I’ll Grant You My Wish

During an era of sweeping change -- a new national highway program, the infancy of space travel,
the “invention" of teenagers — was Bob Isle out-of-step?
Or was he way out in front?

I’ll Grant You My Wish

by Angela Rasch

Copyright © 2010 Angela Rasch
All Rights Reserved.

 
Chapter One

My mother reached over the wooden table that separated us — its top worn smooth by years of college age teachers-in-training. “Mattie Grant. . . .” she said quietly as her hand gazed my arm. Her skin had become perpetually pink from years of dipping her hands in scalding laundry water laced with lye soap. “Mattie is my best friend. She might be slightly ‘tetched’, poor dear, but I’ll stand by her to the bitter end.”

She looked up at me over the home-made bread and Velveeta sandwich she had taken out of her black, metal lunch bucket.

“Mom,” I started again, “. . .I don’t have a lot of options.”

“Have you checked everywhere to see if someone needs a hired man?”

I nodded. Enid and Oakwood townships had incurred a steady run of male babies nineteen years back. Boys round about my age out-numbered girls nearly ten to one. “If I was good with machinery — which I’m not, and if I was strong as an ox — which I’m not, I still wouldn’t be able to find a summer job as a hired man.”

Her face softened. “Your dad didn’t get his man-burst until he was almost ready to graduate college. You’ll be a lot stronger when you gets ready to shoot up, grow a beard, and such.”

I could feel my face turn scarlet red as I looked around the cafeteria wondering if anyone had been eavesdropping.

It was mid-afternoon and there was only one other person in the place who wasn’t lunch-staff. She was standing at the jukebox about forty feet away. She had just listened to Bobby Darin sing Mack the Knife and was now starting another popular song, Venus by Frankie Avalon.

The dress she’s wearing isn’t fancy but it meets the Concordia Teachers College student code. Off campus she probably runs around in what they call “slacks” and -- God forbid — “pedal pushers.” Don’t those girls know they look quite ordinary in those things — if not like downright floozies.

“I’ll bet you could sprout like a weed, in a year or two.” Her face showed concern, and then swelled with a pride I didn’t often see.

Since Dad died things had been tough on our farm. Like a lot of farmers around us, including the Grants, we had put our Nebraska farm into what they called the “soil bank”. We had voluntarily retired our grain farm from active production and were paid by the government to do nothing but watch the weeds grow. Thanks to Ike’s program we had enough money to make ends meet. . .and not a dime more.

Our farm featured a broken-down tractor -- and machinery just barely held together with baling wire and electrician’s tape. The Grants had taken to the soil bank because they just didn’t have the gumption left to actively farm. They’d sold off all their livestock at the same time, except for their poultry.

Mrs. Grant was all worn out from the nervous breakdown she had suffered after Linda passed on. . .and Mr. Grant had all he could do just to watch out for her. Now he was going to Australia for just under three months on an “agricultural exchange,” which Mom said was just a fancy title for a trip to preserve his sanity after a Mrs. Grant’s long, hard recovery.

I pointed to the classified section of the Seward County Independent. “There’s only one job on this entire page that I can do.” The ad had called for a girl my age to live fulltime with Mrs. Grant for the entire summer — starting in two weeks. It said she would have to help with cooking, canning, gardening, and other household chores. The pay was $100 a month -- plus room and board. “That’s good money. It’s enough to pay for my books and part of my tuition for fall and winter quarter. And — you wouldn’t have to feed me all summer, which would be a big savings.”

She took a bite of her sandwich, but I ignored mine. I love Mom’s bread, but I get headaches when I eat too much Velveeta. I would eat the rest of it before going to sleep for the night. “Your brother could watch our few cattle and look after things.”

My brother was two years older than me. He drove a road grader for the county forty hours a week and had plenty of off hours to walk fence lines, which was about all there really was to do.

“Are you sure that’s the kind of job you want?”

I scrunched my brow. “If you didn’t think I’d be interested, why did you send me the paper with this ad circled?”

She pushed her lips together. “I thought you might want to see what Mattie was running in the paper. You always seemed to like her.”

I nodded. She’s always been more like an aunt than a neighbor.

“Yesterday, I had coffee and her crumbcake with Mattie,” Mom said. “She mentioned she’s been running this ad for six weeks now and hasn’t had any takers.”

I bobbed as knowingly as I could manage without looking like too much of a smart-aleck. “I can name every girl my age within ten miles and can tell you who has hired them for the summer. If Mrs. Grant were to scrape the bottom of the barrel, she still wouldn’t find anyone to live with her.”

“It’s a shame.” Mom clucked her teeth. “Ernest has so been looking forward to going to Australia . . . and see what it’s like there. He’s been reading all the back issues of the National Geographic to prepare. They got a table set up for him at the Carnegie Library where he has a stack of those magazines just laid out for him to peruse. And — now he can’t go unless Mattie finds someone.”

