IT COULD BE SERIOUS
The prickly sensation started in the back of Alice’s throat, just a tickle really, a sort of hot, dry spot that swallowing didn’t soothe. Oh, please, she thought, don’t let me be getting sick again. Alice got sick frequently, not enough to be branded a weirdo like Arthur Spivak, a penicillin-smelling boy in her class who her mother said was “nearly translucent with illness,” and whose pale temples were marbled with blue veins, but certainly Alice caught more than her fair share of colds and earaches and bouts of tonsillitis.
Alice was playing Mousetrap in Felicity Moreland’s rec room. A room you were supposed to be allowed to wreck, Alice thought, whenever she heard the word, although of course that wasn’t true at all. It was a dingy, chilly room with a gray, poured-concrete floor in the basement of the Moreland’s three-bedroom red-brick bungalow. There were metal poles in the middle of the room that Alice assumed held up the house, and earlier Felicity had hung upside down from one of them and dared Alice to do the same, but she’d said no, because she was afraid of falling and cracking her head open. What an idiot she’d look like if that happened. Felicity now rolled the dice and moved her mouse. She collected a piece of cheese.
“Ha!” she said. “Your turn.”
Alice landed on a dog bone space and so her turn was over. She clicked her tongue at the back of her mouth. It was sore, but not too sore. She decided to ignore it.
Felicity had two younger brothers and their belongings — GI Joes and hockey sticks, balls of various sizes, sports socks and mutilated toy soldiers — were strewn everywhere. The house smelled different than Alice’s house. It smelled of slightly goatish, sweaty boys and fried food. When Alice went to the bathroom, she sniffed the pink towels and wrinkled her nose. Mildew. Sour milk. Perhaps this was what boys brought into a house. Alice herself was an only child, and how so many people got along in one space baffled her. Even when it was just Alice and her mother in their house, which was a split-level and larger than this house, it often seemed like there was no place to go to get away from each other. There was always a sense of the other, somewhere in the kitchen, or the bathroom, or down in the TV room.
Felicity landed on a build spot and added the rickety stairs to the mousetrap. Felicity and Alice were not the best of friends, not even good friends. Felicity belonged to a group of girls who played sports and always had dirty fingernails and scabs on their knees. They raced bicycles and built go-carts out of their old wagons and milk crates. They roller-skated wildly down the hill on Elm Street, howling and shrieking, with no thought to on-coming traffic. They disobeyed their parents and did not fear punishment.
Alice wasn’t part of any particular group, although she very much wished this was not so. She longed to be part of a group, but it wasn’t Felicity’s group she coveted. Alice wanted to be part of the group of girls led by Kathy Baldwin and Carol McKay. These girls wore clothes not made by their mothers and not handed down by older sisters or cousins. They were so sure of themselves, with their shining hair and straight teeth. Pretty and popular and utterly unobtainable, they sat in a huddled group at the farthermost corner of the cafeteria, whispering, and laughing. And they played far more dangerous games than go-carts and field hockey, such as twirling around and around and around while holding their breath, and doing this until they passed out, sprawled on the grass with their legs apart and their eyes half closed, still and unselfconscious as if they were drugged. Sometimes they locked themselves in the girl’s bathroom together and wouldn’t let anyone else in. It was rumoured that they looked at each other’s privates, and examined each other’s chests for signs of breasts. They disobeyed their parents because they were sure of being able to squirm their way out of consequences. Boys became fools around them, cartwheeling, skateboarding, and showing off one minute, punching each other and cursing the next.
Life was like that — one group or the other, or none at all, like Alice, who sat during lunch by herself sometimes, or with other girls who weren’t part of any group, but would never admit to being a group themselves. What would they be? The girls who nobody wanted? It was a peripheral life, as if they were the barnacles they learned about in science class, hanging onto the edge of things, hoping maybe someday the more attractive cluster would envelop them by the power of sheer proximity. Or chance. Or fate. Or there were days like today, when no one much seemed to be around and so by default Alice and Felicity had floated together in the playground until, somewhat reluctantly, Felicity had invited Alice back to her place, to hang out, she said.
