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Bleak by Lynn Messina 5. Virgins by Caryl Rivers
Rita Hayworth’s Shoes by Francine LaSala
Chapter 1 How Amy Got Ditched by David in a Dive Deli—While Wearing a Wedding Gown
With astounding agility, Amy Miller sat down on the floor on the rolled up clump of paper towels she‘d finally managed to wrangle free from the bathroom dispenser. This was a surprising, if not acrobatic, feat for a big reason: She performed this maneuver in a densely crinolined, Scarlett-O‘Hara-in-the-parlor-drapes-wide wedding gown. And if that wasn‘t impressive enough, she pulled it off in the tiny ladies‘ room of one Katz‘s Delicatessen in lower Manhattan. That she had forgotten to wipe down the wall before she sat would become apparent later. Right now, there were more pressing matters to ponder. It was her wedding day, after all. Or so she had thought. Ever since Amy was a very little girl, she had big dreams for how this day would unfold. All her life, she had imagined swooshing down the aisle of an ancient church in a sweeping white gown, while glorious streams of sunlight beamed through exquisitely crafted stained glass windows. Of family and friends, shielding their eyes from the heavenly rays bouncing off her goddess-like visage as she sashayed to the massive altar. Of the man of her dreams trembling at the amazing luck he had been blessed with to have made this ethereal being gliding gracefully toward him actually have agreed to marry him. Instead, she was stuffed like a bag of marshmallows into a shot glass, in a room that had no windows at all, while outside, her confused family and friends waited for the same thing as her. And that thing was David. David was late. In fact, he was very late. In all the years she‘d known him—and this year it would be seven—David had never been known for his promptness, so at least for the first half hour or so, there was no cause for alarm. But now, after nearly two hours more had passed, Amy was starting to doubt him—which she hated. Amy had never doubted David, ever, even if all her friends had. No, there must be something wrong. Maybe he had a car accident? Was run over by the crosstown bus as he tried to get across town? Was swallowed by an alligator that had emerged from the sewer and… ―Amy? Sweetie, can I come in?‖ It was her best friend, Jane. ―I‘m kind of busy in here. It‘s not really a good—‖ Jane shoved her way through the door. ―Oh, Amy,‖ she sighed. ―How you doing, kiddo?‖ ―I‘m okay. I‘m fine,‖ she lied. ―I‘m just having a little rest.‖ ―On the bathroom floor?‖ ―Not many more places I can fit,‖ she smirked. ―Come on, let me help you up. You look ridiculous down there.‖
―Yeah, what else is new?‖ Jane reached a hand down and pulled her friend to a standing position. ―So how‘s it look out there?‖ Amy asked. Jane ran a hand through Amy‘s fallen mousy brown bangs. ―Oh, you know. It‘s fine. Heimlich‘s chugging down what must be his thirtieth Jack and Coke—and I think I may have seen him hitting on…‖ Jane stopped talking when she glimpsed the back of Amy‘s gown. ―Hey, sweetie, you know you have something stuck—‖ Jane grabbed the clump of paper towels off the floor and started to wipe off the grease Amy had wiped off the wall with her dress. ―Yeah. That‘s gonna stain.‖ Amy craned her neck to look at the mess. ―What else could go wrong?‖ she sighed. ―So why are you doing this again?‖ ―Come on, Jane. We‘ve been through this before.‖ ―It‘s just that—‖ ―That what? That I could do better? You don‘t think he‘s right for me? No offense, but you‘re not exactly in the position to be judging other women‘s men.‖ Jane‘s face turned bright red at this, and Amy instantly felt guilty for opening up what should now have been a very old wound, but wasn‘t. Elliot and Jane had been married seven years when she discovered he had a lover on the side. They divorced quickly, when their daughter was just a baby, and Jane had not so much as had even a first date with another man. She denied still being in love with Elliot, but everyone knew she was lying. ―I‘m sorry about that. That was totally uncalled for. You know I didn‘t mean that.‖ ―Yeah, whatever,‖ was Jane‘s terse reply. Amy tried to make it better. ―Hey, without him there would be no Zoë–right?‖ And Jane‘s face lit up at the thought of her daughter. ―That‘s true. Zoë just wouldn‘t be Zoë without a dose of Elliot, would she?‖ Jane half laughed. ―Of course it‘s better for her and me both that it stopped at ‗nature‘ and that ‗nurture‘ isn‘t part of that equation.‖ ―You can say that again,‖ Amy said a bit too emphatically, annoying Jane once again. ―I know you never liked Elliot. Believe me, he never liked you either. And I‘m not just saying that to be unkind,‖ Jane said, raising her hand in front of her face. ―It‘s just that sometimes friends know better. It‘s not always easy to see things in the haze of love.‖ ―Everyone‘s relationship is different. I don‘t have to tell you that. My relationship with David is what it is and it‘s not for me to explain to you or anyone else. I know you guys don‘t exactly get along, but give it time. I know you‘re going to grow to love each other. Eventually. In time.‖ ―Right. Maybe in seven more years. Look, any guy who makes you—‖ ―I know what you‘re going to say, and stop it. Love is all about compromise. You of all people should know that. And this,‖ Amy took a breath and looked around, ―…this is my way of compromising for him.‖ ―But you‘re always compromising for him.‖ ―Now, that‘s not true. He compromised. He didn‘t even want to get married. But he finally gave in, didn‘t he? Just so long as we did it here. Here. In his favorite restaurant.
Really, who‘s making the bigger compromise here? A few hours in this shit hole greasy dive, or a lifetime?‖ ―You don‘t even hear yourself, do you?‖ Jane shook her head. ―You‘re the bride. It should have been your decision–‖ ―Listen, you might think this is ridiculous, but it isn‘t your wedding, is it? So it‘s not traditional. David‘s not a traditional guy,‖ Amy assured, avoiding eye contact with Jane. She opted instead to watch herself twist, point and twist her foot in a pleather pump that looked worn from wear, even though this was the first time it had ever been worn. ―David is special. He does things his way,‖ she decided. She now looked up to the mirror to push her drooped-down updo out of her face. ―And I like his way. So, what time is it anyway?‖ ―Four thirty-five…‖ she said, and trailed off. ―Amy, do you really think he compromised about—‖ ―Jane, please. You‘re stressing me out. Don‘t go there, okay? You don‘t know him like I do. He‘ll be here. He loves me. And I love him. We‘re meant to be together. I don‘t know why you just can‘t see that.‖ ―It‘s just that divorce is very hard on kids and–‖ A knock at the door preempted Jane‘s lecture. ―Mama?‖ The little voice broke the tension and both women smiled. ―Hurry up in there. Pappy‘s stuffing pastrami in his pockets again. He said to me that it was okay because it‘s kosher, but I don‘t know. I don‘t think so.‖ ―Now Zoë, good little girls don‘t tell on others,‖ Jane called through the door. ―I‘ll be right out. In the meantime, run and tell Nana what he‘s up to.‖ Jane turned back to Amy. ―See what divorce did to Zoë? It made her a raging tattletale.‖ ―Right. The divorce did that.‖ ―Mama? Won‘t Uncle David ever get here? I‘m sooo tired of waiting for him,‖ Zoë whined, banging on the door with a tiny fist. ―Are you back already? That was fast—‖ ―Mama! Come on! I‘m soooo hungry.‖ Jane shot Amy the desperate, part embarrassed, part murderous glance of a mother approaching the end of her rope. ―I think I have some Cheerios or something in my bag out there,‖ she offered. ―Don‘t worry. I‘ll be right out.‖ ―You okay?‖ ―I‘m great. I have perfect faith that everything‘s going to be just fine.‖ ―Okay, see you later.‖ Amy turned back to the mirror and blew up pesky fallen strands of hair away from her nose. She reached into her bag for a comb and the small bottle of hair spray she brought for touch-ups and went to work on her starchy bridal hair. Within seconds, she had managed to snag and break the cornerstone bobby pin, and the $150 fiasco plopped down into her face in one piece. ―Shit!‖ Amy frantically tried to fix it, but only succeeded in creating what could easily have passed for a bad toupee. Just then, her cell phone began to ring. She desperately extricated her hands from her hair/nest and retrieved the call just before it went to voice mail. ―Hello?‖ she breathed.
