Every Thursday morning, Marcy shook herself out of the drugged heat-sleep of a summer night, pulled on her overalls, and went off to clean Ernest’s apartment. The whole thing had started with one of his jokes. On an evening early in the summer, he’d been over for dinner, and Marcy, mostly out of boredom, had emptied his ashtray twice before he’d even finished his cigar. The idea had come to him in a flash. “Look at this, Shirley! She’s at it again. What an instinct! Why not put these talents to work, Kid, get up a business? Hell, start with my place.” He was her mother’s boyfriend, a large man with a tobacco smell and a sense of humor that got on Marcy’s nerves. But he gave her 15 dollars whenever she cleaned, no matter how long it took her to finish.
On Thursday nights, when Ernest came to visit her mother, Marcy went over to Shelley’s house. She and Shelley were both 13, born two days apart, though sometimes, listening to Shelley talk, Marcy found this hard to believe. Shelley referred to Marcy’s mother as “Shirlo,” her own parents as “Boopse” and “Rack.” She read nothing but movie magazines and loved to go on and on about her favorite stars. “Oh, his life is just slapped together,” she’d say about this one or that one. “When his wife left him, they seriously feared for his mind,” She often baited Marcy about Ernest, and sometimes, if Marcy felt in the mood, she defended him, sometimes she simply kept quiet When necessary, Shelley was easy to ignore. She had a color TV in her room, a lunatic dog named Skipper, and an older brother who would sometimes sell them a bottle of Ripple.
One Thursday morning, the telephone rang as Marcy sat on her bed, waking up. She grabbed some slippers and made it to the kitchen on the second ring.
Oh, it s you.
“Did you expect someone else?”
“I just woke up from a nightmare, Shelley. You would think I’d be mixed up. Someone was chasing me.”
“Sexual frustration,” Shelley said. “That’s what they mean, those chase dreams.”
Marcy rubbed her eyes and tucked the phone against her shoulder. She could hear her mother stirring in the back bedroom.
“I heard you.”
“You sound dopey. I bet I woke you up.”
“Hell no, Shelley, I’ve been up for hours.”
“You working for him today?”
“I guess so. What day is this, Thursday?”
“Be sure to look for a bank statement. And check out his collars and pockets. You can do that much for old Shirlo.”
“Is that what you called up to tell me?”
“No. I wanted to know if you’re coming tonight. Hold on a sec—Go away Mom! I’m sleeping in today.” Marcy heard a scrabbling on the line as if the receiver had tumbled against a pillow. “Marciella?”
“Right here,” Marcy said, yawning.
“Don’t drop off again,” Shelley said. “You gotta go to work pretty soon.”
“Well look at that. You might have overslept and lost your job if it hadn’t been for me.”
“I’ve gotta go now, Shelley.”
“You coming then? Boopse’ll pick you up.”
“What time? Is there anything to do over there?”
“Is there anything to do over here? Jesus, Marcy. You wanna just hang out in your room while the man is there with your mom?”
“Don’t say it like that.”
“Don’t say it like what? Christ, what did I say?”
“I don’t know. I’ll come over. OK? I’ll come over. But I’ve gotta get dressed now.”
“Marcy? Don’t get mad if I remind you to go through his pockets.”
“No need,” Marcy said. “I took notes while you were talking.”
“You’ll appreciate me later,” Shelley said, “when it’s too late.”
“How? When will it be too late?”
“Never mind,” Shelley said. “Just remember that.”
“I’ll remember. Bye Shelley.”
“We’ll come by after dinner. OK?”
“OK. Bye Shelley.”
Marcy shuffled back to her room, her old pair of mules flapping on her feet. She sat down on her bed and faced her closet door and her overalls, strung up on their peg like a hooked fish. From the bed, she could see her face in her dresser mirror. It was an okay face as faces went, not much acne, no wrinkles yet. When her father was alive, people had insisted she looked like him. These days, everyone said she took after her mother. They had to say something, she thought.
