A face in every window, p.7
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       A Face in Every Window, p.7

           Han Nolan
 
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  Bobbi would always say, "I don't need hair on my chest, what I need is a thick juicy hamburger with cheese and lots of ketchup."

  Pap and I would agree, but Mam and Larry stuck to their seaweed.

  Larry claimed these were healing foods that would repair the damage done to our bodies by the environment This he said with the smoke from his cigarette billowing from his nostrils.

  But as much as Larry irritated me, it was Bobbi who sent me over the edge. I wanted her out of our house. I spent every moment at home with my shoulders hiked, my eyes alert, my ears pricked, because I never knew what Bobbi would pull next. One moment she'd head off to school wearing my rain forest T-shirt, and the next she'd draw arrows on my globe with indelible ink, insisting that she'd thought the ink would come off!

  She had picked the other attic room for her bedroom, and I felt certain she did it just to goad me, just to keep me from having the third floor to myself. At our old house we had one bathroom, and Mam, Pap, Grandma Mary, and I shared it with no problem. In the farmhouse just Bobbi and I shared the bathroom on the third floor, and we fought over it all the time. All I needed was ten to fifteen minutes a day in there, but they were impossible to get because Bobbi was always in it doing who-knew-what When she came out she looked the same as when she went in, unless she went in to take a bath; then she came out all shriveled up from soaking for so long, gagging me with her overperfumed body.

  We fought the most over the laundry, however. That was her job, and she felt it her duty and right to barge into my room without knocking and sweep my clothes off the floor even before my body heat had left them. I believed she watched me undress through the crack in the door and knew just when to come storming in. And I didn't like her looking at my underwear and my jock strap. I felt it gave her some unfair advantage over me.

  Then I noticed one day that my jeans came back smelling unwashed. I banged into her room with the unfresh-smelling jeans in my hand and accused her of only doing half my laundry.

  "You only wore those once," Bobbi said, lazing on her sleeping bag and flipping through a People magazine.

  "Right, I wore them, now you wash them."

  She sat up. "I'm not going to wash a pair of jeans that you wore only once. Who does that?"

  "I do—Grandma Mary did."

  "Why?"

  Was she dim or was she trying to irritate me? "The same reason you wash my shirts and my—my other things."

  Bobbi leaned back against the wall, picking up the magazine so it hid her face. "Bull. Nobody washes their jeans after one wearing. Next you'll be asking me to iron a crease down the middle. JP, you are so anal retentive."

  "Okay," I said. "Okay, I'll wash my own clothes. From now on, just stay out of my stuff."

  She shrugged. "Fine with me, no skin off my nose."

  She lowered the magazine enough so I could see her eyes. "Wednesday is your day. Every other day is taken. Now get out of my room, your breath is making the paint peel."

  I managed to do my laundry one time, but then I kept forgetting. After I had missed two Wednesdays in a row, I told her I wanted Thursdays.

  "Forget it, JP. I've got a schedule to keep. How would you like it if I came along and stuck fresh grass in the lawn right after you cut it? Now, either do it on Wednesdays or let me do it."

  I let her do it, swearing to myself that I'd find a way to get Mam to kick her out of our house.

  Then one day I changed my mind.

  It was a cold Saturday in October. Mam had gone out to lunch with Dr. Mike and afterward they were going to take in a few art galleries in town and across the bridge in Lambertville. When Mam announced this I didn't say anything; I just got up from the table and left. I went out to start work on the yard, and later Larry and Bobbi joined me.

  "Slow down, JP," Larry had said to me, noticing the furious way I was attacking the leaves with my rake. Then after another minute, he added, "They're just friends."

  "I know!" I said, shouting at him, still raking, catching bits of dirt and grass with the leaves. "You think I don't know?"

  "Yeah, I think there's a lot you don't know."

  "What's that supposed to mean?"

  Larry didn't answer. He just raked at the leaves, working next to Bobbi and keeping his distance from me and my angry rake.

