Read Grist Mill Road Online

Authors: Christopher J. Yates

Grist Mill Road (11 page)

Christie wasn't done with me yet. My what big eyes you have, Hannah, she said in a singsongy fairy-tale voice, before adding, with a generous pinch of wicked witch—All the better to
bite me
with.

Christie's grasp of the dialogue of
Little Red Riding Hood
may have been seriously sub-kindergarten, but I didn't interrupt because I could see that Sandy Delillo was brewing up a zinger, and when Sandy Delillo switched to zinger mode, the world stopped to listen.

Hey everyone, her eyes look exactly like toilet cleaner.

Excellent work, Sandy. (Sandy would go on to own Roseborn's only hair salon, Curl Up & Dye. Because what better way to attract customers to your business than with a pun referencing the crippling effects of Parkinson's disease?)

Now Tammy Frankowski was ready to jump in, but it was too late because Christie was ready with the kicker.

That's why she sucks so much shit!

Pow!
What a fine start to the first school day of 1982. Yes, Christie had been short of opportunities to mock me for nearly two whole weeks, not having noticed my presence at Jonny Spinoza's birthday party on New Year's Day.

That night, all of the boys had brought sleeping bags with them, the plan being for Jonny the Spin's party to end with a guys-only sleepover. I'd been keeping a lookout for Christie all night, trying to avoid another one of her verbal assaults, so when she wriggled down into the bag of Jonny the Spin's older brother, Benny Spinoza, a sophisticated sixteen-year-old, I observed everything that followed.

First of all Benny's shoulder started to move, as if he were trying to retrieve something from the lower reaches of his bag, and next Christie's face went all funny—first a blink, then a flash, and finally a quick shudder. While Jonny the Spin's brother resumed his conversation with Ted Benson about Phil Simms being the reason why the Giants hadn't made the playoffs, Christie turned her head away and started nibbling her nails.

Now, I was no expert in the chivalrous world of teenage boys and their gallant wooing techniques, but I was pretty certain I knew what Benny was up to, two feet under, in his red nylon sleeping pouch, and I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass, now that Christie had kicked off '82's hallway banter with such an elegant display of her wit.

I crossed my arms, paused a beat, and said, You know, Christie, Jonny the Spin's brother was letting every boy at the party smell his fingers after you left. I heard Ted Benson reckons you stink like dead skunk.

Christie's crew didn't dare react to my barb, but two boys nearby started to snicker like drunken trolls.

Now, as far as I knew, Benny Spinoza had said nothing about his between-the-zipper activities on that first night of 1982, but the look on Christie's face when I called her out in the hallway suggested my suspicion was correct and, pretty soon, the quality of Christie's comeback confirmed this.

Nobody likes you, bitch. (This happened not to be true, I just didn't have my own posse of gum-blowing joke machines.)

We were on our way to math, my class walking down the hallway, Matthew and Patch's class heading the other way, and there they were, hip-by-hip as always, Matthew looking like he was five years older than anyone else in middle school, Patch looking nearly the same number of years younger. Meanwhile, the trolls were still snickering, so Matthew stopped and asked them what was so funny.

Hannah says Benny Spinoza fingered Christie at his party.

Christie was already fading away down the corridor. She turned to scowl and flip the bird at the trolls.

A split second later, Matthew called out to her, Hey, Christabel, we don't actually need to know which finger he used.

The laughter everywhere was of the violent body-creasing kind, but Matthew stood tall as the hallway doubled up all around him. He couldn't have played it straighter if you'd frozen all the blood in his veins.

I believe that was the exact moment, right there in the hallway, when I decided I liked him.

*   *   *

WHEN I CAST MY EYE
back over my twelve-year-old self, I can see that I wasn't exactly mature for a girl on the brink of becoming a teenager—and I was certainly no Christie Laing, who seemed ten shades of adolescence older than any other girl in seventh grade.

In the early stages, I honestly believed my feelings toward Matthew Weaver were nothing more than curiosity. I had always been fascinated by anything that felt different from my life in Roseborn, hence my obsession with Japan. Matthew had grown up in New York City. What was that like? Also, not only did Matthew possess Big Apple glam, but he was also older than most of us in seventh grade, having been held back a year sometime before he moved to Roseborn, and everyone in school knew that the left-back kids were the serious badasses of the world.

