Under the Watsons' Porch, page 1
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1. Bored to Death
Today, Saturday, June 6, is my birthday and I'm twelve although I tell people who don't otherwise know me that I'm thirteen, and they believe me. I'm an excellent liar.
It's noon and I'm sitting on our front porch in an Adirondack chair drinking pale lemonade, which looks like white wine, from a long-stemmed wineglass, which I took from the cabinet where my mother keeps her best glasses. My parents are out with my brother, Milo, probably buying me some more birthday presents because they feel terrible. At least my parents do. I had to cancel my birthday party, which was going to be today, because Rosie O'Leary was having hers and her invitations got sent out before mine did and I didn't get one from her. So my friends are at Rosie's party and I'm here.
“Maybe the invitation Rosie sent to you was lost in the mail, Ellie,” my mother said, trying, as she always does, to be optimistic.
“Rosie didn't send me an invitation, Mom,” I said.
“Oh dear,” my mother said in that way she has of speaking when she doesn't know what else to say.
“Never mind,” I said. “I don't like Rosie and I'd be bored to death at her stupid birthday party.”
My mother agreed especially about Rosie, but later I heard my father say he never did like Mr. O'Leary and my mother replied that all of the O'Learys, including the grandmother, were “predatory,” her favorite word this year, so I put a pillow over my ears and pretended to be asleep.
“I hope you'll be okay,” my mother said just a little while ago as she left the house with Milo and my father for the shops of Toledo. I waved goodbye and said I was fine, and glad not to have a birthday party of my own and especially not to be at Rosie's.
It's exhausting to be the child of parents who worry as much about your happiness as mine do.
From the bathroom window, I had watched them drive away, then took a shower and put on powder blue shorts and an oversized white tee so the hard sticky-out plums on their way to becoming breasts don't show through the shirt. I put my wet hair in a high ponytail, took the fancy wineglass, and that's how I happen to be on the front porch making a list of my special enemies at Duncan Middle School when Tommy Bowers walks out of the yellow house next door.
I catch sight of him trotting down the steps out of the corner of my eye, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, wearing a starchy white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and his long black hair floppy across his forehead.
I'm thinking he'll stop, look in my direction, and call out to me.
“What are you doing?” I'm hoping he will ask.
“Just drinking white wine and writing a poem to my boyfriend in South Africa,” I'll say, asking him to come up on the front porch and join me.
But he's on his way up the street and I don't think I caught his attention, so there's no chance of talking now.
I don't know Tommy Bowers. This is the first time I've even seen him, but I've heard all about him. All I really know is that the day before yesterday he moved into the yellow house next door with Mr. and Mrs. Bowers—her name is Clarissa—and their old calico cat, Bounce, who is missing an ear. We live in a gossipy neighborhood and people have been talking about the Bowerses ever since they bought the yellow house. Especially they've been talking about Tommy.
“The Bowerses are older parents,” my mother confides in me as if she's already become friends with them even though they've never met. “And I understand Tommy's a handful.”
“Handful” is my grandmother's word and she usually uses it about me. As if I could fit in anyone's hand, especially my tiny grandmother's.
I lean against the porch railing watching Tommy Bowers walk up the street full of confidence, a little swing to his walk as if he's always lived here.
Our house is gray shingle in the middle of a block that slopes upward in the direction of Tommy's yellow house, which is next to the Brittles and their twin boys. On the other side of the Brittles is the Watsons' house. The largest house on the block, it's at the top of the street on the corner of Lincoln Road, which is the name of our street, and Jefferson Place.
The Watsons are very old sisters who live alone, and I've almost never seen them. There used to be another Watson sister but she got carried out of the house in a box and the neighborhood kids watched, including Milo and me but not the Brittle twins because their parents wouldn't let them. Four men carried the box down the front steps and put it in the back of a long black car and drove away. The other Watson sisters stood on the porch, their hands folded in front of them, so I know they're tall and skinny and could die at any time, according to Milo, who is interested in these sorts of things and so had an especially good time watching the box come out of the house with the dead Miss Watson in it.
When I look up the hill, I see that Tommy has stopped in front of the Watsons'. He's standing, one shoulder higher than the other, looking up, and he may be talking to someone on the porch but I can't see that far even though I'm leaning over the railing so my stomach is almost sliced in half. I can't see his face although it looks as if he's wearing glasses and now he's folded his arms across his chest.
So I climb up on the railing in order to see the Watsons' porch, which is impossible to see lying on my stomach, and as I do, Tommy looks toward me and raises his hand.
Just the slightest motion as if we're already friends and have a secret code. Which is enough of an invitation for me on my birthday.