Felicity rummaged in the cardboard game lid. “I don’t see it,” she said.
“What?” said Alice.
“The stupid shoe that’s supposed to tip the bucket that rolls the marble down the rickety stairs. I’ll never trap the stupid mouse.”
“Oh, well,” said Alice.
“I hate living with boys,” said Felicity.
Alice said she had to go to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, Alice swallowed and put her fingers on her throat under her jawbone. Little marble-sized swellings there. She opened her mouth wide and looked in the mirror. The light was at the wrong angle. She couldn’t see if her throat looked sick. She felt awfully tired. She felt hollow inside.
When she went back downstairs, Felicity had turned the television on. The Flying Nun’s feet were just coming off the ground. “Dumb,” said Felicity and she turned off the set. She asked Alice what she wanted to do now.
“I don’t know,” said Alice. “Maybe I should go.” The truth was that her throat felt like it was full of razor blades, but she didn’t want to tell Felicity, who played street hockey with her brothers and never wore shin guards and never complained about bruised shins and cuts and skinned knees.
Even the short walk from Felicity’s house to Alice’s took an enormous effort.
The October wind sliced through her and she shivered. Her legs actually felt weak. Weak-kneed, jelly-legged, spaghetti-legs. She could have cried as she reached her driveway, and then the porch steps, and then the door knob. When she stepped inside the vestibule and called out to her mother that she was home, the air seemed suddenly too hot and her head spun. She smelled roasting meat, but the smell was flat, unappetizing, cloying. Her mother called out to her from the TV room in the basement. Voices from the television reached Alice, but they sounded funny, like someone playing with the volume control, turning it up and down, so that the sound came in waves.
She went up to her room and lay on the bed without taking off her coat or her shoes even. She just looked at the mauve walls, her mother’s favourite colour. Alice’s collection of stuffed animals and figurines decorated the white corner shelves, held up on the wall by metal brackets. The white horse her grandfather had brought her on his last trip reared up on its legs and you could see its private parts underneath. It was a very realistic horse, even if it was plastic. And the little mouse with a real kernel of corn between its paws, the hedgehog, the monkey, the German shepherd, the troll with the bright pink hair. It hurt her eyes to look at that hair. She swallowed. Shattered glass and turpentine. The flannel pillowcase smelled so good, like lavender. It was sweet to lie there, almost like floating.
“What are you doing?” Her mother, Cynthia, stood in the doorway. Little pieces of thread and a tuft of pink fabric clung to her white blouse. She must have been sewing while she watched the television. “You’ve got mud on your shoes! You’re dirtying the carpet!” Her mother’s eyes snapped with disapproval. Floors in general were highly important to Alice’s mother, and none more so than carpeted ones. Her mother was a small woman, barely five foot two, but she gave the impression of taking up a great deal of space. She was the sort of woman who claimed territory like an animal claims it, leaving mysterious scents and traces behind, so that it was clear to all passers-by that it was hers.
“I don’t feel good,” said Alice.
These were magic words, for Alice’s mother was at her best in a health crisis. She put the back of her cool fingers against Alice’s forehead. They smelled of Jergen’s hand lotion.
“You have a fever. I’ll get the thermometer. Get out of those clothes and into your pajamas.”
This was stern stuff, for it was only five o’clock. It was forbidden to appear at the dinner table in pajamas. She was being sent to bed. Oh, she thought, I don’t mind. And then she thought, I must be really sick.
Alice took off her clothes and meant to hang them up but then didn’t; she simply put them on her dresser. Her mother would forgive her. Her mother would make an exception. Exceptions were one of the benefits of being sick. She chose her blue flannel pajamas, the ones with the flowers on them, the groovy ones, like the flowers Goldie Hawn had painted on her stomach on Laugh In.