Yes, there was definitely something pulling me toward Matthew, but I suppose that, to begin with, Matthew must have seemed something like the concept of eating raw fish—an idea that intrigued me, but an activity I probably wouldn't be able to enjoy until my mid-twenties.

But then, after two days of quiet reflection upon Matthew's otherness, I felt everything start to speed up. I remember lying in bed trying to imagine what Matthew's mom was like (everyone knew about his dad, the town drunk), wondering what posters Matthew had on his walls and what TV shows Matthew watched before going to bed. Wait, was Matthew even in bed? Maybe
Matthew's mom was cooler than mine and he could stay up past ten o'clock at night. Damn that lucky son of a bitch.

Even after several days of obsessing over Matthew, it didn't occur to me that this might be a crush, because although I understood the mechanics of what had been going on in Benny Spinoza's sleeping bag, I really didn't understand the impulse. Around that time, Olivia Newton-John's
Physical
had gone to number one in the charts and although in her hit single the Neutron Bomb panted away about
getting animal
and
bodies talking horizontally
, it wasn't until I heard the song again in college that I realized the lyrics were about something other than dance aerobics. So whenever the track came on the radio in my childhood bedroom, I would bounce along to the beat in front of the mirror wearing a sweatband on my head, which lent me a certain John McEnroe chic. I'm guessing now that this must have been the reason why I incorporated both the serve and two-handed backhand into my carefully self-choreographed dance routine.

This wasn't exactly the behavior of a femme fatale in the making.

No, instead of fantasies of getting animal with Matthew, I dreamed about the fascinating conversations we would have, drew up a list of places that he and I would enjoy going together (the movies, the mall, Tokyo), and practiced my signature over and over with his surname in place of my own—
Hannah Weaver Hannah Weaver Hannah Weaver
—only I didn't like the way it flowed and decided he would have to take my name. Matthew Jensen. Nonnegotiable.

Obviously I didn't actually do anything to make any of this happen. What was I supposed to do, just walk up to Matthew and start talking to him? Impossible! I mean, it's not as if I were some sort of creature with two functioning legs and a fully operational voice box.

However, ten days or so after Matthew's already legendary finger joke, he strode straight up to me after I got off the school bus one morning.

Hey Hannah, stop a moment. You do know Christie's just jealous of you, right?

Why?

Come on, Hannah, you know why.

What?

Maybe there should be a club. I don't understand why everyone lets the Christies of the world take charge when there are so many of
us
.

Who?

The non-Christies. The anti-Christies. I just don't get it. Anyway, maybe we should hang out. You wanna hang out sometime?

Well …

Me and Tricky—I mean Patch—we don't do anything interesting, so…?

When? (Thus far, you may have observed that my side of this conversation has proceeded as follows—Why? What? Who? Well. When? Was I
actually
an episode of
Sesame Street
brought to you by the letter
W
?)

No idea, said Matthew. How about tonight?

Where? (You see, this illustrates why I love my work in newspapers. From a very young age I clearly had an innate feel for the five
W
's of journalism—who, what, when, where, why.)

You have a bike? I ride over to Tricky's most days after school. Oh, but I'm the only one calls him Tricky by the way, just so you know. Anyway, you only live a few streets from him, right? But maybe it would be good if we all had bikes.

Sure, I have a bike, but …

How about you, Jen, you have a bike?

(Sorry, I haven't until now mentioned the presence of my very best friend, Jen Snell, in this scene because, ever since Matthew strode up to us, she hasn't said anything, hasn't moved, hasn't taken even one solitary sip of the world's readily available oxygen.)

Jen's words came out in one rapid spew.
Ihavetoaskmymom
.

You have to ask your mom if you have a bike?

Ihaveabike
.

Great, then everything's arranged. Tell your moms you're
going over to Joe McConnell's. But don't mention me, just say Patrick needs some help stapling leaflets or making ticker tape or something else
mind-blowing
. They'll dig that. See you tonight, then, Hannah.

Matthew turned and headed toward the school doors, taking the first few steps at walking pace and then broke into a run.

I stared wide-eyed at Jen. Jen stared wide-eyed at me.

Wow!

*   *   *

WHY DO YOU THINK HE
runs everywhere? said Jen.

