The Only Still Thing
This morning there is one ant crawling along the window sill. It is carrying something, but I can’t tell what it is. It could be a crumb, but I don’t eat in my room (Mother would have a fit) and I don’t know why it would take the long way around from the kitchen. Now it looks more like a piece of dead leaf, but I don’t know where that would come from either, or why an ant would be carrying it across the window sill next to my bed at six-thirty in the morning in the middle of summer. When I first saw it, it looked like one of those at-the-edge-of-your-eye things that aren’t really there when you look at them, although they may really be there when you don’t look. Maybe the world is full of little, fast-moving clutter that just pulls back from view whenever you try to see it straight on. At first I thought I had caught a bit of it off guard–maybe it thought I still had my eyes closed–but, no, it’s just an ant carrying something bigger than it is.
It sure looks silly, at any rate. The surface area of that thing it’s carrying is much greater than the surface area of its back, maybe greater even than that of its whole body. I can’t reckon it though. I don’t know about curves yet, and I guess you’d have to count the legs too. It is weaving from side to side as if it will topple over any minute. I saw a female impersonator on TV the other night wearing a huge hat covered with bright fruit, his head wagging from side to side as he lurched around all angles and edges on high heels. I wasn’t fooled for a minute, but my parents changed the station. They always act as if weirdness is something you can catch the way you catch a cold. Real females don’t move like that. My mother doesn’t move like that. My sister Esther at college doesn’t move like that. And my sister Louise, well, she moves like a slow, shining river.
Louise is almost three years older than I am and she used to be my best friend in the world. It’s not that we’re not friends anymore, but something happened, I don’t exactly know what. A couple of years ago when Esther went away to college, Louise started acting funny. She never wanted to sneak out at night to look for glow-worms or stay up late to watch horror movies on TV or go to the swimming pool or play Mastermind or chess or cards or anything. Then she started hanging around with the people we used to make fun of at the swimming pool–silly cow-faced girls with big hair and hulking tree-trunk-necked boys who always fool with their hair when they get out of their cars. They always smell to high heaven, too. Wilson Dupree and I went into Max’s Drugstore one day and smelled men’s cologne and felt sick and made a pact never ever to go around smelling and making people’s brothers sick.
Then Mother and Dad began to refer to Louise as “she” all the time, as if they couldn’t say her name anymore, and every time they talked to Louise they’d tell her that Esther was an A student no matter how many parties she went to. I don’t see what Esther has to do with Louise, but Mother and Dad said this all the time, and I don’t blame Louise for not eating dinner with us anymore. I just miss her jokes, and dinners are dull without her. Also, when Louise is not there Dad just won’t shut up about how happy I would be if I were on the baseball team, but that is not Louise’s fault. I hardly ever see Louise anymore, and when she is here she’s either getting ready to go out on a date with old Richard Whitcomb, who went to college last year and acts like the whole world ought to worship him, or she’s hanging out with her best friend, Jolynda Behrhard, who is the most popular girl in Louise’s grade. I don’t know why, because Jolynda Behrhard has squinty pig’s eyes, never looks straight at you, and walks as if she’s made out of cardboard. She and old Richard are the latest part of what I don’t understand about what happened to Louise when Esther went away to college.
Something happened last night. I saw it from the other window across my room where the sun is coming in now and beginning to make a hot spot on the floor. If it were winter I would get up to let Rupert the Cat in (Louise, who does as she pleases, always says Rupert THE Cat) because he likes to lie there, probably dreaming about snack-size birds. But if it were winter, I would have to get up anyway to get ready for school, which I like a great deal more than I let on. Next year I’ll be in the eighth grade. I hate winter. It’s better to have the sun up before you get up and to lie in bed like this with just the sheets on you.
From the other window, I can see the back door and I can see across the yard to the part of the house where Louise’s room is. One time we got a long, long thick string and some tin cans and tried to make a telephone from her room to mine across the yard, but we had to shout and all you could hear was a kind of buzz. My bed used to be next to that window, and Louise and I used to pull our curtains back and wave to one another before we turned the lights out to go to sleep. About three years ago Dad put a floodlight on the area between my room and Louise’s. He and Mother said it was because there were reports of burglars in the area, but Louise said it was to keep Esther from kissing her dates goodnight. I had to move my bed to the opposite window to keep the light from shining in my eyes at night. I keep my tennis racket under my bed just in case the burglars come, but I know they won’t. Occasionally somebody runs over someone’s dog or cat, or some kid gets lost in the woods, but those are the only bad things, short of death or divorce, as Dad would say, that ever happen here. The window was how I saw it happen last night, that’s all.
