Read Beat the Turtle Drum Online

Authors: Constance C. Greene

Beat the Turtle Drum (3 page)

“I started dating when I was twelve,” she said proudly. “I could've passed for sixteen. I had a figure even then.” She started to refill my cup.

“That was delicious,” I said truthfully. “Could I have just a half?”

“I know who you remind me of,” Joss said suddenly, looking at Sheila. “I've been thinking and thinking, and I know who it is.”

Sheila blinked. Those eyelashes were heavy. She could hardly get them back up off her cheeks.

“Who?” she said.

“Elizabeth Taylor,” Joss said. We'd seen
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf
? last week on TV. “I bet people ask you for your autograph all the time.”

It was like feeding a guard dog a piece of rare meat. The hostility drained out of Sheila in a rush. She smiled. Mrs. Essig laughed and laughed. Sheila frowned.

“You got yourself a friend for life, kid,” Mrs. Essig said. “Another cup?”

“No, thanks, we've got to go,” I said. Sheila ran her hands over her hairdo and smiled again. “Nice to meet you,” she said to Joss. She didn't say anything to me.

We got on our bikes and rode away.

“Were you serious?” I asked Joss. “Did you really think she looked like Elizabeth Taylor? I thought she was a mess.”

We stopped for a red light.

“I read somewhere that if you tell a person they're beautiful—well, they get beautiful,” Joss said. “I wanted to see if it worked. She was better-looking when we left than when we got there.”

The light changed. Pedaling up Comstock Hill took some work. When we reached the top, I thought about what Joss had said.

The next time I saw Sam, I'd tell him he reminded me of Paul Newman. If I knew Sam, he wouldn't buy it. If he even knew who Paul Newman was.

When I told Mrs. Essig I went to parties, I
was exaggerating. In the past year I've been to one party. With boys, that is. Despite the fact that young people are supposed to grow up much faster than in my parents' day, know about sex and related subjects, and experiment with drugs and alcohol, I have led a very sheltered life. Along with almost all my friends. We're in the seventh grade, and only two kids I know have smoked pot. Nobody I know has an alcoholic mother or father. Five kids in my class have divorced parents, but once the initial shock was over, they handled it all right.

As for sexual experience, I can only speak for myself. I have had none. No boy has ever put the moves on me. And if one did, I'd belt him from here to the moon.

“Kate, you do know about how babies are born, don't you?” my mother said to me when I was about eight. She'd been slipping me hints for years. Now she was checking to see if everything had fallen into place in my mind. Actually the whole thing wasn't entirely clear. But I wasn't going to put both of us through that ordeal, so I said, “Sure, Mom,” and she was so relieved she looked as if the dentist had just told her she didn't have any cavities.

Sometimes I feel fortunate that the vicissitudes of life have passed me by. On the other hand, I feel cheated too. If I'd been more exposed to the seamy side of things, I would undoubtedly write more realistic poems and plays. You take Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams. I bet when they were my age they'd been around some, seen a few sights.

Once Sam and Joss and I were walking in the woods back of our house, near the parkway bridge. We found a whole bunch of dirty pictures. I suspect they were stashed there by Jim Schneider for future reference. Jim was always making suggestive remarks about girls' figures and stuff. His father subscribed to
magazine, I understand. Anyway, I can still remember those pictures, even though Sam and I were about ten and Joss was eight. They were of people copulating. I'd never seen pictures like that, but somehow you just know, even at that tender age. We checked them all out carefully, to make sure we didn't miss anything.

Joss said, “Heck, I've seen plenty of animals doing
. If that's all there is to it, what's the big fuss about?”

We put the pictures back where we'd found them. First, we tore them in half neatly, though. That gave me a lot of satisfaction. Let Jim Schneider paste them back together if he wanted.

I think if the same thing happened to us today, or at least to Sam and me, we might react differently. We might be more embarrassed. I don't know. It's just a thought.

I'm starting to keep a journal of my daily thoughts. I think it's good training and also may be useful when I start to really write. Just the other day I read a book review. The reviewer called it “crisp, natural, and persuasive.” I only mention this because the author was seventeen.