I smiled, seeing an opening for me to talk her into seeing things my way. “Mom. . .you taught me good. I can cook as good as any girl I know. I’ve been canning with you for years and know my way around a Mason jar and a pressure cooker.”

“Uh huh,” she agreed quietly, “but you aren’t a girl.”

“That shouldn’t matter,” I insisted indignantly. It also shouldn’t matter that I’m four inches shorter than any other guy my age, but it seems to matter a lot. No one wants to be different these days. . .or wants anyone else to be out of the norm. Non-conformists are not accepted.

“There’s issues that you don’t know about.” Mom lowered her voice. “Mattie isn’t a hundred percent on things. She gets flummoxed.”

I’d heard all the rumors. After Mrs. Grant got released from the asylum she had been known to do strange things. She took long walks when she didn’t need to. Some days she read a book all day and didn’t even get out of bed. She treated her kittens like children, allowing them the run of her house. . .actually letting them come in instead of staying in the barn where they belonged. The Busy Bee Homemakers had given up on her gosh darn tomfoolery and done the only thing they could for the sake of the integrity of their club . . . they asked her not to come to any more meetings.

“She needs a girl’s touch,” Mom said gravely. “Without Ernest around to see to her, she needs a girl to watch out, so that things don’t get out of hand.”

“Geez, Mom,” I said with exasperation. “Not only would I be getting a job I need horribly bad, but I would be saving Mr. Grant from having to cancel the trip of a lifetime. Even though he’s a lifelong Republican and all, how many times do you think the government’s going to give him an all-expense paid trip to anywhere?”

I could tell by the crease in her forehead that I was making ground with her -- so I pressed on. “I’m done with college on Friday and could be ready when she needs me.”

She finished her sandwich and carefully folded the waxed paper to use another time. She drained her red, plastic coffee cup and screwed it back on the top of the plaid thermos jug she’d brought along for our lunch.

“Bob Isle,” she said to me all serious-like. “Mattie needs special handling. If I talk to her, she’ll give you this job. But I’ve got my list of demands and I’m not relenting.”

“Darn tootin’,” I said enthusiastically. “Shoot. Whatever you want me to promise I’m sure I already thought of it.”

She closed her eyes and thought for a moment. After she opened them she sighed. “I want you to write this down on two pieces of paper, and then we’ll both sign them so that there’s no mistakin’ later on.”

I took out a fountain pen and a spiral notebook and wrote while she spoke.

“If you take this job, you cannot quit, no matter what. Ernest will be too far away; I won’t have my best friend caught out in the cold.”

“Why would I ever quit the only job I can get?” I shook my head. “Besides, I’m no quitter.”

The corners of her mouth showed her agreement. “You were raised to value stick-to-it-ness. Second, I don’t ever want to hear you talking to anyone about how Mattie Grant is a little strange. You’re not to ever, ever say a word. Not to me or anyone.”

I wrote as quickly as I could while bobbing my head. What Mom doesn’t know is that I took a course in psychology. I’m ready for anything. In fact, I have a few theories about how I can help Mrs. Grant, if need be.

“Whatever Mattie asks you to do — you are to do. Don’t be pestering her and making her ask you twice.”

“Okay.” I sometimes could be “quarrelsome” — at least according to Mom. I could see how that had to be one of her conditions and resolved to readily accept and do whatever Mrs. Grant wanted done.

She affirmed her point. “Mattie’s word is law in her house. When she says jump, you jump. . .and on the way up you ask, ‘How high?’.”

“You betcha.” I got it.

“And the last thing is probably the most important. Under no circumstances are you to leave Mattie alone unless someone is there with her. Even though our farm is a mile down the road I want you to pretend it’s as far away as Ernest is going to be. No coming home on weekends. No dropping over to get something you forgot. When you go to work at the Grant’s, that’s the last I want to see of you for the entire summer — unless I happen to visit.”

“Is that all?” I asked, totally surprised. “I thought you might make some rules that I wouldn’t want to agree to.”

She frowned. “Listen here. You write another set of them rules and you make sure you got them memorized. Think of them as your summer commandments.”

I stifled a gasp. That was as close as I’d ever heard my mother come to blasphemy.

She signed both copies, had me sign right next to her name, and then gave one to me. “I’ll stop by and see Mattie on my way home. If you don’t hear from me, you can be sure you have a job for the summer. I’ll be back to school next Friday to pick up you and your things. After I talk to Mattie we’ll have a better idea if’n I need to teach you one of two more things to get you through the summer.”

I smiled. For once I would have a job that didn’t make me feel so out-of-place. For once, I wouldn’t have to compete with the other boys, who all were much bigger and stronger. I would be in a position to help Mrs. Grant and have an enjoyable summer — and learn something about psychology.

Chapter Two

“Dot’s trained you well,” Mrs. Grant said after she tasted my first chokecherry pie. She smiled broadly. “I guess a few more tongues will be wagging when they hear about my hired girl, but that’s nobody’s business but ours, and I’m used to it by now.”

I couldn’t stop my blush from growing.