I hop off the railing, brush the black dirt off my blue shorts, take the rubber band out of my wet ponytail, and shake my long dark hair so it's as floppy as his. Then, barefooted, I run down the steps with a kind of excitement I used to have on my birthday when I was little and actually believed something different was about to happen because it was my birthday.
Ever since Christmas this year, I've felt as carved and empty as a jack-o'-lantern. I look in the mirror on the back of my mother's closet door and my face seems to have fallen into itself, becoming the face of someone else, broader across the cheeks, the teeth too big in my mouth, my hips spreading so jeans that used to slip over my hips like a pillowcase leave rolls of flesh over the waistband when I try to pull them on. And that's only what happens in front of the mirror.
In the morning when the alarm goes off in Milo's room, I don't want to get up, as if already the day has been too long and it hasn't even started. At school, especially in art, which I hate because I'm not good with my hands, I look up from whatever project I'm working on with the feeling that someone like Rosie O'Leary is rolling her eyes at me and laughing. And sometimes after school, my mother still at work, Milo at a friend's, I let myself in the front door and flop into the big cushy chair in the living room where my parents used to read to me, and I sit staring at nothing, with this long sadness covering me from head
I know about sadness, like when my Uncle Walter died, and when Blue Tip, the cat my parents had since before I was born, died, and when my best friend, Lynny Brady, moved to England after first grade, and the summer my parents made me go to sleepaway camp for six weeks because my mother was having an operation.
But this sadness is different. Nothing bad happens to me but the sadness comes creeping over my shoulder like an insect. Sometimes it just floats away, and other times it hangs out driving me crazy until I do something. Go on a bike ride to the high school or make chocolate chip brownies or call up my friend P.J. to talk about the girls in our class and whether they've gotten their period. And always lately, the funny sadness is sleeping just below the surface of my skin, especially since the Maypole dance when I didn't get chosen and had to be in the chorus instead of the dance, singing “Welcome to the joys of Mayay-ay” like some first grader with my mouth wide open so the sound would carry.
It's as if I'm waiting for something but I don't know what it is and so I can't go after it.
When I get to the Watsons' house, Tommy is leaning down next to the side porch examining the latticework that covers the area under the porch.
“Hi,” I call from the sidewalk. “Are you Tommy Bowers?”
“Nope,” he says without looking up. He's fooling with something on the lattice.
“Yes you are,” I say, walking up the driveway. “You just moved in next door to my house.”
“I did just move in next door to your house,” he says.
“So.” I stand next to him and see that he is trying to unlock a very rusty hook and eye so the lattice, which is also a door, will swing back and we can walk under the porch.
“There,” he says, pulling at the lattice so it opens and stepping under the porch. “Cool.”
The Watsons' porch is very high, much higher than ours, and very long, wrapping all the way around three sides of the house. Someone Tommy's height—and he's taller than I am by a lot—can walk under the porch without ducking, into a huge dark room with a dirt floor and light filtering through the lattice so there're triangles of light making a design on the dirt floor.
“My name is Ellie Tremont.”
He's standing in the middle of the dirt room looking around, appraising.
“Who lives in this house?” he asks finally.
“The Watson sisters,” I say. “They're old.”
“Good.” He takes a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his trousers and offers me one.
“I don't smoke,” I say, but I'm very excited. No one has ever offered me a cigarette and it makes me feel very old and smart.
“I just carry cigarettes and candy to make friends.” He offers me some peanut M&M's, which I take.
“So who are you if not Tommy Bowers?” I ask.
“Tom Cruise,” he says matter-of-factly.
I don't argue.
“This place will make a great hideout. We've got to decide what we're going to do with it.”
“Who's we?” I ask.
“You and me,” he says, walking around the side of the house.
“You don't think there're rats under here, do you?”
“Not a lot,” he says. “I'll take care of you if one comes slinking around.”
I can't believe my ears, some boy taking care of me and I'm twelve years old and almost without thinking, I just ask him how old he is and he says thirteen.
“Me too,” I say just as easily as if it were true. “Today.”
“Today is your birthday?”
“So let's go have a party at your house and decide what to do with the Watsons' porch.”
“I was sitting on the porch drinking wine when I saw you,” I say, very happy with the way this day is turning out.
Tommy locks the lattice door and we walk down the driveway, down the street to my house, and I fill two wine-glasses with lemonade so we can sit on the front porch together and smoke Tommy's unlit cigarettes until my parents and Milo get home with the presents.
2. True Stories
Tommy sits down on one of the Adirondack chairs, puts his feet up on the porch railing, folds his arms across his chest, and surveys the neighborhood.
I am sitting across from him rolling the stem of the wineglass between my fingers as I've seen my father do, watching Tommy take a sip of lemonade.
“I thought you were drinking wine,” he says, looking over at me.
