A Hole in Juan
A Hole in Juan

Tuesday. A day without honor or distinction. None of Monday’s dread, none of Wednesday’s halfway-through-the-week exhilaration, and nobody says, “T.G.I.T!”

The week already felt long. I lurched out of bed, not exactly greeting the day. Insanity of sorts is part of any high school, but lately, Philly Prep’s version seemed more ominous. Something more serious was in the air, a tension, or subliminal rumbling.

I thought of the animals who’d felt the undersea earthquake and anticipated the tsunami, saving themselves by running for the safety of the hills. I’d have done the same if only I could locate the hills.

I had spent too much time lately obsessing about it, as if gnawing at nothingness would somehow reveal a solid center. Mackenzie had just about convinced me I was imagining the problem, or at least exaggerating it. After all, I spent my workweek with adolescents, their mercurial moods, their brains drowned in hormones.

“Let me get this right: You’re sayin’ teenagers are odd,” he’d murmured. “An’ your point is?”

I dragged myself to the bathroom and washed and dressed and tried to believe he was correct, and I was inventing a problem. I had to change my standards of what constituted normal and okay.

The phone rang, and I raced to answer it. I had a sleeping visitor on the sofa bed and didn’t want to wake him.

It was Carol Parillo, a Philly Prep math teacher and friend. She sounded as if she were phoning from a submarine.

“Amanda, I’m sick,” she said. Actually, she said “Abadda, I sig,” her voice hoarse and congested. “In case—hate to do this—but in case—could you and Mackenzie be at the school party Friday? Just in case?”

Given how I felt about school lately, spending extra time with the students was the last thing I wanted, but she sounded so wretched I couldn’t refuse. I simply prayed for a miraculous cure for her.

Mackenzie pulled on a V-neck sweater the color of merlot. It combined with his salt and pepper hair and his pale blue eyes to create an interestingly patriotic trio of colors. Once he’d gotten it settled on his shoulders, he looked at me, his expression quizzical. “Somethin’ on your mind, isn’t there?”

“That phone call…” I broke the news as gently as I could. He did not jump up and down in jubilation at the idea of chaperoning a school dance. I should have waited till we’d had our coffee.

“An’ I’m to go, too?”

“Remember the whither thou goest part of the marriage vows?” I searched for my shoes.

“Actually not,” he said. “I don’t think they said that at City Hall.”

“It’s a tradition.”

“The whither thou goest-thing? If you’re followin’ that script, I think you’re supposed to follow me.”

“No—the party itself. It’s Mischief Night, and this is the keeping- them-off-the-street party.”

“Aren’t you glad you’re a cat?” C.K. asked Macavity, who lay curled on the duvet, mostly asleep. The part that wasn’t asleep looked bemused. “You don’t have to chaperone anything, ever.”

“Or work, either,” I grumbled.

I suspect that when Macavity finally activates himself, he phones the neighbors’ tabbies, Siamese, Manx, and Persians to compare the deadlines, pressures, billable hours, exams, commutes and alarm clocks their humans endure versus their own self-centered, sensual existence devoted to enjoying the comforts for which their people labor. “And they think they’re the smarter species!” one will say, triggering a round of feline hysteria.

“I would like to have the end of October lopped off the calendar,” Mackenzie said. “It’s not a great time when your mother’s a witch.”

My mother-in-law declared herself a witch, or Wiccan, but from what I’d seen, her professed magic seemed indistinguishable from common sense and keen observation. But who knows? Maybe that’s what magic is. Personally, I thought she was a smart woman who, faced with eight children plus strays taken in for years, decided to be more effective by claiming to be a witch. I’m not sure anybody ever actually believed it—I’m sure Mackenzie does not--but they all tacitly agreed to behave as if they did.

So her strategy worked, which definitely is magic.

“Things always got stirred up around Halloween,” he said. “She’d be everywhere, on the radio, on street corners, in letters to the editor, protesting because witches were defamed—and because their outfits were mud-ugly as well.”

My mother-in-law’s wardrobe has the palette of a psychedelic nightmare and since she finds few ready-made pieces that please her, she designs and sews her dramatically draped garments. The idea that she’d wear a pointed hat and shapeless black gown—let alone the green makeup—was beyond insulting.

“Even without a witch in the family, I’d hate costume parties,” he said.

“You don’t have to wear a costume Friday—if we actually do have to go. It’s optional.”

“Good,” he said. “Why disguise yourself unless you’re involved in criminal activity?”

