originally apperaring in Hunger Mountain

 

Do You Believe in Mary Worth?

                                                                           by Marie Ostarello

 

fiction

 

            The blinds are closed at Lotta’s house like eyelids sleeping, so I think I'm safe to pass. Luckily, it’s a hot day and everyon’s trying to keep the sun out and the shade in. The whole neighborhood is closed up tight and hums from air conditioners that drip onto steamy sidewalks.

            I could take the long way home, turn right, walk the long hot cement around the block, and for sure she won’t see me. She'll just continue with her day, most likely making ice cream sundaes to stay cool.

            My hair’s already dry, even though I just left my swimming lesson at the Y. Why my mother insists on me taking them––kick, kick, kick, keep those knees straight, folks!––I just don't understand. Nobody in the entire neighborhood has a pool to drown in.

            I’m thinking maybe I'll run past Lotta’s house, just to be safe, past the brick bungalow, third from the corner––the one with the fringed awning over the picture window that you can roll up in winter by turning the crank––when her front door swings wide open. I’m caught off guard, and it looks as if Lotta has been too. Her hair’s just been freed from spiky rollers; the rouge and red lipstick are missing from her face. She rushes onto the porch in her daisy-print housedress. She’s as wide as a whole field of daisies, and just about as hard to ignore. Her big arm jiggles as she waves. “Yoo-hoo! Oh, yoo-hoo!”

            I once heard some of the neighborhood kids yell, “Hey, big Lotta! Hey, Lotta Mama!” They slapped their knees and laughed at her. But she didn’t bother with them any. She just went about unwinding the streamer of toilet paper from her crabapple tree.

            You see, Lotta doesn’t bother with any of those kids, because she doesn’t want any of those kids. She wants me. “Yoo-hoo, Janet!” she calls out, all jiggly. “I just bought a new box of Dreamsicles!”

            Lotta always seems to know when I walk past, just like she always seems to know, my mother says, when we pull up in our driveway. I should go around the block, I think, but then somehow find myself, like I am now, heading toward her front porch, feeling as if she were a two-hundred-fifty-pound magnet.

            She smiles at me warm as the day, waves me up the steps. “Why don’t you come in?” she says. '”And you girls could have a frozen treat.”

            You girls, of course, means me and Doreen.

            Doreen.

            Doreen watches through the window blinds, those blue eyes with the thick red eyelashes like little brushes. I think about the last time we played together. She made me sit on the edge of the bathtub while she sat on the pot, twirling a cloud of toilet paper around her hand. She made me stay until she finished or she’d tell her mother, and then I’d have to leave before the butterscotch pudding had even cooled in the fridge. I would miss everything.

            “Dreamsicles come six to a box,” Lotta says, patting the curls on her head to feel if any are misbehaving. “I bet you could eat two all by yourself.”

            “My mom told me to be home by noon,” I lie as I hold the iron railing. “I could eat one on my way.”

            “Oh, no,” Lotta says, brushing away the idea. “In this heat, that Dreamsicle would be orange soup in a minute. No, you should come into the air conditioning, cool off, visit with Doreen.” She turns, opens the door. The cold air swirls around her big body, down the steps, slaps me in the face. “Hurry, now,” she says and looks back, “before the whole neighborhood sees me like this and thinks I’m a sick Sally.”

 

 

            My tongue sticks to the first lick of the Dreamsicle, but soon it’s slipping along the orange sides. Doreen watches how I eat the orange ice off the creamy center and does the same. I stare at her eyelashes. She sticks her tongue out at me to show me how orange it is. It snakes in and out of her mouth. I stick my tongue out back at her.

            “Mama, Janet stuck her tongue out at me,” Doreen says, between licks.

            “Did not.”
            “You liar. You did and you know it.” She squinches her face.

            “Did not.”

            Doreen’s a year younger than me, but today she’s acting like a two-year-old. “With slurpy Dreamsicle on it, too,” she says. “Janet's a pig.” She laughs, snorting from her nose.

            Look who’s talking, Pigface, I try to say, but only a mumble comes out. I push my chair back. I want to leave. '”All right, now. Nobody’s a pig, Puddin’,” Lotta says. “I’m sure Janet didn’t mean it.”