―Scruffy. Hi, it‘s me.‖ ―David! Oh, my God! Has there been an accident? Where are you?‖ ―No, no. It‘s nothing like that, Amy. Oh, Scruffy. I‘m so sorry.‖ ―What? What is it?‖ ―Amy, I‘m not going to make it today.‖ ―David—what do you mean? Where are you?‖ ―Oh, Amy. You‘re such a beautiful girl. And my very best friend in the world. But I‘m afraid… Oh, God. I‘m so sorry.‖ ―What is it? I don‘t understand.‖ ―Amy, I‘ve fallen in love with someone else.‖ Stunned, Amy hit the wall with her back and began to wipe clean another streak as she slid to the floor. ―Oh dammit!‖ ―Amy?‖ ―No—no. Not you. Never mind… Wait a minute. Yes. Yes you! What do you mean you‘re in love with someone else? David, you‘re just scared. You know how you deal with commitment—‖ ―No, Scruffy—Amy. It‘s not that. It‘s really never been that. I do want to get married. I really do want to commit. I just don‘t want to commit to you. I‘m sorry I never realized that before…‖ Amy responded with silence. ―Amy? Come on, Amy. Talk to me. Amy? Please…‖ ―You can‘t mean that. You just can‘t. You‘re just having a crisis, David. Cold feet. Where are you? Let‘s meet. Let‘s talk about this.‖ ―No, Amy. No. I never meant to hurt you,‖ he said, and Amy could hear some humming, what she could swear was muffled speech, on his end of the phone. ―What was that?‖ she asked. ―What was what?‖ he replied, and the humming started again. ―That. That droning noise?‖ ―Droning,‖ he stalled. ―I don‘t hear any—‖ ―Oh, God. You‘re with her right now, aren‘t you?‖ David was quiet, but the droning endured. ―You are, aren‘t you? Oh, dammit, David! At least tell me who she is.‖ ―Amy, this isn‘t going to help…‖ ―TELL ME!‖ ―Okay, okay. It‘s Liz French. ―Who?‖ ―Liz French. You remember—the liberal arts professor? From last year‘s party?‖ Amy thought for several seconds as a wave of nausea began washing over her. In her mind‘s eye, a shapeless, troll-like being bounded up to her in the grand ballroom of the Garden City Hotel with a Diet Coke in one hand and a chicken leg in the other. David heard a crashing sound on her end of the phone. ―Amy? Amy?!?‖ There was no answer.
The crash was not heard in the main dining area of Katz‘s Delicatessen, a brown wood-paneled space on the Lower East Side, reminiscent of someone‘s never-remodeledsince-the-1950s-basement. Here, ancient salamis hung from the ceiling and vomitcolored linoleum coated the floor under the feet of sixty or so well-heeled guests, who had been discreetly picking away at the long-cold buffet as they waited for the main event, desperately trying to pretend the situation wasn‘t all that awkward. Make-believe time was over when into the uncomfortable fray walked one Amy Ann Miller–bride, completely dazed, a slight trail of blood drizzling down her chin from her bottom lip and right onto her hand-embroidered silk bodice. (The shock of exactly for whom—or more like for what—David left her had sent her reeling forward into the sink with her face, or rather her lip, breaking the fall.) Amy grabbed a glass of champagne from a stunned-to-a-stop waiter. She downed it in one gulp. ―Sancerre! Stat!‖ cried Jane, as she snapped her fingers and rushed to Amy‘s side. ―Amy? What happened?‖ A voice Amy didn‘t recognize, but she guessed was the horrible Hannah from her job, piped out of the growing-more-tense crowd. ―That bastard!‖ At last, the tension was too much for the guests to bear, and with Hannah breaking the dam came a flood of whispered observations and even some obscenities from the other guests. ―Oh no,‖ gasped Lauren Austen-Rabinowitz, Jane‘s mother, as she clutched her husband Joshua‘s arm. Joshua could only shake his head. ―Not coming,‖ Amy mumbled. ―That boy is trouble,‖ said Aunt Clarabelle, as she twirled away at the long strands of hair that had sprouted from her chin in recent years, and which she had decided not to remove as she rather enjoyed twirling them. ―A travesty, this is!‖ agreed the massive mammoth of a woman known as Aunt Enid. ―I knew it, I knew it, I knew it,‖ spat Grant, Enid‘s son, who had yet to get over the demise of his own marriage, and who would often–painfully and annoyingly to anyone who had to listen–refer to himself as ―half a man.‖ He viewed all weddings, whether the couple went through with them or not, as disasters waiting to happen. Enid looped her massive arms around his elbow, and began to comfort him with a soft litany of ―there, there‘s.‖ Jane rolled her eyes at them. Amy‘s boss, Professor Fredreich Heimlich, who suffered equally from acute hearing loss and apparently severe inappropriateness, pushed in front of tiny Jane, nearly knocking her over, holding a hand up to his ear with Band-Aids wrapped around each finger. He asked Amy, ―What‘s that you say?‖ Amy‘s Sancerre at last arrived, and this too, she downed in one gulp. ―I said, he‘s not coming.‖ The din of speculation instantly quieted. ―I always knew that guy was a jackass,‖ said the gnarly professor, waving a beigeplastic-wrapped finger in her face. ―You just can‘t trust these herpetologists. Reptiles? As if that‘s really science,‖ he scoffed, and took a swig of his drink. ―Bunch of goddamned
devil worshippers, that‘s what they are,‖ he offered, putting his arm around Amy‘s waist, and slipping his hand down to rest on her rear end. Amy whipped herself away from the professor and began to wail. Jane threw her arms around Amy, who, because she stood a head taller than Jane, snotted and bled into her best friend‘s hair. Jane was a forgiving friend. Always a sensitive child, Zoë ran up to her favorite aunt, squirmed her tiny sixyear-old body between Jane and Amy, and threw her arms around Amy‘s waist. ―Oh, Auntie Amy! This is simply unconscionable!‖ she screeched. Jane, ever-impressed by her young daughter‘s precociousness, joined her daughter in the hug as she kissed Zoë‘s downy-soft blonde head. The angelic and wise Zoë lifted her tear-soaked face and stared meaningfully into her mother‘s eyes. ―So, does this mean we can eat now?‖
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Chasing Eternity by Diann Ducharme Chapter 1 Ryan Abernathy‘s long legs loped up the treadmill‘s steep incline. His eyes trained on the beige wall in front of him, he thought of nothing except his body‘s wellbeing. The daily six miles completed, Ryan wiped his head and neck with a towel and made his way to the kitchen. Assembling ingredients and piling them into a blender, he stabbed the ―puree‖ button with a determined forefinger. He ran a hand over his toned torso as he watched the organic blueberries and strawberries, soy yogurt, soy milk, honey and shelled hemp seeds mix rapidly into mush. He made a mental note that a cup contained approximately 200 calories; he could eat another 800 calories today. He poured the mixture into a glass and carried it to the kitchen table, where his biochemistry textbook waited for him, along with his neatly lined up bottles of vitamins and supplements. He prescribed to a daily regimen that included multivitamins, capsules of fish oils, and supplements of muscadine grape, Coenzyme Q10, turmeric, milk thistle, ashwaganda and bacopa, all of which had been shown to neutralize the free radicals that roamed a body, damaging the body‘s cells and leading to premature aging. He washed the pills down with a glass of water, then popped a tablet of anti-anxiety medication into his mouth and swallowed. Humming tunelessly, he scooted his stainless steel chair closer to the table and opened the textbook, reading a few paragraphs and analyzing a chart. Then he drained the glass of the smoothie and dropped onto the white linoleum to do some push-ups. He felt so capable, he clapped his hands together after each upward thrust. At push-up number 53, he heard a knock on his apartment door. He knew that it was Rose Buxton, a fellow research associate with the genetics of longevity study. She was the only friend whom he had felt comfortable enough asking to drive him to the Dulles airport. ―Ew,‖ she said, eyeing his sweaty t-shirt as she strolled inside. She smelled of a dry October day in Virginia. ―You‘re early,‖ he noted. ―I haven‘t showered yet.‖ ―Are you packed at least?‖ ―Almost.‖ She pulled open the refrigerator door and peered inside. ―Looks like a year‘s supply of tofu in here.‖ She wrenched open the full crisper drawer. ―Your vegetables are going to go bad while you‘re in Ireland, you know.‖ ―You want to take them home with you?‖ ―Ha ha, very funny.‖ Ryan smiled. Rose was a happily chubby 30-year-old medical student, studying to be a pathologist. A year ago, he had been on a date with her, at her insistence, but things