A cop’s rather narrow world view, even if he was now a full-time student and not a homicide detective.

He stood in front of the mirror, studying his image. This was part of his morning routine. Part of my morning routine was watching him watching himself. He claimed he was making certain his clothing matched, wasn’t ripped or stained and that buttons were buttoned, zippers zipped.

I knew better. We were both admiring him. Not even under torture would he admit to such vanity, but I wasn’t about to torture him because I didn’t think he had to justify anything. The man was aesthetically pleasing, and the sight of him brightened my day, so why not his, too? No wonder he didn’t like costumes and disguises.

“I’ll get our lunches ready.” I tiptoed out of our bedroom, into the open space of the loft padding silently past our houseguest.

Our marriage—spur of the moment and informal though it had been, and not yet one month old—had given us a new solidity and status in Mackenzie’s enormous family. Translated, this meant that like other family members, we now qualified as a great place to send anybody causing grief to his assigned unit.

The Mackenzie clan believes the theory that it takes a village to raise a child and, happily, there are so many Mackenzies that they are that village. They believe a change of scene is as good as long-term therapy, and it’s their habit to separate and rotate family members when necessary.

Nobody had pointed out this small print in the marriage contract. I knew that while he was growing up, C. K. Mackenzie’s already huge family had often expanded. I never asked why extra children had landed there, some staying on for years, but apparently, relocation worked as well as any other plan.

Rotating family was a brilliant idea--in theory. In practice, it meant we were now saddled with a lovesick sixteen year old Iowa high-school dropout named Pip.

I’d thought his name was literary, cute, Dickensian, but it turns out, he was first a ‘pipsqueak’ and then, simply considered “a pip of a kid.” Pip had needed time out from his mother, C. K.’s sister Lutie, who was between spouses and didn’t feel equipped to continue waging battle with her son.

His heart had been broken by one Bunny Brookings, and he could no longer see the point of remaining in a school so full of Bunny, or, in fact, any other school. Instead, he wanted to drop out and get involved with crime—on the side of good, he insisted, the way his idolized uncle, my new husband, had done.

He’d be a cop, he said. Or maybe a crime scene investigator, a forensic something. Whatever he was destined to be—he wanted to begin the process of becoming it this instant.

Pip had loved having an uncle who was a homicide detective. Now, he’d grudgingly accepted C.K.’s decision to leave the force and work on a Ph.D. in criminology, but he wasn’t pleased. He wasn’t fond of abstractions and theory, didn’t care about studying the roots of crime, or trying to figure out how to prevent future crimes. He wanted chases and shoot-outs, but he was settling for recollections of crimes past. Stories about C.K.’s current moonlighting as a P.I. were a decided letdown.

Currently, Ozzie Bright, the owner of Bright Investigations and our landlord-partner, C. K. and I were rotating surveillance on one Berta Polley, who claimed complete disability from a supermarket slip on a lettuce leaf. She was, she said, confined to her bed with excruciating back pain.

The market’s produce manager insisted that the woman had staged the fall, and had done it slowly and comfortably. “More like sitting herself down on the floor, if you ask me,” he’d said.

We were taking turns waiting for Berta to appear at her door, demonstrating the ability to descend the stairs and to walk, but so far there’d been no sign of her, and it appeared to be possible that the only lying she was doing was, in fact, in bed.

Needless to say, sitting and staring at nothing in a bloodless, eventless investigation did not meet Pip’s minimal standards.

I tiptoed past the sofabed in my stockings, not wanting to wake him because his energy blast in the a.m. was too much for me. When he slept, he looked comatose, all skinny six feet of him almost adorable, but the instant he awoke, he was alert, and unfortunately back to obsessive interest in blood and guts.

This week, I wished we lived in a normal place with walls, instead of the loft’s wide open spaces. Our bedroom and the bathroom were sectioned off, but the rest was free range.

I worried about leaving a teen at loose ends while Mackenzie and I both worked, but Lutie had known the situation and thought it would work out. Pip was basically a good kid, simply lost at the moment, and Philadelphia was as good a place in which to be lost as anywhere else, she’d said.

We’d spent the weekend showing him the city, acquainting him with the Septa schedules for buses and trains, giving him the short, introductory tour of Independence Mall, standing in line to see the Liberty Bell, walking up and down the Parkway, then giving him guide books plus a personalized list of worthwhile things to see while we worked, although I heard him mutter “museums” with less than enthusiasm. But that’s what we’d done. Yesterday, before we left for work, we made sure we’d exchanged cell numbers and expressed hope that this would work out to everyone’s benefit.

