'Do you think you're pretty?"
A strip of tawny brown hair, chewed at the ends, dawdles by her nose. She stands at the top of the stairs and tilts her head to the side, flipping the errant strand into submission and stealing a sideways glance at her cohort, Angela, fawning lieutenant of the gum-snapping sort. (I will later think of Angela whenever some '50s-era Brooklyn whine nasals out from beneath a beehive hairdo -- even though it's 1970, we live in California, and Angela's hair, though ratty, is not ratted.)
"Well, DO you?"
Her demand tosses me into kickball's court. The smack of liver-pink rubber welts my freckled cheeks as I redden from the inside. I grip the railing and let the rush of students scuttle past me -- such freedom! -- to class. Perhaps my classmates are scared of this school, the new locker combination, a task-mastering home room teacher. All my fears are here on the stairs.
"TELL US! Do...you...think...you're pretty?"
"Uh...uh...uh...I don't know!"
Their squeals upend like soda, pop and fizzing.
"Well WE don't! We think you're a DOG!"
They lean into each other for balance against the wave of laughter, then turn together and head down the hall, tripping and grabbing each other. Eyes downcast, I watch the tile, blurred by a fuzzy frame of tears. As I look up, Angela whips back her head. I focus on the wad of pink gum in bared teeth.
"Look, Mary Lynn, she's crying. God! Can you believe it?"
"Oh, she always cries."
That afternoon, my father sets the sprinklers on our front lawn's brown patches, a last attempt to fight early September's scorch. I'm in the garage, pulling boxes out to store summer clothes. He stops suddenly, squats, and peers into a maple tree's base, where a square of soil butts against the grass. He leans forward, retrieves an object, then stands and walks toward me. A gloved hand extends the offering, as if it's dripping. It dangles -- A chewed bone? Wadded-up Kleenex? -- from his index finger and thumb.
"Susie, what is this? Some kind of a joke?"
A plastic Snoopy figurine, caked with wet dirt and twigs, settles in his palm on its back, paws in the air, belly up.
My face crumples; his eyes flash.
"Who did this?"
Sobs lift my carriage up and down like a marionette.
"Answer me! Who did this to you?
"Uh...uh...uh...I don't know!"
"That little snub-nosed girl? The one you're always calling? Who needs her? My God, don't you have any pride?"
Why is she so mean to me? Did I make her mad? How did I make her mad? Should I call and apologize? She used to like me...what happened? What did I do? Remember when we played Hearts in her living room and her mother made us lunch? Why is she so mean to me now? I should ask her mother. Her mother liked me. Maybe I'll call and ask her mother. I bet it was Angela's idea...
"Whadda you care what they think? You're gonna let other people tell you who you are? You'll lead a miserable life that way, young lady, let-me-tell-you. Do you think I listened to the kids in my school? You think they didn't make fun of me, with holes in my pants? You know what I did? I quit! I was too ashamed to stay in school. So I quit school because some lousy kids didn't like my goddamned pants. And what good did that do me? Fuck all! Do you think I would be a salesman today if I'd stayed in school? Hell, no! Who knows what I could have been? Instead I had to work twice as hard to catch up with those bastards. Is that what you want? To work harder?"
I am heaped on the lawn, sniffling, running down tomorrow's To Do list.
Call Mary Lynn. Apologize for whatever I did. Ask her if she did this. Why would she do this? I bet Angela did this...Call Mary Lynn's mother. Ask her why she did this...Does her mother like Angela? I can't believe her mother would like Angela...
"Go inside and wash your face. And don't let me catch you talking to that girl again. She's garbage."
I watch my father, gloved hand extended in poison-control position, walk the dog to the trash, lift the lid, and lay the plastic beagle to rest among the leaves and mowed grass.