It was a good question. Now that I thought about it, I realized that whenever Matthew wasn't with Patrick, he was running—down the hallway, off the school bus, or fast up the school steps, taking them two and three at a time.

I don't know, I said. Maybe going to some place or another is just the stuff that happens in between, I don't know … better … stuff?

You mean like a sandwich?

Sure. But the other way round.

You mean cheese on the outside and bread for the filling? I made that for lunch one time.

Was it good?

No, it was seriously gross.

Yes, it was with witty conversations like this that were going to captivate the most dangerously thrilling seventh grader in Roseborn.

We started walking again, making our way toward school, a squat redbrick building that looked like it might have been designed using a Lego starter kit to achieve its wildly inspiring look.

So do you think we should go? said Jen.

I wanted to scream at her—
Should we go? Of course we should go. If we don't we'll regret it for the rest of our lives. We will die old and lonely in a house stinking of washcloth and cat feces.

Maybe, I said.

Yeah, maybe, said Jen.

So that was a yes from us both.

*   *   *

I SPENT THE WHOLE DAY
thinking about our postschool rendezvous, rehearsing conversations with Matthew in my head, being admonished by teachers for inattentiveness, talking to Jen between lessons about how weird Matthew was—majorly weird, we agreed, the word thrilling me each time we used it—and absently doodling on pages torn out of my schoolbooks. I scrawled various things on those scraps of paper, different configurations of the letters
HJWA
(Hannah Jensen Matthew Weaver), pictures of a stick boy and stick girl in stick Tokyo (some of those doodles including stick chopsticks), and bunches of flowers that may or may not have been wedding bouquets. However, at no point while I was doing any of this did I think of myself as being pressed down on by the all-consuming millstone of my life's first ever crush.

No, Matthew was a weird but interesting boy, that was all. The letters
HJWA
were no more romantic than a chemical formula. Those flowers I'd drawn in huge bunches were simply the blooms of intellectual curiosity.

Meanwhile, the feeling of having to wait for my dangerous liaison caused schooltime to virtually freeze, the day's lessons moving forward at a crawl. When finally the bell rang for the end of the day, I felt as if I'd been imprisoned for a lifetime, but now I was free, the light beyond the school doors beckoning me and the gray air clumping around our sputtering school buses a heady perfume.

Sitting next to each other on the ride home, as we always did, the bus inching its way through Roseborn, Jen and I made our plans (meet at Jen's, ride our bikes over to Patch's house, talk about
The Dukes of Hazzard
only if backed into a corner), and when finally the odyssey to the end of Grist Mill Road was complete, I exploded out of the bus doors onto my driveway as if a trigger had been pulled somewhere inside me—although, had anyone asked
me, I still would have denied, vigorously and perfectly innocently, that my behavior bore all the hallmarks of a crush.

But Matthew Weaver, oh Matthew Weaver. I can admit it now, I was in love.

*   *   *

THINKING OF NOTHING BUT MATTHEW,
my kindred spirit to be, I skipped up the short stretch of drive toward our gates, which were always open, passing through the stone gateposts topped with twin models of the Brooklyn Bridge arches. Erected by an earlier Jensen, the model arches were a nod to the nature of our family business, Roseborn's once-famous export, the powder behind the power—cement. OK, I'll grant you that it's not the most glamorous product in the world, but I can assure you that cement was once gray gold in them thar hills.

Yes, I was born into a rich family, there's no point in hiding it, and while it didn't seem to be a factor in my life when I was twelve, I wasn't thinking ever so deeply about such things back then. In fact, rather than being kindred spirits, there were actually many differences between myself and Matthew Weaver, differences that my twelve-year-old self never stopped to consider. I suppose I was aware that Matthew was a rough kid, an older kid, and an out-of-towner, but I probably never stopped to think how different my life was from his. The Jensens had been resident in Roseborn for more than a century and a half, and after I passed through those gateposts, the view that greeted me was of a large parchment-colored home, a three-car garage, a set of stables, and the vast acreage of our expertly landscaped grounds. And while the grounds were currently covered in snow, in a few months time we would have the greenest lawn, the wildest flowerbeds, and the trimmest hedges in town. Matthew, meanwhile, lived under very different circumstances, as I would find out for myself later on.

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