“My,” she said with a sigh, “you have the prettiest blush . . . and such a sweet face.”

Her awkward compliments just added to the fire in my cheeks.

“And you have Dot’s eyes. Your mother could have had any boy in our high school simply by snapping her baby blues at them. . .and your eyes are just as beautiful.”

I already knew all about my “beautiful eyes”. The cavemen in my high school class had pounded an awareness into me that I had “doll’s eyes”. One of the girls in high school had poured gasoline on the fire by accusing me of using mascara. Can I help it if the hair around my eyes is thick. . . and the hair on my chest is thin?

“You know,” Mrs. Grant said. “If you used some of that pink shadow I gave you for your birthday on the corner of your eyelids it would bring out your best features.” She smiled demurely, and then looked down at the newspaper she had been reading.

It was our fourth day together and that had been the sixth such comment. A pattern had been set. She would say something that made it seem like I was a girl, and maybe even her daughter, and then she would go on as if nothing had happened.

I would always ignore what had happened and act as if I hadn’t heard her. Mom had been right — Mrs. Grant is strange.

I had already decided that I would make a learning experience out of living with her. If possible, after teachers’ college and a few years of teaching high school to put away some money, I wanted to go on with my education and possibly become a psychologist. Living with Mrs. Grant would be a great preparation for my future.

I had developed a theory that people living on the fringe could be brought back into line if they could live without people always challenging them to explain themselves. Something was pushing them into a demented state, and if a psychiatrist made sure they were never pushed or shoved to defend their unreal world, they could be led gently back toward sanity.

I knew how hard it was when people pushed you to explain things you couldn’t help. Why are you so small? I’ve been asked that a thousand times. How can anyone answer that? Why do you spend so much time talking to the girls when you never ask anyone to dances or anything? Maybe I’m shy. . .or something, Do people ever think before they ask stupid questions? If Mrs. Grant is like me, she just wants things to go smooth for a bit until she can stand up straight and tall on her own two legs.

Over Christmas break I had read The Snake Pit by Mary Jane Ward. It had been made into a movie I’d heard about, but not seen -- about people in insane asylums. The name was taken from a practice at one time of putting people into a pit filled with snakes to either make a sane person insane or drive an insane person back to sanity. It made me think about the electro-shock therapy they used at the asylum where Mrs. Grant had been a patient. There has to be a better way.

However -- I’m not sure what I’ll do if Mrs. Grant ever demands an answer to her inappropriate remarks or follows up to the extent that I can’t ignore her. I’ll just have to put some starch in my spine and stand up to what other people might think. Her mental health is much more important than a few more people making fun of me — should someone hear her talking to me as if I’m a girl.

She had me staying in Linda’s room. It was apparent that other than cleaning the room she hadn’t touched anything since Linda died. The drawers and the closet were filled with her daughter’s clothing. The top of the dresser was covered with bottles of female items. Linda had died when she still had one foot in being a girl and the other foot in starting out as a woman.

Disconcerting to me were her college textbooks, which silently testified to how much we were alike. She had been a freshman at Concordia when she found out she had the cancer, and all of her books were classes that I had taken.

Although I had known her and was only two years younger than her, I had been held at bay by the vast difference between a college woman and the seventeen-year old boy I had been when she died. I had been in awe of her beauty, even after she lost all her hair. They had given her some sort of treatment that caused baldness, which accounted for the several wigs that were on the shelf in her room — now my room for the summer.

“That horse doctor didn’t have to do that to me,” she said bitterly.

I looked up.

“Dr. Van Houten didn’t have to commit me.” She looked to be on the verge of crying.

I could tell she was being 100% honest. “Mom goes to Dr. Klein.” I’d heard things about Van Houten from Mom that weren’t all that complimentary. Of the three doctors in our local clinic, Van Houten was held in the lowest esteem.

“I was tired — but who wouldn’t be after going through what I did? All I needed was a little rest. He didn’t need to send me to that awful place.”

I nodded. It went against my nature to question someone like Dr. Van Houten. I suppose there were others who could easily go against what a doctor told them, but I hadn’t been brought up to question those in authority.

“Tomorrow I want to create a garden patch on the south side of the house,” Mrs. Grant said, having apparently calmed herself. “Do you think you’re strong enough to use a pitchfork to turn over some sod?”

“Sure,” I said feeling an uncontrollable blush taking over my face. I wanted to answer in bit more forceful tone to remind her that I had man muscle, but that would have been both untrue and probably unkind — especially if she had gone into her own little world again. I was chewing my words carefully before spitting them out at her.

“I’ve got good canvas gloves for you to wear so you won’t break a nail, if you’re a little careful. You know — fingernail polish not only makes your hands look nice, it also protects your nails.” She grinned.

I looked at the hands I had been cursed with — long, slender and almost elegant hands like my mother’s. I quickly stuffed them in the side pockets of my bathrobe.

“Let’s hope you find something to wear other than that old bathrobe.”

