A favorite minor character in this novel is Karen Mattson. Here’s a “Karen excerpt” from Ch. 16:
“I have to stop by Tom’s and get some stuff,” Karen announced that afternoon from the front seat of Ramsey. In a white T-shirt and faded jeans, her face scrubbed free of make-up, Karen sported a new vest—the color of a perfectly browned cookie—with long fringe.
Lacey eyed her sister. “Where’d you get the vest?”
“I traded Lynne Niva my macramé bag for it. I’m going to wear it all summer.”
She pulled back a flap, affording Lacey and me a peek at the T-shirt underneath. No bra! Lacey nodded at her sister, her lips twisting. Crafty Karen; she was so cool.
Karen grinned and aimed the car down Main Street, but turned off on an industrial street of mom & pop businesses and warehouses.
Lacey, who had been fiddling with the radio tuner, looked up. “Where does Tom live?”
“He’s renting a little place above the bike shop.”
I tugged my eyes away from the French award certificate in my lap as Karen pulled into Boone’s Cycles and down a grotto-like alley so narrow, our fingertips could have grazed the buildings on either side. She got out, leaving the key in the ignition so we could keep listening to the radio, then poked her head back in the open window.
“I’ll be back in a minute. You two stay put.”
Our eyes followed her through a dingy metal door.
Lacey tore out a sheet of notebook paper and started writing a letter to Findley in Charleston. The two had said goodbye with a final make-out session in a Sperry stairwell, promising to write each other weekly. I picked up my book, To Kill A Mockingbird—which my father had said would change my life—and started chapter two. After ten minutes, Lacey said, “I wish she’d hurry. I have to go pee.”
We sang along to James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend”, my top lip breaking out in beads of sweat.
“I’m thirsty. And I can’t wait to go to the bathroom until we get home.” Lacey said after a Coke commercial. “I’m going up.”
“Lace, Karen said stay put.”
“I don’t give a rat’s fanny.”
“Well, I’m not staying here by myself.”
I lay the certificate gently on the seat. A miasma of oil and paint enveloped us as we stepped out. I remembered the keys and wrenched them from the ignition, the metal hot in my hand. We crossed the asphalt toward the entrance.
Lacey opened the door to a flight of grimy steps and wrinkled her nose. “What a yucky place to live.” The door at the top of the steps was ajar. Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” pulsed into the stairwell.
“Hello?” Lacey called at the door.
No Karen. But there was Tom St. James, bending over a small open icebox and peering at its contents. He wore a pair of light blue boxer shorts and nothing else. Lacey and I stood mute as he snared a carton of milk, smelling its contents. As the aroma of strawberry incense curled into my nose, I begin breathing shallowly through my mouth.
Tom turned and saw us, and his stubbled jaw dropped. “What the—? Oh. Karen, your sister’s here,” he called toward a doorway where the corner of a mattress on the floor snagged my breath.
Tom’s hair was tousled and longer than when I’d seen him last. A pillow crease, like a bad guy scar in an old western, ran from one eye to the corner of his mouth.
He looked magnificent.
“I’ll be right out,” Karen called, exasperated.
“You ladies make yourselves at home,” Tom said, flipping a hand toward the small front room and bringing it down to slap his hip. He moved down the small galley kitchen and out of sight.
Lacey and I faced the front room, our faces mirror images of blush.
A couple of rump-sprung beanbags and a canvas butterfly chair were the room’s only furniture. But stacks of books—classics, some waist high—flanked the walls. Orange crates crammed with albums sat below the only window, an expensive-looking turntable and speakers on top. Pieces of Karen were everywhere: a ponytail holder here, a pair of sandals there.
“I thought I told you to stay in the car,” Karen said to Lacey, her hands planted on her slender hips.
“I have to pee.”
“Well, it’s in there,” she said with a toss of her head. “Hurry up.”
Karen frowned at me and walked into the kitchen. I heard the clink of a spoon against a bowl, Karen and Tom’s muted voices. I sat on the butterfly chair, my knees trembling.
“Don’t mess with anything,” Karen said, scaring the crap out of me.
Lacey came out, wide-eyed and sheepish. “Ready,” she said brightly.
Once outside, I slid into the back seat, the vinyl burning my thighs.
“So that’s where you’ve been when you said you were spending the night at Lynne’s,” Lacey said as we pulled back onto Main Street.
“Yes, you know it is,” Karen said evenly. She looked at Lacey. “You’re not going to tell?” It was not a question.
“No. I’m not going to tell.”
Karen exhaled and smiled. “Thanks, sister. Tom and I are leaving for New York in a month anyway.”
I surprised myself by asking, “Are you going to live with Tom in New York?”
Karen met my eyes in the rear-view mirror and grinned. “What do you think?”
Karen. Empirically, she was smart. I uttered a prayer that the love she had with Tom would last; the same as I’d done when I learned that Miss Magpie was cheating on Mr. Lucius.
But on the day I won the French award, Magpie Cassidy disappeared.
Her small train case of makeup and jewelry was all she had taken. From a hushed kitchen tete-a-tete between my mother and Miss Grace, I learned that it was not until late that night that Mr. Lucius had found a note propped against his pillow. His wife was “in love with someone else and leaving to pursue another sort of life.” Mr. Lucius had appeared at the Banks’s door with the note and pains in his chest.
Bats unfurled long wings in my stomach. Lacey and I had known about the affair. Kelly McGee had known. But the secret hadn’t been ours to tell, had it? We were just kids.
It wasn’t long until everybody found out who Miss Magpie’s “someone else” was. Hale Drinan failed to show up for a meeting. A moving van backed into the parking lot outside Sperry without fanfare, the movers ferrying Miss Evelyn’s possessions to a paneled truck. Miss Evelyn, wraithlike and silent, had reportedly climbed into her Buick and followed the van without a backward glance.
Everyone felt horrible for poor Mr. Lucius. Cuckolded was the word I’d heard my father use, but I felt too cheap to ask what it meant. The faculty ladies covered Mr. Lucius in casseroles so he wouldn’t have to sit in the dining hall like a specimen in a bottle. But he went about his teaching and coaching duties like the protagonist in his own story. His baseball team was headed for the state championship, and we all hoped for a victory that would give our friend some measure of recompense.
I wondered if my father and I would ever hear his whistle again.