Elizabeth called me around the first of February.
"Where have you been?" she asked. "You weren't on the bus, and I've called you at least four times, but you weren't home yet."
"We had a staff meeting for the newspaper, and then Molly and I had to pick up a tablecloth a woman is loaning us for the Sabbath."
"The Sabbath supper in Fiddler on the Roof. We're trying to make the scenes as authentic as possible, and a woman said her grandmother brought a tablecloth over from Russia."
"Who's Molly?" Elizabeth asked, a whine in her voice. She's been going to a therapist to help her deal with her feelings about being molested when she was younger -- by a family friend, no less -- and lately she's been short-tempered. Hard to get along with sometimes.
"I've told you," I said. "I work with Molly and Faith getting props and things for the play. What's new with you?"
"Oh, nothing. The usual arguments with Mom. Why don't you come over after dinner?"
"I will," I said. "I thought you and Pamela were going to be down at Tiddlywinks for a while."
"That doesn't start till next week," she said.
It seemed I had less time for anyone anymore, myself included. When did I have a chance to cut my toenails? Write to Sylvia? Play cards with Dad? Go to a movie with Lester?
I walked across the street to Elizabeth's. She came to the door with Nathan in her arms. He's the one person who can always make Elizabeth smile these days. She'd been an only child until Nathan Paul was born about sixteen months ago, and now he's toddling all around the house and is into everything.
"I-yah!" he chortled when I came inside. That's what he calls me. I grabbed him from Elizabeth and swung him around, then blew on the side of his neck and he squealed happily, pulling away from me.
"He's a pill," Elizabeth declared. "Aren't you, Nate?" She kissed him.
Up in her room later, she was full of complaints. Her mom did this...her dad said that...no consideration...they never understood how she felt. I figured I didn't need to say anything, even if I'd known what to say, which I didn't. Maybe when you're seeing a therapist, all your angry feelings have to come out first before any positive ones can get through.
I was listening to what Elizabeth was saying, but what I was really looking at, or trying not to look at, was her chin, because right smack in the middle of it was a huge red pimple, and there was another on the left side of her forehead. She just had to feel awful about that -- Elizabeth, who has always had skin like a china doll. I was lucky, I guess, because I usually got only a couple of pimples the week before my period, while Pamela had pimples on her forehead through most of middle school and still has some.
After a while I said, "Liz, you sound mad at the world. I hope you're not mad at me, too."
"Of course not," she said. "It's just, you're never around! At school you're always with kids we don't know."
"We eat lunch together, don't we?" I sighed sympathetically. "It's just the way things are going to be until the production is over. I promise I'll have you and Pam over soon."
"I'll believe it when it happens," Elizabeth said.
When I got home later and finished my homework, I checked my e-mail before I went to bed and found the usual messages from Karen and Jill and Pamela -- one from Mark Stedmeister, even one from my old boyfriend, Donald Sheavers, back in Takoma Park. And then, near the bottom of the list, was an e-mail address I'd never heard of, and when I clicked "Read," it said:
Have been watching you. Curious?
Meet me at the statue outside the auditorium tomorrow morning, 8:10.
I could feel the blood throbbing in my temples. Who was this? Of course I wouldn't go. Was he nuts? Was it even a he?
Still, I was curious. I thought about all those "How We Met" letters to Ann Landers. What if this turned out to be Mr. Wonderful, and years from now I'd write some columnist and say that my future husband had once sent me an anonymous e-mail....
I called Pamela.
"Oh, my gosh! That is major romantic!" she said. "Alice, you've just got to go!"
"I don't think so," I said. "What if he's a rapist or something?"
"Inside the school, main entrance, just before the first bell? Are you crazy?"
"Well, why didn't he sign his name?"
"He's just making an adventure out of it, that's all. He's a romantic!" Pamela said. "Look, I'll even go with you. I'll stay back in the shadows and make sure you're all right."
"What if it's a grown man waiting there?"
"We'll report him to the office. Come on, Alice! It's probably someone you know."
"Well...okay. Just for the fun of it," I said.