hadn‘t moved forward, probably because she had made the mistake of taking him to an Italian restaurant with an all-you-can-eat buffet. He had watched anxiously as she devoured at least five slices of some spongy white bread drenched in olive oil, a meal-sized portion of Caesar salad, and a giant bowl of fettuccine Alfredo. His side garden salad cowered in shock. After the meal, he had delicately tried to explain to her how eating small amounts of food triggered genes that appeared to promote cell survival, improve DNA stability and increase energy production. He waxed on about the 1930s nutritionist who had discovered that underfed rats lived a lot longer than others. By cutting calories 30 percent, the rats survived about 40 percent longer. Calorie restriction also worked in fish, fleas, and other species, and early data suggested that it worked in monkeys too. It was, he declared, the most effective way of extending the maximum life span in animals. He had leaned back in his chair, satisfied with his sermon, but Rose had sauntered back to the buffet and selected a thick slice of cherry cheesecake. She had eaten the dessert quickly, and then had ordered a cappuccino to chase it down, all while babbling about television shows that Ryan didn‘t watch, books of fiction that he wouldn‘t read. After the date, Rose and Ryan had agreed to be friends. Because her father was the director of the longevity research study, she helped out at the office on the weekends. Ryan still wasn‘t quite sure what she did. And yet, it was Rose who had taken the recent call from Dr. Patrick Fitzgerald, an Irish general practitioner and self-professed genealogy buff. Dr. Fitzgerald thought the specialized study, with their focus on the genes of longlived relatives, would be interested in two extremely elderly, identical twin sisters on a remote island off the western coast of Ireland. They lived in two separate homes, right next door to one another, with not even a telephone or a television to connect them to the world outside. They were ―off the radar,‖ he‘d said. The young doctor claimed that he‘d been calling on the island‘s patients for over five years now, and the entire island seemed to be comprised mostly of elderly people, who fortunately were still independent enough to abide the lack of a retirement home on the island. He‘d said that one of the twins, Cleona Owen, was terribly sick with pneumonia. He had inquired of her age at that point, and she had admitted, while in the midst of a raging fever, to being over 100 years old—a centenarian—but she‘d seemed confused about her exact age. Even a great-granddaughter who lived with her claimed ignorance of the actual number. The sister, Catherine Owen, had been confined to her bed for the last few months, claiming exhaustion. She couldn‘t even answer him, when he‘d inquired of her age. He‘d left them with some pills, but doubted that either sister would survive until the new year. A pattern of old age and resiliency on the island—coupled with the fact that the two elderly women were twins, had piqued the director‘s interest—enough to send Ryan from Virginia to Ireland for five days to investigate, despite the known existence of official age documents. Centenarian siblings were difficult to find, and even more difficult to thoroughly validate, but they were the cornerstone of their particular longevity study—―longevity genes‖ were believed to be inherited. By examining the DNA of closely related centenarians, the study had already helped to single out certain ―genetic signatures‖ that
characterized human longevity. To most, the series of letters representing the four components on a DNA molecule—A, C, G and T—looked no more illuminating than alphabet soup, an indecipherable string of letters. But the cryptic pathways of centenarian siblings held within them a potential cure for aging, and the diseases that went along with aging, such as Alzheimer‘s disease, stroke, cancer and heart disease. In the last decade, it had been proven that many centenarians did indeed have genes for such diseases in their DNA. But their study had helped to show that even if an elderly person did end up developing a disease, hardly any of the elderly that ended up living past 100 actually died from it, leading many researchers to believe that the presence of the ―longevity genes‖ helped to protect them from the diseases. More interesting to Ryan was the fact that the findings pointed toward huge developments in the fields of personal genomics and predictive medicine, a potential gold mine for the likes of him. He was convinced that someday soon the scalpel would be replaced by the use of therapeutic cells and proteins; life spans would be considerably enhanced by the careful manipulation of genes that actually change the DNA, make it more able to resist disease and aging; doctors would be able to match drugs with patients and prescribe supplements, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals that would stop the cells from dying and preserve the functioning parts of the body that normally decline with age. Ryan knew that the Baby Boomers would pay top dollar for such life-enhancing drugs, and he planned to be at the center of it all. He had notions of a red Porsche, or maybe a black Ferrari, parked in the garage of a home that looked like Monticello, only larger. Yet, in spite of all of the ground-breaking developments, the field of genetics, in relation to longevity, was still very much a mystery, similar to the reaches of outer space. Researchers still didn‘t know all of the longevity genes involved, nor their exact function in lifespan extension. It was like identifying a planet in a faraway galaxy, but not knowing its relationship to the galaxy in which it was placed. There was still so much to understand, in order to truly change the course of humanity. For his part, Ryan still clung stubbornly to the belief that the only way to move the world‘s understanding of longevity forward was by studying the world‘s supply of biologically related elderly. He firmly believed that the powerful genetic pathways of biologically related centenarians held within them a potential cure for aging, and the diseases that went along with aging. They also, for Ryan and a growing number of other researchers, harbored the secret to defeating death itself. Even though some gerontologists—doctors specializing in the medical needs of the elderly—believed that the maximal duration of human life was already programmed at 110 to 115 years and would never change, Ryan believed without a doubt that a combination of genetics and biochemistry would soon prove them wrong.
Rose lounged on Ryan‘s bed, watching him shove textbooks into his backpack. In addition to his part-time research associate job, he was also a Ph.D. student in a prestigious biochemistry and molecular genetics program. He hardly had time for a full eight hours of sleep, but he managed it, mostly by restricting his free time pursuits.
―I hope you left enough room in there for this,‖ she said, flipping the pages of the western Ireland tour book. ―I already read it,‖ he said. ―There‘s not much to read about an island that‘s only three miles long and two miles wide.‖ She eyed him critically. ―Are you sure you‘re…okay to travel?‖ ―Of course!‖ Ryan huffed. Just because he had been a bit tired last month and had passed out in the lab and was rushed to the emergency room and had stayed in the hospital for a full week for heart palpitations, chest tightness and inexplicable sweating didn‘t warrant such a big fuss, in his opinion. ―My dad wanted me to remind you to bring the journal he bought you. And the yoga mat and DVD.‖ ―Your dad is a worry wart,‖ Ryan laughed. ―Tell him I won‘t have time for sedentary aerobics.‖ ―Ireland is beautiful,‖ Rose said wistfully. ―I wish I could go with you.‖ ―I don‘t care about sightseeing,‖ he scoffed, zipping his backpack with great effort. In addition to his books, he‘d packed his iPod, noise reduction earphones and laptop. ―What is it with you?‖ she asked, her roundly innocent face unusually serious. He shrugged as he dumped his vitamins and supplements into a plastic bag and molded it into the corner of his suitcase. Rose lifted the bottom corner of Ryan‘s tidy, tan comforter to peer at the sheets. ―Hospital corners,‖ she snorted. ―You‘re so intense about everything.‖ ―My work is important to me,‖ he said. ―The Okinawans, the Sardinians of Italy, the Seventh-Day Adventists in California, the Costa Ricans on the Nicoya Peninsula, perhaps these Irish women I‘m going to meet. They all carry genetic gold, you know, and mining this gold takes time, effort. Milling about the Irish coastline is not on the agenda.‖ ―You‘re only twenty-eight years old,‖ said Rose. ―Live a little.‖ Ryan snorted. Live a lot, he wanted to say. That’s what I‘m trying to do. He wrapped his gray cashmere scarf around his neck, picked up his suitcase and lurched out of the bedroom. He didn‘t want to think about the murky reasons that had propelled him into the field of genetics. He didn‘t want to think about the results of the personal genome sequencing test he‘d recently received. His thoughts were on the future now, a future that would hopefully last clear into the next century.