Imagine having a book published at seventeen! Only four years older than I am.

I better get going.

Kate, will you run this package over to
Miss Pemberthy?” my mother said. “United Parcel left it here yesterday. She wasn't home, and he didn't want to take a chance on someone stealing it.”

“Oh, Mom,” I said. I didn't like going over there, for any reason at all.

“There's a good girl. Bread cast upon the waters,” my mother said. Whenever she tried to con me into doing something I didn't want to, she said that.

The air smelled of apple blossoms and garden fertilizer. It wasn't a night to be mad at anyone. I took Miss Pemberthy's porch steps two at a time. Lucky I had on my sneakers. I planned to knock, drop the box, and run.

“Come in, come in,” Miss Pemberthy said, flinging open the door. She must've been spying on me.

“The United Parcel left this at our house,” I said. “My mother asked me to bring it over.”

“Come in,” she said again. As if I were mesmerized, I followed her into the dark hall.

“When one lives alone, one must be careful. It's so easy to resort to alcohol,” Miss Pemberthy said. She had a pitcher half full and a cocktail glass on a table. “That's why I'm very strict with myself. One martini and one alone before my evening meal.” She smiled at me. “What can I get you?”

I didn't want anything. All I wanted was to leave. Before I knew what had happened, she'd put a glass of ginger ale into my hand.

“Thank you,” I said. “I really can't stay.” If I didn't sit down, it would be easier to escape. I never could figure out why leaving a place you don't want to be in in the first place is so hard. “It's almost dinnertime.”

Miss Pemberthy sat in her rocker and took a long sip of her martini.

“How old are you now, Kate?” Miss Pemberthy asked me. I hadn't known she knew my name.

“Thirteen,” I said. “That is, I'll be thirteen in September.”

“Thirteen,” Miss Pemberthy said slowly. She took another sip and refilled her glass. That was some big martini.

“I was thirteen when my mother died. I remember it as if it were yesterday.” Her eyes looked through me, past me, at something I couldn't see. “I made up my mind I would keep house for my father, make him forget, make him happy again.

“I tried very hard to make him happy. He got married less than a year after my mother died. He married a woman he'd known a short while. They shut me out. They forgot I was there. He always called my mother ‘Dearest.' Now he called this woman, his new wife, he called her ‘Darling.'”

“My father usually calls my mother ‘Honey,'” I said. I sat down on the edge of a chair covered in a hairy brown fabric that scratched my legs. I didn't want to sit down, I just did. But then, I didn't want to feel sorry for Miss Pemberthy either, and I did. I wished she'd stop talking, stop telling me these things.

“When he teases her, he calls her ‘the little woman.' She really hates to be called that. She gets mad.” I laughed as if I'd said something terribly funny. “She jumps up and down and says, ‘Stop that!'” Which wasn't true, but I said it anyway. I put my glass very carefully down on a table.

“He called her ‘Darling' every time he turned around.” Miss Pemberthy went on as if she hadn't heard me. “They kissed right in front of me. I felt I was in the way. It's a terrible thing, to feel in the way in your own house. My stepmother was kind to me. She wasn't wicked. He gave me money for books and clothes, but he didn't really know I was around.” Miss Pemberthy emptied the pitcher into her glass. I got up and inched toward the door.

“I hear my mother calling,” I said. “Goodbye,” I said and ran.

The night was there, waiting for me. How glad I was to be out in it! I threw open my arms and ran, ran as fast as I could toward my own house. The lights were on, and in the dusk I could see my father coming up from the garage, his newspaper tucked under his arm.

I hurled myself at him.

“What's up?” he asked in surprise.

“Nothing, Dad,” I said. I hugged him until he grunted.

“To what do I owe this display of affection?” he asked.

“I don't know,” I said. “I just felt like it.”

“Joss,” I said, “remember Jean-
Pierre?” Last night she'd had another of her bad dreams. I wanted to see if she'd remember the next morning. Sometimes she didn't. When she woke, her brain was washed clean of any memory.

“Sort of,” Joss said. “I loved him a lot.”