She rolled off the bed and lifted down her overalls, buttoned them on, then bound her thick brown hair in a kerchief. Her mother was rattling pots in the kitchen now, getting breakfast. The thought of going out and sitting down with her at the table made Marcy suddenly shy, and she fiddled a long time with the laces of her work boots. Her mother liked to talk about Ernest. Or stare into space thinking about him till Marcy had to ask what was wrong. Her mother was the one who really wanted to clean Ernest’s apartment. Sometimes Marcy was tempted to toss her the keys and tell her that. Then she’d take off early for Shelley’s. Every morning of the summer, Shelley stayed in bed late, flopped on the sheets with a stack of Photoplays, chewing a piece of toast, while the TV mumbled in her ears.
Glancing in the mirror again, Marcy saw her own unmade bed, like a wrecked boat blown against the wall, sheets trailing, and she hurried to straighten it. Lately, she was always straightening something. And washing her hands. “Where’s Marcy?” Ernest would chuckle. “Check the bathroom!”
“You’ll be sorry,” she muttered, hitting her palm with her fist. As soon as she said it, she felt silly. She cleared her throat and gave her kerchief a pat, then went out to join her mother.
Marcy remembered a time, years ago, when she’d had eggs every morning for breakfast. Sometimes, they’d had bacon or pancakes. Now they had cereal or toast. Marcy did. Her mother skipped breakfast. Her mother ate very little all day, like the girls that Marcy and Shelley knew at school who fasted when rock concerts got canceled. One girl kept on going, ignoring the concert schedule, and finally was put in the hospital.
“You hungry this morning?” her mother asked, setting coffee and milk on the table. Marcy nodded, following her mother’s movements surreptitiously, over the rim of her cup. Her mouth was stitched with worry. Her straight hair, wound hopefully around countless brush rollers, was thin, the pink scalp showing through. Watching the way her fingers picked absently at the piping on her bathrobe, Marcy wanted to jump up and kiss her, urge her to eat something. What if you got sick? What if they put you in the hospital? But she stayed where she was and ate enough cereal and toast for both of them. When she was finished, she carried her dishes to the sink and gathered up her supplies—cans, jars, and squeeze bottles—and loaded them neatly into two plastic buckets.
Her mother rose from the table, looking startled, smiling apologetically. She shoved her hands into her pockets. “Don’t forget the baking soda. Baking soda and a little water. It’s the best thing for a stove.”
Marcy reached into a bucket and held up the orange box.
“It’s hard,” her mother said. “A man alone. . . .”
Marcy kissed her mother’s cheek lightly and came away with a film of night cream on her lips. “OK if I go to Shelley’s when I’m done?”
Her mother nodded. “Use the paste wax in the kitchen. The liquid is easier, but the paste wax lasts.”
Her mother caught her arm. “Terrible to have to know how silly your mama is.”
“It’s OK,” Marcy said. “You want things nice over there.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s it.”
She said goodbye to her mother and crossed the elevated parking lot. Ernest lived in their complex, in a building identical to the one where she and her mother lived. She stilled her clattering buckets, looped both handles over one wrist, and fished in her pockets for the security key. Inside, she unlocked his apartment and stood for a cautious moment listening. She could hear the refrigerator droning softly in the kitchen and from somewhere else in the building, the mutter of a television set. Confronted by the squalid landscape of his life, she felt a wave of sympathy for him. The place smelled rank, like crumpled socks stuffed into pillow cases and damp garbage soaking through brown grocery bags.
Last night, when she’d walked into the kitchen and found him helping her mother with the dishes, he’d looked at her in alarm and covered his eyes with a dishtowel. “There she is,” he’d moaned. “The girl who picks through the guts of my life and sees me for what I am.”
Then he’d snatched the towel away and snapped it at her ankles, smiling slyly. “Oh, is she going to hate me when she walks into my apartment this week.”
She frowned as she moved through the place, unable, as usual, to connect the Ernest she knew with the stranger who lived in these rooms. In the bedroom, drawers hung half-open, spilling out underwear and socks, dirty clothes slumped on the floor, the curtain rode at a crazy angle as if flung up hastily for cover. She bounced on his bed a moment, looking around. There was a tattered newspaper stuck between the mattress and the headboard. He’d probably fallen asleep over it. She picked it out and flipped through it absently, then stuffed it back where she’d found it and went into the bathroom. If she shut her eyes in this room, Ernest might have been right there beside her. It was the ashtray crammed with chewed cigar butts—that and his uncapped bottle of aftershave. At home, he came and sat in her room sometimes, to smoke his cigar after dinner. He told her stories about his boys, about how, after he’d gotten a divorce from his wife, his boy Jackie wouldn’t see him or even talk to him on the phone for a year. She felt sorry for him when he talked like this, but she didn’t know what to say. When he was gone, his cigar smoke hung in her room for days.
She collected his bathrobe and slippers from the bathroom rug and carried them into the bedroom. Most Thursdays, she got right to work, cleaning from the top down, one room at a time, following her mother’s instructions. Today, five minutes of this place had given her a headache. She looked around for a magazine. She read about teenage sex in Reader’s Digest (“Tonight, Linda Albert’s parents have left her at home, alone. . . .”), fuel-injected engines in Car and Driver, and then wandered into the living room to look at the pictures of Ernest’s family. According to her mother, Ernest was a lot like Marcy’s own father had been. Marcy hardly remembered her father, but she found this hard to believe. In pictures, her father looked wise and dignified, not the kind of man to snap you with a dishtowel or chew his cigar ends. Marcy studied a gold-framed family portrait. With his family, Ernest seemed dignified too. He stood with one hand on his ex-wife’s shoulder, his two boys at his side, their heads haloed in soft studio light. They looked like one of the families she had read about in Reader’s Digest, the Alberts or the Gibsons (who lived next door to the Alberts and had a son named Chip), nice people, easily shocked, people who stayed married for life. “Behind every union lurk the shadows,” Shelley liked to say, quoting Modern Screen—or her older brother Todd. The “shadows” were other women, girls from the office, divorcees in black dresses.
Marcy dusted the frame off on her overalls and replaced it beside the others on the bookcase. What did Shelley know? In the dusty surface of the coffee table, an odd, heavy piece that had obviously belonged to a group, she scribbled her name, then her mother’s, then Ernest’s. She drew a circle around each, rubbed them out with her sleeve, then headed to the kitchen for her dustcloth and polish and wax.
By three o’clock, it was time to phone Shelley.
“You’ll never believe what I’ve got—” she began. Shelley made her hang on, and again in her mind, she was dragging the carpet with the vacuum, scarcely paying attention—
Shelley came on, distracted. Skipper was loose again, running like a wild man through Rack’s camellias. Wasn’t she coming? Of course she was coming. She was just calling in, killing time while the laundry dried. And also—Skipper was barking. Was Shelley out by the pool? She was, and she had to get off. The camellias were getting trashed. What was this she wouldn’t believe? A list of gambling debts a foot long? A note from his mistress? Marcy considered the question a moment and decided to wait till later to tell her. As they talked, she scooped the 15 dollars in cash off the counter and slipped it into her pocket, along with the evidence.
That night at seven, when Shelley’s mother drove up, Marcy was waiting in the parking lot. Shelley’s mother drove one-handed, chain smoking cigarettes and singing along with a Glenn Campbell parade on the radio. Shelley and Marcy huddled in the back seat.
“My brother just got a new car,” Shelley said. “He needed hub caps for it, so he went and stole some off of a wreck on Bayshore. Then he couldn’t find anyone to ride in it, so he kidnapped a girl from a grocery store and rode her around for a whole day.”
“Galveston, oh Gal-ve-es-to-o-on!” sang Mrs. Shreve.
Shelley hammered the back of the seat with her tennis shoes.
“Shut up, Mom. What d”you think of that?” she whispered to Marcy. “About my brother and everything?”
“Well, I don’t know, a grocery store. If that’s the only way he can get a date—”
“That’s one way. That’s not the only way. That’s one way.”
Marcy shrugged and looked out the window at the tall, comfortable houses spinning past. She envied the people who lived in them, their spacious, stretched-out lives.
“I can see her standing—by—the wa-ter! I can see her looking out to sea-ee!”
Shelley was slumped in her seat, chewing on a fingernail, staring at her sneakers. In a second, she was up again, pushing off against the front seat, her face careening toward Marcy’s.
“Ow! Quit Shelley,” her mother said, “you’ll give me whiplash.”
“Guess what I’ve got?” Shelley smiled and tipped her fingers to her lips as if knocking back an imaginary shot glass. “Juice,” she whispered. “Got it off of my brother.”
“What kind?” Marcy asked. She could hear his voice behind Shelley’s: Get juiced, kid? as he wandered into her room in his shorts, a half-empty bottle of Ripple dangling from one hand.
