By Allen Kopp
When Vicki-Vicki was fourteen, she shaved off her eyebrows. They were growing too much, almost meeting in the middle, and she hated the tedious and painful process of pulling them out one by one with the tweezers. She believed that by shaving them off completely they would grow back in a week or so, beautifully shaped and highly glamorous like those of a movie star. She discovered, however, that, once they were shaved all the way off, they didn’t grow back at all. She was forced to resort to stealing an eyebrow pencil from the cosmetics department in the drugstore and drawing them on herself. She was the only girl in eighth grade to have drawn-on eyebrows.
Not that drawing on your own eyebrows is a bad thing. It allowed her to experiment with different shapes and thicknesses. Some days she felt like just a thin line, high up on her forehead (think Marlene Dietrich), while other days she drew them on low and thick as though she were scowling (Irene Dunne in the 1930s). And, of course, there was always the Joan Crawford look (high, thick and dark). She learned to express her many moods through her eyebrows.
Another thing that made her different was that she wore a French beret (a gift from her crazy grandmother) with all her hair tucked inside. She liked to keep the beret on all the time because she had unruly hair, but sometimes one teacher or another at school would make her take it off in class. She didn’t know why a beret bothered them so much—maybe they just hated the French and didn’t want to be reminded. Anyway, she had to remove it when told or risk being in the kind of trouble that she was in no manner prepared to deal with.
A housebreaker of her acquaintance in Scraptown, one Nesbitt Fingers, gave her an old mink stole that he had no use for. If she didn’t want it, he said, he was going to throw it away. She accepted it eagerly. She loved its furry softness, its slightly musky smell, and began wearing it every day, wherever she went. She was the only girl in the entire school to own a real mink stole. She believed it must be valuable and, if she ever needed money desperately, she could sell it. Until that day, though, she had no intention of parting with it. She believed it would bring her good luck.
The history teacher, Miss Skells, was out for an operation and a sleepy-eyed substitute in his late thirties named Jeffrey Milton came in to fill in for her. He was quiet, wore a moustache and drove a small black car. Nobody spoke of him or knew anything about him. He seemed to arouse no interest in even the gossipiest person in the school. He just was until Miss Skells came back, like a piece of cardboard that stands in for a pane of glass until the pane can replaced with the real thing.
After Mr. Milton had been at the school a few days, Vicki-Vicki noticed him watching her. When she looked at him, he looked away quickly; then when he thought she was thinking about something else he began watching her again. She knew of no reason that he would be interested in her unless he recognized the mink stole, knew who it belonged to and, thinking she had stolen it, planned to call the police on her. The thought scared her.
In a couple of weeks Miss Skells came back and Mr. Milton was gone. Vicki-Vicki put him out of her mind until one day when she was walking home from school and saw him standing on the street corner up ahead. She was going to just smile politely and say hello to him if she had to and then walk on past, but she realized as she came nearer that he had been waiting for her and hadn’t just happened upon her by accident.
“Vicki-Vicki,” he said, smiling.
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you know who I am?”
“You remember me?”
He smiled a pleased smile. “How have you been?” he asked.
“If you’re selling magazine subscriptions,” she said, “I don’t have any money.”
“If it’s about the mink stole, somebody gave it to me. I don’t know where it came from.”
“It’s not that, either.”
She took off the beret and shook out her brown-blond hair. Her eyebrows were two perfect arcs. With the mink stole around her shoulders and the afternoon sunlight accentuating her face, she looked much older than her fourteen years.
“Well, it was lovely seeing you again,” she said, starting to move past him.
“Wait!” he said. “I was hoping to talk to you.”
“I wonder if we might go someplace and have a drink. A Coke or something. I promise I won’t hurt you.”
“I have to go home right now.”
“Tomorrow is Saturday. Will you meet me then?”
“Can’t you tell me what it’s about?”
“Well, I suppose I could meet you if it’s that important, but it would help if I knew the reason.”
“Meet me at the big tree by the basketball court at the southeast corner of the school.”
“What time tomorrow?”
“Well, all right. I’ll try to make it.”
“And let it be our little secret,” he said. “Just between you and me.”
On days she didn’t have to go to school, she liked to “dress up,” meaning she wore clothes she would never have been allowed to wear to school. For her meeting with Mr. Milton, she wore men’s pleated flannel pants, a vintage gaucho shirt and saddle oxfords. She was going to wear the mink stole but decided at the last minute to wear a loose-fitting black coat that went all the way to her ankles and a “widow’s” hat with a black veil that covered her face. The last thing she did before she left was to carefully draw on her eyebrows, this time in a straight line that curved downward slightly at the ends.
She arrived at the big tree at the southeast corner of the school a little early. Mr. Milton was waiting for her there, standing beside his car. He wasn’t sure at first if it was her because of the veil.
“Vicki-Vicki?” he said.
She raised the veil so he could see her face.
“Get in,” he said, opening the passenger-side door.
She hesitated. “I don’t know if I should or not. How do I know you’re not going to kill me?”
“You’ll just have to trust me.”
“I can scream really loud.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I wrote your name on a piece of paper and left it on my dresser. If I’m murdered, they’ll know who did it.”
“That was very clever of you but not necessary.”
They both got in and he started the car.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
He drove about fifteen miles out of town on the old two-lane highway and stopped at a roadside inn.
“Don’t they serve alcohol here?” she asked, teasing him.
“It’s also a restaurant,” he said. “They allow anybody. Even people like you.”
They went inside and sat at a booth toward the back where they could talk and not be overheard.
“Well, here we are,” she said. “What’s all the mystery?”
“Do you remember ever seeing me before?” he asked.