“I was,” I say without smiling. “But I finished it.”
“And there isn't any more?”
I shake my head. Not sure whether he knows that I'm not telling the truth. Maybe he always drinks wine when he wants to. Maybe he's allowed to do anything he chooses.
“So we've got to think about the Watsons' porch.”
“I think it's creepy under there.”
“Creepy's good.” He has a thoughtful look on his face, his brow wrinkled, his lips tight. He looks older than other boys I know—not in his face, exactly, but in the way he moves and sits, the way he crosses his legs and rests his head against his hand.
“What I'm thinking is that we could do something with the kids in the neighborhood, just you and me. Something exciting.” He puts an unlit cigarette in his mouth and takes a drag. “I'd like the kids in this neighborhood to know who I am.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “Like, know your name?”
“I'd like them to know me.”
I don't understand what he means about kids knowing him and why he even cares. I sometimes think about whether or not the big kids like me and mostly they don't even know I'm alive. But in this neighborhood, there are mostly little kids.
“Well, there're a lot of kids around here, especially little ones,” I say.
“Good,” he says. “What I like about little kids is that you can tell them anything and they believe you.”
“What are you thinking of telling them?” I asked.
He was quiet for a minute, probably thinking, and then he shrugged.
“I haven't decided what I want to tell them yet until we figure out what to do under the Watsons' porch.”
It's hilly where we live and our house is set high over the street, so I can sit on my front porch like we're doing now and watch the kids going into and coming out of their houses all day in the summer. It's a quiet neighborhood and safe, so safe that on our block the kids, even the little ones, are allowed to wander up and down the street, into and out of each other's houses, without a grown-up. That's why my parents moved here, because, as they tell me all the time, they want me to be free. The houses here are small, “starter” houses, my dad says, a place to start a family and then when the kids are older they move to a neighborhood with bigger houses. We still live here even though I'm older, because there's only me and Milo and my parents are teachers and can't afford a big house. So mostly the families here are starter families with smaller kids and I plan to tell Tommy about every one of them.
“How many kids do you think live on this street?”
“There're a lot. Fourteen of them—eleven not counting the babies.”
I happen to know this because every year we give a Christmas party and my mother and I make gingerbread girls and boys for each child and write his or her name across the gingerbread bellies in white icing.
“There's Billy and Sarah Block, across the street in the yellow brick house, and they fight a lot but I like them okay,” I begin. “And then Hannah Joseph next door to the Blocks and she's an only child and sort of whiney. And Sean and Cara and Ian O'Shaunessey live in the last house, the one with the big fence that keeps their vicious German shepherd from biting anyone. My mom calls them stairsteps because they're six and seven and eight.”
Tommy finishes his lemonade, takes a drag of his unlit cigarette.
“The Brittles have twin boys called Alexander and Anthony and they're seven and kind of bullies because their parents are so particular—that's what Mom says—and there's Miranda Salon n
“Except your brother.”
Tommy gets up from the Adirondack chair, walks to the edge of the porch, and checks down the street, looking at something; then he tells me he wants to see the house.
“Why do you want to see my house?” I ask.
“I just do,” he says with unusual formality, as if he were as old as my father and accustomed to politeness the way grown-ups are. “I have an interest in houses.”
“Sort of like an architect?”
“No,” he says. “I like houses because they're places to live.”
He says this seriously as if it makes a lot of sense. I have no idea what he means but I can tell what he's said is important, so I decide not to say anything at all, especially anything funny.
I love stories, which is probably why I make them up so often, and if you listen, you get to know the secret stories of people. I have a sense that Tommy Bowers is full of secret stories.
“Our house is nothing special,” I say. “And besides, it's a mess. My mom would kill me for taking a guest around when it's such a disaster.”
This house where I was born—and so was Milo—is perfectly ordinary except for being old, with none of what my mother calls “the conveniences.” There's a living room and dining room and kitchen and four bedrooms and a screened-in sunporch that goes off my bedroom, where I have sleepovers in the summer since we don't have air-conditioning. Air-conditioning is one of the conveniences we do without because my father is a schoolteacher in junior high and my mother teaches drama at the high school, and schoolteachers don't have “the extras,” which include, according to my mother, two cars and two television sets and private telephones for the children and summer vacations at resorts or winter vacations at ski lodges and new slipcovers for the living room. I don't care about these things but Milo and my mother do, so it's a subject for discussion at the dinner table, usually introduced by Milo when one of his friends has gotten a new bicycle or video or skateboard. “I want…” is how the conversation begins, and that is followed either by “You can't have…” or “We can't afford.…” And sometimes, to my satisfaction, there's the comment, usually from my father, that begins, “Ellie doesn't always say, ‘I want.…’” Which is perfectly true.
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