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Surprise Me! by Nancy Goodman
Chapter 1 Genie heard her cell phone ring just as the light turned green. Crossing the street, she reached in her purse and felt for the zippered pocket. That special place she kept the phone so she always knew where to find it. Why was it never there! Second ring, third ring, the race against the forth ring to voicemail. ―Hello!‖ Steven‘s voice: ―Where are you?‖ ―There was a huge pile up on the highway and then I got stuck behind a…‖ Steven interrupted. ―Just tell me what you‘re wearing. I need to tell the Finches so they‘ll recognize you.‖ ―Gray suit.‖ ―Oh God. Don‘t tell me you‘re wearing that awful thing that screams, ‗Why wasn‘t I born Chanel!‘‖ ―Ha ha Steven, very funny.‖ ―Hold on, Gene. I‘m going to call them from the other line.‖ Genie was now walking so fast, with such large and stretching strides, it felt like she was doing Pilates on a treadmill. She wondered if the sweat from her face was enough to wreck a cell phone. She wiped the phone on her sleeve, put it back up to her ear, and used her free hand to dig through her oversized fake Prada bag, which was hanging on her shoulder for dear life as though it knew it was slipping close to the edge. Steven came back to the call. ―Where are you now?‖ ―Just walking up to the building.‖ Genie took a swipe of her L‘oreal Never Fail Lipstick. ―I think I see them walking in. Short couple, gray hair, she‘s wearing a navy blue…‖ ―Yep, that‘s them. Don‘t forget, you‘re Amanda.‖ ―I know Steven, I‘ve rehearsed the…‖ Just then, Genie‘s heel got caught in a sidewalk crack causing her to catapult forward. Like it was jumping from the sinking Titanic, her handbag flew from her shoulder, spewing most of its contents. Her not fake Coach wallet hit the pavement, spilling credit cards and old receipts, while two quarters performed like choreographed partners on Dancing with the Stars. Genie‘s hands were on the sidewalk, butt pointed up toward the sky. She didn‘t dare look up to see who was watching. Gently, she came to her knees and reached for the phone, which had skated just a tad out of reach. Groaning and swearing, she grabbed it and put it back to her ear, wondering if Steven was okay in there. ―Steven?‖ ―Yes, Genie.‖ ―I FELL! Damn it, these stilettos! And the suit. How do people move in these things!‖ Steven was silent.
―Stop laughing, Steven. It‘s not funny!‖ Genie began gathering the items and stuffing them back in her purse. Steven wasn‘t talking which she knew to be a confirmation of the laugh. ―You‘re so unconcerned! I could have broken my ankle!‖ ―You also could have been adopted by Michael Jackson and named Blanket.‖ Genie rolled her eyes. She clumsily picked herself up, smoothed out her skirt, placed her handbag back on her shoulder and removed the strands of hair from her mouth. ―Ok, I‘m walking up to the Finches now.‖ Genie ended the call, slipped the phone in her purse, and approached her awaiting clients. ―Mr. and Mrs. Finch?‖ The elderly couple turned toward Genie and smiled. And didn‘t everyone? Despite her klutzy tendencies, limited retail budget, and a couple added pounds from the weekend, Genie had a warm appeal, a girl-next-door kind of pretty, and a smile that walked in before she did. ―Hello. I‘m Amanda Burns. So nice to meet you.‖ Mr. and Mrs. Finch reached their hands out to Genie. They were about the same height, both gray, but quite adorable. Genie had seen pictures of them, but in person they seemed so… connected. So Genie, the ―high-end real estate maverick‖ began her appointed performance. In heels that surely would kill her. In a skirt she surely would rip. ―Are you two ready to go up and take a look see?‖ The Finches nodded. Genie led them to the bank of elevators. Once inside, Genie inserted a key and pressed the top button marked Penthouse. Then, she spoke in the most formal voice she could muster. ―The architect who designed this unit had a vision. He wanted you to walk in the door and experience the unexpected. There‘s an actual term that describes this. It‘s called procession. As you move through the space in an orderly fashion, there will be elements of surprise.‖ Mrs. Finch laughed politely. ―Nothing surprises us anymore. We‘ve seen it all!‖ Oh, how Genie loved her job! ―Well, Mrs. Finch, I‘m in the business of surprises.‖ Mr. Finch said, ―With all due respect, Ms. Burns, I‘ve had many surprises in real estate deals and none of them have been anything to celebrate.‖ Genie would have been offended, had she been who she said she was. ―Mr. Finch, I guess surprises in general are a bit of a crap shoot. They may be blueprints for disaster, or dreams that step off a page. But what you‘re about to see is most definitely the latter.‖ Mrs. Finch chimed in. ―Well how about fifty years together? These days that‘s quite a surprise.‖ Genie couldn‘t have scripted this better. ―Really! Married fifty years? What an accomplishment!‖ Mrs. Finch gloated. ―And actually, we think the kids are planning something.‖ ―Really? What do you think the kids are up to?‖ ―Oh, we‘re quite sure it‘s a surprise party. Saturday night. There have been some slip-ups.‖ Genie smiled. She knew the slip-ups. She had planted them. ―So is this Penthouse your empty nester‘s dream?‖
Just then the elevator stopped. A workman and three more people got in and pressed floors. In the back of her mind she knew Steven was waiting impatiently. Mr. Finch answered Genie‘s question. ―Well, we‘ve been looking for about a year. We haven‘t found anything that we‘ve fallen in love with. And frankly, what you describe doesn‘t seem like it fits our style. We like more traditional layouts.‖ ―Well, Mr. Finch. The more conventional layouts are certainly lovely. But let me ask you a question…‖ The door opened, the workman stepped out, and the door closed again, ―…looking back on your fifty years together, would you say that your best memories were the ones you expected? Or the ones that were a surprise?‖ Mr. Finch smiled. Genie felt like she just witnessed his memory button on rewind. ―Ms. Burns. You ask smart questions. My wife is… not the conventional layout.‖ Genie laughed. ―What was the best surprise of all?‖ ―When she said yes.‖ ―To marrying you?‖ ―To trusting me.‖ Genie suddenly felt a pang. Whatever it was, she loved these two people. She spoke to Mrs. Finch. ―What was your biggest surprise?‖ Mrs. Finch looked at her husband. ―That he never gave up trying. He never stopped loving me. I wake up surprised every day.‖ Genie stared at them. ―Well, you two do seem perfect.‖ The Finches laughed abruptly in unison. Now Genie was surprised. ―You‘re not?‖ Mr. Finch spoke boldly. ―My wife is a pain in the ass.‖ Genie laughed and Mrs. Finch nodded. ―I can be a bit long in the feelings department!‖ Mr. Finch said jokingly, ―Long? Her feelings come like a fleet of stretch limos lined up on Oscar night. Dressed to kill.‖ Genie laughed and Mrs. Finch nodded again. ―This is true. But for the sake of the environment, and our marriage, I‘ve gone Hybrid. I‘ve switched from feeling blue to green.‖ Genie was riveted. ―Was it love at first sight?‖ Mr. Finch gloated. ―As a matter of fact, it was. I knew at the end of our first date that I would end up with her. But oh boy, was I tested!‖ The elevator stopped again, and the door opened and closed. ―So what‘s the secret to your marriage?‖ Mrs. Finch smiled. ―Choosing the better view.‖ Genie had a questioning look and Mrs. Finch continued. ―It‘s like living in a home with a beautiful front and backyard, but some not so pretty views from the sides. You walk by them every so often. You see them and know they‘re there. But it‘s not where you place the sofa.‖ Genie smiled and nodded. She understood the message. She wished they had more time to chat, but the elevator stopped and opened onto a large marble foyer. A chandelier dipped from a high ceiling trimmed with magnificent crown molding. Ahead, ten-foot high double doors were closed, and Genie put her hand on the handle. She looked at the Finches with excitement, adoration, and the most heartfelt anticipation of the moment that was seconds away. ―Mr. and Mrs. Finch. In honor of your fifty-years together. Are you ready?‖
They both looked at Genie and nodded. Genie opened the door. ―We‘re ready. But don‘t get your hopes up. We don‘t like sur—‖ ―SURPRISE!‖ The word boomed from eighty-seven family members and friends. The Finches stood frozen in the doorway. They were so stunned that they looked back at Genie as if to confirm they were in the right place. She nodded warmly with tears in her eyes. The Penthouse real estate agent Maggie had certainly taken a chance, encouraging her clients to open their home for something of this nature. She‘d told Genie she was crazy to even suggest an eighty-seven person ―showing.‖ Genie watched as the Finches were swallowed up by arms, hugs, and stories. After screams and tears; laughs and embraces; food, memories, and wine, the Finches bought the view.
