Authors: Rosemary Wells
When No One Was Looking
ECAUSE JULIA WAS BEAUTIFUL
and had a classic forehead, Miss Greco had chosen her to model for one of her many ceramic heads. Wildly differing students had posed for Miss Greco over the years, but the heads looked remarkably alike. In the back of the classroom Kathy Bardy waited for Julia. The questions in her algebra book lay horribly unsolved before her. Kathy fidgeted over them and dreamed in the sweet June air, looking for some sign of Julia’s features in Miss Greco’s brick-colored Plastilina. As yet there was none. The heads on the windowsill resembled not only one another but the work of Miss Greco’s favorite sculptor, whose lumpy, suffering peasants, published in
decorated the bulletin board. There was an air of humility about Miss Greco that Kathy found unsettling. It seemed that Miss Greco was cheerfully resigned to being a high school art teacher who struggled to imitate the private style of a famous man. She appeared to accept without regret her mousy thinning hair, and her dust-coated orthopedic shoes, which tracked up even the ladies’ room floor, and Kathy, had she wakened one morning to find herself in Miss Greco’s place, would have certainly jumped out a window.
“No, you wouldn’t,” said Julia later on the way to the club.
“A high window,” Kathy added.
In a southern voice that purred as agreeably as the engine of her silver Mercedes 6.9, Mrs. Irene Beaufort Redmond, Julia’s mother, declared that suicide was an unseemly topic of conversation. “My Kathy,” which was what she always called her daughter’s best friend, “will never jump out any window on God’s green earth, because she is number one.”
“Number twelve,” Kathy amended.
“Number one, number twelve, it’s all tacky business anyway,” said Julia’s mother.
Kathy knew that was true in a sense; however, she did not like her ranking taken frivolously. Mrs. Redmond continued, “And my Julia is also a number one, but I wish, darling, you would take up some challenge like your friend Kathy has taken up tennis. Life has been too easy for you this far, and you need a challenge.”
Julia met this suggestion with silence and a wink at Kathy. Tennis, after all, was not something that Kathy had
as a person might take up reading the horoscopes in the paper. At the time, over a year ago, when tennis had more or less happened to Kathy, she’d still harbored dreams of becoming the first woman shortstop for the Boston Red Sox.
They had discovered her “talent” one day at a tennis clinic which had been squeezed in between a fireman’s parade and the annual VFW Easter-egg hunt. The tennis people all talked about talent, and now even Kathy’s parents used the word, as if she were some sort of rising Rembrandt.
There was no denying that this was exciting. Kathy’s family had “no money,” as her mother put it, unlike Julia’s family, who had “real money.” Kathy had none of her younger sister Jody’s brains, or if she did, this did not show in her schoolwork. She did not possess Julia’s good looks and easy manner. Tennis had come suddenly to Kathy, like the unexpected winning of a state lottery. And like those gleeful lottery winners pictured in the papers grinning among the signals of poverty that were theirs moments before, Kathy cherished tennis, and outwardly she reveled in it.
Mrs. Redmond blew kisses through the car window to both “her girls.” “I’ll come get you at five thirty,” she said, “so Kathy has time for a swim after her lesson.”
“I’m on lifeguard duty tonight,” said Kathy. “It’s the first club dance of the season, and someone always winds up in the pool.”
“You work too hard, darling,” Mrs. Redmond answered sadly. “Just don’t pull any drunks out of the pool. Drunks are always dead-weightenized.” With this statement and ten more kisses Mrs. Redmond and the silver Mercedes glided away down the long petunia-lined pebble drive.
“You do work too hard,” said Julia when her mother had gone, for Julia never agreed with her mother if her mother was present. “Maybe when school’s out, you’ll have some time and we can just do nothing a little, the way we used to. You ought to get a tan, Kath, without the lines from your tennis dress.”
Kathy straightened her rackets and took the cover and press off one of them. “I’ll be lounging around with an algebra book. That’s what,” she said.
“Oh, come on. The final won’t be that bad. Don’t worry. I’ll help you. You’ll pass.”
Kathy grunted at her racket press.
“Why don’t you come for a quick Coke? You have time before your lesson,” Julia asked in an abnormally cheerful voice.
I have to do the courts.”
“I know! I know!” Julia answered, raising a hand and shutting her eyes against this fact. “Give my hate to old Miss Pus-bucket.”
“I will,” said Kathy, and she walked slowly over to the courts past a series of whitewashed iron urns which had been newly planted with red-and-white-striped petunias. She would have liked to have a Coke and laugh for half an hour or so.
In Kathy’s view there were few things Julia did not understand with a quick and visceral reflex. The whole business of being talented was a thing Julia took quite for granted, as she took the fact of having money or having perfect teeth. She accepted Kathy’s new-found genius as if, in storybook fashion, Kathy had suddenly inherited a million dollars from a long-lost uncle. Julia welcomed Kathy’s still-tender ascendancy in the game of tennis with an I-told-you-all-along outlook that was childlike and grown-up at the same time. On the other hand, Kathy decided, Julia had no grasp of the need for working at anything. Whether Kathy had to work at odd jobs for money or work grueling, sweaty hours in the hot sun or on the public courts at night, Julia viewed hard work as an invention of unimaginative adults who had lost all sense of fun in this world. Having an immense library of first editions at home, many of them read to her aloud years before the school system tackled the same books, and having been to Europe several times, Julia came easily to her A-plus average, as if in every subject she had been already thoroughly educated. Algebra, English, drawing, and riding, all these things were to Julia pleasant diversions, presenting no more difficulty than the eating of an artichoke. Because of this, or perhaps in spite of it, Julia was not popular at school.
