashamed, like she had done something wrong.

Lou leaned over and touched Grace’s leg. “I don’t think Betty Jean is a slut. That’s not what I’m saying. Just that that’s how people will see her. Then they’ll feel sorry for me. The poor girl with no father whose crazy mother is a slut.”

“Have you ever met your father?”

Lou shook her head no.

Grace took in a deep breath and said “wow” as she exhaled.

“This is what I mean, Gracie,” said Lou. “Who needs it? I certainly don’t.”

Grace felt a thrilling appreciation of her new friend. Lou might be pretty and smart, but she was also tough and wise. And she loved Grace.

“I’m so glad we met,” said Grace. 

Then she leaned over to try to touch her toes.

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