from down they forgot
My first partner in crime was a leggy redhead, the taller half of a set of twins, but Marie-Jeanne had an exotic quality that transcended even her status as a twin. She was as singular and glamorous as a thirteen-year-old could possibly be.
I met her sister Sylvie first, in social studies class. We gossiped together in the back row about our teacher’s obsession with military technology and torture. We were studying the Middle Ages or, more precisely, we were subjected to daily accounts of the effects of the Iron Maiden and other popular medieval torture devices. Slipping notes back and forth, we discovered our mutual love of horses. Sylvie and Marie-Jeanne were about to start lessons at a riding stable in the Forest Preserves out past Skokie. At the end of our first week of shared confidences, I invited Sylvie for a sleepover and she replied, ‘Oh! Me and Marie-Jeanne? Yeah, we’d love to.’
I fretted all day about breaking it to my mother that we were having two overnight guests, but she didn’t blink. She was anxious for me to get along socially at school. Secretly, I was terrified of Marie-Jeanne. She possessed all the qualities I lacked: confidence, attitude, beauty and breasts.
Sylvie bore an uncanny resemblance to the half-naked girl-child on the Blind Faith album cover with a mop of strawberry curls, small, pale breasts and a pouting mouth. Marie-Jeanne was a breath-taking doppelgänger for Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’. Her copper hair was long and wispy at the ends; it appeared wind-whipped and elegant at the same time. She had a long Italianate nose, bow-shaped lips and a chiselled jaw and chin. She was loose and long-limbed and comfortable in her body. Her breasts were high and round and large for her age. Unlike Venus, Marie-Jeanne never hid her glorious figure with a hand or a lock of hair. It was amusing – and unsettling – to see our male teachers stutter when they addressed her; boys went quiet in her presence. Marie-Jeanne alone seemed untroubled by the turmoil of pubescence: she wore a permanent half-smile that hovered between disdain and wry amusement. I thought of her as a wild creature, more unicorn than horse.
Sylvie and Marie-Jeanne turned up on Saturday afternoon with their toothbrushes and pyjamas in a paper shopping bag. Their mother was French – Sylvie had warned me. Lorraine smoked unfiltered cigarettes and spoke with a heavy accent, slurring her rs like a drunk. Her hair was so blonde it was almost white, but it was cropped unfashionably short. It looked like she cut it herself with kitchen scissors. ‘Maman is out of control,’ Sylvie whispered conspiratorially. ‘Last weekend she picked on my father until he got so mad he threw the vacuum cleaner down the stairs. It smashed to bits.’
They walked all the way to our apartment on Prairie Avenue, with Lorraine pushing her old, black one-speed bike. My mother and Lorraine spoke for a few minutes out on the sidewalk, and I winced when I heard my mother’s shrill mispronunciation of Lorraine’s breathy name, ‘Well, Lur-AYNE. Delighted to meet you.’ As Lorraine got on her bike, I noticed her unshaven legs beneath a homemade skirt. The calves were strong and shapely, and as she curled the tips of her soft cloth shoes around the pedals and struck off purposefully, her legs looked for all the world like the arms of a circus acrobat bicycling away upside-down. I was dizzy with the foreignness of it. I stood and waved like a goofy little kid as Lorraine disappeared up the street. Sylvie and Marie-Jeanne had long since turned their backs on their mother and were halfway up the path to our door.
The evening didn’t go as planned. Sylvie got a headache and went off to sleep in my room before 8 o’clock. My mother helped Marie-Jeanne and me fix up beds in the family room and let us stay up as late as we wanted. After my parents went to bed, we snuck into the dining room and stole two juice glasses of Scotch from the decanter. Marie-Jeanne filled the bottle back up to the top with water from the kitchen tap. It was my first drink. I gulped down the stinging liquid and giggled as my head began to spin. We lit a candle on the coffee table between our makeshift beds and got under the covers. I was excited, watching the shadow light loom large and dance above us. Marie-Jeanne was cool and still, but talkative.
‘Oh, yeah. I french-kissed Joe Kane in the back of the music shop,’ Marie-Jeanne told me. Joe was my new guitar teacher. Marie-Jeanne and Sylvie had been taking lessons for a while. Joe looked a bit like Arlo Guthrie, and I had a painful crush on him. I made up excuses to walk past the music shop on the way home from school, peering in and running away if he spotted me and waved. I didn’t begrudge Marie-Jeanne the kiss; I just wanted details. ‘His tongue was kind of leathery and sticky,’ she continued. ‘Not like Del’s. He tastes like vanilla custard.’ I tried to imagine tasting someone’s mouth. I had only kissed my pillow.
‘I’d go all the way with him,’ she mused.
‘But Del’s old – I mean, he’s nearly college age,’ I said. I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what all the way meant, but I was impressed.
‘Seventeen,’ Marie-Jeanne corrected. She rolled onto her back and snorted. ‘He’s got hash, the real strong stuff. We should go over there tomorrow. Besides,’ Marie-Jeanne rolled over and pinned me with a look, ‘he’s got a cute little brother, a real freak.’
I’d heard you couldn’t get high the first few times you smoked, and I said as much. Marie-Jeanne snorted again, but not unkindly. ‘No, this stuff will get you fucked up right away.’