When her mother came back, she said, “Let me look in your mouth,” and tilted Alice’s head towards the light so she could see inside. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I don’t like the look of your tongue.”
“It doesn’t look right at all. Does it hurt?”
“No. My throat hurts.”
“I’ll get you an aspirin. I don’t like the looks of this.” This was gratifying, as was the concern on her mother’s face, altering her normally somewhat severe expression. “I don’t think you’ll be going to school tomorrow.”
Alice nearly smiled. Staying home and having ice cream for lunch and watching The Dick Van Dyke Show and getting to read from The Girl’s Own Annual — a special treat since it was an old and precious book her mother had had when she was just Alice’s age — was a pretty good deal, as her father said. “You’re getting a pretty good deal there,” was what he said to anything he approved of, from the price of their new Ford Falcon, to those times when Alice was permitted to stay up past her bedtime to watch a special program on television. Which is when she remembered about tonight.
“What about Daniel Boone?” It was Thursday night. Her mother permitted her to stay up later, an entire half hour, to see Fess Parker as Daniel Boone. Her mother shook the thermometer. “What about it? Open.”
“Can I watch it?”
While they waited for the thermometer to register the extent of Alice’s illness, Cynthia picked up the discarded clothes, sorted them for wash or further wear, and put what was dirty in the clothes hamper in Alice’s closet and what was still clean, she folded, and put away in the drawers. She polished away a smudge on the mirror with the cuff of her blouse. Alice’s mother could never pass by a thing out of place.Kitchen cupboards left open were the undoing of her. “Why can’t you close them when you’ve finished,” she’d say. “They look so messy.” “If you pick things up as you go along,” she’d say, “then you’ll have half your work done for you.” “You’ll learn,” she’d say. “When you’re older. You have to conserve yourself.”
A woman of few friends and contempt for “joiners” as she called them, Alice’s mother held the world at bay by swatting a dust cloth at it.
The thermometer clicked against Alice’s teeth. Her mother removed it and frowned. “Oh dear,” she said, and put her hand against her Alice’s cheek. The fingers were hard and icy against Alice’s flushed skin. “I’m going to get that aspirin.”
When Alice’s father came in from work, she heard her mother talking to him in the low voice she used for serious matters.
“I’m sure it’s just another bout of tonsillitis,” said her father.
More murmuring from her mother.
“You overreact,” said her father.
“I do not overreact,” said her mother. “You are under-involved.”
“Don’t start, Cynthia. I just got home.”
“I suspect you started before you got here.”
“Oh, come on now, don’t be like that,” said her father, and there was a moment’s quiet, just the sound of someone being kissed. “I’m sure she’s fine.””We’ll see,” said her mother.
Her father came up to see her. He still wore his overcoat, and he brought with him the smell of oncoming snow and the metallic scent from inside the commuter train. “What’s my girl up to?” he said.
“I can see that.” He bent to kiss her and the odour of scotch and peppermints and tobacco floated on his breath. “Ah well, tomorrow’s Friday, maybe you’ll just stay home. How about that?”
“My throat hurts.”
“Ice cream for dinner?”
“Sure. What about Daniel Boone?”
By seven thirty, she was set up on the couch, in her mother’s usual place, under a mound of blankets, with a big pillow under her head. If it wasn’t for the pain in her throat, it would be a very good night. Her father sat in his chair, leafing through the paper. They never talked much in the evening. Her mother generally sat in the corner where Alice now sat, next to the good light and the side table, which was covered in an assortment of straight pins in two pin cushions, some with coloured heads, spools of thread, pinking shears, measuring tape, dress patterns in packages with drawings of the finished dresses on the front, a little hooked instrument that ripped out errant stitches, and an ivory nail buffer with a chamois skin that had been Alice’s grandmother’s. The last time she had sat here, Alice had, for reasons mysterious even to her, cut a few things with scissors — the fringe on the sofa cover, some of the paper patterns, and lastly, and most inexplicably, a hunk of her own bangs. The latter she cut so short it looked as though something had taken a bite out of her hair. She got into a lot of trouble for that and her mother had hit her so hard with the hair brush that she broke the handle. When her teacher asked about the hairdo, Alice said her mother had done it.