Louise started going out with Richard Whitcomb in the spring, and this time was different from the times she went out with Wilson Dupree’s brother Earnest or with Teddy O’Hare or Jack Klinker. This time she was always ready before old Richard got here, even though she’d sometimes take an extra minute or two to refasten a sandal strap or a barrette. She always asks me how she looks. I asked her why she didn’t ask Mother or Dad, but she said I’m a boy and I know better than they do and I’m her brother too and won’t lie to her. But she always looks good, even when she’s not dressing up special. “You look good, Louise,” I always say to her, except for that time she wore those ankle socks with lace on them. I don’t care what she says about girls in New York; those socks made her look like Minnie Mouse and I said, “Louise, we are not in New York.”
She’s always been ready before old Richard gets here and she always looks good, but those aren’t the things that get me. It’s that when she meets him at the door she has that look about her that she has when she comes up from the water after a deep dive in the public swimming pool, as if she’s been in a secret, cold place and has just been let out into light and air. It’s not anything anybody would notice really–she just leans forward a little bit and her eyes look darker, as if she were waiting to hear or see something that would make the sun come up.
When we used to spend every day of the summer together, we would go underwater at the pool and try to talk to one another, but it was like that time with the tin-can-string telephone: we could hear something but we couldn’t understand it. At the pool, her shoulders glistened and drops of water made little sparks of light in her eyelashes when she came up to guess what I’d said or to make me guess what she said. It was always something stupid like “antelope” or “you have B.O.” or “catch me if you can.” But when you do something with Louise, it never seems stupid at the time.
Last summer I went to the pool a few times with Louise–I guess she felt bad about never going anywhere with me anymore–but she didn’t want to play any of the old games. She splashed me occasionally in a half-hearted way, and she pushed me in once, but she was always talking to some boy or one of her girlfriends. Jolynda Behrhard doesn’t go to the pool because she has cheerleader practice. I don’t know if Louise has ever been swimming with old Richard. His college is only fifteen miles away and he probably has football practice every day or something like that. When he picks Louise up he always says “Yes, Ma’am” to my mother and “Yes, Sir” to my father until I want to hit him. He promises to have Louise back by midnight and to drive carefully and they walk off together not saying much, though I sometimes hear her laugh before they drive away. Maybe he tells her jokes. I try to listen, to see if it’s the same laugh she used to laugh with me, but laughter is like thundershowers–it never lasts long enough to think about it while you’re hearing it because it won’t be still.
She always tells me about what movie they saw or what concert they went to. We used to go to matinees on Saturdays together, but we never do anymore. Now I sometimes go to movies with Wilson, who doesn’t have any sisters. I punched him good once when he asked if we could sneak into Esther’s and Louise’s rooms and look around, but we are still friends and his mother lets him use the whole basement of their house for a laboratory. Wilson and I have ordered a cat to dissect this summer, but it is taking forever to get here, even though it’s supposed to come Special Delivery. It’s not the same going to movies with Wilson–he doesn’t like Juju Fruits and he doesn’t laugh very much. Louise laughed when I asked her if she and Richard eat Juju Fruits when they watch movies. Sometimes I lie in bed thinking about Louise and Richard sitting dark and cold in the moviehouse watching movies and I hope that Louise took a sweater with her because it always gets cold.
It is good to lie here before anyone is up. The ant has disappeared to the secret place where ants go. The numbers on the digital clock that Dad gave me for Christmas are sneaking off to that secret place where they go. I like to close my eyes when they change so that when I open them they’ve already changed. It is a terrible thing to imagine time between its moments. I try to think about time, but all I get are numbers. Esther told me once that there are numbers that no one ever anywhere could get to the end of, not a million someones in a million years. Sometimes before I go to sleep at night I think about those numbers going on and on even while we sleep, even before we were born or after we are not here anymore. But then I think that it’s not the numbers that go on and on–it’s we who would have to go on and on if we spoke them or wrote them down or thought about them. I asked Esther why they were there at all and she said, “They’re not really there. Just you wait.” I asked her what good they were if we couldn’t get to the end of them and she said, “Think about it.” That’s Esther: you can’t get a straight answer out of her for all the world. I can’t imagine what things would be like if we were not here.
Sometimes when Rupert the Cat is riding on my shoulder–he likes to do that as much as he likes to lie in the sun in winter–I think about the Special Delivery Cat, and I hope it doesn’t look anything like Rupert when it gets here. When Rupert the cat and the Special Delivery Cat come together in my mind, my throat hurts like I’m going to cry or something. I try to put something between the picture of Rupert and the picture of the Special Delivery cat in my mind so that they will not be like one another ever, but the only thing I can think of to put there is one of those numbers that just go on and on, and you can’t really put something somewhere unless you can get to the end of it.
