Authors: Delia Ephron
For amazing Deena
Do you know what it says on a tube ofâ¦
I suppose we should talk about dead bodies.
Regarding my fifteenth birthday. It seems pathetic to bring upâ¦
For a week I stayed out of school. Then itâ¦
I develop a routine: arriving at school at the veryâ¦
On Saturday I wake up with my head throbbing andâ¦
Having that secret present makes it much easier to leaveâ¦
The next day is Sunday.
Mom's delivery van is usually refreshingly cool because it's refrigerated,â¦
That night, after Mom and Mel fall asleep, I sneakâ¦
In the morning I push the eight cardboard storage boxesâ¦
“Wake up, Frannie.”
“You have to ride with the campers,” Mom tells meâ¦
Poison is a riveting subject. I hold them spellbound. Weâ¦
It's taking all my not to fall into the Riceâ¦
Jenna's mom throws out her arms. What choice do Iâ¦
Jenna gets the same enthusiastic greeting at my place thatâ¦
A partial list of contributions to the poison collage.
What a jerk. Now Rocco is calling me Fanny everyâ¦
Gagging and sputtering, I'm on my back, rolling side toâ¦
Rewarding me instantly, I get a match with the firstâ¦
I keep my eyes on Mel, waiting for the rightâ¦
He opens the refrigerator, tunnels through. “Aha.” He unearths aâ¦
“We'll do it up there.”
Mom hands me a hammer. “Smash the ends, honey.”
Andy gives in to my plea to make a quickâ¦
The sky is dumping rain.
I must have patted my pocket every five seconds thatâ¦
Back in my room, I crash on the bed and,â¦
I can't do the blues. Every time I try, Iâ¦
Testing its stability, Harriet gives the ladder a shake. “Goâ¦
Do you know what it says
on a tube of toothpaste? In small print? You have to read the small print because they never tell you anything scary in large print. Large print is what they want you to see. Here's what the large print says:
FOR BEST RESULTS, SQUEEZE TUBE FROM THE BOTTOM AND FLATTEN AS YOU GO UP
. But the important stuff is small. Tiny.
If more than used for brushing is accidentally swallowed, get medical help or contact a Poison Control Center right away.
You can die from toothpaste.
I tell my mom this at dinner. Although I'm not eating. I tell her I have a stomachache. Which might be true. My mom says that I don't have to eat, but I do have to sit with them. While stuck there, I focus on things that have no meaning to me, like my stepfather's hair. Jenna and I have discussed Mel's hair and the possibility of putting a hidden camera in the bathroom to record exactly how he gets it to do what it does. I suspect that he wets it and combs it forward so it hangs like strings over his eyes. It's hay colored and not too thick, by the way. Then he parts it on the right, and, with a flip of the comb, swirls it left so it dips over his forehead and swoops up again. Strangely, it retains its comb marks. Jenna thinks gel is involved.
Have you ever noticed, in the movies, when the point is that no one in a family is speakingânot because they're mad at each other, but because, between the kids and the parents, there is zero communicationâthe family is often silent at the dinner table, with only the sound of forks scraping
plates? Well, life at my house is not like that. We have nothing in common but my mom won't shut up. Probably because she's laying on a veneer. Veneer, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “a thin surface layer. A faÃ§ade.” Listen to her: “There were fresh anemones today, I suppose they forced them or flew them in from a Central American country because they're at least three weeks early and they cost a complete fortune, I couldn't possibly make a profit on them, but those flowers are beautiful, it's like they have black eyes with long curly lashes, some of the petals are persimmon or colors you'd see only on a fish, and how about that delicate fringy leaf, like each flower is wearing a ruffled collar.”
“Toothpaste can kill you,” I say.
Now there is silence. I have achieved silence. You see, my mom can talk a streak, but eventually she has to take a breath, and when she does, I'm there.
“What makes you think that?” she asks eventually.
“It says so on the package.”
“I bet you'd have to swallow a whole tube,” says Mel.
“I'm sure he's right,” she chimes in.
“In the Middle Ages they didn't have toothpaste.” Mel teaches medieval history. “Queen Elizabeth the First brushed her teeth with pomegranate juice. That's why she never smiled for any of her portraits. She had hardly any teeth left.”
“How fascinating,” says my mom.
“It doesn't say you'd have to swallow a whole tube. It says, âIf more than used for brushingâ¦' That's about two inches.”