            Lotta rotates around the kitchen like a Tilt-A-Whirl car: smooth and swift and heavy all at once. She stops for a moment to slide Doreen’s chair away from mine. She runs her hand over my arm, gives it a squeeze. Her fingers are puffy. Her nails are polished in pearly pink. I can feel Lotta’s face smiling down on me, but I won’t look at her––or Doreen. Instead I stare at their new kitchen wallpaper––a patchwork design of lemons and oranges and limes––feeling like I’m hypnotized.

            I want to leave this kitchen, this place, sweet and sour and tart with color. But at the moment, I don’t.

            A door squeals, and Lotta begins to fumble in the pantry behind me. I can’t help but listen to bags ripping, cellophane crackling, bottles clunking, boxes sliding on the shelves. All this flurry has awakened the smells of a city of packaged goods: cookies coated in chocolate, Hershey’s kisses, Ovaltine powder, Jiffy cake mixes, Frosted Flakes, miniature marshmallows, grape jelly, graham crackers with their dotted lines. A cabinet snaps open, snaps shut. The fridge blows cool air onto my back. Lotta’s arm reaches between me and Doreen and places a plate of Oreo cookies in front of us, spread like fallen dominoes. She pours two glasses of cold milk.

            My own mother, at home in our oatmeal-colored kitchen, is a big believer in eating fruit.

            I decide to stay for just a few more minutes.

            Doreen’s lips are still orange from the Dreamsicle and match the rest of her fat face: orange freckles, orange hair, orange-brush eyelashes. She says she looks like her father. He burned up in the fire that burned down their old house, the one in Alabama, three years ago.

            She says he never paid no attention to her.

 

 

            The leaves of the neighborhood are painted orange and red and remind me of Doreen’s hair, except much prettier. I stand on Lotta’s shoulders surveying it all, one hand pressed against the rough brick wall of her house. She stands below me in bare feet, although all I can see from this angle is her pale blue terrycloth robe, big as the sky. She steadies me up toward the bedroom window.

            Doreen has once again locked us all out of the house. She jumps around us and claps as if we are circus entertainers. I push on the window to loosen its track, wedge my fingers into the ridge, tug it open an inch.

            “That’s right,” Lotta yells up, her body solid as a good climbing tree. “You got it now. Now push, push it up so you’ll fit through,” she says. “Atta girl.”

            I balance on Lotta’s shoulders as I force the window wide, wondering if anyone in the neighborhood is watching us through their own windows in their own bare feet on this Sunday morning. Lotta pushes on my butt and my hands climb onto her dresser. My palms press on the shiny sheet of glass that protects the mahogany wood top. I leave prints.

            I maneuver my hands around ionizer perfume bottles, hair brushes, combs, rollers, powder, lipstick, a row of nail polish in shades from pink to red. To my right, on a circular mirror, stand at least twenty of Lotta’s glass giraffes, each an inch or two in height, made of gracefully slim orange glass with eyes and noses and hooves painted on by someone’s steady hand. She’s arranged them to look as if they’re at a watering hole in Africa: some bend low as if they’re sipping from the pond, some reach high as if nibbling leaves. Their legs are so thin, I imagine they could break easily without much help on anyone’s part.

            My own legs stick straight out the window like Popsicle sticks. I need to find an empty spot for a knee, but when I do, the dresser shudders and two glass giraffes clink onto their sides.

            “Oh, no,” Lotta says, her own voice cracking. “Did something break?”

            I jump onto the floor and check out the injuries. One long orange neck has broken off its horse-like body. I peek out the bedroom window. Lotta stares up at me, worried, three curlers poking out of her hair like breakfast sausages, her face as white and round as a newly poured pancake. She holds the Sunday paper under her arm, the rubber band still around it. Doreen hops in place. She wears white knee-highs and purple culottes. The exact same culottes my mom bought for me––first.

            “What’ja break?” Doreen yells up, then spins around to Lotta. “I bet she broke one of your favorite giraffes, Mama.”

