SENIOR SEASON (Begin Reading)
It’s pretty quiet when I leave for school, not a neighbor in sight except for Mrs. Scotto, who likes to get an early start on her yard work. She’s out there every morning in her bathrobe and slippers, cleaning up the leaves that fell overnight. She doesn’t bother with a rake; she just bends over, plucks them off the ground one by one until she has a handful, then straightens up as best she can and drops them into a bag that says YARD WASTE. She does this all day long, from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, even into December if necessary. People call her the Leaf Lady.
I have no idea how old she is. All I know is that she seemed ancient when we moved here twelve years ago, and she hasn’t gotten any younger. She’s a permanent part of the autumn scenery on Grapevine Road, a stooped, birdlike woman endlessly patrolling her front yard, her entire existence devoted to that little patch of grass. And she gets the job done, you have to give her that. It’s early October now, but even in mid-November, when the whole town’s blanketed with dead foliage, you can count on Mrs. Scotto’s lawn to be spotless.
People around here admire her work ethic, or at least they pretend to. They all say the same thing when they walk by: Come to my house when you’re done here! Mrs. Scotto always laughs and says she charges twenty bucks an hour. Then she makes some friendly comment about the weather, or asks about the person’s family. She’s a sweet old lady, not nearly as creepy as you might expect.
She’s just lonely, my mother likes to remind me. She lost her husband and her kids moved away. And then she gives me one of her looks, like she hopes I’m filing that away for future reference.
I never paid much attention to Mrs. Scotto in the past. I was always busy and happy, and she was always just there, living her strange elderly life on the sidelines of my own. This fall, though, she’s been getting on my nerves. I can’t even look at her without feeling a little sick to my stomach, wondering how she can stand it. But she always smiles and waves in old lady slow motion when I drive by, and I always wave right back. I’m sure it’s one of the highlights of her day.
When I get to school, Megan’s standing in front of my locker, looking kinda nervous, and I know in my gut she’s gonna break up with me. It’s been coming for a while now. She was gone most of the summer, working at a camp in New Hampshire, and things have been weird between us ever since she came home, like she secretly resents me for ruining her senior year, like I’m some sad sack of shit she has to drag around while she’s supposed to be having the time of her life.
I can’t say I blame her for that.
What I do blame her for are those denim cutoffs, cuffed way up above what the dress code allows, and those teetery wedge sandals that make her muscly legs look longer and thinner than they really are. It just doesn’t seem necessary, getting all dressed up like that to break my heart, a nice big Fuck you with a cherry on top.
“Okay,” I tell her, tensing my stomach like I’m about to get hit. “Just get it over with.”
“What are you talking about?” She smiles like I’m the old Clay, the boyfriend she deserves. “I just want to know if you’re busy after school.”
“Busy?” I laugh, but even that sounds pissed off. “Busy doing what?”
“That’s what I thought.” She runs her fingertip down the center of my chest, stopping just above my belt. “Then you won’t mind a little company?”
I can feel my brain working away, trying to catch up. I didn’t used to be this stupid.
“What about your practice?”
Megan’s co-captain of the cheerleading squad, which is a major deal in our school. They go to regional tournaments, and usually do pretty well. Most of the girls are trained gymnasts; they don’t mind getting tossed in the air, trusting these buff gay dudes to catch them on the way down. They like to brag about how, statistically speaking, cheerleading is even more dangerous than football. Girls supposedly break their necks all the time.
“I can blow it off.” She’s still smiling, but I can see how closely she’s studying me, like this is some kind of test. “I miss you.”
Her legs are really smooth, except for a coin-shaped scar on her left knee, a circle of shiny pink. She fell on blacktop when she was a kid, an older boy cousin pushing her from behind when she was about to beat him in a race, the one who’s at Colgate now, and a lot nicer than he used to be.
“You look hot in those shorts,” I tell her.
Megan’s pretty cheerful in the car after school. She told Ms. Lambert—the cheerleading advisor—that she had a dentist appointment, and Ms. Lambert just nodded and said, Okay, see you tomorrow. It was that easy.
“That would never happen on the football team,” I tell her. “Coach Z. used to say that dead guys were excused from practice, but only if they brought a note from the undertaker.”
“That sounds like him.”
“It was a joke, but it was kinda serious, too. Nobody ever missed practice, not unless they were on crutches.”
Megan switches the radio from my hip-hop to KISS 108, the only station a self-respecting cheerleader will listen to. It’s their tribal music, the soundtrack of high school popularity. Within seconds she’s bobbing her head and singing along, doing that seated dance that girls do in cars, all hands and hair and puckered lips.
“I love this song,” she tells me.
“You love every song.”
“Nuh-uh. Just this one.”
I smile back, happy to see her so happy, to know that she can still feel that way with me. And it’s a beautiful day on top of it, the sky blue and the windows open, the trees turning color and those cuffed-up shorts.
“Ooh, look,” Megan says, like she’s pointing out a tourist attraction. “There’s the Leaf Lady.”
Mrs. Scotto’s standing in the middle of her lawn, beneath the big oak tree that’s the bane of her existence, gazing up at the branches with a worried expression. She’s wearing regular clothes now—baggy jeans and a man’s shirt and a floppy tan sunhat—which means she at least went inside long enough to get changed. There are days, I swear, when she’s still out there in her robe and slippers when I come home in the afternoon.
“Crazy old bitch,” I mutter, not quite under my breath.
Megan looks surprised. “I thought you liked her.”
“It’s just kinda depressing, you know? Like picking up those leaves is her only reason to live.”
“She’s keeping busy. It’s way better than sitting in the house all day, watching the shopping channel. That’s what my grandma does.”
“I guess.” I pull into my driveway a little faster than I should and scrape the bottom of the bumper. “Just be nice if there were some other options.”
“There are,” Megan reminds me. “She could be dead or in a wheelchair or not even remember her own name. When you’re that age, you’re lucky to be picking up leaves.”
“I guess,” I say again, and shut off the engine.
SENIOR SEASON Copyright © 2011 by Tom Perrotta