I had brought what I thought were enough clothes for the summer, but was already having my doubts. I had four pairs of trousers. Normally, in the summer, I wore my pants two or three days before they needed laundering, but Mrs. Grant was adamant that I change clothes every day. To make matters worse she had already told me that she only washed clothes once a week, because it was such a chore setting up the tubs and boiling all that water on the cook stove.

Luckily that late afternoon had been wash day which coincided with my last pair of pants getting “dirty”. I was sitting in my robe because all of my trousers were outside drying on the clothesline. I had brought seven shirts, so they weren’t as much a problem.

“I want to plant roses in that new garden,” she said. “Is there anything more lovely than a precious rose in full bloom?” She smiled expectantly.

After a long moment I decided I had to answer. “Roses are okay.”

“Okay?” She laughed merrily. “I never should have given you that book of Gertrude Stein’s poetry. ‘Things are what they are. A rose is a rose is a rose’.”

I tried to connect what she had said to anything concrete and concluded she was merely parroting words.

“I’ll get up early and bring your things in from the line,” she vowed. “I can’t have you running around outside in a bathrobe. I can just hear the hen’s in at Puhr’s Mercantile in Seward. I can just imagine how much they despise the idea of a young man living with me while my husband is in Australia; as if they’ve got a dog in that fight. Biddies!”

I snorted despite myself. Mrs. Grant could be great company.

“Sometimes,” she added, “I find it’s best just not to think about things that can be a problem. Don’t you agree?”

“Precisely.” That’s exactly my theory. If she deals with her perceived problems by going into a delusional state occasionally — that’s much better than fighting things and making herself much sicker.

We stayed up and watched television until it signed off at 11:00.

Just before we went to bed Mrs. Grant turned to me. “Now Linda, you know what I think of young women who wear — what are they calling pants now — ‘clam diggers’ -- and such. Dresses and skirts -- that’s what every other girl in the county your age wears, and that’s what you’ll wear. You got that young lady?”

Not knowing what else to say, or do, I nodded and excused myself to go up to my room.

Her voice trailed me. “I don’t care what Sandra Dee and Debbie Reynolds wear. Debbie’s got such a good husband in that Eddie Fisher. What’s their daughter’s name. . . Carrie -- or something like that?”

I nodded, just barely keeping up with her overly agile mind.

“Things are moving too fast,” she said with a huge sigh. “I heard on the radio today that they’ve just started passenger service out East on jet-propelled airplanes. I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to go that fast — or what would be so important that you’d have to. . . .”

I laughed and agreed. “I still don’t know why those Rooskies put that poor dog, Laika, into space when they knew they could never get her back. Some things are just wrong.”

“You’re right. Some things are just wrong, but some we can fix. And — some things are considered horribly wrong that are plainly right, by all that’s natural. ” Her eyes drilled into mine. “There will be no patterned stockings, pants, or flat-heeled ankle boots in this house, young lady. I’ll not have you becoming a Kookie . . . or a Communist.”

*****

They’re going to commit her again; if they do I’m sure they’ll give her a lobotomy.

I tossed and turned in my bed remembering the day our psychology professor told us about a neurosurgical procedure that treated mental illness as a degenerative hereditary disorder. In case studies it had been the official assumption of the psychiatrists that unless the lobotomy had been performed, with its high incidence of negative side-effects, the patient would have been confined for life in an asylum. There’s no way I’m going to allow them to take Mrs. Grant away so they can cut the connection to and from the prefrontal cortex, the anterior part of the frontal lobes of the brain.

I had read about cases indicating many who had been given a lobotomy had convulsive seizures, blunted personalities, apathy, incontinence. . .in short they became significantly less than whole. Mrs. Grant’s sweet, gentle face haunted me and begged me to help her.

There are alternatives. I had written a term paper on John B. Watson and his Little Albert experiment. Little Albert had been nine months old when Watson selected him for experimentation. At the start of the test the perfectly normal baby had been exposed for the first time to a white rat, a dog, a monkey, and many other things used as a stimulus. The baby showed no fear of any of them. Two months later, Watson scared the baby by making loud noises behind little Albert. Then the baby was conditioned to fear all of the various stimuli by exposing him to a stimulus and simultaneously making that same loud noise behind his back. The purpose of the experiment was to prove that fear was learned.

It was my theory, from following that experiment’s findings to their logical conclusions, that the same learning process could be used to teach the baby not to fear.

I can help Mrs. Grant. If it comes to it, and she wants me to be her daughter, I’ll go along with it to soothe her hysteria, then I’ll wait for an opportunity to bring her back within the realms of sanity.

The next morning I woke to the smell of a fire, out in the yard. When I peered out the window I saw Mrs. Grant tossing old magazines into her trash burner, which was really an old thirty gallon fuel drum Mr. Grant had cut open on one side at the bottom.

When she came in from the yard she was humming happily. She looked more at ease with life than I’d ever seen her for as long as I could remember. “Good morning, sweetie,” she chirped as if I was her favorite nephew and not just hired help.