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Bleak by Lynn Messina
Chapter 1 Marla Hertzberg calls me into her office just as I‘m turning on my computer at 8:51 in the morning, and I quickly unwrap my wool scarf and grab a note pad. The temperature in the office is somewhere below Arctic, but we‘re not allowed to shiver. The partners at Hertzberg, Wright, Silver and Penn interpret any effort to stay warm as ingratitude for their generous use of air-conditioning, especially from the paralegal staff; we are supposed to be more grateful than the junior associates. It‘s the same thing in the winter. They keep the thermostat in the mid eighties, then frown whenever they see someone in short sleeves. Hertzberg, Wright, Silver and Penn is an aggressively conservative firm. Casual Friday means a tie with a pattern on it. Marla doesn‘t look up when I enter her office, which is fine because she never does. Three years ago, when she first joined the firm, I took her lack of interest in my presence as a personal rebuke. Whenever my mother is angry at me, she always says she can‘t bear to look at me, and, from the way she darts her eyes around the room, avoiding not only my face but my figure too, I believe it‘s true. There is genuine pain in her aversion. With Marla it‘s different. She‘s simply too busy piling up billable hours for eye contact. Working three cases at one time is her special talent. Right now she‘s taking a meeting with Collier Enterprises, writing a memo to Judson Tobacco and giving me an assignment. There‘s an element of overcompensation in her manic behavior. The only child of former attorney general Albert Hertzberg, she has much to prove to the world, namely that she‘s her father‘s worthy successor and that her meteoric rise at Handelman, Finch and Burleigh wasn‘t due to the fact that she was sleeping with Handelman and Finch (an impressive accomplishment, as both men are well into their eighties). The speakerphone drones on about fiduciary responsibility as Marla pounds forcefully at her keyboard. She‘s hands-down the most emphatic typists I‘ve ever seen. She presses each letter as if it‘s the final exclamation point in a twenty-thousand-word paragraph. ―The Roberts case,‖ she says, gesturing with her chin to a file on her otherwise spotless desk. Marla doesn‘t just preach the religion of organization, she lives it. Everything is color-coded, labeled and returned to its rightful place within seconds of her putting it down. One of her three secretaries‘ sole job is filing. She‘s like Henry VIII having a servant devoted exclusively to fluffing his pillows. I grab the folder, which is slight and contains an index of the other files relevant to the case. Before she can explain what she‘d like me to do, she shifts a hand over to the phone and presses the mute button. The gesture is smooth and quick, like she‘s done it a million times before, and doesn‘t interrupt her typing. ―We found the promissory note during discovery,‖ she says.
A melee erupts on the other side of the line as six, seven, maybe a dozen voices insist all at once that Christian Collier never issued a personal IOU to Danver Bobek. The disagreement continues for so long that Marla comes dangerously close to working on only two cases. Just when I think Roberts has been pushed completely to the back of her brain, she lifts a hand from the keyboard and writes ―redaction‖ on a Post-it. The printer hums as the Judson memo rolls out. Marla hands over the Post-it and dismisses me with an absent wave. As I leave the office, the senior Hertzberg brushes past me. Unlike his daughter, he has no idea I‘m there. An old-school businessman, he focuses on one thing at a time, giving it his complete attention until the problem, case, issue—whatever—has been resolved. As a result, there‘s a quiet dignity about him, an air of serenity and stability. He‘s nothing like his daughter. Returning to my cube, I drop the file onto my desk and put on my scarf. I consider taking out the fleece blanket but decide to try coffee first. Sometimes that keeps me for a good two hours. I wander to the kitchen, fill up a cup with weak corporate French roast and read the notices on the bulletin board. My hands warm, I head up to thirty-flour, where files are stored in a large meat locker of a room with bright florescent lights and hard wooden chairs. The space is empty save for Josie, who is redacting another file. She nods absently when I enter but doesn‘t otherwise acknowledge me. Although we‘re friendly, I don‘t take offense. Redaction is like that. It‘s mind-numbingly boring work wherein you peruse thousands of pages of documents looking for privileged information to black out with a thick, sturdy marker. As if that weren‘t deadly enough, you have to keep a log of all your deletions. Once you start you don‘t want to stop because the thought of starting again is unbearable. You get into a groove and you go with it. Momentum is everything. Although the storeroom‘s frequent blasts of sub-Arctic air keep you especially alert (when they‘re not giving you hypothermia), I take the file to my cube and plunk it solidly at my desk. In no rush to get to the Roberts redaction, I pull up Google, type in Moxie Bernard and click on the top ten news stories to see what damage she‘s done in the last twenty-four hours. Some people have sports scores or stock quotes or the front page of the New York Times to distract them from work. I have the hottest teen star on the planet and a train wreck waiting to happen.
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Virgins by Caryl Rivers Chapter 1 Sean ―LET‘S neck,‖ Sean said. I yawned and said, ―Sure,‖ and Sean pulled his father‘s car, the white Caddy with the fins that looked like they belonged to an albino shark, over to the side of the road in Sligo Creek Park. The Caddy had special blue plates in front that said YEAR OF OUR LADY on them. They were two years old, a gift to Sean‘s father from the archbishop, so Sean‘s father wouldn‘t take them off. I thought they were tacky. Sean‘s father was an assistant professor of communication and speech dynamics at St. Anselm‘s Junior College, and he wouldn‘t be caught dead with a plastic Jesus on his dashboard like some Puerto Rican cabbie. But he drove around flashing these plates with a picture of the Blessed Mother on them, and she was wearing a startled expression like she‘d just been goosed. I told Sean that flaunting the B.V.M. on your license was not exactly what J.C. would want for his mom. When he said, ―Come, follow me,‖ he didn‘t mean you should do it in a white Cadillac El Dorado. Sean pulled me close and started kissing me with his mouth closed. He always started out that way and worked up to opening his mouth in about twenty minutes. I could feel the hard enamel of his teeth behind his lips. I‘d done this number before, and it wasn‘t exactly thrilling. We were the only Catholic kids in the city who could neck for two hours and still stay in the state of grace. Sean had it all figured. He even drew a diagram, like those charts they have in butcher shops that show what parts of meat come from which part of the cow. He had me sectioned off like top round, filet, and brisket. Only in this case the parts weren‘t stamped approved by the USDA, but by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Anything above the neck was O.K., although there was some question about openmouthed kissing. Tongue-swabbing, Sean decided, was only a venial sin, but you had to work up to it, not dive right in, tongues a-twirl. Toes to thighs, to within a half inch of you-know-where, also venial. Touching boobs on top of clothes (patting, no squeezing) was probably venial, but even more borderline than tongues, so must be reserved for special occasions, like the prom or graduation. Bare finger on bare tit was Mortal Sin City. Needless to say, genitalia, male or female, was untouchable, the big No No. Sean was scrupulous about that. One touch of forbidden fruit, he was sure, would turn him into a raging animal and maybe blow his chances for the priesthood all to hell. Necking with Sean was safe, if not all that exciting. He had that map imprinted on his brain cells, and I could just relax and let him keep on the lookout for Sin. I even sort of liked the non-sin stuff, especially kissing the hollow of his throat, that soft lovely spot just above where the dark hair on his chest started, and smelling the nice, musky male scent of him. My kissing him there really got to him, because sometimes he would squirm and moan a little, and even though I was absolutely forbidden to touch him below the waist, I knew things were happening Down There. I had a somewhat proprietary feeling about Sean‘s penis, anyhow. It was the first one I ever saw.