“Southern Comfort,” Shelley whispered. Her giggling tickled Marcy’s ear. “I had to show the goods to get it. He said, “You’re coming along great, kid.”
Marcy looked sideways at Shelley’s chest. “Did he really say that?”
“Oh shut up.”
“Shelley!” her mother said, coming to life as she flicked a glowing butt out the window. “You treat your friends like that and they won’t want to come back. Isn’t that right, Marcy?”
“That’s right,” Marcy said, nodding at her in the rearview mirror. She grinned at Shelley, who was grinning back. Boopse must have had a few. Shelley said she often did. Marcy watched her turn a corner, whirling the wheel with a finger. Then Shelley was whispering again—something about a new magazine she had and a new miracle stick that wiped a pimple clear off your face—and Marcy leaned back against the seat, relaxed suddenly and just glad to be where she was; as Glen Campbell began another song about love.
“We don’t need a glass,” Shelley said. “We can just nip on it, right from the bottle.”
Marcy tipped the bottle and smiled. She liked the sweet taste and the feel of the slim, flat bottle. “Got any cigarettes?”
“Sure. My mom has tons.” Shelley hopped off the bed and Marcy heard her pounding down the stairs. She tipped the bottle again, rinsing her teeth and gums with Southern Comfort. Shelley had a big room, cluttered but big. In one corner, in full view of both beds, sat the color TV. It was on all the time—it was on right now, going with the sound off. Marcy drank some more Southern Comfort and watched a commercial for puppy food. A little spaghetti dog exactly like Skipper was tearing around his dinner bowl while a smiling woman shook a box at him.
“That’s mean,” Marcy said. “Poor Skipper. Poor puppy.”
She could hear Skipper digging under Shelley’s bed. “Poor Skipper,” she repeated. The digging continued.
“Skip!” Shelley said, bolting into the room and slamming the door behind her. “Damn pest. It ruined him, mating him to that goddamn slut from next door. The vet said it might. Last night he took a whizz on my TV.”
“What’d you mate him for?”
“What d”you think? Money. He’s a stud. AKC. Skipper!” She peered under the bed and dragged him out. “He knocked her silly. Didn’t you Skip? Himself too.”
Marcy looked at him, wiggling in Shelley’s arms, and tried to imagine him at it. She couldn’t even see his eyes. “I wish I’d been there,” she said as Shelley dropped him in the hall and shut the door again. Her lips felt numb, too lazy to make the words.
Shelley was stripping the cellophane off a pack of cigarettes and pulling one out with her teeth. She was proud of herself because she could blow the smoke through her nose. Marcy, lying on her back on the bed, watched upside down as the smoke drifted down in two streams and hung like whisps of fog in the room. Shelley tossed her the pack, and for a few minutes, they lay on their beds, smoking and passing the bottle.
“So. What now?” Marcy said finally. She could hear Skipper scratching and whining outside the door.
“Looka my new magazine, why not. Go away Skip. You’re sick.”
“Movie stars?” Marcy shook her head. “Forget it.”
“Robert Redford. He’s definitely my type.”
“Why should you care? You’ll never talk to him. Or touch him.”
“Et cetera,” Shelley giggled.
Suddenly Marcy sat up. “I found something today. In Ernest’s apartment.” She dug in the pocket of her overalls.
Shelley sat up unsteadily, spilling the ashtray on her bedspread. “Damnit,” she said, rubbing at the ashes with her fist.
“Take a look. I found it under the couch.”
Shelly was giggling again. “If it’s Shirlo’s, something strange has happened to her taste.”
Jesus, Marcy thought. I should have known. “It’s not hers,” she said.
She watched Shelley examine it, opening and closing the clasp, clipping it on her own ear. It was bent and wouldn’t stay on.
“It’s pretty banged up,” Shelley said, handing it back. “Who knows how long it was there before you got to it.”
“Why didn’t I find it last week? It’s kind of big to miss.”
“What do you think it’s supposed to be? A water lily? Maybe a starfish.” Shelley wavered on the bed. “—or two, or three.”
“I don’t know how it got there, I really don’t.”
“Come on, Julie Andrews. How do you think? Why am I always telling you to snoop into things?” She hooked the bottle of Southern Comfort with a finger. “All men snake around. Rack does all the time.”