            “Janet, dear, you know what to do now.” Lotta circles her finger in

the air. “Just go around like you did before, Honey, and open the front door.” She waits for an answer. “Okay, Dear?”

            I back away from the window, take my time. I’m a little jittery. I try to put the giraffe’s head back on its body to see if it’ll stay that way, but the neck falls off the body again and shatters the nose into tiny chips. The mirror makes it seem as if there are twice as many chips, twice as many giraffes with their long, breakable limbs.

            I can hear them talking outside.

            “I bet for sure she broke a giraffe,” Doreen says.

            “Doreen Elizabeth Dixon, you can charm the devil into church,” Lotta says with stiff lips, “but you can’t charm me.”

            “I’m sorry, Mama.”

            “Why’re you always slammin’ that door behind me?”

            “It was a accident.”

            “And here I stand in this old robe for the whole universe to see!” Lotta’s voice bounces between the houses. “I must look like some sad sack, all right, without even a smudge on my face. With these gosh darn rollers in my hair.” I imagine Lotta pulling out the pins, tugging at the curls, patting down her hair. “Look at me, just look at me!”

            I’m glad she is yelling at Doreen.

            I give up on the giraffes and instead touch all of the nail polish bottles on her dresser, wishing I had the one that’s called Holiday Pink, holding it up to my fingers to see if it’s my color. We don’t have nail polish at my house. My mother with her plain fingernails says it’s not very practical.

            “It was a accident.” Doreen starts to cry.

            “What man wouldn’t run the other way with me lookin’ like this?” Lotta continues.

            A wedding picture sits on the table next to Lotta’s bed. Two beautiful people smile out at me. His hair is combed back, shiny and black as his tuxedo. She’s dressed in white, looking long and gracefully thin. Her dress wraps at her feet like a spit curl. I wonder if Lotta has a sister.

            “I said it was a accident!” Doreen cries louder.

            “Oh, Sugar Plum. It’s okay.” Lotta sighs. “It’s okay.”

            But Doreen keeps making a ruckus. “It’s all Janet’s fault,” she whines. “If she hadn’t come down the street, we wouldn’ta been on the porch.”

            “All right, Pumpkin. It’s all right.”

            I walk through their empty house, suddenly feeling powerful. I pounce in the pillowy, orange chair, the big one that Lotta sits in when she lets Doreen and me pull out her curlers and comb through her golden hair, ratting and ratting and ratting until it stands up on her head. Doreen, of course, always gets the best ratting comb.

            I walk into the kitchen where Lotta’s coffee sits cooling on the table. I think about how the tiny cup, with its border of blue flowers, is gobbled up by her fingers, fat as a man’s, with nails neatly polished in Holiday Pink or Flamingo or Poppy. I open the pantry door, scout the selection, grab a handful of Kraft caramels––each wrapped in its own cellophane––and head to Doreen’s room.

            I can hear Lotta still calling my name from outside, and now she’s calling me Pumpkin, too, and Sweetie, but her voice is swallowed up by the choir of dolls and stuffed animals that adorn every square foot of Doreen’s bedroom. Rows of dolls sit and stand and lean and lie on shelves, frozen, just the way she left them. Some are dressed in fancy gowns and hats, carrying umbrellas. Some are from different countries, wearing peasant dresses. Some are baby dolls, soft, like the real thing, with eyes that open and close, with strings you pull out of the back of their necks. Some have their heads torn off. Some have writing on their faces. Some are missing arms. Her Barbies lie in a heap on the floor, all of their toes pointed.

            A hundred eyes stare at me. I’m glad I don’t sleep here at night.

            I shove three caramels into my mouth at once, stick the cellophanes in the pocket of Doreen’s brown winter coat, one of many, hanging in her open closet.

            Lotta is pounding on the front door now, but I jump on top of Doreen’s bed and send the bear and panda and tiger and clown and big lime-green furry snake flying into the air. I pet the furry snake with my fingertips. For some reason he is my least favorite and my most favorite. I stretch out on the bed, wrap him around my neck, feel his cloth tongue tickle my cheek, ssssssssssssssssssssss.