She giggled. "Oh, Alice! What are you going to wear? Something sexy!"
"Pamela, you're out of your mind. I'm going to wear perfectly ordinary jeans and a sweater. And for Pete's sake, promise me you won't tell anybody. Not one word. I don't want an audience."
"Cross my heart," she said.
Of course, the first thing she did the next morning was tell Elizabeth, and Liz was hurt because I hadn't told her. But when she got over her snit, she said she wanted to come with us, too. So after we went to our lockers, we walked toward the auditorium.
"Okay, I've got it all figured out." Pamela said. "You know the kiosk at the top of the stairs? Eliza-beth and I will hide behind that -- actually, we'll just stand up there by the railing talking while
you go down to the statue below, and we'll keep
an eye on you. Make sure he isn't a serial killer."
I laughed. "This has got to be one of the stupidest things I've ever done."
"Huh-uh," said Liz. "Hiding Pamela up in your room last summer was the stupidest."
"No," said Pamela, "pulling my hair onstage in sixth grade was worse."
"Never mind," I said when we reached the kiosk. "Here I go."
Of course all three of us went to the stairs and looked down, but we didn't see anyone. The person could have been standing behind the statue, though.
"Good luck," said Elizabeth as I descended the steps in my best jeans, a white turtleneck, and my backpack. At the bottom, I thrust my hands in the pockets of my jeans and looked around. Kids were coming through the doors from the buses, swarming around the statue, heading for their lockers. No one seemed to be lingering.
"Hey, Alice, you're going the wrong way," someone called as she passed. I went over to one side and leaned back, one foot against the wall behind me, real casual, real cool. I felt that whoever the person was was watching me, but as the minutes ticked by and a couple kids looked at me as they passed, I could feel my face beginning to color. I glanced at my watch: 8:14. The note had definitely said 8:10. The bell would ring at 8:20.
I decided to give it one more minute. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Pamela and Elizabeth looking over the railing in the hall above, wondering the same thing I was: Where the heck was he?
At 8:15, I pushed away from the wall and quickly went back up the stairs. I knew I was bright red, and wished like anything I'd never told Pamela, that I had suffered through this alone.
"Let's go," I murmured, taking big strides back down the hall.
"I wonder why he never showed," Elizabeth said, hurrying to catch up with me.
"I don't know, but whoever wrote the note I don't even want to meet. He was probably somewhere watching, laughing his head off."
At the corner I stopped. "Listen, if you two are my best friends, you will never, ever, tell anyone else about this."
"Oh, we wouldn't!" said Elizabeth.
"Not a soul," said Pamela.
I checked my e-mail when I got home that day. Nothing. But when I checked it again just before going to bed, I found this:
I'm really sorry about this morning if you were at the statue. Our bus had to go around the construction on Dale Drive and we were late. Would you give me one more chance? Meet me at the statue today at 12:35?
CAY (Crazy About You)
I clicked "Delete" and turned my computer off.
On Saturdays at the Melody Inn, I run the Gift Shoppe. It's under the stairs leading to the second floor, where instructors give music lessons in soundproof cubicles. Dad's the manager of the store, and Marilyn Rawley, one of Lester's former girlfriends, is assistant manager.
We sell all kinds of stuff in the Gift Shoppe -- from novelty items to useful things like guitar picks, batons, mouthpieces, and strings. Dad usually handles the instrument sales, Marilyn the sheet music, and I do the Gift Shoppe. There are other part-time clerks who help out on evenings and weekends.
In January, we have a big sale to get rid of the stuff we overstocked for Christmas, and make room for new things. Salesmen come by with catalogs of new music boxes in the shape of violins, sweatshirts with keyboards on both sleeves, men's shorts with clef signs, scarves with the Moonlight Sonata printed on them, earrings in the shape of middle C, and all sorts of jewelry for the revolving glass case beside the counter.
"Hi, how you doing?" Marilyn said when I came in on Saturday. Her brown hair is straight and shoulder length, curled under at the ends, and she wears a lot of Indian prints. Today she had on a calf-length black wool skirt with a slit up the side, and a green silk blouse with embroidery on both sleeves. I always wished she and Les would get back together. I think Marilyn would in the blink of an eye, but I don't know about Lester.