  I worked over the yard until, breathless and exhausted and sweating in my T-shirt, I couldn't do any more. I stopped and took a look around. The brightness, the clear invigorating air, caught me by surprise. The leaves were at their peak, and we had reds and yellows and oranges fanning like flames above us in the sky and a sunset at our feet. Single leaves were floating down from branches, saucers of colored lights. I stood out on the lawn in the midst of this, rake in hand, dizzy with exertion and the swirl of brilliant colors around me. I had never seen an autumn so bright. In our old neighborhood the colors were muted, as if the dust and dirt of our lives settled in the trees there, coating the leaves.

  The light, the colors, did something to me. They sent a shiver of peace down through my center, and I took a deep breath and let it out. I took another and let it out. The peace spread across my chest. I could smell burning leaves in the air.

  "Feel better?" Larry paused and asked, taking in the trees and sky with his gaze.

  "Some," I said.

  Then we heard Pap singing, and the three of us looked at one another.

  Mam had given Pap the job of dusting and vacuuming the house. It took forever because he couldn't help but stop in the parlor and play the piano. Larry had been half-right about Pap and that piano. He was drawn to it like it was chocolate ice cream on a cone. He'd sit down at the keyboard and announce to his imaginary audience, "Now I will play and sing for you. Please be quiet." Then he'd run his fingers all over the instrument, up and down the keyboard, banging and crashing out the notes, no tune, no rhythm, and on top of this racket, he would sing his favorite songs, songs Grandma Mary had taught him: "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "Found a Peanut," "My Darling Clementine," and a few others. If he couldn't remember the words, he made them up. Pap could carry a tune pretty well, and he never let the noise his hands were making throw him off.

  On that day, we heard the vacuum, Pap, and the piano all going at once. We could tolerate it well enough from outside, but Mam didn't like the vacuum just running with the hose sucking up the same spot on the rug. "It could overheat," she said.

  Bobbi, Larry, and I looked at one another as if to ask which one of us was going to go turn off the vacuum, when a familiar old Maverick rolled up our driveway and stopped when it hit the bottom porch step.

  Bobbi dropped her rake. "Shit," she said.

  Mr. Polanski got out of the car and stood a moment, looking out at us as if he were trying to determine who of us was his daughter.

  He stood tall and broad, with one shoulder higher than the other. You wouldn't notice this except that Mr. Polanski always tried to even them out by jerking his higher shoulder down every now and then as if he were having a spasm. When I was younger, that movement alone used to send me racing to the safety of my house whenever I saw the man heading down our street toward the train station. He had small, deep-set eyes and a narrow jaw so that when you looked at his face what you saw was a big expanse of flesh going nowhere, turning into nothing smart like a well-defined nose or a decent pair of ears. To understand how he had managed to father someone as attractive as Bobbi required even more imagination than it did to figure out me and Pap.

  Mr. Polanski dropped back a step, as if he had stumbled over a stone. He caught himself, jerked his shoulder down, and raised his arm, pointing his finger at Bobbi.

  "Bobbi, girl, you come on home where you belong."

  "No, Daddy," Bobbi said, folding her arms in front of her chest, her feet together, legs stiff. "I'm going to stay here."

  "You ain't, neither. Now, come on, or you know what." He jerked his shoulder again and took a couple of steps onto the lawn.

  Larry took a step closer to Bobbi.
He stood with his legs apart, his fists clenched as if he was preparing to fight this hulking man. Larry was taller, but his body, fed on seaweed and algae, looked frail even standing beside Bobbi. He didn't have a prayer of defending her.

  I moved in on her other side and tried to think what to do should the man make a move to take her away. I could feel my heart beating hard and it felt as if it were in my throat. I wanted to swallow but I couldn't I couldn't even breathe. Bobbi's father had always scared me, and it wasn't just the jerking motions, either. His eyes, though small, held a wildness in them, a fierceness I didn't understand. It seemed to come from some hidden terror within.

  "Come on, now. Come to me, now," Mr. Polanski said, holding out his hand, his fingers beckoning, twitching. His voice sounded so calm and steady, yet it was chilling. I could sense his rage seething behind each word.

  Bobbi took a step backward, stumbling on her rake. "No, Daddy." She straightened up, tucked her shirt into her jeans, and tossed back her hair with her head. When she did that move with me, she did it with defiance, belligerence, but with her father, it was more as if she was steadying herself, clearing her mind of clutter, and focusing on her father. Larry and I stepped in closer.