“Good morning,” I answered, cinching the piece of braided twine I used for a sash on my old robe. “Would you mind bringing in my trousers, or at least one pair so I can get ready to make that flower garden for you?”

A look of bewilderment passed over her face, and than her most radiant smile returned. “Did you happen to hear those rascal raccoons during the night?”

I had slept like a log, so I shook my head.

“When I got up this morning I went out to bring in the wash and found a bunch of clothespins on the ground. I checked and found that the raccoons must have carried off your four pairs of pants and one of my old aprons.”

What? She’s burned up my pants! I opened my mouth to question when raccoons had ever, ever before done such a thing. Raccoons aren’t known for hauling off heavy pieces of clothing. . .or light pieces of clothing either — for that matter. Then I thought about her mental problems and decided to take another direction. “I’ll go out and take a look around. They couldn’t have drug them pants too far.”

She laughed. “That’s what I thought, but I been everywhere and haven’t found hide nor hair of any of them except my apron which was nearly a half mile away at the end of Ferguson’s driveway.”

She lies so easily, but to her it isn’t a lie. “I’ll have to go to town and buy some new pants,” I said. She obviously destroyed my things in that fire. Why? Did I make her mad last night by not going along with her game of me being her daughter? I can’t go home for more clothes because of my agreement with Mom . . . and even if I did -- the only pants I have left that fit me are winter weight and more suited for sitting in school than working. “I’ll have to buy some new clothes.”

“Why?” she asked. “There are perfectly good clothes up in your room. Why are you acting so strange? And — why are you wearing that preposterous robe? My goodness, Linda, there are days I think you’re a prime candidate for the loony bin.”

I stared at her expecting to see her eyes spinning -- or the top of her head flying off, but she looked absolutely calm and lucid. Linda must have had some pants. Girls do wear pants sometimes; don’t they? Sure, some girls wear pants and one of their father’s dress shirts, when they’re cleaning their house. My old work pants had been hand-me-downs from my cousins. All my brother’s stuff was too big. My cousins had worn the stuff they gave me when they were in grade school. My trousers had been more patches than pants, so I wasn’t really out anything. But will anything of Linda’s really fit me? “I suppose Linda might have had a pair of pants. With luck something will work for me.”

“Pants?” She laughed merrily. “Linda, for heaven’s sakes. You’re a stitch. You’re such a Queen of Sheba. You know very well that you’ve never, ever allowed me to buy you anything with legs. Denim jeans. . .I never. . . . Lordy, Marlon Brando and James Dean can have those awful contraptions. Dresses and skirts are what everyone wears -- and for good reason. Women wear dresses — men wear pants.”

I tried to mentally dress the Linda I had known in denim jeans and Wellington boots, like greasers, but it just didn’t work. Nor could I put her into the Capri pants and turtleneck sweaters the Beatnik girls wore — although she did have several berets hanging on the wall in her extensive hat collection.

As Mrs. Grant was talking she went about putting together breakfast for me as if everything in her life was just perfect. The weirdness of the situation struck me as something out of a movie you’d see at the drive-in movie theatre in Lincoln on half-price night. Mom took me a couple times because it was so cheap, but the science fiction movies they showed were so horrible you could hardly follow the plot. We had seen one called Prehistoric Women in which the women had all been men-haters. Mom had driven out of the passion-pit after only about fifteen minutes. All the other cars had honked at us when we left. People don’t like it when you do things different than the crowd.

“We’re going to go up to your room and find the right clothes for you,” she said. “I’ve got a big day planned.”

She’s as crazy as a peach orchard boar. Play along. Remember your promises to Mom. You can’t quit. You can’t go home. You can’t tell anyone how strange Mrs. Grant is. You can’t leave. I munched on a piece of cinnamon toast in silence while listening to the farm report on the radio.

Finally I conceived a plan. “I’m going to need work pants to make that flower garden you want.”

“Flower garden?” she asked with a confused smile. “What flower garden is that?”

“You asked me to fork over the sod outside your picture window so you could make a new flower garden.”

She laughed. “That’s hilarious, Linda. I would never jeopardize your female parts by asking you to do such a thing. Now — hurry up and finish your breakfast.”

I shook my head at how adroit she could be in her delusional thinking. I had a good idea what she meant by “jeopardizing your female parts.” After the Melbourne Olympics, one of the guys in boys’ phy. ed. class had asked our instructor why the longest race for women was 200 yards, or meters, or whatever it was they ran. Our teacher got all crazy-eyed, and than whispered to us that a woman was in danger of her uterus dropping, if she engaged in strenuous physical activities. No one questioned him; we all were aware that women are made like fine china.

“I’ve made a bath for you in the laundry room,” she said with enthusiasm. “I know it isn’t Saturday night, but I thought you might want to quit whatever Tomboy foolishness it is that’s come over you and revert to form.”