Marcy took the bottle and tipped it. The sweetness was beginning to get to her, but she downed a big snort very fast. “How would you know that?”
“I just know.”
“Oh, mm. A lot you know.”
“OK, my brother told me. Rack tells him.”
“Your brother could tell you anything, Shelley, and you’d swallow it whole.”
Shelley looked hurt. “My mom told me too, if you’ve got to know.”
“Your mom’s in on this?”
“Sure. It’s not easy for a sex maniac to keep secrets.”
“My father wasn’t like that.”
“A lot you know,” Shelley snorted. She reached for the cigarettes and stopped. “I’m smashed,” she said.
Marcy wiped some Southern Comfort off her cheek. “Me too. There’s static in my ears.”
“We’ve got to finish it, though. Todd’ll know if we don’t.”
“I guess your brother, he does it too, huh?”
“Why do you think he got a car?”
“I don’t know. He needs it to carry his groceries maybe.”
“Oh shut up.”
“Better watch it, Shell. I won’t come back.” Marcy lit a cigarette and waved it extravagantly. She made it across the room to the TV and turned up the sound.
“What are you doing? You want Boopse in here?” Shelley’s voice sounded heavy and thick. She was lying on her back on the bed, blowing smoke rings and sticking her finger through them. Marcy turned the TV down.
“Why do you call her that?” she asked. As she fell back onto the bed, the diamond shapes on the wallpaper plunged too, like shooting stars.
“I don’t know. My dad used to. Her name’s Betty. Like Betty Boop.”
“Some old singer, I guess.”
“What about Rack?” Skipper was scratching again and whining broken-heartedly.
“Todd. He made it up. Hits the rack a lot maybe.”
“Figures,” Marcy said, listening to the faraway sound of a sigh, heavy and weary, on the other side of the door. Marcy sighed too, letting one heavy hand drop on her chest.
Shelley’s mother was calling to her from the landing. “I told you not to shut him out, Shelley. We got him to be your dog. I don’t know who you think is going to entertain him if you don’t.”
“You better say something Shell.”
She appeared to be asleep. Marcy stood up, then sat back again abruptly.
Shelley’s mother was coming up the stairs now. “All right. OK. If you want me to embarrass you in front of your friend, I will.”
“Shelley!” Shelley sat up, looking confused. “Your mom, you dope.”
The door opened and Skipper flew in, making a leap for Shelley’s bed.
“You’re s”posed to knock,” Shelley said, “I have to say you can come in.”
Mrs. Shreve stood in the doorway, arms folded, shaking her head. “I can’t believe it. Look at you. I leave you alone to watch a little TV—What is your mother going to think of me Marcy?”
“Oh, she’ll never know, Mrs. Shreve.” Marcy’s voice sounded as thick now as Shelley’s. And something had happened to her eyesight. Mrs. Shreve’s face was wavering on her shoulders, unusually bright.
“What do you mean she won’t know? Of course she’ll know. She’ll think I supplied you myself.” She threw up her hands dramatically.
“We didn’t have anything to do,” Shelley said.
“She’ll be asleep. She goes to bed early.”
“You sure about that? Have you got a key? Well, that’s a relief.” She shook her head again. “Look at that kid. Her own room, her own dog, her own color TV. Nothing to do. Like hell. I’ve got a good idea who put you up to this.”
Shelley buried her face in Skipper’s fur. “I won’t let her say those nasty things, Skip.”
“I hardly think that’s funny, Shell. Come on, let’s get your friend home.”
Marcy stood in the elevated parking lot, waving goodbye to Shelley and her mother.
“Sweet dreams,” Shelley called, hanging halfway out the car window. “This time, let the monster-man catch you!” The car swerved a bit as Mrs. Shreve yanked her back in.
Marcy watched the taillights dip, then disappear down the ramp to the road. All around her, iron trees bore globes of light that burned larger as she stared at them. Somewhere nearby there was jasmine. The night-blooming kind. She didn’t want to go home.
She turned around slowly, taking in the dark and liquid surface of the asphalt, the spangles of moisture on the windshields of sleeping cars. Everything she saw made her skin tingle, as if seeing and touching had run together into a single sensation.