  "You better do as I say, girl, and youse"—he looked at Larry and me—"youse better get inside and stay out of what don't involve you."

  His words didn't frighten me as much as his nervousness did, and the way his wild eyes kept shifting to me, then Bobbi, then Larry. I could see he wanted to attack us. I could almost see his mind working, trying to figure out his best advantage. Larry held out his arm in front of Bobbi and said, "No, Mr. Polanski. We're eyewitnesses. If you take Bobbi it will be against her will, on private property where you haven't been invited. And if you touch her, we'll be able to tell the authorities, and then maybe they'll put you where you belong."

  Larry's words sounded tough, but his jaw quivered, making his words come out in sobs.

  "No queer drug addict goin' to tell me what to do with my own girl. And it's my word against yours." Mr. Polanski stepped closer with each word, then he lunged forward, surprising us all He went for Bobbi, grabbing her by her hair, and then by her arm, twisting it and pulling her forward.

  Bobbi tried to hold back, but the grass and leaves made the ground too slippery and she slid onto her bottom.

  Mr. Polanski kept on dragging her while Bobbi fought to get up again, and I jumped in trying to loosen the man's grip. I could smell liquor on his breath when he lunged at me, elbowing me in the ribs without skipping a beat with Bobbi. I fell on the ground with a grunt and looked for Larry to help me, but he was running away toward the house.

  "Daddy, you're hurting me," Bobbi cried.

  "Then stop fighting. Stop it!" He slapped at her face, still holding on with his other hand, still pulling her forward toward the car, dragging her body on the asphalt "You're going with me, girl."

  I had gotten to my feet again and tried to place myself between Bobbi and her father, but their arms were all over the place and Bobbi, breaking free for an instant with a sudden jerk of her arm, rammed it into my face and I reeled back, felling against Mr. Polanski's car.

  Bobbi realized what she had done and stopped struggling to see if I was all right. She didn't say anything, it was just a look. But I understood.

  Mr. Polanski took advantage of her hesitation and grabbed both her arms and pulled her to her feet, trying to throw her body toward the car.

  I had just decided to ram my head into Mr. Polanski any way I could when Larry charged out of the house, camera in hand, and started taking pictures.

  We all heard the sound of the film winding to the next frame and stopped fighting. Mr. Polanski let go of Bobbi, and she dropped back to the ground and stayed there, hunched over, hugging herself. I stood beside her, breathing hard now, my knees shaking, wanting to put my hand on her shoulder but unsure how she'd react.

  "Now I got proof," Larry said, backing up yet still clicking away with the camera.

  Mr. Polanski waved his hand in front of his face, squinting as if the camera were a spotlight.

  "You give me that camera, Lawrence Seeley. I can tell the law a thing or two myself—damn fairy."

  Larry looked up from the camera. "Like you said, my word against yours. Now leave us alone. Go on and leave us alone, or I'll turn these photos in to the police."

  Mr. Polanski started forward after Larry, but Larry lifted die camera and started clicking again, so he backed up, gave Bobbi a nudge in the back with his knee, and said, "You're in big trouble now, girl"

  He got into the car and began backing down the drive. Bobbi jumped up and ran after him, shouting, "Daddy, be careful Drive careful, Daddy. Drive careful"

  Chapter Eleven

  DAYS PASSED AND Bobbi didn't say anything to me or Larry about the afternoon when Mr. Polanski came. She just acted as if nothing had happened, nothing had changed, but I knew it had, I knew I had changed. I couldn't hate her anymore, and I felt ashamed that I had attacked her that night in the Seeleys' yard. I wanted to apologize to her, to say I hadn't understood then, not about her father, not really, but I didn't know how. I didn't know how to act. I had known most of my life that Bobbi's father beat her—not that anyone could ever prove it, not when Bobbi herself always denied it. I'd heard the stories, seen a bruise or cut now and then, the sprained arm, but I'd never imagined her father actually hitting her. I never could have imagined it, what with a father like Pap as my frame of reference. That afternoon had been the ugliest, most intimate scene I'd ever witnessed. Until then, I had never really known what violence looked like.