I stared at her -- grasping for what to do next. It’s obvious I have to be careful. Her mind is fighting her. She must be thinking that she can’t go on without Linda — so she’s made me into Linda. “A bath would be nice.” No harm in taking a bath. I’ll play along until she becomes normal again. Every other time it’s only been a few minutes until she knows who I am.

I went into the laundry room which doubled as the bath. She had hauled in water and already heated it on the stove. As I sank into the foamy, warm water I smelled the lilac bath salts she had added.

“I’ll take your things.”

My shoulders shook involuntarily, because she had startled me. I rushed to cover myself, but she acted as if everything was just fine while she scurried around the small room gathering the robe and pajamas I had been wearing. She left, but returned after about ten minutes.

“Let me wash your back. Where’s that wash rag?” She reached into the water and swirled her hand around.

I flinched every time her hand grazed my penis, but she didn’t seem to notice.

“Your skin has always been so soft,” she purred, once she found the washcloth and started scrubbing my back. “I was thinking we would take the day to pamper each other. How does that sound?”

“Okay. . . .” I said cautiously.

“Oh good.” She laughed. “I have a whole drawer-full of things I bought from the Fuller Brush man that needs trying out.”

Fuller Brush? Why does she want to try out floor wax or soap?

“Stand up now, and I’ll dry you.”

I hesitated and then remembered my mother’s admonition about what to do when Mrs. Grant said “jump”. I stood and allowed water and soap suds to drip off me into the bath water below. I made no effort to hide myself, preferring to move things toward normal by showing her things Linda didn’t have.

“My. . .my. . .my,” she said, expressing disapproval.

“Finally. . . .” I began to say, but thought better of it.

“Just because you’ve been ill, doesn’t mean you should go all European on us.” She produced a razor. “I’ll just help you clean up a few hairs.” She proceeded to remove the fuzz from my arms and legs -- and under my arms.

I watched in amazement as she worked to make my body hairless, doing nothing to challenge her actions. . .or thoughts. At times her face was inches from my private parts, although it appeared she didn’t see them.

“Don’t take all day,” she said impatiently, after she had completed her task. “Step out onto the mat.”

I blinked, but raised a foot over the side of the big galvanized bathtub and moved into the large bath towel she extended toward me.

Instead of passing the towel to me, she used it to dry me off, taking great care to wipe every part of my body. “It’s a shame you lost your beautiful hair. Thank goodness your father was willing to buy the very best human-hair wigs for you. When you wear them, you can hardly tell the difference.”

Given your limited powers of observation, I wonder if that claim means anything at all.

She hooked the towel over a nail on the wall, and then picked up a powder puff and dusted me from head to toe with a sweet smelling talcum.

“Let’s go to your bedroom,” she said excitedly. “I’ve got something new you’re going to like.”

My psychology professor had used a word I hadn’t heard before to describe people like Mrs. Grant. He said they were surreal. “Phantasmagoric,” he had said, “characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions.”

I have to be the luckiest person on earth. Imagine -- to see such a person close up and to be able to closely observe her. Not only that, but I’m actively helping with her recovery.

As I walked to Linda’s bathroom I resolved to try my hardest to go with the flow of her fantasy. When we got there I immediately noticed that the suitcase I had been using to store my clothes wasn’t where I had left it. So much for my shirts and underwear. My old bathrobe wasn’t hanging on the hook on the back of the door, where I had thought she would put it. In its place she had hung a lacy robe and matching gown. No doubt the “raccoons” took my robe and probably mixed it with magazines in a blaze of glory.

On the bed she had set out several items of women’s underwear. She picked up a long thing that I suspected was a corset. “You should put on this all-in-one,” she said. “You’ve gained a little weight so it’s going to be a little tight. We need to think about diets. What do you think about cottage cheese and lettuce for a few days?”

“That sounds okay,” I said. After what I had eaten on the college food program, eating only cottage cheese didn’t sound bad at all.

With her assistance I struggled into the garment. She inserted something into the top of it that looked like cloth bags.

She had to have made those especially for me. How could she do that and keep on believing I’m Linda? I looked down at my torso and saw a female shape.

“That horse doctor Van Houten. He talked us into a double mastectomy for. . . .” Her voice trailed off.

My aunt had a mastectomy so I knew what Mrs. Grant was talking about and could understand the horror of watching your daughter go through that . . . without a positive outcome.

At that moment I wrestled against an urge to grab her by the shoulders and shake her back into reality. I knew most people would do that. Some of the other students had asked why psychologists didn’t just give crazy people a good slap to bring them out of it.

I shuddered when I thought about the ice-water treatments some of the patients would undergo at the asylum. I can’t let that happen.

For the next ten minutes she dressed me like I would imagine a little girl puts clothes on a doll. She managed to show and tell me how to put on certain items so that I could do it myself, without making it plain that she knew this to be my first time in most of the kinds of things I was wearing.

“I don’t know why we have to wear these things,” she said, handing me a pair of shoes. “Everyone wears stilettos, so stilettos we wear.” She grinned. “You still have a pair of flats to wear when you gather the eggs.”