She looked at him and narrowed her eyelids. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Did you substitute in some other class before that?”
“I’m not talking about at school.”
“No, I never saw you before in my life.”
The waitress came and took their order and when she was gone again, he said, “You’re not like other girls your age, are you?”
“I suppose I’m not.”
“Why is that?”
“I come from a crazy family. It’s only natural that I would be crazy too. We’re poor. We live in Scraptown. I wear clothes that people give to me. I never have anything new that hasn’t belonged to somebody else before.”
“You always look very…distinctive.”
“My mother changes boyfriends as often as she changes her underpants. She drinks, smokes and shoplifts, among other things. She beats me up when she thinks she has a good enough reason.”
“Have her arrested.”
“One time when she was drunk she held me down and shaved my head, and then when she was sober again she didn’t remember doing it. I don’t even know who my father is. My grandmother talks to dead people and makes little outfits for her cats. I have a brother and sister, Veradean and Baby Eddie. They’re growing up even crazier than I did. They’re the only reason I don’t run away.”
“Would you like to run away?”
“Sometimes, but it just isn’t practical until I’m at least sixteen.”
“What do you want to do with your life when you’re older and get out of school?”
“I don’t know. I’m not smart enough to go to college and even if I wanted to go, I wouldn’t have the money. I’ll probably end up just like my mother, a broken-down old broad with a houseful of bastards.”
“Wouldn’t you like to do better than that?”
“What’s the use?”
“What’s the use of anything?” he said. “Why don’t we all just lay down and stop breathing and die?”
Their food arrived and, after they had started eating, she said, “Do you ask all your eighth-grade students out on dates?”
“This isn’t a date and, no, you’re the first.”
“I’ll bet you’ve got a wife, haven’t you?”
“What’s her name? I’ll bet it’s Ruby or Mildred or something like that, isn’t it? I can just see her hitting you over the head with a rolling pin when you’ve been out at night and you don’t get home until three in the morning.”
“Her name is Beverly and she never hits me in the head, with a rolling pin or anything else. If she hit me, I’d probably hit her back because that’s the kind of person I am.”
“Do you like being a school teacher?”
“Not especially, but it gave me a chance to meet you.”
She stopped chewing and looked at him to see if he was being funny or not. “What makes me so special?” she asked.
“Have you ever seen the sun set over Sapphire Lake?” he asked.
“I can’t say I have.”
“Well, finish your hamburger and let’s go.”
He drove along the river road and took a little-used cut through the mountains that was narrow and bumpy. The road wound around the mountain and ended at Lookout Point.
“I like to come here to be alone,” he said, “and to think.”
“I didn’t even know this was here,” she said.
“Let’s get out and admire the view.”
The lake was like a mirror reflecting the evening sky. The sun, coloring the clouds a glorious pink color, seemed to be sinking into the mountain.
“Isn’t it impressive?” he said.
“It’s getting chilly.” She leaned against him and put her head on his shoulder. After a minute, she said, “Wouldn’t you like to kiss me? Not even just a little bit?”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Why not? Is it the age difference?”
“What is it, then?”
“I can’t have thoughts like that about you.”
“I’ve been with a man before.”
He sighed and rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you anything about your father?”
“No. I figured she didn’t know who it was. She’s such a tramp.”
“Would it surprise you to know that I used to know your mother?”
“Nothing much surprises me.”
“We went out together one whole summer.”
“A few months after we broke it off, she wrote me a letter. I still have it at home in my desk drawer. She said she had given birth to a baby. She didn’t want anything from me but she wanted me to know about the baby, because, if anything happened to her, she said, she didn’t want the welfare people taking it.”
“Oh,” Vicki-Vicki said. “I think I see.”
“When I saw you at school, I knew right away who you were, even though I hadn’t seen you since you were five years old.”
“I just made a pass at my own father,” she said. “I feel so silly I could die.”
She let down the veil on her hat and got back into the car.
On the way back to town, she looked silently out the window. She had no intention of speaking again.
“Will you please raise the veil so I can see your face?” he asked.
“I’d rather leave it down,” she said. “That way, if anybody sees us together, they won’t know who I am.”
“I don’t care if anybody sees us or not.”
“Aren’t you afraid Beverly will find out?”
“She knows all about you. She knew I was meeting you today.”
“After all these years, what made you come and find me and tell me?”
“Doesn’t everybody need to know who their father is?”
“Your life doesn’t have to be terrible just because of where you live or who your family is.”
“When you get out of high school, Beverly and I want to send you to state university.”
She turned and looked at him, raising the veil. “You’d do that for me?” she asked.
“Is it guilty conscience?”
“That’s partly it but not all. I want to see you have a better life.
“That’s sweet of you, but no thanks. I wouldn’t fit in at college. I’d be the only girl there from Scraptown with a whore for a mother.”
“I want you to think about it.”
“I have thought about it and the answer is no.”
When he dropped her off near her home in Scraptown, he gave her a piece of paper with his phone number on it. She tried not to take it but he pressed it into her hand.
“Will you call me if you need anything?” he asked.
“I’ve gone without a father all these years. I don’t think I need one now.”
“I want you to come for dinner one evening and meet Beverly.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I couldn’t do that to Veradean and Baby Eddie. They don’t know who their fathers are.”
“They can come, too,”
“Just one big happy family?”
“If that’s what you want.”
“Can I bring my mother?”
“Sure. I think that would be…interesting.”
After he drove off, she looked at the piece of paper he had given her with his phone number on it. Standing still by the side of the road, she let it flutter from her fingers, watching as the wind landed it in a ditch filled with dirty water. She laughed for no reason at all and turned and walked the rest of the way home.
Category: Fiction, Short Story