Cherrie Mae comes crunching up the driveway, clomp, clomp, clop, clop, tin cans crushed beneath the soles of her bare feet as she grinds her way up the pavement and pops up in front of the station wagon. Translucent skin and pale yellow hair emerge, barely a glimpse of her, but then there she is at the kitchen window. Then at the door, in plain view. She's white trash, my mother has said, diminishing her. But she's my friend, I want to say. My only friend at school.
Papa doesn't flinch when he sees her. "Please pass the butter, Margaret," he says. Mother rises and goes to the door. Opens it, and in she comes; bright eyes and pearly white smile, ear to ear.
Everyone's quiet. Say something, Nathalie. A teenage Lady Godiva in a halter and blue jeans has appeared in our kitchen, and at suppertime, and no one knows what to do. "Good evening, Mr. Patterson," she says. "Can Nathalie come for a walk, if you've finished eating? I can wait on the steps for you, Nate, if that's okay?"
My father nods a yes. For the moment, I am saved.
A minute earlier we were trapped at the table, wedged in our usual places between table and chairs, caught in one of those strained, awkward moments when danger is palatable, contempt hangs in the air, but the room has yet to explode with the verbal assault weapons we've developed and improved upon, our little nuclear family, in our three story home, in the suburbs. She's interrupted our nightly litany. Our rage.
"They don't seem so bad," she says, back out in the driveway.
"We don't perform for company," I say.
"Well it's a nice house," she says.
"Gothic revival, like The Munsters," I say.
"So where're we going?" she asks.
"To the lake," I say.
Cherrie Mae was the new girl at school. She'd come in the middle of the semester, just late enough to attract a lot of attention. They all wanted a piece of her. She wasn't interested. One friend, she said, is all it takes.
She was living with her mom, over the poultry store, on the corner of Maple and Main. I remember meeting her in their apartment. She stood over an ironing board in curlers, a green, yellowed chenille robe tied loosely around her waist. Rings of smoke floated up from her brown-tipped filtered cigarette. Pink lipstick was smeared on the cigarette butts in the ashtray. Her voice floated up through a smoke-filled, dreamy, steamy kind of haze.
Are you hungry, Cherrie Mae?
Angel. White angel. Bright white teeth that flash when she smiles. Lights up the room like a lighthouse beacon. Flash cube when it explodes.
Answer me, Cherrie Mae.
Innocent, wide cow's calf eyes. Brown in the center. The rest round, white, but milky blue. Cow's nose, too, but somehow beautiful. Pretty, dainty nostrils. Nose pink. Flat. Wide. Smooth. Tall, lanky, with narrow hips. Tin can shoes.
We find a swan's nest at the lake, nestled into an elbow in the tree where the trunk roots meet the grass. Sticks and twigs had been twisted around to form its round, bowl shape. Down and soft feathers the mother left behind cushion the large, oval, speckled eggs. "Don't touch them," Cherrie Mae cautions. "She won't come back if you do. We can come back and watch them learn to swim in a few weeks though," she promises.
She teaches me to fish, with nothing but a shoelace and an open safety pin. A bright, squirming sunfish dangles in the sunlight from the end of the shiny pin. Cherrie Mae's petting it. She strokes one long white finger over its silky shiny scales before releasing it, gently, back into the lake, free.
Then she gets the big idea to sign us up for spring semester junior lifesaving so we can be summer lifeguards at the community pool. I tell her I can barely swim. I am afraid of the water, actually. Cherrie Mae says it doesn't matter. She'll teach me.
She prods me down the hall through the open doorway into the gymnasium with her three ring denim loose-leaf notebook and stands with her hands on her hips leaning over my shoulder breathing down my neck until I put my name beside hers on the sign-up sheet. "Great," she says. "Now we're committed."
"We probably should be," I say.
Sometimes Cherrie Mae went out with boys at night. They would pick her up in a red pickup truck, spend the night drinking beer, playing mailbox baseball tag and hanging out in the bowling alley. She always told me about her adventures. They would each drink three or four beers and laugh themselves silly, she said, but they never did anything special. Just what boys and girls usually do.
Sometimes she'd lie, and say she was with me. It was a hoot, she said. Her mother would believe anything. She even believes in guardian angels.
She makes up her eyelashes: dark brown mascara; Maybelline, in the pink and green tube. Flat mauve rippled with frost in the cylinder, her lipstick turns a glossy pink as she glides it over her lips and blots them with Kleenex. She talks to me, into her reflection, in the mirror.
"How do I look to you? Ready?"
Then comes the report on the radio. Mother hears it after Sunday brunch at the club on the patio. Four local boys hospitalized. Dead girl found in the branches of the great elm on Main Street, wavy light hair draped between the branches at her feet.
"Sorry, we're closed." The sign hangs for three days and nights in the poultry store window.
Everyone's quiet at dinner.
No one answers at Cherrie Mae's door.
Cherrie Mae's mother leans propped against an arch at the entrance to Mackenzie's funeral parlor chain smoking cigarettes beside a very tall thin man who looks like he could have been Cherrie Mae's father. They too can find nothing to say.
I talked to those boys from the township. The cygnets have started swimming. We're all going out to the lake to see them today after school.
About the author:
Leslie S. Gueguen sold years of her life to the marketing departments of various computer companies (as Leslie Schinto) before settling down and sitting down to write. She hosts "Just Words," a writer's workshop and free literary event series in Old Greenwich, CT and resides in Stamford. She is working on a collection of stories and a novel. On the publication of this, her first story, and her first wedding anniversary (9/17/06) she would like to thank her husband, Jean-Yves, for his support.