            The doorbell rings all in a row. I’ll tell Lotta I had to go to the bathroom, number two. That’s what took me so long. If she believes Doreen’s lies, maybe she’ll believe mine.

 

 

            The sky has dumped so much snow in Lotta’s yard that only the table’s green umbrella pokes out of the whiteness, straight and stiff and wrapped in the cold like the rest of us. Doreen wants candy––not the Hershey’s Kisses, not the black licorice, not the Kraft caramels that are already in the pantry, but those long white sheets of paper with the colored candy dots (buttons, she calls them) and so we are going to get some.

            I’m already bundled up from the snowball fight I just had with the kids down the block, pretending every head I blasted with an icer was Doreen’s. But then they all left to have hot chocolate at Cindy Sullivan’s house, and I found myself once again heading here.

            I can’t feel much of my fingers anymore, but the rest of me is warm. Lotta’s promised me a whole dollar’s worth of candy, any kind I like, if I come with. I think about the rows of penny candy and the bag I could fill up with a dollar as we fight the drifts of snow to the garage where the sled waits in the mustiness.

            The Ben Franklin is three blocks away, and Lotta and I each grab a handle of the jump rope she’s looped around the front of the sled. Doreen pretends we’re reindeer and then horses and then dogs and tells us to mush, mush, and sweeps up snow as the sled moves along, and throws snowballs at our coats, sticking white circles on our backs.

            I figure I’ll get back at her when she’s not expecting it.

            The snow begins to fall again, now coming at us in angles. I’m amazed at the sudden whiteness of Halsted Avenue––like a blank movie screen––and I fill it up with images of Tootsie Rolls and Bull’s Eyes and the long white paper with its rows of candy dots which used to be my favorite candy, until Doreen claimed it as hers.

            “Mush, mush!” says Doreen.

            Last week my mother told me to be nice to those two because their house burned down, because they’ve had a hard time of it without a man around. She said, “Even though your father works a lot, you’re fortunate. You’ve got a father.” She pulled my coat around me, zipped it up to my neck, and continued, “Just thank your lucky stars she doesn’t go to the same school as you.” Then she went back to scrubbing the sink.

            “I said, mush, mush!” Doreen yells, but the big dog on the team has stopped cold. Lotta stands thigh-deep in a snowdrift at the corner of Halsted and 127th. Big puffy flakes pile up on her orange tam, so deep you can barely see the tassel anymore. She bends one way, then another, forward, back, her legs stuck in one place, as if she’s a bobblehead doll.

            She doesn’t even have to ask. I pull on her arms, tug on the sleeves of her coat to try to free her. Tears fill her eyes, but she says it’s from this gosh darn cold. It’s so darn dry here in winter, she’s surprised it snows at all.

            I keep tugging on Lotta, my boots sliding on ice.

            Doreen starts to cry. She wants her candy. Her mother promised.

            I look around for help. The streets are empty. Parked cars are coated with a foot of snow. I can’t feel my hands inside of my mittens anymore, but I begin to dig Lotta out of the snow anyway, inch by inch, until one leg pops out, sploop, her boot still stuck in the white freeze. Then the other foot, splop. She stands there in a pair of argyle socks while I dig for her boots.

            “Hurry up,” Lotta says, her face in a teary fog, “before my petunias freeze off.”

            Doreen whines in the sled, sniffling as loud as she can. She shoves her hands into her pockets, pulls out Kraft caramel cellophane wrappers. She cries even louder.

            “Doreen Elizabeth Dixon,” Lotta hammers out. “Put a lock on it.” She tells Doreen she’ll just have to get her candy some other time. Doreen wails now, starts to wheeze. Snot runs out of her nose like water. We’re only a block away from the Ben Franklin, a block away from a bagful of candy.

            I want to cry too.

            Later, while my mother is on the phone with Dr. Martino asking him what in the world to do for a possible case of frostbite, she wedges the receiver between her shoulder and cheek and rubs my hands in her palms. They feel hot as irons.

            “That darn Lotta,” she says, hanging up.

            “Yeah,” I agree, “she shouldn’t’ve kept me out in this blizzard. All because stupid Doreen wanted penny candy.”

