“Yes, ma’am, he did.”

“I tell you, Jack, Trish is better off without a man. Men’ll just break your heart. Don’t you grow up and be a man, y’hear?”

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“No, ma’am.”

In a low voice I say, “Mama, we’re trying to get some work done. Will you please just go back upstairs and leave us alone?”

“Now, Shug, don’t you go gettin’ uppity with me.” She smiles winningly at Jack. “This one over here thinks she’s the Queen of Sheba. … Are you two hungry?”

“We’re fine,” I say through clenched teeth.

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“Now don’t be rude to your little friend. Jack, are you hungry, darlin’? Wouldn’t you like a ’lil snack?”

“No, thank you. I already had dinner.”

“All right then.” Her gaze wanders around the room, then refocuses on the two of us. “Are you two gonna be all right alone in here?”

Oh God, no. This is every nightmare I’ve ever had, times a million. “Yes, Mama.” With my eyes I beg her to leave, but she doesn’t seem to see me.

She winks at Jack. “Can I trust you alone with my Shug? I know how boys your age think.”

“We’re just friends, Mama,” I hiss. I glare at her so hard it seems to wake her up a bit.

She nods. “All right, all right. Nice to see you, Jack. Say hello to your mama for me.” She goes back upstairs without another drunken word.

For a long time neither of us say anything. Tears are pricking the backs of my eyelids, and I’m afraid to speak. I’m afraid that if I open my mouth, I’ll start bawling and everything inside of me will come out.

Finally I manage to croak, “Sorry about my mother. She didn’t mean any of it. She just gets like that when she drinks.” I’ve never been able to say those words to anybody, not even Elaine. Especially Elaine. But somehow, I knew I could say them to Jack. I sort of needed to.

Jack shrugs and grins at me. “Aw, that was nothin’. My dad could be a real ass**le when he drank.”

“Yeah?”

“Oh, yeah. He’d get in these tempers, throw stuff around. Once, he threw me down the stairs. That’s how come I had a cast on my leg back in fourth grade.”

“I thought you said it was ’cause you were poppin’ a wheelie on your bike.”

“Nah. I just told everybody that ’cause it sounds better than gettin’ thrown down the stairs by your drunk dad.” Jack grins again, but it’s not his usual grin, cocky and sure of himself. This grin is empty and sad. “But everybody knew anyway, right?”

I don’t say anything. All of the neighborhood kids knew that Jack’s dad knocked him around sometimes. There was getting in trouble once in a while, and then there was getting beat up, and Jack got beat up.

“Who cares. It was a long time ago. He doesn’t even live with us anymore, and he stopped drinking anyway. Well, he says he has. He says he’s changed. He goes to AA and stuff. My mom and Clarice go visit him sometimes.”

“What about you?”

“I say, once a deadbeat, always a deadbeat.” He looks away. “But maybe one day, you know? He’s been helping my mom out with bills and stuff for a while now, so maybe he really has changed. Anyway, your mom’s not so bad, Annemarie. I remember that time she was one of the chaperones for the circus field trip back in third grade. She wasn’t supposed to buy us any popcorn or cotton candy, but she did anyway.”

“Yeah, I remember.” I’d been proud of her that day. She’d worn a blue-and-white-striped sweater and blue slacks, and she’d been prettier than every other mother there.

“And she used to come to those pickup softball games in the park. She’d bring Styrofoam cups and a big jug of Kool-Aid, and she’d cheer you on.”

“I remember.”

“She’s a pretty cool lady.”

“When she isn’t drinking.”

“Yeah, well, that’s more than some people.” For someone who’s not so good with words, he knows exactly how to say the right thing. Which is a whole lot more than some people.

When I see Jack at school the next day, I’m only a little bit embarrassed. It’s like we share a secret. I know he won’t tell anyone about Mama, and he knows I won’t say anything about his dad. When he sees me in the hallway, he says, “Hey, Einstein” and that’s it. It’s like nothing happened.

But something did happen, and part of me is glad. Part of me is relieved. Somehow, saying it out loud makes it all feel a little less terrible. I know Celia’d probably be mad at me for telling, but it’s not like I had a choice. He saw it all with his own two eyes. He was a witness, and I’m not even ashamed.

At dinner that night I don’t even look at Mama. But I do eat her chicken à la king. There’s corn pudding, too, and ice cream for dessert. Rocky road.

Chapter 29

Elaine and I are sitting in science class when we hear the announcement. It’s the end of the day, and whoever’s on the PA system is going on and on about school spirit and picking up trash. No one pays attention until we hear the words “seventh-grade dance.” “Clementon Junior High will be having its annual seventh-grade dance this month. It will be held on the second Friday of the month. You’ll get more information in your gym class, where you will have a lovely dance unit. And girls and boys, please note that this is not a formal dance. Churchgoing attire will be just fine, and formal wear would be incredibly inappropriate. On that happy note, have a nice afternoon!” The bell rings and everyone makes a rush for the door.

A dance.

Mama tried to teach me how to dance when I was seven. Celia was eleven, and of course she already knew how. She was born dancing. It was after supper, and I was trying to watch cartoons. Mama suddenly got it into her head that I simply had to learn how to dance. It was all very life and death, and if I didn’t learn right that very minute, well, it would just be tragic for all concerned. She said that all Cavane women could dance. I said I’m not a Cavane, I’m a Wilcox, so it doesn’t matter.

She cranked the stereo up high, and Nina Simone’s growly voice filled the whole house. Mama dragged me off my feet and said we’ll fox-trot first. She danced me around the living room, and I just couldn’t get the hang of it. I couldn’t find my rhythm; I couldn’t hear the beat. I was just trying to keep up, and I couldn’t. Next we tried the waltz, and I couldn’t get that, either. It was the going backward part that messed me up the most. But Mama just kept whirling me around like she couldn’t hear me.

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