We were sitting, one hot August day, in Sean‘s back yard, in the pup tent Sean‘s father bought when he started the Catholic Cub Scout troop for Sean‘s older brother, Bill. (God forbid that Catholic kids should get their wolf badges with Protestants. You started looking for red maple leaves or toasting hot dogs with non-Catholics, and you‘d wind up blaspheming against the B.V.M.) We were both hot and bored, and Sean said, ―Let‘s play doctor.‖ I said O.K. and he told me I had to pull my pants down and sit with my legs open while he examined me. He took a little stick and started to poke around in my privates. I thought it was wonderful and naughty, Sean poking and me sitting there all spread out. To this day the smell of damp, moldy canvas makes me sweat like a horny sailor. Then Sean said it was my turn and he pulled his pants down, and lifted his lovely pink thing so I could look at it. Those were the days before parents taught their kids the correct anatomical names, so we were stuck with ―wee-wee‖ and ―weenie‖ and ―thing.‖ Sean‘s thing was soft and pink and lovely; I thought it was beautiful, so round and perfect, with the little ridge and the cute little hole in the center. I had just gotten around to a few tentative pokes with the stick when there was the swooshing sound of fabric in motion—the tent flap being ripped asunder—and in swept Sean‘s father, the assistant professor from St. Anselm‘s, coming down upon us like a wolf on the fold. ―Oh my GOD!‖ he screamed, and grabbed both of us by the arms, dragging us both out of the tent while Sean struggled to pull up his underpants with one hand. He marched us both off to my mother—the McCaffreys lived next door—and told her what I had been doing to his son. He said I was a slut. My mother took offense. ―She is five years old,‖ my mother said. ―And if my daughter is a slut then your son is a pervert. He was the one standing there with his pants down!‖ They yelled at each other, and then Dr. McCaffrey dragged Sean home and gave him a beating, and the next day the pup tent was unceremoniously hauled down. But I always remembered the day as one of my very favorites, and if I had been asked to list the wonders of nature that I had seen with my very own eyes, I would have said the Luray Caverns of Virginia, the Great Falls of the Potomac, and Sean‘s penis, not necessarily in that order. From that day forward, though, Sean and I knew that grown-ups behaved in very peculiar ways and that to survive we had to form an alliance against them. We still felt that way, a lot. ―You better stop kissing me,‖ Sean said, and I knew the lights on his Illuminated Map of Sin were flashing like the bulbs on the pinball machines in the Grotto Grill. ―O.K.,‖ I said, and I knew what he was going to do next: stretch out on the seat with his head on my lap so I could run my fingers through his hair. Sean liked to be touched and held a lot. Even when we were kids, playing in the sandbox my father built for us, he would curl up next to me and I‘d put my arms around him, and I‘d put one of the little cars we played with on top of his head and let it run down his nose and leap out into space. Sean could play that game for an hour at a stretch. Maybe it was because his parents didn‘t touch him a lot. Sean‘s mother was a small, dowdy woman cowed almost into nonexistence by her brilliant husband. Dr. McCaffrey believed that sparing the rod spoiled the child, and sometimes I could hear the smacks of the leather belt clear up in my bedroom on the second floor when Sean or Bill were getting it. I wondered, when Sean was a priest, who would hold him, but I didn‘t think about that very much because it
sent a sad feeling all through me, the way I used to feel when I heard the sounds of the belt from next door. Sean must have been thinking the same thing—sometimes I thought we could read each other‘s mind, like space people—because he said, ―Can you believe it? Senior year. I mean, we were just kids, and now we‘re adults.‖ ―I don‘t feel like an adult,‖ I said. ―Me neither. But we are, almost. It‘s like that song, you know, about childhood. Once you pass its portals you can never go back through. There‘s a door, Peggy, right behind us. And it‘s closing. We‘ll never be kids again.‖ Sean had a deep streak of melancholy; it was the Irish in him. Irish genes do that to people—maybe it‘s from eating too many cold potatoes or listening to all those songs about your mother dying and your father getting hung by the British for blowing up the post office, but every Irishman I‘ve ever met has that deep, black moodiness tucked away inside. When it came on Sean I felt it too, because I had enough Irish genes myself. Suddenly I saw the door, closing slowly, inexorably, and when it slammed shut the sunlight and the laughter behind it would be gone forever. I wanted to cry out, ―Not yet! Oh, not yet!‖ ―I wonder if we‘ll be like them, Peggy,‖ he said. ―Your father?‖ ―All of them. Adults. They just seem so tired, like they never have any fun.‖ ―Not us,‖ I said. ―Come on, Sean, don‘t be morbid. You‘re going to be the youngest cardinal in history. You‘ll have your own T.V. show. You‘ll be hotter than Bishop Sheen. God will be green with envy over your Nielsens.‖ Suddenly he giggled and sat bolt upright. Keeping up with Sean some times was hard. One minute he‘d be brooding like Heathcliff and the next he‘d be cracking up. ―You know what I‘d do if I were Bishop Sheen?‖ he said. ―No, what?‖ ―I‘d get out there, in front of the cameras, with sixty million people watching me— even Eisenhower would be watching—and I‘d twirl my cape around, you know, the way he does. And I‘d look right into the camera and I‘d say, ‗THERE IS NO GOD!‘ And then I‘d swirl around again, and I‘d walk off. Jeez, can you imagine it! The president would be shitting; the pope would be shitting. Can you just picture it?‖ I started to giggle, and that made us laugh harder, and the two of us were cracking up, picturing Bishop Sheen announcing in that deep, rich actor‘s voice of his, ―THERE IS NO GOD!‖ while twenty million members of the Sodality of Our Lady gagged on their miraculous medals and the entire senior officer corps of the Knights of Columbus impaled themselves on their swords. Sean had that kind of mind; it honed on absurdity like a heat-seeking missile. It was completely at odds with the side of him that wanted to be a priest–the moody, mystical side. What the other side wanted I didn‘t know. Maybe just to sit and laugh and neck with me and almost sin and never grow up. ―Cardinal McCaffrey,‖ I said. ―Will I have to call you Your Excellency?‖ ―Call me that right now if you want. Show a little respect.‖ I poked him in the ribs. He said, ―A left jab by Miss Peggy Morrison of the New York Herald Tribune.‖ ―Peg,‖ I said. ―Peg Morrison. That‘s my new byline, I decided. Peggy sounds too childish.‖
―By Peg Morrison. Yeah, I like it.‖ The nice thing about Sean was that he took me seriously, and almost nobody else did. My heroine was Maggie Higgins, the first woman war correspondent for the Herald Trib, and I wanted to be her. I wanted to look adorable in my fatigues, write tough Hemingway prose, and win the Pulitzer Prize by the time I was twenty-five. Sometimes, when I was being morbidly romantic, like Sean, I imagined that lots of men would fall in love with me, but I‘d spurn them all because I carried in my breast this undying love for a Jesuit priest—they called him the Hero Priest of the Amazon—who was out saving souls at his mission in the jungle. One day, war would break out, and of course I would be sent to cover it. I was somewhat vague on the geography of all this, because it was not my good subject. I guessed maybe the Amazon was in Brazil someplace, so America would be at war with Brazil. I would come in with the first wave of American troops, and people would say to me, ―You can‘t go out there! You‘re a woman!‖ And I‘d say, ―It‘s my job. It‘s where I belong, out there!