I think Louise may have smoked cigarettes or something once when she was out with Richard. She smelled funny one night when she got home. I was up late watching “The Fall of the House of Usher” on TV, but the movie’s not near as scary as the story. I don’t know what got into me. First I started screaming at Louise that she’d better not be smoking cigarettes when she was out with Richard Whitcomb. And then I screamed at her that I didn’t want her to go away and that I couldn’t stand it if she died. The next thing I knew she had me down on the floor and was sitting on top of me with her hand clamped down hard over my mouth. “Shut up, Conrad, shut up,” she said. “You’ll wake them up.” Then she made the old monster face she used to make when we played Horror-Horror-Now-I’ve-Got-You. We both started laughing so hard that we had to bite our lips and beat our fists on the floor. Dad came in blinking in his robe and said, “What in the hell?” And Louise said, “It’s a scary movie. Sorry, Dad.” Then Dad said, “Well, I’m glad you got in at a decent hour this time.” When he left we made popcorn and watched the rest of the movie. We didn’t talk about those things I said. I don’t know what got into me.
It has become impossible to tell Louise anything, or maybe nobody has figured out the right way to tell her anything. Esther isn’t much better than our parents even if she is right about old Richard’s being a picture-brain. When Esther came home for a weekend earlier this summer, she said something that made Louise shout “Esther, you’re a snob!” and slam her door and stay in her room for a long time not making a sound. Esther stood outside Louise’s door talking about how Richard probably just had to drag his stupid thick body to class to get his grades and how he had been known for his philanthropy around town and how somebody might as well have a conversation with a stick as talk to Richard Whitcomb. I was outside helping Mother set out some bright red geraniums and we heard everything Esther said. Finally, Mother threw her gardening gloves down on the ground and went inside. Then I heard another door slam and everything was quiet. I went over and looked in the window of Louise’s room. She was lying on her bed with a pillow over her head. When I went inside Mother was standing at the kitchen sink and drinking something. She looked at me and said, “Thank God you are not a girl.”
And there was something I could have told Louise days and days ago about Richard’s philanthropy around town. Wilson and I were leaving the Canz Cinema one Saturday afternoon and old Richard drove by in his 280Z real slow–slow enough for me to see Jolynda Behrhard in the car with him and practically sitting on his lap. Wilson and I kicked the can around town a little while, then we went to the tennis courts and hit some balls, and then we went to his house to see if the Special Delivery cat had come yet. It wasn’t there and it was getting late anyway, so I went on home. I was planning to tell Louise. All the way home I said to myself, “Louise, your best friend and old Richard.” But I couldn’t get past that–I mean, what if old Jolynda’s seat in the car was just too hot to sit on or something? And then Esther told me one time that people bearing bad news used to be killed afterwards. I know Louise wouldn’t kill me or anything like that, but she might get real mad.
Anyhow, I was planning to tell Louise, but by the time I got home, she was already dressing to go out with Richard. And Jolynda Behrhard was there in Louise’s room smiling and giggling and telling Louise how good she looked and saying in that fakey sweet excited voice like she can’t catch her breath or something, “Lou-eese, can I borrow your pale green linen shirt? It would look soooo good with my white jeans.” Jolynda is always borrowing Louise’s clothes and calling Louise up on the phone. I stood in the doorway of Louise’s room for a minute. Jolynda was sitting at Louise’s vanity table, looking at herself in the mirror and making kissy faces, blinking her squinty pig eyes, and putting Louise’s lipstick on. She turned toward me and pursed her lips up and said, “Nude Coral. Kees me, darling.” It made me want to puke. She and Louise started giggling and I turned to leave. As I was leaving, I heard Jolynda in that fakey voice of hers say, “Soooo, Loueese, how are things going with Richard Whitcomb?” Just a few minutes before Richard came to pick Louise up, Jolynda left with an armful of Louise’s clothes and Louise’s favorite blue sandals.
Mother and Dad have always told us that we should think as well of other people as we think of ourselves. A lot of good that’s done Louise. Anybody who talks fakey sweet and wears bright blue contact lenses just so her squinty pig eyes will be the bluest eyes in the whole high school shouldn’t be trusted. Even I know that. And even if that car seat was just too hot for Jolynda to sit on and she had to sit just about on top of Richard Whitcomb, and even if Louise would’ve been real mad, I probably should have told her. I’ve wanted to tell her for weeks, but I just couldn’t. Every time old Richard comes to pick her up she’s got that look about her. But maybe if I had told her, the thing that happened last night wouldn’t have happened.
At seven o’clock Louise was dressed and ready to go. She called me in to look at her dress. It was white with little lines of blue around the sleeves and the neck and she was wearing the lapis lazuli earrings that I saved my paper money all last year to give her for her birthday. “You look good, Louise,” I said. And she looked better than good too–standing all cool and long and golden in what was left of the sunlight in her room. But old Richard didn’t come and didn’t come.