Marie-Jeanne liked to steal, and soon I was her willing accomplice. She was a petty thief: she didn’t go in for the big-ticket items like records and clothing. The end product wasn’t important. Her motivation was amusement, the thrill of the game.
Our favourite haunts were the big variety shops downtown. We would come away from an afternoon’s work with Marie-Jeanne’s shoulder bag stuffed full of lipsticks, hair accessories, pens, paperclips and matinée boxes of chocolates and licorice. As often as not we would dump the entire day’s harvest in an alley on the way home. We imagined other children, perhaps poor children, stumbling on one of our caches and delighting in all the little plastic objects and pretty things
Marie-Jeanne put me to work as her foil. She gave me pocket money, and we stood around the display racks trying to decide which colour hair clip to buy, or which pen. While I deliberated, Marie-Jeanne stuffed her bag. And when I finally made my selection and took it to the checkout counter, my meagre purchase gave our presence in the shop an air of blamelessness. We were invincible.
When we get caught, it goes like this: it’s our last stop of the day. Marie-Jeanne has just remembered she needs a new notebook for one of her classes. We duck into a store we don’t usually frequent. Our bags are stuffed full of bounty from other shops we’ve raided. We’re in a bit of a hurry, and Marie-Jeanne gets careless. I’m just hanging around and she goes for the notebook and pen without any deliberation. As we walk toward the automatic doors at the front exit, I feel a hand on my collar. Turning around, we are face to face with a short, red-faced man about to explode. He grabs Marie-Jeanne by the arm and pushes her through a swinging door into a supply room. He starts yelling, ‘Just what do you think you’re doing? You punk kids, trying to rip me off!’ When Marie-Jeanne doesn’t answer, he yanks her hair and slams her up against the wall. He is yelling the same thing over and over when a young clerk walks in. The red-faced man stops yelling and lets go of Marie-Jeanne’s hair. ‘You deal with it then,’ he says, and he disappears through a door at the back of the room.
The young clerk introduces himself: he’s Dave, the assistant store manager. He asks politely if he can look in our bags. I can’t even think straight and tears are blurring my vision. But Marie-Jeanne is cool as ever. She says, ‘No, you can’t. But, here.’ She pulls the notebook and pen out of her bag and hands them over. ‘That’s all I took,’ she says. ‘I needed them for school.’
Dave takes our names and tells us to sit down while he makes a phone call. Then he walks us out to the front of the store. A few minutes later, a man with a moustache and bell-bottom trousers walks in. He and Dave shake hands and chat for a while. Then the man in the bell-bottoms looks at us and gets all serious. He tells us he is a policeman, a plain-clothed detective. He writes down our names, our addresses and our parents’ names in a little notebook. He says he’s going to take us home and he starts ushering us out the door when Dave stops him. Grinning, he says to the detective, ‘You smoke a pipe, don’t you Phil?’ The detective nods. We’re standing next to a rack of tobacco pouches. Dave waves his hand and says, ‘Help yourself.’ The detective selects a pouch of tobacco and slips it into his jacket pocket. ‘Take it easy, won’t you?’ Dave says. It’s more question than salutation.
We’re in the back of a plain brown sedan and my stomach is turning cartwheels. Marie-Jeanne is clutching her bag in front of her chest. Neither of us is talking. Dionne Warwick is on the radio, ‘Walk on By’, but there’s all the police gear, too, hidden below the dashboard. The dispatch radio is crackling and spitting out random words: ‘Oh-5 on Dempster, headed west. Car 73? Y’on it?’
A block before Marie-Jeanne’s house, the detective pulls over. He tells us we’d better get out here. ‘Don’t want to frighten your parents,’ he says. We get out of the car and start to walk away slowly. Before pulling away from the curb, the detective toots the horn. We turn around to look. He smiles broadly and rips the page from his notebook with our names on it. Theatrically, he tears it into several small pieces and then he drives away.
I wait until my mother switches off the hall light and goes to bed. Then I wait another fifteen or twenty minutes until I can hear my Dad’s deep breathing, his almost-snores echoing up the hall. In the pitch dark, I part my lace curtains, quietly lift the sash and peel back the screen from its frame. My second-floor room is on the inside of an L-shaped corner of the apartment building. Every third brick juts out from the façade just enough to get a toehold. Below me is a small flat roof above the doorway. I let myself down onto the black tar and scramble the last eight or nine feet down a decorative wrought-iron lattice that frames the entry. My bare feet touch grass and I walk away from the apartment over lawns, avoiding streetlights, feeling the bracing cool of dew-wet grass between my toes. I have pinpricks on my arms and legs and I tremble with anticipation. At the end of the block, I put on my shoes, which are in the donkey bag slung over my shoulder. The long park that borders Lake Michigan is only five blocks away. In a few minutes, I’ll join the other night marauders, mostly older kids who stay out to smoke pot and watch the shooting stars.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Abby Letteri participated in this year’s MA in Creative Writing for the Page, where she completed down they forgot, a family memoir. She nicked the title of her manuscript from e.e. cummings’s poem, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town’. Abby has previously published her poems, essays and one lone short story in North American literary journals. This is her first New Zealand publication.