‖ One day, the fighting would be raging right near Sean‘s mission, and as I was writing tough prose about our glorious victories on my portable Olivetti, a stray bullet would strike me and I would fall to the ground with a groan. The wound would be fatal, but not messy or anything. Just a neat little bloodstain on the front of my fatigues. I would look incredibly beautiful as I lay there, shot, and Sean, in his white robes, would come running out and hold me in his arms. I would know I was dying, and with my last breath I would say to him, ―I have always loved you!‖ and he would sob and call out my name and then my eyelids would flutter and I‘d die in his arms. Later, they‘d make a movie about my life and call it The Peg Morrison Story, and maybe Susan Hayward would star in it—except she‘d be too old by then—and the last scene would be a gas. People all over the country would be sobbing into their handkerchiefs. The only problem was that I wouldn‘t get to see it, because I‘d be dead. ―Hey, it‘s getting late,‖ Sean said. ―The Nemesis of Smut will be pissed if I don‘t get the Caddy back.‖ I had to laugh every time I heard Sean refer to his father that way. Dr. Liam McCaffrey had a set speech, which he gave to various sodalities and Knights of Columbus about five times a month, about how dirty movies and birth control were rotting America‘s moral fiber. He got the Catholic Layman of the Year award for his unending battle against tit on the silver screen and tubes of contraceptive jelly on the shelves at People‘s Drug Store. A writer for the Catholic Herald, carried away by the Muse, had dubbed Dr. McCaffrey ―The Nemesis of Smut.‖ Sean was delighted. He called himself ―Son of Nemesis of Smut"—or, for short, ―Son of Smut.‖ When we got back to Sean‘s house, his father was in the living room, reading the Saturday Evening Post and drinking his usual Scotch and water. He looked up at the two of us. ―Well, kids, how was the movie?‖ ―Pretty good,‖ Sean said. ―Jeff Chandler saved Susan Hayward from being raped by Cheyennes. At least I think that‘s what they had in mind. They danced around in their loincloths and panted a lot.‖ Dr. Liam McCaffrey frowned. He had caught the scent, however faint, of Smut. ―Was there cleavage in this movie?‖
Cleavage, according to Dr. McCaffrey, was taking the nation back to paganism. He frothed at the mouth over Jane Russell. I think he believed that each tit took us at least 5,000 years back into prehistory. ―Well,‖ Sean said, ―in one scene Susan Hayward got her dress ripped, and there was pretty much cleavage. It got the Cheyennes stirred up a lot. They danced real fast and stared at the cleavage.‖ Sean‘s face, as he said this, was as innocent of guile as any third grader in a white Communion suit. I had to turn away to hide a grin. I could never figure out, if Dr. McCaffrey was supposed to be so brilliant, why he never knew it when Sean was jerking his chain. But he never did. ―I‘ll get my committee to look into it,‖ he said. ―Thank you, Sean, for that information.‖ He shook his head. ―Eternal vigilance,‖ he said with a sigh. And then he looked at me, as if he had just realized I was there, and he said, ―Well, Peggy.‖ He never quite knew what to say to me, after all these years. He didn‘t have any daughters, and he was uncomfortable around girls. He tried to be nice, but I had the feeling he had never really forgiven me for messing around with Sean with his pants down. ―Hi, Dr. McCaffrey.‖ ―How‘s school, Peggy?‖ ―It‘s just fine.‖ ―The basketball team going to take it this year?‖ ―We‘re going to try. I‘ve been practicing my jump shot. We only got beat by Nativity by two points last year.‖ ―Well, that‘s good.‖ He looked at me, and then he looked again. ―Well, Peggy, you‘ve really grown up. You‘re quite a young lady.‖ And he was staring right at my boobs as he said it. Really staring. I shifted my weight uncomfortably, and then I guess he realized what he was doing and flicked his eyes away from my chest. I couldn‘t really blame him for being fascinated with my boobs. I certainly was. They came late, sort of a hormonal afterthought. It was as if my body thought it had done all its work at puberty, and it rested for a while, leaving me certain I was going to go through life with a chest as flat as a picket fence. Then it said, oops, forgot something, and a pair of boobs just popped out, in my junior year, surprising everybody, me most of all. I wanted to say, ―Where the hell were you?‖ every time I looked at them, but they added a whole new dimension to my movie star fantasies, which I thought I‘d outgrown. I‘d wrap a scarf around them and lean into the bathroom sink and gaze into the mirror. I‘d let my lips open and my eyelids droop, the way Marilyn Monroe always did, but I wasn‘t sure if I looked sexy or like I was coming down with mono. If I hunched my shoulders a lot, I could come up with enough cleavage to give the Nemesis of Smut a heart seizure. From the front I looked like Marilyn—sort of—and from the side like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. ―Oh, Sean,‖ Dr. McCaffrey said, ―a letter came from the seminary today. The class begins June 24th. And you‘re in, it‘s definite.‖ ―Oh,‖ Sean said.
Then Dr. McCaffrey put his arm around Sean‘s shoulder, but in a way that didn‘t seem natural; it was sort of a fake ―hearty‖ pose, like he was getting his picture taken with the student who‘s just won the essay contest on ―How Catholic Youth Can Fight Dirty Movies.‖ ―We‘re very proud of Sean, Peggy,‖ he said. ―It was always a dream that Sean‘s mother and I had to give one of our sons to God.‖ The way he said it made it sound as if he were wrapping Sean up with a bow and sending him parcel post to God the way you sent Christmas presents to an aunt in Chicago. It seemed to me it was Sean who was doing the giving, not his father. ―Well, that‘s wonderful, sir,‖ I said. Dr. McCaffrey gave Sean‘s shoulder a fatherly squeeze, and as they stood together that way, I tried to see the resemblance, but I couldn‘t. Everybody remarked on how handsome Sean‘s father was; distinguished, they said, probably because of the gray hair around his temples. But I thought he had a pig-like face, because his eyes were small and beady, and his skin always seemed to have a reddish tinge to it; that might have had something to do with the Scotch and water that always seemed riveted to his hand. He seemed huge next to Sean—he wasn‘t fat, but he had large shoulders and a massive chest, while Sean was tall and rangy, and as slim as an arrow. I could never imagine Sean being fat. Sean‘s eyes, the ones that could look so innocent, were cool and green and they looked out from beneath eyelashes that were long and silky. I‘d have killed to have Sean‘s eyelashes. I had nice eyes, but the lashes were short and sparse, and when I tried to put mascara on them to make them longer it always ran—even when the label swore in blood that you could only get the stuff off with a substance used in chemical warfare— and it made me look like a raccoon. It wasn‘t fair, it seemed to me, that Sean got the eyelashes. What was a priest going to do with lashes like those? ―He‘s going to make a fine priest,‖ Dr. McCaffrey said, beaming. ―A Jesuit. Maybe even teach at Georgetown someday, right, Sean?‖ That was where Sean‘s father wanted to teach, Georgetown, where even the freshmen drove Jags and wore English tweed. At St. Anselm‘s, to which flocked the sons and daughters of cab drivers and G.S. fives, Dr. McCaffrey thought he was casting his Speech Dynamics as pearls before swine. ―I want to go to the missions,‖ Sean said. ―Oh, of course, a few years in the missions is good training for any young priest. But Sean, you have too fine a mind to spend your life saving the souls of—‖ he paused— ―colored people.‖ ―There‘s a quota on that, Pop,‖ Sean said. ―Only 200 colored souls per priest. You save too many of ‗em and heaven starts to look like Seventh and U, full of jungle bunnies.‖ ―Sean!‖ his father said. ―I don‘t like to hear you use language like that. Not in this house!‖ ―Yes, sir,‖ Sean said. His face was blank as a billiard ball. I had to turn away again. Dr. McCaffrey had recently discovered his black brethren when he got an award and 500 bucks from a black parish to speak at a fund-raising dinner. He regaled the black Catholics with dire warnings about Jane Russell, which must have puzzled them somewhat. Black people had a few other things to worry about in those days besides large