Her father put down his paper. “Look at those rosy cheeks,” he said. “Picture of health, right kiddo?”
Alice smiled, but the truth was she did not feel anything like the picture of health. In fact, she wasn’t completely sure she even cared much about Daniel Boone and his faithful Indian friend, Mingo. She knew, however, that it was important to her father that she not be too sick, or if she was, not to show it too much.
Alice’s father, Andrew Cavanaugh Hastings, was a man who did not show pain. He had once fallen off a ladder that tipped as he leaned out too far from the roof while putting up Christmas lights. He lay on the ground for a moment, and then rose, brushed off his pant legs and said he was fine. It was not until four days later, when he was walking around all crinked over, that his wife had insisted he go to the doctor. Three broken ribs. When Alice had asked if it hurt, he’d said, “Only when I sneeze, so I’m not going to sneeze any more.” And he’d winked at her. Mr. Hastings also suffered from ulcers, although he never spoke of it and Alice and her mother only knew they were bothering him when he took to eating more ice cream than usual.
Alice’s mother, on the other hand, made quite a drama of trauma, as her father said, using a phony British accent to make it rhyme nicely. The traumas, though, were rarely Cynthia’s. Cynthia could sniff out a neighbour’s broken leg, or a dented fender, or a case of food poisoning, or a pending divorce with the acuity of a bloodhound. If she kept the world at bay and preferred to distance herself from the scrutiny of friends and relations, barricaded behind a wall of floor polish and fabric softener, she was downright avaricious when it came to other people’s bad luck. She was delighted with any opportunity to get into someone else’s house, under the pretext of delivering a tuna casserole or doing a little tidying up for someone under the weather, either emotional or physical, and was never happier than when she was caring for her own sick child. “You are my very own,” she’d murmur, “my wee girl.” And it was tempting to just lie beneath the milky kindness of those words, even if Alice did sometimes feel hurt when it seemed her mother was disappointed at her eventual recovery.
Her mother had gone off during a commercial break to consult the family medical encyclopedia on Alice’s present condition. When she returned, she held the book out in front of her, open as an offertory, and she walked with the solemnity of a celebrant. Her face was serious, the eyes slightly wider than normal, the lips firm with courage and determination.
“What?” said her father.
“I think it could be serious,” said her mother and she transferred the weight of the book to one hand while the other went to her mouth.
“It’s the flu,” said her father.
“Look how red her face is. Alice,” said her mother, coming toward her slowly, careful, as though she might bolt at any moment. “I need to see if you have a rash. It’s all right. I just need to look.”
Alice pulled down the blanket and, with slightly trembling fingers, her mother unbuttoned her pajama top.
“Oh,” said her mother. “Oh, Andrew.”
There on Alice’s chest was indeed a rash. It looked like sunburn. Her mother lifted her arm. In the crease, there were darker streaks. “Pastia’s lines,” said Cynthia, with something like awe in her voice. “I know what it is,” she said.”You’re scaring the girl,” said her father. “Stop it.”
In fact, Alice was a little scared, but she was also excited, even through the haze of fever, where everything looked a little further away than it was.
“Look for yourself,” said Cynthia. “Come and see.” She sat beside Alice with her hands clasped and a look of suffering resignation on her face.
Slowly, with accompanying grunting protest, her father approached and looked. He frowned. “Let me see that book,” he said, and then, when he had read what was on the page, “That can’t be right. She’s been inoculated, hasn’t she?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have it. Such things happen.
“I don’t think so.”
Cynthia’s hands, still clasped, rose to just under her chin. “Scarlet fever,” she whispered.
“I’m sure it isn’t,” said her father, and shut the book, rather more forcefully than necessary.