            But somehow things turn around and Mom starts yelling at me that I should’ve known better, that I’m smarter than that, did she raise me to be an imbecile? No. If Doreen told me to go jump in the lake, would I? Her neck is red with rash from worry.    “If you don't like Doreen, then don’t play with her anymore,” she says.

            As if it were as simple as that.

 

 

            It’s a week before Easter when I arrive at Doreen’s house carrying a suitcase, a sleeping bag and a present. Lotta asked my mother if I could spend the night for Doreen’s birthday, a slumber party. My mother said sure as she leaned back on a kitchen chair, the phone cord twiddled between her toes. I shook my head like crazy, no, jumped up and down, but Mom just gave me a look and said, “This Saturday? Janet would be delighted.”

            I say to Doreen that a slumber party means there’s more than one guest, where’s her other friends? I give her a birthday present, wrapped in the funny papers––Blondie and Dagwood, my favorites.

            She looks at the gift, then at the black ink on her fingers. “What, are you guys poor?” she says. “Can’t you even afford to buy wrapping paper?”

            Later that night, we’re in our pajamas: Doreen in her new babydoll, me in my flannel. The funnies curl in a wad in the corner. Malibu Barbie, with her shiny yellow hair and suntanned skin (the very doll I’ve been begging for), stands behind her plastic window––a prisoner in her own box. Lotta’s going to exchange it because Doreen already has that one.

            My sleeping bag is spread on the floor at the foot of Doreen’s bed. I feel like her dog.

            “Don’t I have beautiful feet?” She sticks her feet off the bed for me to see. They’re square and pink and her toes are fat. She comes down on the floor, scoots up next to me, matches her feet to mine. “Yours are long and ugly,” she says, pulling away. “Keep those things away from me. They probably have cooties.” She jumps back onto her bed where it’s safe.

            We play Truth or Dare; Doreen dares me to climb to the top shelf of the pantry to get a candle and matches. Considering how Doreen’s father died, I don’t think this is the best idea.

            I peek out Doreen’s bedroom door. Lotta’s gone to her room for the night, but I can still see light spilling under her door like a puddle, I can hear magazine pages scratching as they turn. I imagine her tucked under the frilly covers, closely studying each nail polish ad.

            I tiptoe past her room, through the kitchen, and carry a chair to the pantry. Its door squeaks like a sick cat. I climb up on the chair, hoping nothing crinkles or crackles or crunches on the shelves while I feel around in the dark, my hands dancing across boxes and bags, the smell of chocolate making my heart pound. Then, up on the top shelf, I feel something smooth and waxy and pull down a fat candle, the size of a can of peas. My eyes adjust to the dark, and, next to where the candle sat, I can see a yellow cookie tin, right where Doreen said it would be. I slide it off the shelf, tug on the lid until it opens, dangerously rustling the contents, a collection of matchbooks: some bright squares, some with words I can’t make out in the dark. I grab a book, shut the lid, push the tin back on the top shelf and flee, forgetting to put the chair back.

            I sit in front of Doreen’s dressing table mirror, matchbook in hand.

            A hundred eyes stare at me from around the room: dolls, animals, snakes, Doreen. She orders me to light the candle––it was a dare, after all––while she waits at the bedside table, ready to turn off the lamp. "Now," she says. I drag a match against the book’s rough patch until it lights. The candlewick eats up the fire. Doreen flicks off the lamp and jumps across the bed to the mirror. I shake out the match. It smokes. The candle glows in the middle of her dresser, double, with its reflection in the mirror.       

            “Do you believe in Mary Worth?” Doreen asks.

            “Mary Worth, the comic strip?” I say.

            “No dumb dumb. Mary Worth,” she says. “You know, Bloody Mary in the mirror.” We both turn and stare at ourselves, faces glowing, shape-shifting. “I believe in Mary Worth,” she says. “Do you believe?”

            “Yes, I believe in Mary Worth,” I answer, going along with the game.

            “Mary Worth, calling Mary Worth from the dead,” she says, her fingers like waves.

            “Calling Mary Worth,” I repeat, waiting for something to happen.