"Busy," I told her. "That's the one word that describes high school -- busy, hectic, tense...."
"How about 'exciting, different, challenging'?" Marilyn said.
"Well, that, too," I told her.
She gave me a computer printout listing all the merchandise we had ordered for the Gift Shoppe within the last year.
"We'll be doing inventory next week," she said. "What we need you to do is cross out any item that we've sold out completely."
I set to work on the printout sheet and was half-way through when I heard someone say, "Excuse me, but there's no one in sheet music. Could you help me?"
I turned around to see Charlene Verona, The Girl Who Has Everything.
"Hey...aren't you...Alice McKinley?" she said. "Weren't we in sixth grade together?"
"Yes..." I said. "You're Charlene, aren't you?"
"Yes! Oh, it's great seeing all my old friends! We just moved back here the first of the year, and it's like I never left!"
What I wanted to say was, Whoop-dee-do. What I said was, "What do you need from sheet music?"
But she went bubbling on: "Dad was transferred to Illinois and I just hated it there. I mean, I had to start all over again and I didn't know anyone, but now we're back and he promises I can complete high school in Silver Spring, so here I am!"
"Here you are!" I repeated. "What can I get you?" Why did I dislike her so much? I wondered.
"I'm trying out for Fiddler on the Roof and I need to learn some songs. Do you have a songbook from the musical?"
"I think so," I said. I used my key to lock the cash register, then went over to sheet music. Both Dad and Marilyn were helping students in the instruments section, and the part-time clerk was on a rest break.
"I just love that musical," Charlene said as she followed me across the store. "I want to play Tevye's daughter Hodel. She sings that gorgeous song about where ever her lover is, that's home. Do you know it?"
I didn't, exactly, but I secretly hoped we were out of the music. At the same time, I made a mental note that we should order more songbooks immediately, because other kids were going to be coming in looking for them.
I went to the file cabinet marked musicals and began looking through file folders in alphabetical order. There it was, only one copy left -- the songbook for Fiddler on the Roof.
My first thought was to tell her it was already sold, then buy it myself, give it to Pamela, and urge her to learn the songs and try out. But then my mature self took over, and I knew that was Pamela's decision to make, not mine.
"Here you are," I said, and rang up the sale.
"How about you?" Charlene asked. "Aren't you going to try out?" And then her face froze and she said, "Oh, I'm sorry, Alice. I forgot you can't sing. Me and my big mouth."
She didn't have to put it that way. Of course I can sing. I just can't carry a tune, that's all. It's embarrassing enough without having to be the daughter of a man who manages a music store.
"Eighteen dollars and ninety cents," I told her.
She kept trying to make it up to me. "Oh, well. You must be horribly busy here. I'll bet it's fun to work in a music store."
"Out of twenty," I said stonily, taking the bill she handed me, and gave her the change.
"Thanks, Alice!" she said. "See you around school! Wish me luck!" And she was off.
"In a pig's eye," I muttered.
Marilyn came hurrying over. "Thanks. We're a little shorthanded this morning. Did the girl get what she needed?"
"No," I said. "What she needed was a punch in the mouth, but she got Fiddler on the Roof instead. By the way, we need to rush order lots more of those songbooks."
Marilyn gave me a quizzical smile. "Friend?"
"The Girl We Love to Hate," I said. "The girl who gets everything she sets her heart on."
Marilyn studied Charlene as she left the store, and then me. "Nobody gets everything they want, Alice. Trust me," she said, and I knew she was referring to Lester.
I told her then about the e-mail message from someone signing himself CAY. How I'd gone to the statue but no one was there, and about the follow-up apology.
"I sure wouldn't take it any further if I were you," Marilyn said. "Any guy who can't introduce himself isn't the kind you want to get involved with."
"That's about what I figured," I told her. What I didn't tell her, though, was how I kept looking at all the guys in my classes, wondering, Was it him? Was it him?
Copyright © 2002 by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor