Stella Ridley Seventeen

17

Oh Really Now

Still in my adrenaline lag, and having no real experience of the world, I wanted to play out the role of victim and witness, preferably in a breathtaking way in a courtroom—I knew just which dress I’d wear. But the drama was already over. The Strange man was captured quickly—he was not a very experienced or skillful criminal. From the weekly publication of crimes, we learned that his name was Barrett Billy. I overheard Deena having heated telephone conversations with Rodney, who apparently viewed the crime against Deena as another opportunity to bother her with requests for dates, and then Matu was on the phone, and then Rodney again.

I yearned for Molly’s company then so that the two of us could sort out or invent what was going on as we had so often in the past, but Molly was away at that idiotic cheerleading camp. I cursed the invention of cheerleading. I knew that our relationship had changed in some essential way, maybe a small way in the long view, but at that moment something that caused me genuine grief.

You would think that after the Strange Man comes into one’s life the rest of life would be different because of it in immediately noticeable ways, but things went on just as usual. Later in the summer, Matu came out to pick corn. I loved the smell of it and its green, the swollen ears like flower buds, the fine silks, the rows of cornstalks like corridors of giant green grasshoppers standing at attention. In a cornfield, you could have the illusion of being alone even though other people were just a few feet away. I loved, too, the work of it. Our pace was leisurely, of course, and the younger children insisted on helping so there was always some occupational difficulty or dispute to resolve. Deena and Matu chatted, but there were long moments of quiet when everyone was focused on the task.

It was while we were pulling corn that I caught the tail-end of a conversation between Matu and Deena, a conversation that I would fruitlessly ponder and forget until many years later when I knew personally what it meant. Speaking in a voice I had never heard before, Matu was saying, “What life is is making one big mistake that you cannot forgive yourself for and then trying repeatedly to rectify it. Or pretend it didn’t happen. Or forget it. Or escape it.”

Deena said, “Oh surely you don’t really believe that.”

“Oh, but I do,” Matu said.

Deena laughed and after a pause said, “I can’t think of anything in my life that I feel that way about.”

“Well,” Matu said, “maybe you haven’t made your particular mistake yet. Or maybe you’ve made it and just don’t know it yet.”

Deena said, “Oh really now.”

. . .

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