I stood in front of her in undergarments covered by a frothy slip. Surprisingly, everything seemed to be a fairly decent fit. Linda hadn’t been what I thought a small girl. I guess an average-sized girl is about the same size as a really small guy.

“Here’s the surprise,” she gushed. “I saw this dress in Sears, Roebuck and knew I had to buy it for you. I know you love to sew your own things, but a girl should have a store-bought dress every once in a while. Your father tried to talk me out of it. Goodness it was only $5.25, but he put up a fuss before giving in. I told him it would be a welcome-home-from-college present. I miss him already, don’t you?”

I nodded and eyed the blue and white polka dot sundress with its wide, white belt.

She dropped the dress on the bed and went to the closet. “It came with a matching blue crinoline.” She handed me something that I had thought was called a “petticoat” and then helped me into it.

It was pretty-enough garment, but I didn’t understand its purpose. “Why do women wear these?”

“Oh, you know. . .a girl your age has to know.”

I shrugged. “I don’t have even the slightest clue.”

She giggled. “What do you think of when someone says Marilyn Monroe?”

I thought for a moment. “I suppose a tiny waist and big. . .ahhh big. . . .”

“Big bosoms,” she finished for me. “What we wear is meant to tell the world that we are like Marilyn, in that we have a tiny waist and big bosoms.”

“What do crinolines do. . . .?”

She grinned. “Some girls wear so many petticoats their skirts stand out five to seven feet. That makes their waist seem tiny. . .get it?”

“How do . . . big bosoms,” I choked out.

“What do you think tight cashmere sweaters and sharp-pointed brassieres are all about?”

My face felt like the sun.

As we talked she lowered the sundress over my head and did up the buttons in back.

I’m not sure I can take this off by myself.

“Sit here.” She patted the small bench in front of the dressing table. As I followed her actions in the mirror she put a long, blonde wig on my head. “Those pin curls over your forehead frame your face so sweetly,” she cooed. Her fingers ran through thick curls on either side of my head. “This hair is supposedly twenty-one inches long. It’s just beautiful.”

Whoever sold her hair for this wig probably misses it.

“You have such a sweet, melodic voice,” she bubbled. “It’s nice just listening to you talk.”

All the other boys’ “sweet, melodic” voices had cracked and gone to the basement, but I was still sounding like junior high, waiting for my man-burst.

For the rest of the day she and I had “girl fun” trying out make-up she had purchased from the Fuller Brush man. Every once in a while she would have me look in the mirror and ask me what I thought.

I managed to find something positive to say about what she had done, and in truth she was quite a magician with the things she used on me.

She spent what felt like hours screwing earrings off and on my ears and having me turn my head this way and that “to catch the light”. She had me try various pins and bracelets and marveled at how tiny my hands were.

It’s nice to know small hands are good for something. They weren’t any help at all trying to play sports.

We talked about how women had started a new fad by mutilating their ears and agreed that neither of us could ever be that bold.

“I think those pierced ears look cheap,” she said through tight lips. “Girls are running home from school to see that Dick Clark on American Bandstand. They’re watching people like that trashy Jerry Lee Lewis, and then running out and doing whatever they think it is, that will make them like those they see on their television set.”

I had only watched the show a few times on the television set in the student lounge on campus. “Everyone seems to like Dick Clark.”

“Hah! Mark my words. He’s a flash-in-the-pan whose name will be long forgotten a year from now.”

As the day went on her spirits became more and more animated. She appeared to be the woman she had been before Linda had gotten ill.

I couldn’t help but to feel noble making her so happy. To help her, I tried as hard as I could to be as feminine as I remembered Linda being.

At night’s end, after a meal of cottage cheese, as promised, she helped me out of Linda’s clothes and showed me how to clean my face with lotion. She then dressed me in what she called “baby doll” pajamas.

“These are just like the ones Carroll Baker wore in her movie. You know,” she studied my face, “you look a bit like her. You’re not as brash, but you’re every bit as pretty.”

I could feel a blush cover me.

“Ohhhhh,” she said stroking the side of my face, “my little Linda is going to be a beautiful bride one of these days.”

“A bride. . . ?” I croaked. Maybe I’ve played this game long enough. “Uhmmmm. . .I don’t even have a boyfriend,” I reminded her -- to cut that line of conversation short before it got too embarrassing.

“Why is that?” she asked innocently.

“Oh you know,” I said frantically looking for a good answer. “College and things take so much time I haven’t had a minute to look and. . . .”

“And now you’re stuck in this house with me.”

I sighed, grasping at the relief I felt. “Uh huh. I can’t even think about leaving you alone to go out on a date.” Thank God Mom made that one of the rules.

She pulled back my bedspread and sheets and helped me in. After she tucked me in she kissed me gently on the forehead. “You’ve made me extremely happy today, Linda. I love you.” She walked to the door and paused in the doorway after switching off the light. “Goodnight, Bob,” she said sweetly as she turned to go.