Whether this bothered Julia or not anymore, Kathy didn’t really know. Mrs. Redmond had always dismissed as hilariously petty anything that happened in school. At the same time Julia’s father was subject to occasional seizures of New England prudence and insisted that Julia stay in the public school and ride the school bus just like everybody else.
Kathy recalled vividly the second day of first grade. Behind the massive blue velvet curtain on the gymnasium stage the girls had all undressed to be weighed and measured by the school nurse. Someone had poked fun at Julia’s underwear. When Julia pointed out that it had been handmade in France and was much prettier than the nylon underwear of the girl who was picking on her, a crowd had gathered instantly. They jeered so cruelly at Julia’s dress, which was also handmade and too conservative in style, and at her diction, which had been carefully groomed by a succession of English nannies, that Julia had sat on the floor and cried miserably. After school that day Kathy had found Julia crouched behind a hedge, afraid to get on the bus and still in tears. Not even knowing Julia’s name, Kathy had sat beside her on the school bus and threatened to kill anyone who brought up the subject of underwear or accents again.
From that day on Kathy and Julia had been the best of friends, but Julia had established a pattern and never really pulled herself out of it. She was laughed at for bringing sandwiches of pâté de foie gras to school. Kathy remembered Julia pleading with her mother to give her tuna fish instead. Mrs. Redmond replied by saying that she’d never bought a can of tuna fish in her life and wasn’t about to, since the smell would drive a starving dog from the room. Kathy had repressed her hurt at this skewering of her own mother’s lunches because she was totally in awe of everything Mrs. Redmond did or said. Julia was laughed at because sometimes her grandmother picked her up from school in a chauffeur-driven car and because she missed classes with abandon for family vacations. Later she was teased for having a perfect accent in French.
Private school had been discussed from time to time, but since this would have required Julia to get up at seven in the morning instead of eight, Julia had outright balked and once had spent three days with a large piece of masking tape over her mouth, refusing to eat or drink until her mother dropped the subject. Whereas Kathy’s nature tended toward violent physical self-defense, jealousy, and blurting out whatever was on her mind at the moment, Julia avoided all conflicts. She waded through whatever souls dared to tease her like a missionary doctor among the lepers, completely unafraid of catching leprosy. This attitude worked wonders as it tended to drive a tormentor to ridiculous extremes. Julia knew she was envied more than hated, and so she had a sunny nature, and she and Kathy had spent the last eight years laughing at practically everything.
The petunias in the decorative urns had five stripes apiece, Kathy noticed, except for the few that had six. This only reminded her of the algebra final to come. Kathy pictured the final as if it were a huge bloated dead fish on the horizon, and she felt a wrench of jealousy toward Julia and the ease with which Julia faced such things as exams. She could no more rid herself of the jealousy than she could wish away her anger when she found herself losing a tennis match. Julia, Kathy reminded herself, had never been jealous of anything or anyone so far as Kathy knew, with the brief exception of Laura Mae Bullock, who had stolen Robbie Martin, Julia’s first real crush, away from her. Since Laura Mae had terrible acne and a reputation for doing things with boys behind the town water tower, Julia had not been jealous long. She had welcomed Kathy’s success at tennis with astonishing openheartedness, even though it took Kathy away from her company for long hours. Of course there was a reason for this. Kathy’s many tournaments, trophies, free rackets from Spalding, and her interview in the
cut right through all the uncomfortable class and money business that was the only thing that had separated them since the first grade. It legitimized, like a new moon wish come true, a rite of eternal friendship both girls had performed, using the blood of a dead pigeon, when they were six and a half. It somehow made all right those times that their fathers, on meeting now and then in the Sears tool department or while buying the Sunday papers, had nodded and grunted to each other in recognition of their daughters but had said little more. Now Julia’s father would say hello and ask after Kathy’s latest victory, and her father would grin and fold up the sports pages and be wonderfully modest about the whole thing. Carefully Kathy hid her new sense of equality from Julia. From time to time she would mention Evert’s backhand or Andrea Jaeger’s nerve but never the prize money she read about with such awe. Unlike death, religion, and the details of menstruation, neither Kathy nor Julia ever alluded to money.
Kathy supposed that come Tuesday, Julia, ever-generous, would slide her paper and move her arm during Mrs. Diggins’s abominable final algebra exam and that she, Kathy, would find it too great a temptation.
“Where is your mind, my dear?” asked Marty in Kathy’s imagination. Kathy checked to see whether Marty was in her office. She was, as she always was at two thirty on Fridays, counting the week’s take. Kathy could see her silhouette, feet on the desk, Coke bottle in hand in the little white clapboard building, salt-licked and surrounded by more petunias in the window boxes. Kathy would not go in, as Marty disliked being interrupted while she was counting money. Half an hour remained before her lesson would begin, and in order to pay part of her membership fee for the Plymouth Bath and Tennis Club, Kathy had to pick up all the balls from the morning’s lessons and sweep the first three courts clean. Brushing the soft green dust from the tapes and collecting balls from the thistles and shells outside the fence gave Kathy time to play with her thoughts. She didn’t mind the work at all, except she knew Marty was watching every move she made. Marty always did that, because Kathy Bardy was her pet.