About every half hour or so I went back to her room. I wanted to ask her if she wanted to watch TV with me or play chess or something, but I couldn’t say anything. She didn’t close her door. She was just standing there, staring out the window that overlooks John’s Meadow. Even at nine-thirty when it was dark, she just stood there without any lights on. I was watching a “Star Trek” re-run when I saw Mother head back to Louise’s room. Then she passed by again. Then I saw Dad head back to Louise’s room. Then he came back and they stood in the kitchen whispering. I couldn’t tell what they were saying. It just sounded like one long, weird word: butshe. Before Mother and Dad went to bed, Mother stuck her head in the TV room where I was and said, “Richard Whitcomb’s not coming,” as if I could have done anything about it. I just looked at her and said, “Good night, Mother.” It was like it was a funeral or something, so I turned the TV off and came to my room. Before I got in bed I looked toward Louise’s room. It was still dark.
I heard him drive up a little after eleven o’clock and then I heard him knock softly on the back door. I got to the window just in time to see Louise open the door and step out. They stood on the sidewalk for a few minutes–close enough for me to see them but too far away to hear, though what with the air conditioner and the June bugs and crickets and bullfrogs, I don’t know if I could have heard them anyway. I think old Richard had been drinking. Whenever he moved his arms around he took a little step to the side as if to right his balance. I was glad to see that Louise had changed her clothes–he didn’t deserve that dress.
When she started talking, he kind of hung his head–I saw her bend a little to look at his face and then she looked away toward the street. She was talking–I could tell by the way she moved her hands–but it was as if she was talking to the shadows of the neighbor’s yard.
For a long time they just stood there. I don’t think they were talking; I think they were just looking at one another. Then he leaned toward her and moved as if to put his arm around her. That was when it happened: she drew back from him and slapped him hard across the face.
He stood looking after her when she walked to the door. She didn’t walk fast, and she didn’t look back, not even for a second. Old Richard rubbed his jaw a little and took a few steps toward the door. Then he turned around and walked off to his car. I went over to the window next to my bed and watched him get in. There was somebody else in the car with him. I’ll bet you anything she was wearing Louise’s blue sandals.
When I got to Louise she was leaning against the door and hitting it very slowly with her fists. I could tell she had been crying, but she wasn’t crying then. I don’t think she saw me at first. I went to Dad’s liquor cabinet and poured her a glass of whiskey. That’s what people in the movies always do and that’s what Mother did last year when her sister stayed with us before her divorce. I stood in front of her holding the glass out for her for a long time. When she took it, she drank it down all at once. Then she coughed a little bit, and then she laughed.
We went back to her room and sat on her bed and played Gin. We hadn’t done that for longer than I can remember. I was glad she kept beating me and I was glad she told me all about the teachers I’ll have next year, because I guess she needed to get her mind off old Richard. We were on our second series of best three out of five and I was just about to Gin when she started to cry. I’ve never seen her cry like that, all quiet and hardly moving at all. I put my arm around her until she stopped. She got in bed and I sat in a chair next to her until I was sure she was asleep. I hadn’t seen Louise asleep since we went camping three summers ago. I had forgotten how she puts both hands beneath her cheek, just like a little kid.
I don’t guess I can expect her to be waiting for me this morning the way she used to–barefoot till Mother would make her put her sneakers on, with a pair of my old gym shorts on that she got through a trade for a Grateful Dead t-shirt that I still have, maybe still braiding her hair all wet and shining from the shower, or maybe trying to sneak past Mother without taking a shower at all. “Let’s go, Conrad,” she’d say. When Esther used to go with us she’d always say, “Come on Conrad, come on,” with her voice sliding up to a screech just like Mother’s. Esther was always nervous, as if her mind was somewhere else and we were just sand in her bathing suit or something. But Louise is different from anybody. “Let’s go, Conrad.” Just like that–calm, and matter-of-fact. We were always ready to go at the same time.
I know she won’t be waiting for me like that this morning, but I hope she won’t keep staying in her room till noon. Even if she does, maybe this afternoon she’ll be going for a walk or something. She won’t ask me to go with her like she used to, but if I ask her, maybe she’ll let me go along. “Oh, all right,” she’ll say. And then she’ll turn away from me, kind of sudden-like, not as if she’s mad at me or as if she wants me to feel bad, but as if I’m just another person there. When she turns away like that she’s like one lonesome bird, a raven maybe, or maybe a crane, suddenly flapping up all lonely and smooth from one tree to sail off and swoop down to settle in another tree. Why does a bird just sitting around fly from one tree to another? Why does Louise?
And I will just follow along awhile until she starts turning back to me and pointing to trees whose names I don’t know yet and teasing me about my grades. And maybe she’ll laugh. You should hear Louise laugh. It’s really something.
I was really glad she slapped him.
When she slapped him my room was full of wind, and I was the only still thing.