He’d been home when he was supposed to be at the end of his first solo day, which was the good news. The bad news was that he’d been there all day, watching TV. But all right, we’d told each other late at night. He was acclimating. It took time.

I reminded myself that in many societies, Pip would be considered fully grown. Finished and complete. He’d be married and working and on his way to becoming an elder of the tribe. I was silly to worry about him.

But I did. I worried that he’d become too acclimated to us.

I worried about myself, afraid I’d o.d. on teens. I worked with them all week long and had become comfortable with adults-only evenings and weekends, during which time I could decompress. Having Pip around the clock was like staying on the thrill ride too long.

I busied my hands and mind with hard-boiled eggs and tuna salad sandwiches and apples. We stretched our pennies every which way while we juggled the financial realities of our current life. C.K.’s tuition at the University of Pennsylvania was high. My school, Philly Prep, paid next to nothing. And now, we’d added Pip to the mix and, truth be told, the boy--lovesick or not--ate like a mastodon. Was it shallow of me to have noticed that?

I wrote him a reminder that there was food in the refrigerator. I added a p.s., asking him to phone me if he wasn’t going to be home by the time I returned. I tidied up the pile of brochures and the list of suggestions we’d given him, hoping he’d act on at least one of them today.

By that time, Mackenzie had started the coffee and had a breakfast of cereal and fruit ready for the two of us. The system worked. I handed him his bagged lunch, and sighed.

Mackenzie looked up, a spoonful of cereal and blueberries midway to his mouth. “Worried about that party?”

I shook my head. “You’re the one worried about that.”

“Then it’s that business again?”

Of course. When the beginning of the term was marked by silent anger in a class, in this case, the seniors, and when other teachers also complained about minor but unsettling rebellions and disruptions, I’d been sad that this wasn’t going to be a banner year with that group. Then, when I’d intercepted a note (“it’s too late for that—shut up or else”) and of course, nobody knew who’d written it—the person whose desk it was on claimed to have found it there and to not know what it meant—I worried, but only a little. But I worried more when one day later, I saw a ripped piece of paper on the floor after class and the remains of it read:

l give in

ll see

panic!

dy knows!!

It was the same time when confusing notices appeared on the student board which was normally filled with mundane announcements—lost backpacks, texts, bikes, need a ride to…and lately, lots of flyers about Friday’s party. They featured a jack-o’ lantern with a body attached, on the gallows. The printed notice said “don’t get hung up (and don’t hang us up!) Come to the Mischief Night Party!” But someone had been adding comments with a felt-tipped pen, such as, “Guess who’ll hang?” and “wise up and don’t put yourself in this picture!”

Stupid, like the notes. Meaning nothing—except: what if they did? Did schools that later made gory headlines ignore ‘nothings’ like this, dismiss tensions and pretend only wee innocents dwelt within the schoolhouse?

“It’ll be better today,” Mackenzie said.

I hoped so. Yesterday the tension in the room had been oatmeal thick.

“Mischief Night,” C. K. grumbled. “If it’s simply mischief—why the fuss of having a school event so as to keep the kids off the streets? Mischief’s no big thing.”

“Some parts of the country call it Cabbage Night. Would that make it more significant?”

He grinned. “From cabbage crop to coleslaw on lots of front porches? That’s mischief. That’s my point.”

“Some places call it Devil’s Night. Lots of arson. How about that? The idea goes back to the Druids. It was their new year, when the Celtic elves, fairies, and ghosts walked the earth.”

Mackenzie nuzzled my ear. “I love it when you get all teachery,” he whispered. “Tell me more about Mischief Night.”

Pedagogical seduction.

Intriguing.

Interrupted.

A voice from the sofa bed shouted, “Radical! We don’t have Mischief Night at home. I love this city!”

I stared at the lanky boy in pajamas, remembering C. K.’s mother’s big-hearted acceptance of any child who needed a home. I didn’t want to seem cruel. I liked Pip. I like children. I’d like to someday have some—but not have them arrive as gangly sixteen year old high-school drop-outs with spiked hair.

“I’m gonna stay here forever!”

Tuesday was not looking good. Not yet eight a.m., and I was ready to crawl back into bed, yearning for the comforts and serenity my cat took for granted.

 

© Gillian Roberts.