“I hope you're not going to stop brushing, too.”
The “too” refers to my having given up silverware and china. My place setting is now entirely disposable. More on that later.
My father died. He died on March 24
. Two months ago. A week before my birthday. He lived in a house eight blocks away. I always visited him after school on Wednesdays.
“Hey, Dad, it's me.”
There was no answer. My dad never forgets that Wednesdays belong to us, but occasionally something comes up and he knows that I know he'll be back. I dumped my parka and my backpack on the couch on top of the magazines. My dad readsâI mean, readâ
, plus a magazine called
CondÃ© Nast Traveler
, and he always left them lying around. “He lives like a college student,” I heard my mom tell her friend Rachel on the telephone. I don't know what Mom meant exactly, but it's not true. Wasn't true. He loves junk. Loved. Great junk. Things other people didn't want. Things sitting on the curb waiting for Thursday.
In Hudson Glen, New York, where we live, Thursday is pick-up-big-garbage day. Which means that on Wednesday evenings my dad and I would go foraging. “We see the beauty, don't we, Frannie?” His couch is bamboo. Someone threw out a perfectly good bamboo couch except for a few
gouges in the arms. And his coffee table is an old blue metal trunk with rusted locks. In the corner of the living room stands a stringless guitar, slightly warped. “Look at the shape, Frannie. Look what weather can do.” There is a ton of other stuffâa doll's arm, a few large dominoes, a broken radio in green plastic, a cracked clock with the works showing, an old-fashioned black telephone with a circular dial and finger holes. My dad said, “Take away use and you have art.” That's a very cool observation, and you should think about it for at least a minute. All the small objects we found dump digging, which is just what it sounds like, tramping through the dump searching for treasure. Everything we collected we appreciate, and I'm sorry to say my mom does not. “One putteth down what one doth not understand.” That's not in the Bible, but it should be.
That afternoon the milk carton was sitting on the kitchen counter. Opened. My dad is always forgetting to put things back. I'm like him that way.
So I put the milk back in the refrigerator, trying not to look too closely at what was inside. My dad never covers anything. It's like he never heard of Saran wrap, Baggies, or plastic containers. If he eats spaghetti, he pours what's left into a bowl and pops it, topless, into the fridge. Things grow fuzz and turn strange colors.
Fudgsicles are the only things in my dad's freezer, and he stocks them for me. There's no room for anything else because, unlike my mom's, his freezer does not automatically defrost. It looks like the ice age. After taking a Fudgsicle (I had to chip away some ice to get the freezer to close again), I cleared space on the couch, sat down, and considered my options. Homework. English class. Read thirty pages of
Lord of the Flies
. U.S. history, thirty-five pages, and answer some questions about the Civil War. While doing either assignment, I could apply my favorite technique, reading for five minutes, daydreaming for five minutes. Or I could watch the light. “Watch the light, Frannie.” Imagine
having a dad who tells you to sit around and watch light. That is another reason why he is a totally rare father. Was. Was, was, was.
My dad's windows face south. At three thirty
. on this clear windy day, dots of bright white were scattered like confetti across the floor, thanks to the warm afternoon light filtering through the trees outside Dad's window. “Light is rarely boring and never still, right, Frannie?” A beam of sun obliterated a corner of the coffee table, chopping it right off. I focused on the middle distance, on bits of feathery dust floating in air.
Spacing out on the light, I finished the Fudgsicle and dug into the nuts and raisins that my dad keeps in a kitchen canister. I alternate: First one cashew, then an almond and raisin simultaneously. While so pleasantly engagedâ¦Don't you like to speak grandly now and then? It makes your life sound impressive. Compare “while so pleasantly engaged” with “while pigging out,” another way to describe my activities.
While so pleasantly engaged, I called Jenna.
Jenna and I met in the playground in Reservoir Park when Jordan Keener beaned her with a shovel and I pushed him down. Jenna and I don't remember this, but our moms do. We were three years old, and we've been in school together ever since kindergarten, although not always in the same class. In fifth grade the teachers decided we were too cliquey, so in sixth grade they split us up. Now that we're in ninth grade, we don't have any of the same classes, but we meet before school, at lunch, and after.