            “Look into the mirror, Janet. Looook,” Doreen says in a voice, deep and spooky, “and you will see Mary Worth’s eyes, glooooowing like fiiiiire.”

            I stare into the mirror at my own face and eyes, glowing in candlelight, my body and face melting into the blackness behind me.

            “They stare back at you,” she continues, “stare baaaack, until you see the face of Mary Worth appear, her nooooose, her moooouth...”

            I want to see. I don’t want to see. But I am more afraid of closing my eyes.

            “You see her body,” Doreen goes on, “her aaaarms, her haaands, her fingers, and then she grabs your face and SCRATCHES YOUR EYES OUT!” Doreen lunges at me.

            I scream and knock over the candle, drowning the wick in a hiss. It’s black as all heck in the room, and now we’re both screaming and I’m wondering if Mary Worth is in here with us and think maybe I can feel her claws in my eyes and we jump and run and bounce into each other and fumble around and trip and fall.

            The floor quakes with steps heading our way. Whatever it is, it’s coming to get us.

            The door opens, and a monster with a sneering white face feels its way into the room with big jiggly arms. I scream again, but when the lamp goes on it’s only Lotta, wearing thick face cream.

            “I smell smoke!” she yells, stomping her way in.

            “Janet pulled matches down from the pantry, Mama,” Doreen squeals. She curls up on her bed, grabs a stuffed tiger in front of her.

            “I did not!”

             “Did so.”

            “You dared me to.”

            “Janet did it!” Doreen points at me from behind the tiger.

            “Matches!” Lotta yells. “Matches!” She swings at us both, her arms trying to pivot around her big body.

            I run to the far side of the bed, behind Doreen, protect myself with the lime-green snake.

            “Doreen Elizabeth! You know what can happen with matches!” Lotta is an angry bull, tossing her head, flinging her arms at us.

            “It was all Janet's fault, Mama.”

            “It was not!”

            “Dor-reen." The sound of Lotta’s voice says spanking.

            “It was her idea. All her idea!"

            “Was not!” Now, I’m ready to smack Doreen myself.

            “Was too!"

            “I'm never coming back, Doreen. You just watch!”

            Doreen begins to cry. “I lost my daddy in that fire, Mama. I hate fires, hate hate hate fires!” She throws herself on the bed, punches and kicks and screams as if someone’s trying to murder.

            “Oh, peachy-pie. Oh!” Lotta sighs and plops down to Doreen, the bed wheezing with her weight. She pets Doreen's head, pets her frizzy orange hair, but Doreen only screams louder. “It’s okay. It’s okay,” Lotta tells her. Doreen curls into a ball, holding the tiger, shaking, sputtering. I sit on the bed, too, and force myself to pet Doreen’s arm. Although it seems to me like she’s creating a lot more noise than tears.

            When she’s almost quiet, Lotta picks up the matches and candle, peels the spilled wax off the dresser. "If I hear another peep out of either of you, you’re both in big trouble. Ya hear?" She talks calmly but shakes her fist at us, her arm jiggling from her nightgown. “Now leave this door open. Okay?” Lotta flicks off the light and rolls back to her room.

            Doreen dozes off in minutes. I am awake for hours thinking about Mary Worth, staring wide at the hundred eyeballs staring back at me from the dark.

            And somehow, by the time I finally fall asleep, I am no longer afraid.

 

 

            It’s June when Doreen gets a swimming pool, aboveground, but over four-and-a-half feet deep in the middle––good for diving. Lotta has called our house and invited me over to swim with Doreen. I haven’t seen her since the slumber party. I figure, what would it hurt to go for one day? I put on my suit and head over, my thongs flapping on the sidewalk.

            I have a new bikini with padded cups, although I don’t have much to fill them with. Nonetheless, I now look like I have boobs, while Doreen is still flat as a board. It’s obvious I’m more mature than Doreen. I’m bigger than her. I’m stronger than her. And for sure I’ll get my period sooner than her.

            Lotta makes us both wear swim caps because of the filter getting clogged and all. The rubber pinches my skin and pulls on my hair––newly short for summer––but I deal with it, so long as I can swim outdoors. I’ve taken swimming lessons at the indoor Y for two years now.

