Pearl

Jo Knowles

Henry Holt and Co.

chapter one
 

Henry and I get comfortable in our usual Days of Our Non Lives positions on his mother’s scratchy plaid couch in their tiny living room. We’re just in time for the familiar hourglass. Sally hushes us for the opening voice-over.
Like sands through the hourglass …
Henry and I look at each other and telepathically exchange a single, familiar phrase: We are pathetic.
… so are the days of our lives.
The small air conditioner duct-taped into the only window in the cramped living room hums mournfully over the tragedy about to play out on the TV, as well as the sagging couch the three of us sit on—Sally in the middle, as always. I close my eyes and feel the cool air against my sweaty face as the opening scene starts.
Sally leans forward to watch. Her huge breasts rub over the top of the metal mixing bowl filled with Doritos she holds in her lap. She grips the edges of the bowl, her dimpled arms blocking Henry and me from reaching in to grab a chip, as if we don’t know the rule or might try to break it: No eating during Days. Sally says the crunching is too distracting. Instead, we wait for the commercials and crunch during the ads while Sally fills us in on whatever we’ve missed since the last episode we watched with her. Her face always gets a warm glow when she talks about TV love, like it’s going to ooze into her own life any day now. Sally believes with every molecule that makes up her large pink body that somewhere out there is the perfect man for her. Henry always looks sad when his mom says this. Neither of us believes it. Even if that man did exist, how could he find Sally when she never leaves the house? There is only one man who knows where Sally is, and he left fifteen years ago, two months after Henry was born.
Henry doesn’t know much more about his father than I know about mine, and maybe that’s how we got to be such good friends, sharing our soap-opera-like dreams about who our real fathers are and how they might come back into our lives. The only things I know about my father are the hints I get from listening at closed doors. Not that I get that many opportunities. But sometimes, when my mom comes home particularly late from her waitressing job, I can get lucky. Whenever she’s late, it means she’s spent her extra tips at the bar on half-priced booze. If her keys jingle in the lock for more than fifteen seconds, I know it’s a night to listen for information. The first thing my mom does after going to the bathroom is head to her bedroom and call her best friend, Claire, to recap the last fifteen years of her life and all the places it’s gone wrong.
One night three years ago, the keys were jingling in the lock for nearly a full minute before I heard Gus, my grandfather, rush down the hall. As soon as his footsteps thundered down the stairs, I inched out of my room to the top of the stairs to listen.
“Where the hell have you been?” he roared when he opened the door for her. “Have you forgotten you have a twelve-year-old daughter upstairs? Have you forgotten how she came to be?”
“I haven’t forgotten,” my mom said in the resentful voice she used when she talked to him. “I haven’t forgotten that it wasn’t my fault!”
Gus gave a doubting grunt.
“You think I asked for it? You think I wanted to be attacked?” My mom’s voice shook with anger and drunkenness.
“I don’t know what you expect, Lexie. I don’t know what you ever expected. You come out of work late every night, drunk, dressed like—”
“Don’t. Don’t you dare!”
“I’m asking you, Lexie. What the hell did you expect?”
I leaned farther over the stairs, waiting for my mom to reply. I hated it when they fought, which was practically every time they were in the same room. Luckily, that wasn’t very often if they could help it.
“Nothing,” she finally said almost in a whisper. “I didn’t expect a goddamned thing.”
I scooted back to my room as soon as she neared the stairs, then pressed my ear against the wall that separated our bedrooms.
“Damn that Bill. Damn him to hell!” she kept crying on her side of the wall. She was telling Claire all about the horrible things Gus had implied. “That bastard thinks Iwanted to get pregnant?” she asked.
I can still remember how her words punched my chest. I quickly tried to piece them together, hoping some image of the truth might emerge. Attacked. Pregnant. Bill. Twelve years. But there were still too many missing pieces.