Leaning over the wall that enclosed the parking lot, she saw the door to her own apartment open and Ernest step out, pulling it closed behind him. He lingered on the doorstep, cupping his hands around a match. He was feeling it too, she thought. She could see it in the way he shook the match out, watching the flame till it died.
The cigar smoke drifted up into the light; the smell of it reached her, and all at once, she was thinking of something. A time shortly after he and her mother had met—he had come into Marcy’s room after dinner, found her going through a box of old pictures, shots of her father in the service, her father and mother newly married, her father holding Marcy as a baby. Scarcely knowing her then, Ernest put his arm around her shoulders, told her that he knew how she felt, that he himself had lost his mother when he was ten. (When she had told Shelley this, Shelley frowned. “Better warn your mom,” she said. “He’s got a mother complex for sure.”)
She watched him shove a hand into his pocket and throw his head back. “Aha,” he said. He made a gun with his fingers and shot at her.
Slowly, she went down the stairs, her hand on the painted railing.
“There she is, our little runaway. Your mama’s been looking for you.”
For some reason, this struck her as funny.
“What’s this? Why you’re tanked to the gills, Kid. I’ll be goddamned,” Ernest said. Suddenly, he was laughing along with her. This shocked her so much that she stopped. “Your mama will murder you now. Oh she’ll hang you up by your thumbnails.”
“You think she’ll find out?” she said, imagining for the first time what she was in for.
He shook his head and clucked with his tongue. “Can’t say for sure, but my advice is, take some precautions. You can’t be too careful. Now here’s what I’d do, first I’d slip off my shoes, see, then I’d grab hold of the doorknob with one hand and shove the key home with the other. You don’t want to rattle the damn thing, don’t you see.”
Marcy nodded, feeling suddenly companionable toward him as he puffed his cigar and batted the smoke, as unsteady on his feet as she was.
“Course by now it’s quite likely that the old girl has given up and gone to bed.”
“You think so?” Marcy asked. Once suggested, it seemed entirely possible.
“Just slip off your shoes and step lightly.”
She smiled, lulled by his hand on her shoulder, his tobaccoand-aftershave smell, his voice in her ear.
He slapped her lightly on the back. “Damn it all, Marcy-o, what is this life for anyhow?” She glanced at him sideways, a little confused. “Christ, we’ve all got to bust out once in a while, right?” She smiled uneasily, drawing away from him slightly, and shoved her hands into her pockets. And there it was, like a spiky crab waiting to pinch her, the earring she had found in his living room.
For a moment she hesitated, listening to his sigh of contentment, then she dragged it out by a petal. She held it on her flat palm, giving him a chance to grab it and pocket it or sail it into the ivy bank, closing the case. His breath escaped his teeth in a half-whistle. He made no move to touch it.
“Well now,” he said finally. She dropped it into her pocket. He gazed at the stars and twiddled his cigar. If that’s Shirlo’s, Shelley had said—
His hand descended, reining her in. “Let’s look at it this way,” he began. He swept an arc with his cigar, clearing the air. “Take a person like your mama, say, who believes in what’s right, if you follow me.” Marcy waited. “She’s a wonderful woman, your mother, the kind any man would respect.” He paused and gazed at the sky again. “There’s another kind of person you might not care too much about, might not even respect very much, if you had to say one way or the other. But your mama—” He was firmly in control again, his voice confident. “Let’s say this. You want her to be happy, I want her to be happy. We wouldn’t want her to know, for example, what you and Shelley were up to tonight. It might make her sad, right?”
Marcy nodded, beginning to see his point. She imagined her mother, tucked alone into a corner of her big bed, she thought of her at the breakfast table, her nervous, picking fingers, the fragile pink of her part. “We’re all she has,” Marcy ventured.
“That’s it,” Ernest said softly.
Now that she understood it, the weight of her responsibility rested on her shoulders as tangibly as Ernest’s arm. It drew them together. The understanding made her suddenly tired.
“I guess I’ll be going now,” she told him. He wished her good luck.
At the door, she fumbled with her boots, knotting the laces before she could get them untied. She set the boots side by side on the mat, drew the keys from her pocket, and then, grasping the doorknob as Ernest had told her to, she glanced around impulsively.
He was standing where she had left him, rocking on his heels, arms folded, the cigar still clipped in his teeth. When she caught his eye, he crossed his fingers dramatically and nodded before turning, somewhat unsteadily, for home.