            Standing on the ledge like a pro, I adjust the shoulder straps of my bikini, admiring my cups, occasionally looking out over the square cages of yards, one after the other, none of which have pools. Doreen stands on the grass, dressed in a lime-green one-piece, holding an orange life vest.

            “You don't need that thing.” I laugh at her. “You baby.”

            “I’m not a baby,” she says, picking up an inflated seahorse instead.

            “Whattaya need something to hang onto?” I say. "Ooo, the water is

so deep. I’m afraid.” I shiver, imitating her.

            “I’m not afraid," she says, going to the ladder, climbing up to the top. Her legs are goose-bumped and she hasn’t even gone in yet.

            I jump up and out and over the pool, folding myself into a cannonball. I feel the slapping, stinging jolt of coldness through my body, the shivers sent toward my center. The blue dreamy silence presses all around me, fills my ears like liquid fingers. I flatten and stretch until my fall slows and the backs of my hands touch the plastic bottom of the pool. Bubbles carry my breath toward needles of sun, popping at the surface. This is a world where the rules are different. I am weightless. A sleeping fish. All alone, at home in the water.

            When I come to the surface, Doreen’s looking down at herself, stunned and dripping.

            I stand in water up to my boobs.

            “So are you gonna cry now?” I say. “Run to Mama?”

            “No.” Doreen sits on the top of the ladder, wraps her arms around herself in a huff.

            I do a back-somersault fish-dive, splash her a bit more.

            “Stop it.” She says, dangling and dipping her feet. “I want to get used to it slowly.”

            “It’s better to get wet all at once,” I tell her. “That’s the best way to get used to it.” I dive into the quiet blue world again, see her pink toes curled over a rung on the ladder. They look like fat worms.

            I can’t help myself. I grab one of her ugly feet and drag her in.

            “Janet, don’t!” she screams. “Don’t you dare! Help!” Doreen looks around for assistance, but Lotta’s gone to the store for some frozen treats and won’t be able to come to her rescue for at least another ten minutes. I pull Doreen and her ugly foot to the center of the pool while she splashes and thrashes on her back like an overturned bug. Her head goes under and she comes up sputtering.

            “Janet!” she screams. “You are in big trouble.”

            “My name is not Janet,” I say, completely calm.

            “Janet, stop.”

            “My name is not Janet.”

            “If you don’t let go of me, you’re not swimming in my pool anymore!” She kicks her fat foot, trying to break free.

            I grab tighter.

            “Janet!”

            “My name is not Janet,” I tell her, “and I won’t stop until you call me by my proper name.” I stare at her with big eyes that don't blink, like I once saw in a horror movie.

            “Fine,” she says, with a kick. “So what's your proper name?”

            I stand stiff and stare into her, right through her. “Mary Worth.”

            Janet stops kicking. The waves swoosh and settle around her.

            “I entered Janet’s body a few months ago.” I say in a voice as flat as

Doreen’s chest. “The night the two of you called upon me.”

            “Stop kidding, Janet,” she says. “You’re just kidding.”

             “I told you not to call me Janet,” I tell her. “Now I must punish you.”

            Doreen knows all too well what I'm about to do. She squeezes her nose right before I push down on her chest, right before the water swallows her up. The smell of chlorine rides along the surface. My face presses there, trying to see. Doreen is a squiggly, squirmy snake inside of a blue swirly kaleidoscope.

            One two three, I drag her up. She gasps for air.

            “You’re in big big trouble, Janet,” she cries, rubbing her eyes. “You just wait.”

            But I just smile.

            “What’s my name?” I say in a scary Mary voice.

            “Don’t,” she says. “Stop it.”

            “What’s my name?”

            “Please.”

             “Please, who?”

            “Please, Mary.”

            “Please, Mary who?”

            “Please, Mary Worth.”

            “That's more like it,” I tell her.

            Doreen sticks her tongue out at me. “Now, let me go!” she whines. “You’re stretching my new suit!”

            I realize I’ve been gripping Doreen by the chest of her lime-green

swimsuit. I tug harder. “Who do you think you are,” I ask, “telling Mary Worth what to do?”