  I couldn't talk to Bobbi. She tried to pick fights with me and I couldn't respond. I let her win, have her way. I let her storm about the house, let her stay in the bathroom all night if she wanted to, let her sneak off with my microscope, and I never said a word, because now I understood that it was all just an act, that she wasn't as tough or as fierce as she pretended to be. And after the look that had passed between us when she'd accidentally hit me in the face, I knew, too, she had a heart.

  Then one day she barged into my room and said, "I'm not made of eggshells, you know."

  I looked up from my desk. Bobbi had on my Einstein T-shirt. She stood with her hands on her hips, her jaw jutting forward.

  "I know," I said, and returned to my history.

  "I liked it better when we fought," she said.

  I twisted around in my seat, startled by her words. "That should tell you something," I said.

  "You stink!" Bobbi marched off, slamming my door behind her, and I felt a sickening sadness rip through me. I turned again to my work and stared at the same words in front of me until they doubled and blurred, shifting first left, then right, like amoebas dying under the light of the microscope.

  A few minutes later, Bobbi charged back in and stood over me, breathing hard and breaking my mood.

  "Okay," she said, as though striking a bargain with me, "just don't keep tiptoeing around me all the time, you know? Say something once in a while. You make me feel like—like nothing."

  "Me? I do that?" I pushed back from my desk, setting my pen down in my open history book.

  "You're such a stiff, O'Brien. You really are anal retentive."

  "I just don't know how to—what to say anymore." I reached out my hand, wanting to touch hers, then let it fall in my lap. "Bobbi, I'm sorry—I mean, how can you stand him? How can you let him—"

  "I don't let him!" Bobbi shouted in my face. "I don't let him, he just does. He just does whatever he pleases."

  I sat up straighter in my seat.

  "See? Anything I say is going to be wrong," I said. "What is it you're trying to prove, anyway? I don't want to fight with you."

  Bobbi leaned forward, placing her face in front of mine, and squinted at me. "You think I'm weak, don't you? You saw me with my father and you think I'm weak."

  "N-no, I understand—"

  "Well, James Patrick, I'm not weak! I'm not my mother! I ca
n take it I can take anything my father throws at me." She straightened her back and kicked at the seat of my chair, just missing my knee. The chair jerked backward, jolting my head back, too.

  I stood up, backing toward my bookcases, brushing the wild strands of hair out of my eyes. "And your mother can't, so she's weak?"

  "Never defends me or protects me. Teaches me how to lie. Says for me to tell the teachers I fell, or a dog bit me. What kind of mother is that?"

  "I—I—"

  Bobbi pointed at me. "I'll never be like her."

  I looked straight at her. "So who are you like, then? Your father?"

  "Go to hell, O'Brien!" Bobbi strode out again, slamming the door, and a few seconds later the door opened about a foot and my Einstein shirt went flying across the room. It hit one of the bookshelves, slapping the spot where my microscope used to be, and then dropped to the floor.

  "And give me back my microscope!" I yelled, grabbing up my shirt The shirt felt warm in my hands and smelled sweet and powdery. I tossed it on my bed, sat back down at my desk, and tried to concentrate on my schoolwork. I had exams in both history and French the next day. I wasn't worried about them; I knew I'd do well. I had no problems making As at the new high school, but I did have problems making friends, at home and at school. Keeping my face buried in books took my mind off of this fact and kept me from examining the problem too closely. I knew I wouldn't like what I found. Until the move, I had never realized how much I had depended on Tim Seeley, for his friendship, for the way he could tease me out of my moods, and for the way he'd let me know when I said or did something stupid.

  His friends became my friends, and I'd never noticed until we moved that it had never been the other way around, it never could have been, because I had never made a friend that wasn't Tim's first Without him I had no one to talk to here, and I found myself spending more and more time hanging out in the computer lab, talking to the teachers more than to any of my classmates, and when the lab teacher offered me a job as his assistant in the lab during my two free periods and the assistant principal offered me one in the office after school, I jumped at both offers. It meant less time sitting by myself, and the office paid me for my work. It wasn't much, but I wanted it so I could contribute to our house fund.

 
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