When Joss was small, around four or five, she'd had an imaginary friend named Jean-Pierre. Nobody knew where she got the name. We don't have any French ancestors. Jean-Pierre came everywhere with us—to the tree fort we built in the old apple tree in our back yard, to the bathroom where Joss had a terrible time making him brush his teeth, and even out to restaurants.

My father took us out for spaghetti Sunday nights to the Arrow Restaurant in Westport. You could eat at the Arrow until you burst and it hardly cost anything. The Arrow was my father's favorite restaurant. Not only was it cheap but you didn't have to dress up.

The first time we went, Joss told the waiter that Jean-Pierre needed a high chair. “He's not as big as me,” she said.

The waiters at the Arrow are family men with experience. Nothing fazes them. This one brought a high chair and stood with his hands on his hips while Joss fitted Jean-Pierre inside. Then he handed Joss a big paper napkin.

“Better tuck this in good,” he told her. “At that age they're awfully messy.”

Joss said, “You are a very, very nice man.”

People were looking at us and smiling.

“Don't slurp, Jean-Pierre,” Joss said sternly.

One night we talked our mother into letting us spend the night out in our tent in the back yard. We carried all our stuff down, our sleeping bags, a can of insect repellent, some eggs and bacon for breakfast, and a lantern.

“I'll leave the back door open, just in case,” Mom said. We knew she'd probably sit up all night to see nothing happened to us.

“In case what?” Joss wanted to know.

“In case it rains or thunders or you decide to come in.”

“Oh, we won't get scared,” Joss said. “Jean-Pierre will take care of us. There's nothing he's afraid of, is there, Jean-Pierre?”

Joss nodded and smiled at him. “He says, ‘Never fear'—he's spent the night out plenty of times. Sometimes it's scary if an owl starts hooting. Or if a raccoon sticks his head inside the tent. Or if a skunk comes around. But Jean-Pierre will take care of us. What's that?”

Joss bent down to listen to what Jean-Pierre had to say. He was able to change his size at will. Sometimes he was bigger than Joss, bigger than me, sometimes he was a tiny baby. It was a very handy trick.

“Jean-Pierre says it might be a good idea to leave the back door open, Mom,” Joss said. “He said he might have to come inside to go to the bathroom. You know how he is.”

I don't remember exactly when Jean-Pierre disappeared. I think it was when Joss was about eight. One day he was there, the next he was gone. It was as simple as that. When I asked her where he was, she said he'd gone to visit his family and he might never come back.

“You have to understand Jean-Pierre the way I do,” she said. “He's a real friend. He's there when you need him, he'll do anything in the world for me, but he doesn't want to hang around. He has other things to do. It's very simple, Kate.”

Once in a great while, like then, I remember feeling that Joss was older than I, much older.

As I said, last night Joss had another dream. She shouted, “Jean-Pierre! Jean-Pierre!” over and over. I listened for a few minutes to see if she'd say something interesting, but she didn't.

I shook her finally, gently.

“Hey,” I said, “stop hollering.”

She sat up, rubbing her eyes.

“You should've let me sleep,” she said. “Why do you always wake me up?”

“Because you shout so loud when you're dreaming that I can't sleep,” I said.

“It was so real, Kate,” she said. “I dreamed Jean-Pierre and I were riding horses alongside a river, and he fell off into the water. I went to rescue him. He had on a bright red shirt, and then I couldn't see him at all. It was so real.” She shuddered.

“Do you want some cocoa?” I asked her. Sometimes if you drink something hot when you wake up from a bad dream, it helps. Then I remembered an old superstition a girl in my class had told me about. She said if you put your shoes under the bed with the soles up, it'll stop nightmares. I'd been waiting for some time to try this out to see if it worked.

I got out of bed and put Joss's shoes with the soles up under her bed.

“Now you're all set,” I said. I told her about the old superstition.

“Good.” Joss settled back under the covers. “It was so real. I hope he's all right. Jean-Pierre, I mean.”

“He's fine,” I told her. “I know he's fine. Don't worry. Go to sleep.”

And she did. Right away. That old superstition must really be true.

It was so strange, both of us talking about an imaginary person as if he were real. Even after all that time Jean-Pierre was real. That was perhaps the strangest part of all.

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