© Dell Publishing Co., 1974; Lippincott, 1973
“Toby Bright’s coming,” announced Rose, somewhere beyond the first of June. Rose: my third cousin: Frances's mother: rather too fat, with graying hair and skin to match: she put one finger in between her camel-colored teeth and her gums to dislodge something. Bacon gristle.
And that’s the way it started, with just that name. The possibility of Toby Bright’s being a boy was interesting. Its sound was like hemp twine, the shiny, pale gold kind. Having looked forward to vacation all winter long, it was disappointing that nothing in particular seemed to be happening.
I had lived with Charlie, Rose, and Frances for two years, ever since my Aunt Dorothy died. Frances was about my age and my third cousin once removed.
I had written a hillbilly song entitled, “I Fell Down and Broke My Heart.” I thought it was really good, but Frances said that my title did not make any sense at all; it ought to be “I Fell and Broke My Heart.” My own opinion was that my title swung more and she was missing the point. I would have sent it in (Charlie sometimes said quietly about a joke we’d made up or a picture one of us had painted: “That’s good. You ought to send it in“), but I didn’t know where. Charlie was like that, always kind. Sometimes I wished he was my father instead of Frances’s.
The only thing so far to recommend this summer was that I had got my picture into the paper without even trying. I tried all the time to think of ways to do it, and then one day out of the blue sky it happened. I was sent by Rose to the drugstore on our trip to town. (“Glycerin and rose water lotion, Jessie, four ounces; a tube of zinc oxide and a box of Coughettes. Can you please remember that?”) Rose was annoyed at me in advance, since she was pretty sure I would probably not remember it all.) I had had to walk by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church where something interesting was going on. Hailed by Eugene Sayle, the only one of them I knew (who among other things was not allowed to go to the movies at all or to read funny papers), I crossed the street to find out what was happening. I was about to ask when a grown voice, irritable as sandpaper in the heat of Main Street that wavered above the sidewalk, commanded everyone to be quiet and assemble on the steps and watch the birdie. I did, smiling as hard as I could right into the sun, trying not to squint.
My picture showed up in next day’s paper, very clear, taller even than Eugene, taller in fact than anyone else, and blonder too, grinning smack in the middle of the back row. My name was in the caption, supplied, I guessed, by Eugene, as a member of the Rose of Sharon Seventh-Day Adventist Church Daily Vacation Bible and Play School. Rose was not happy. She was very serious about our being Episcopalians, and so I had not told about meeting Eugene when I returned from the drugstore. I had forgotten the zinc oxide, of course, but had remembered she wanted something in a tube and so brought toothpaste. I hadn't thought she would be interested in any adventure tales and it was a hot day.
I was very excited about the picture and used my allowance on two more copies of the paper; also Frances was greenly jealous: “That’s the stupidest picture I ever saw. I am sure glad I wasn't along.”
Just now, I noticed that, whoever Toby Bright was, Frances’s reaction seemed excessive.
“Oh, him! Oh, ugh! Oh, awful!” she moaned, toppling over sideways in her seat. She had never acted that way before, but could generally be counted on to be original. She had said “him.” If it wasn't a dog or a man, it had to be a boy. She made her best face, the one Rose hated, squeezing her nose all out of shape, misshaping her mouth, her tongue hanging halfway down her chin; the entire expression made even better by gagging noises. Probably it wasn’t a dog or a man because she wouldn't have got that excited over either.
“Stop that!” commanded Rose, dunking a limp cinnamon bun into her muddy coffee, though we were not allowed to do that with milk and cookies.
“Who?” I wanted to know.
“Sit UP,” said Rose.
“I’m not talking to him.”
“Yes, you are too going to talk to him.”
“W-H-O?” I spelled out very loudly.
“Over my dead body,” Frances said grimly.
“Frances's cousin,” Rose said, at last turning to me. “A Very Nice Boy.” A look warned Frances not to try anything else. “Very Nice” capitalized itself into bright letters in my head. I knew to regard comments like that as probable lies. All things considered, Very Nice just about canceled out Boy. Long before thirteen I learned that Very Nice People were the very people who were never nice. Wonderful people were even worse. They were dull.
“My cousin too?” I asked in the middle of swallowing my brown-red vitamin pill. (One of my chiefest talents: I could do it without water. Frances couldn’t, but she’d been working on it. One day she took twenty of them trying to learn, and made me swear I wouldn’t tell.)
“You can have him,” she said. ’1’m leaving for Dubuque. That’s in lowa.”
“I knew that.”
“No,” Rose answered my question. “Charlie’s sister’s son. No kin to you.” (I was to hear those words like an echo all summer long: No—kin—to—you.) Saying that, Rose got up, leaning heavily on the table, her arms like dough even to the color; she collected some dishes and started to the kitchen. Her skin looked as though, if you punched it, it ought to stay punched in. When she was gone I drank the coffee left in her saucer, partly because I liked it and was not allowed to drink it, but mostly so my growth would be stunted. Already I was five feet six, two inches taller than Frances, who was ten and a half months older; and worse, I was miles taller than the tallest boy in our class, Bobby Lowenstein.
I removed my gum from its hiding place under the table. Chewing gum was a lot easier than brushing my teeth, and besides, I was using it as a sort of scientific experiment. I had chewed the same piece of gum, Juicy Fruit, with only four additions, for one hundred and three days now, and my aim was forever. I secretly called it “perpetual gum,” and could visualize in an instant the black newspaper headlines: MISS JESSIE PRESTON HAS CHEWED THE SAME PIECE OF GUM FOR FIFTY YEARS; or, WORLD-FAMOUS GUM-CHEWING CHAMP DOES IT AGAIN.
I was only sorry about the twelve and two-thirds years wasted before I had thought of it.
As soon as I could get Frances alone, I asked her about Toby Bright. She was not particularly subtle.
“He is stupid and ugly and I hate him,” she said, and followed her comment with one of her famous sound effects. “He likes bugs,” she added. I had to admit it sounded bad. But I had come upon her unsuspecting and unexpected.
“Why are you putting on lipstick?” I asked.
She shrugged. “No reason. I just happen to like the taste.”
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