            “I’m Doreen,” she says. “Owner of this here pool.”

            “You are a lowly sardine,” I command. “Say it.” I can feel Doreen’s heart

beating at my fist. “Say it, or die.” Doreen looks at me with eyes red from pool water. I have now pushed this joke too far. I am in big big trouble––I know it––but for some reason I keep going. “Say it, or die.” My lips quiver, my eyes twitch.

            “I am a lowly sardine,” she says, frowning.  

            “Say, ‘I am Doreen the lowly sardine.’”

            “I am Doreen the lowly sardine.”

            I try to hold back a laugh but start to crack up.

            “You faker!” she screams. “Janet is a faker!”

            The commotion starts up again. I drag her around the pool by the chest of her swimsuit. She kicks and claws to get away.

            “What is my name?”

            “Mary, Mary, you re so hairy!”

            I push Doreen under, one, two, three, four, five seconds. I pull her up with bubble cheeks and a squeezed nose, ready to burst. I push her under again, four, five, six, seven eight. Now she’s scared.

            “Say, ‘Pretty please, Mary Worth, I’d like to be bait for the sharks.’”

            Doreen’s arms and legs churn in the water.

            “Say it, or die.” I grin with bulgy eyes, like a person possessed.

            I'd like to be bait for the sharks,” she says. “Pretty please.”

            “Pretty please, who?”

            “Pretty please, Mary Worth!”

            “Say, ‘I want the sharks to eat my ugly feet first.’”

            “Stop!”

            “Say it or die!”

            “I want the sharks to eat my ugly feet first.”

            “Then, under you go,” I tell her. 

            Before Doreen can even grab her nose, I push her under again. This time she swallows water and comes up coughing.

            “Say, ‘I believe in Mary Worth.’ Say it.”

            But all she can do is cough. I stand her up. The pool water comes to her chin.

            “Say it!”

            But Doreen just keeps on coughing and coughing. And now I am scared. I loosen my grip on her swimsuit, thinking about how scared I was that night in front of the mirror, the night with the candle, and how mad Lotta was when she found the matches, how disappointed she was in me. The neighborhood trees hiss as they pass the wind from leaf to leaf, branch to branch, reaching out to me, chilling my wet body, sending shivers up my spine.

            “I believe in Mary Worth,” Doreen finally says between coughs. “I do, I do.” Her face is down, buried in her fingers.

            “Then, I guess I will let you live,” I tell her. I guide her to the ledge. Lean her over. She coughs and spits and cries. 1 pat her on the back, hoping she’s okay.

            “Thank you,” she says. “Thank you, Mary.”

            I wait for a second, maybe two.

            “Mary? Who’s Mary?”

            “You are,” she says. “Mary Worth.”

            “Mary Worth? Whattayou, crazy?” I say. I am shaky. I wonder if it’s from the cold. “You okay, Doreen? I think maybe you swallowed too much chlorine, and it went to your head. You know, you gotta be careful in a pool like this,” I tell her. “You not knowing how to swim and all.”

            Doreen just hangs over the side.

            The back screen door screeches like a blackbird.

            “Yoo-hoo! Oh, yoo-hoo, girls!” Lotta pushes out in a yellow sundress and wide-brimmed hat, and I wonder if I’ve been caught. She holds two Good Humor Bars, the sticks wrapped in napkins. “Have you two been having fun?” she asks.

            I wait for Doreen to spill, figuring I’ve just thrown away a whole summer’s worth of outdoor swimming privileges. Figuring I’ve just lost a friend. Probably two. I rip off my swim cap and take an ice cream bar from Lotta––the last I may have in a long, long time. I barely want it.

            “Huh?” Lotta says. “Has it been fun?”

            Doreen wipes her eyes. “Yeah, Mama,” she says and glances my way.

            Lotta sits down on a bench in the shade of the garage, lets a breeze blow up her dress. Her rouge and lipstick are neatly applied. I wonder if she will let us comb out her hair later. I wonder if I will get the good ratting comb.

            Doreen and I sit at the table under the big umbrella, eating our frozen treats. She offers me a bite of hers.

 

 

*****

© 2015 Marie Ostarello