Up until then, Henry and I had been pretty satisfied with the stories we’d concocted about our dads. Mine was a pilot who disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. Henry’s had been kidnapped by terrorists. These scenarios were a lot more interesting than the unsatisfactory ones our moms fed us up to that point: My dad was simply a “mistake” and better off gone, and Henry’s dad “disappeared” when he was still a baby. We needed our dads to have names and lives, and—most important—futures with us. I wasn’t expecting the story about Bill.
The next morning I crept into my mom’s room and gently woke her up. Her eyes were puffy from crying, and she smelled like hangover.
“Who’s my father?” I asked her, trying to sound like I meant business. “Tell me who Bill is.”
“What? How?”
“I heard you,” I told her. “Last night. I know his name is Bill, and I want to know who he is.”
She closed her eyes for a minute, then opened them again and looked me straight in the face. “Please don’t ask me about him. Please don’t say that name.” She rolled over and put her pillow over her head.
“Is he my dad? Where is he?”
She lifted the pillow. “Some things are better left unsaid,” she said to the wall. “Trust me.”
“I have a right to know,” I told her.
She put the pillow back over her head. “There’s nothing to tell,” she mumbled into the pillow.
“Liar,” I whispered.
“I heard that! And stop listening in on my phone calls!”
I left her and went to my room where I shut my door, got back into bed, and put my own pillow over my head. Later, when I told Henry what had happened, he was as disappointed as I was. I selfishly suspected it was because he realized if the father we’d invented for me could turn out to be a sham, so could his.
*   *   *
When the phone rings, Sally motions for Henry to answer even though the only people who call here are me and telemarketers, and I’m sure Henry would prefer to just let the machine pick up. Sally refuses to be put on the Do Not Call list. I think it’s because she’s so lonely she actually likes to have a chat, even if it pains her to refuse to give money after the five-minute spiel she’s just been patient enough to listen to.
Henry grabs the phone off the coffee table and heads down the hallway so Sally’s show won’t be interrupted. As soon as the door to his room clicks shut, a commercial comes on.
Sally and I reach for a handful of Doritos and crunch quietly. Then we reach in again. My orange fingers collide with the back of her puffy white hand, leaving an orange print. She pretends not to notice. We’re crunching through a Jenny Craig ad when Henry returns.
“That was your mom, Beany,” he says casually. “She says come home she has something to tell you.”
“My mom?” I ask. Never, in the history of our friendship, has my mom ever called me at Henry’s house. I didn’t even know she knew Henry’s last name to look up his number.
Henry shrugs, failing to recognize the significance.
“Come with me,” I say.
He looks at the rattling air conditioner longingly, but nods okay. Sally’s show is back on so it’s understood we don’t need to say good-bye. We leave the cool cave of their living room and step into the blinding, baking sun.
Henry wipes his forehead with the back of his hand and pulls his T-shirt away from his body as we trudge along. He has a thing about sweat spots. Even though he puts two layers of deodorant on, he still sweats through three shirts a day in the summer. He says he must have inherited overactive sweat glands from his father because Sally never sweats. I don’t point out that Sally never moves enough to work up a sweat in the first place.
“Why would my mom call me?” I ask him for the third time.
Henry shrugs and fans his shirt.
We walk the rest of the familiar two blocks in silence, except for the steady smack of my flip-flops sticking to my sweaty feet and Henry huffing disagreeably, flapping his T-shirt. The old, run-down houses that line the street are quiet in the still, hot summer air. Time seems to have stopped thirty years ago on our road. Gus says ever since the economy tanked in the late eighties and the rich people moved out, the neighborhood has gone to seed. There are just a handful of old folks from his day who still live here. The rest are from “away” as he likes to say.
As we walk, I look at each house, thinking about the stories Henry and I have made up about each family living inside. When we get to my house, I think about the real stories it holds, and wonder what new drama my mom is about to add to it.
This can’t be good is all I can figure.

 
Text copyright © 2011 by Jo Knowles