We're not anything alike. Our looks, for starters. I have dark-brown, frizzy hair. No product can tame it. Believe me, I've tried everything on the market, and once Jenna ironed it. No kidding, I leaned my head on the board and she ironed my hair, using the setting for polyester. After a minute she had to stop because 1) we were laughing too hard, and 2) my hair started to sizzle. Jenna's nickname for me is Wildwoman. You've seen television
commercials in which a glamorous model or actress swings her hair back and forth. “I use Lustro-Sheen,” swish, the hair falls forward over one eye. She pushes a hand through it or flips her head down and up, boom, it swings over to the other side. Or she walks away twitching her butt, and her hair obligingly dances about in a sexy, gentle way. Well, my hair won't swish or flip or dance. It's a shoulder-length hedge. You wouldn't stick your hand in a hedge, would you? Enough said.
Don't you have a body part that is your burden to bear? Once you start thinking about it, you can't stop. I really hate my hair. I guess that's why I notice everyone else's hair, including Mel's.
If you have straight hair, I will envy you until I die. Jenna has straight hair. I try not to be green with jealousy.
Did you ever play “What's your favorite body part?” It's not a game exactly. It was a way, in sixth grade, that some kids tried to make other kids feel bad. (Sixth grade was the meanest year so far by
far.) The kids who were developed knew I had nothing to brag about and they did. “I love my breasts,” Sukie Jameson would say, just as I was thinking that perhaps my ankles were my favorite body part and was even considering crying about it. That was before I had something to cry about. Maybe God said, “I'll give you something to cry about,” and that's why my dad died. Because once I was so idiotic that I almost cried about my best body part being my ankles. They're very trim. My legs aren't too bad either. Shapely. La, la, la. I look good in short shorts, it's true. What I don't like is that my hips are wide, and, right above my waist, one rib pokes out more than the others. I finally got breasts, but I think they are too far apart. Jenna's are round and perky, although we both have small ones and that's a bond.
Jenna takes ballet. She can dance on point. Her posture is excellent, her neck long and swanlike. She has tiny features, skin white as snow; and her cheeks get a natural pink glow when she's excitedâ
how much luck is that? She has black eyes that slant slightly up and thick black brows. I am not so delicate, facewise. My face is long. My dad once showed me a famous portrait by Modigliani, and I've been worried ever since that I look mournful like the woman in that painting. My nose has a slight bump in it, and my eyes are brown, which fills me with a certain amount of despair. Brown is the most boring color (how often did you take that color out of the Crayola box?), especially boring if your hair is brown, too. My mother says I have huge saucer eyes, full of feeling (what does that mean?). My dad loves my dimples, one in each cheek. Loved my dimples. When you've got dimples, cute is the most you can aspire to. Fact, not opinion.
Jenna can do a backbend. And splits. And hold her leg up so it touches her forehead, while I cannot touch my toes.
What I like to do is draw. My dad kept an old tomato can with sharpened pencils on the coffee
table trunk. Things may have rotted in his refrigerator, but the pencils were always sharp. “They're for you, Frannie, in case inspiration strikes.” I don't like to draw natureâobjects of beauty like a tree, bird, or flower. I like to draw banal things. Banal, if you look it up in the dictionary, means “completely ordinary.”
I might have drawn the milk carton on my dad's counter.
Mel once looked at my drawing of a wastebasket with crumpled paper inside and said, “Why did you
draw that?” When I ignored him, my mom prodded, “Mel asked you a question, Frannie.” I didn't want to tell him because I don't want him to know anything about me, so I said, “I don't know.” But afterward I thought about his question. I draw banal things because they suggest a story. Maybe there's a love letter in that wastebasket, or that wastebasket is full because the housekeeper forgot to empty it because she's downstairs locking lips with the gardener. Rosanna, who comes to clean once a week, doesn't even know Cliff (whom Mom calls our “lawn man”), because Rosanna cleans on Monday and he mows on Thursday. But maybe they have met and I don't know it. Maybe he forgot his rake and returned on Monday to get it. See what I mean?
Did I get sidetracked? I guess, because I'm telling you about the day my father died. After I watched the light, I phoned Jenna on her cell. My mom forces me to carry one so she can find me at all times. My dad doesn't like them. He saysâ
STOP! No more of that. My dad
like cell phones. He doesn't say, he
. Past tense. My brain is not behaving. But is it my brain that won't behave or my heart? It's hard to keep the body parts straight. I mean, speaking of a person who bit the dust, a doctor might announce, “His heart stopped.” But sometimes the doctor says, “He's brain-dead.” I say, “Which is it? Make up your mind. Which does you in, brain or heart?”