white mammary glands. But before Dr. McCaffrey discovered Brotherhood, ―jungle bunny‖ was one of the more complimentary phrases he used about black folks. ―Pop, I‘m going to walk Peggy home,‖ Sean said, and we walked out the back door and up the well-worn path to my house. I thought that if I had a dollar for every time I‘d come this way, I‘d be rich as Rockefeller. Sean was quiet, and as usual, I knew what he was thinking ―He is proud of you, Sean,‖ I said. ―I mean, he‘s an asshole, but he‘s proud of you."Sean shrugged. ―No, it‘s not me. It‘s the future Father McCaffrey he‘s proud of— some guy in a black suit. But I‘m not him yet.‖ ―You will be.‖ ―Yeah, that‘ll really give the Nemesis of Smut an orgasm.‖ I laughed. Sean had learned that one from me, but he had a pretty foul mouth on his own. ―God, Sean, you‘re going to have to learn to talk all over again in the seminary. Everything you say is either obscene or blasphemous.‖ He grinned. ―Ego te absolvo, Mr. Smith. And stay the fuck away from mortal sin.‖ He took my hand as we walked to my back door. I reached for the door handle but he put his hands on my shoulders and pulled me close to him. That was a surprise; we usually got ourselves necked out in the Caddy. He opened his mouth right away and he held me hard against him, as if he were afraid I might just float away. The way he was kissing me wasn‘t safe or relaxing. I thought, suddenly, that he was kissing me like a man, not like a boy, and I started to feel exactly the way I did when I read page 128 of Savage Warrior, when Soldered the Viking starts to unlace the smock of the maiden Ingrid so his lips can taste the nectar of her honeyed breasts. Sean just kept kissing me, hard, and I felt the Natural Wonder getting very stiff and pressing against my thighs. I was sure the lights on the Illuminated Map of Sin were flashing, but Sean didn‘t even seem to notice. He just kept on kissing and kissing and my knees were getting weak and I was starting to get all tingly and I wondered about the theology of that. I decided tingly was only venial, but I was a little worried about Sean. He was kissing away like there was no tomorrow and if this kept up, he‘d never get the Natural Wonder back to where it belonged. ―I got algebra,‖ I said. ―What?‖ he said, his eyes sort of glazed. ―Algebra.‖ ―Right. Oh yeah, algebra,‖ he said. ―Me too.‖ And off he ran. I went into the house, and my dad was in the kitchen, having a glass of milk and a ham sandwich, his favorite nighttime snack. ―Out with Sean again, Peg?‖ He smiled at me, his brownish-gray eyes lighting up a little, as they always did when he teased me. ―You two are getting to be an item.‖ ―Oh, Dad!‘ ―Sean still saying he‘s going to be a priest?‖ ―Yeah, he is.‖ He sighed, and put down his glass of milk. I looked at his hands, long and tapered, strong but graceful. I had the same hands—the hands of a pianist—or a basketball player—he said when he looked at them. He had dark, wavy hair, and he was as lean and
hard as he must have been in the days when he played semi-pro basketball, not all paunchy in the chest like Sean‘s father. ―Liam‘s putting that nonsense into his head,‖ he said. ―There‘s such a thing as too much religion.‖ I chuckled. ―Sister Justinian would croak if she heard you say that.‖ ―Sister Justinian is not God,‖ he said to me sternly. ―Just because you‘re a Catholic, Peg, that doesn‘t mean you can‘t think for yourself.‖ ―Dad, what if the Church said one thing and you think, deep in your heart, that it‘s wrong?‖ ―The Church is just people, Peg,‖ he said. ―People can be wrong. The Church said Galileo was wrong because he said the earth revolved around the sun.‖ My father was one of the few people I‘d ever met who talked like that. Most kids‘ parents said the nuns and the priests were right, and that was that. My dad wasn‘t even a college graduate, like Dr. McCaffrey. He dropped out of school to start his electrical business. He read all the time, though—hard books, like philosophy, not just novels like The Robe. ―Hey,‖ he said, ―Have you been practicing the jump shot?‖ In response, I grabbed his napkin, crumpled it up, went up off my left foot and dropped it neatly in the wastebasket across the room. ―That‘s good. Remember, you‘ve got to get the ball off the backboard and take it back up. You can‘t wait for the ball to come to you.‖ ―Life is like basketball,‖ I said, mimicking him perfectly. ―Go after the ball.‖ He laughed. ―Don‘t be fresh, young lady. Who do you play this week?‖ ―Nativity. We‘ll mash their faces in.‖ He laughed. ―That‘s the spirit. None of that ladylike stuff.‖ He gave me the elbow. I hipped him neatly in return. ―Good. Very good. Say, Peg, is Sean going out for the team at Sacred Heart this year?‖ ―No. He doesn‘t think he‘d make it.‖ Dad had tried to teach Sean a jump shot, but Sean never quite got the hang of getting the ball off at exactly the right second, at the top of the jump. I would say to him, ―Sean, you can feel when it‘s right,‖ and he‘d scowl and say, ―You can, but I can‘t.‖ We used to play Horse together a lot at my backyard hoop, but lately Sean was getting pissed because I beat him all the time. Sean had a well-muscled, finely proportioned body. To look at him, you‘d think he was well-coordinated, but he wasn‘t somehow. ―If I could just have a few months with that kid!‖ my father said. ―He‘s tall, he‘s strong. I know I could make a player out of him.‖ ―Sean hasn‘t got the killer instinct,‖ I said. ―Neither did you, little Miss Goody Two-Shoes.‖ He laughed and elbowed me again. ―Now look at you. A tiger!‖ I growled, and lapped him good and shoved him right into the refrigerator. He made an elaborate show of falling and being hurt, real hammy. ―I can‘t believe the refs would fall for that!‖ ―All the time,‖ he said with an elfish grin. In semi-pro, he was so good at faking injuries and throwing fouls that they called him ―Fall Down Morrison.‖
He took his glass and put it in the sink and said, ―Have you finished your homework?‖ ―Just got my algebra.‖ ―Well, get to it. You know, Peg—‖ I knew exactly what was coming. Lecture Number Seventeen. I raised my finger in a cautionary gesture. ―Just because you‘re an athlete, Peg,‖ I said, ―you can‘t neglect your studies. Brain, not brawn, is what gets you ahead in this world. Basketball is not life!‖ He picked up a dishtowel and threw it at me. ―Get out of here,‖ he said. I grinned and ran up stairs to do my algebra, propped up in bed with my papers on my knees. I did three problems and started daydreaming, looking at the picture of Bob Cousy I had pasted on my door. He was the centerpiece of my collection of pictures of Great Catholic Athletes. I used to want to be him, play for the Celts, be a star. Lately, though, I‘d reconsidered—especially since I got the boobs. I really wouldn‘t want to have a flat, hairy chest, even if I could score thirty-five points a game. If I was Bob Cousy, I probably wouldn‘t want to kiss Sean, and he certainly wouldn‘t want to kiss me. I slipped right into one of my ―What if?‖ daydreams. I had them a lot, and the scenario was always the same. Some higher power, probably God, was offering me an awful choice—you know, like would you rather freeze to death or be burned at the stake. I thought, What if I had to choose between Sean‘s lips and my jump shot? There was a toughie. It was one of the best feelings in the world, letting go of the ball, feeling in the tips of your fingers that it was good, hearing the clean swoosh of the ropes. On the other hand, Sean‘s lips were warm and sweet—honeyed nectar, just like Ingrid‘s breasts. Fortunately, I thought, as I went back to my math, God‘s attention was focused elsewhere. He was too busy being God to dream up Terrible Choices for Peggy Morrison, girl jock and kisser extraordinaire. God was in his heaven, all was well with the world, and I could go on dunking and kissing to my heart‘s content. Senior year was going to be absolutely swell.
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