That night I woke up three times from horrible nightmares about brain surgeries.

Chapter Three

The next morning she was standing by my bed when I woke. She quickly helped me into the appropriate undergarments and a brown and blue, plaid, cotton, house dress. It became clear that when I was in the house I was expected to wear high-heeled shoes, but when I was either working in the yard, or in the henhouse, I could wear flats.

I was expected to constantly wear one of the wigs and at least minimal make up.

I did my best to stay near her at all times and kept filling my notebooks with observations.

Does she know who I really am? That was the question always at the forefront as the days went on. I never really knew the answer. All I knew for sure was the ever-present smile on Mrs. Grant’s face — and more importantly —other than that one small aspect of her life, subbing me for Linda, I saw no evidence of faulty thinking.

I had always been close to my mother, but now realized how much closer a mother and daughter were. I felt envy for the girls of the world in that they and their mothers were such pals. Nothing seemed too intimate to chat about for hours.

At first the constant small-talk was nerve-wracking for me, but once I let myself go, it became second nature. . .and fun.

I suppose I should have been embarrassed by how easily I had slipped into being her daughter, but I was too wrapped up in the façade and thinking about how to make her feel completely at ease to care.

“Have you made a list?” she asked over our morning coffee.

“List?” I looked at her wondering what was on her mind. My fingernails glistened. The frosted pink polish she had helped me put on contrasted prettily with the white mug I held.

“Grocery list; it’s Saturday. We’ve got to get to town by noon so I can go to the feed store for oyster shells for the hens. Their eggs have been too brittle of late.”

I gulped. “I can’t go to town dressed like this,” I said before I could stop myself.

“Why not? For heaven sakes, that’s a darling housedress.”

I looked down at the patterned teal and pink, short-sleeved dress I was wearing. It is darling. . .BUT! “Maybe we could go over to the Erickson’s and use their telephone to call the grocer and see if they deliver?” How can I go to the Erickson’s dressed like this?

She laughed. “That will be the day. If I ever live long enough to see the day a grocer delivers food . . . Can you imagine? Sure that’s it. Then we can call the restaurant and have them send out some food and we wouldn’t have to cook.” She laughed at the absurdity.

I laughed too. It was preposterous.

I thought fast. If we go into town people are going to know that I’m doing this because she thinks I’m Linda. They’ll send her away and all will be lost. I can’t scrub up and be Bob for a day, even if I had the clothes to wear -- because the confusion would be too much for Mrs. Grant. “How about if we go to Milford. It would be fun to see different people — people we don’t know for a change.”

“I don’t know,” she said warily.

“Oh come on,” I wheedled. “Live a little. We’ll go to that new co-op store and have an ice cream soda at their dairy bar.”

She relented, agreeing to my adventure of going to Milford -- a town far enough away so no one would know us.

Fifteen minutes later we were driving down the road in her light-blue and white Fairlane Skyliner with its big oblong taillights and automatic, retractable roof. We wouldn’t be able to buy much in the way of groceries because it had very limited storage, with the roof tucked away in the trunk.

She drove along at a sedate thirty to forty miles per hour until we had gone the six miles over gravel to the tar road. Once we were on hard surface she put the pedal to the metal and was cruising at over fifty.

I started worrying about the wisdom of riding with someone as delusional as her at such a fast speed, but she seemed to be quite attentive and very much in touch with reality, in every way but one.

When we arrived at the feed store I was struck by how solicitous everyone seemed to be. They treated us like important people, even though we didn’t know them and they didn’t know us. I assume this is how females are always treated. I watched Mrs. Grant closely, but she seemed perfectly happy and content. We did our shopping and had them wrap the perishables in double paper bags, to help preserve them until we got home.

“Oh darn,” she said, when she got behind the wheel. “I forgot about yarn. I need to go to the five and dime for a second.”

By this time I was totally comfortable with our surroundings and circumstances and felt like a few more minutes of shopping wouldn’t hurt anything.

A poster-board sign next to the front door proclaimed, “We are sold out of hula hoops. Please don’t ask when we’ll get more. We’ve got absolutely no idea!”

We went into the Ben Franklin’s and walked the narrow aisles back to where the yarn was on display. I couldn’t go into a dime store without thinking about their toy department and comic book rack. As a kid they’d been like a beacon to me every time my folks took me into Milford, which hadn’t been all that often because we did our buying at Seward.

“Mattie,” a woman’s voice called from behind us, “it’s been years.”

We turned to see Mrs. Maasjo approaching us. Behind her was her daughter, Beth, who had been a year behind me in high school. Mrs. Maasjo hadn’t recognized me, but Beth’s face told me a completely different story.

Mrs. Grant beamed. “Hello Claire! Linda and I have been. . . .”

“Beth . . . you and I. . . .” I jumped in. I placed my hand gently on Mrs. Maasjo’s shoulder and spoke so low that Mrs. Grant would have a hard time hearing. “I’m Mrs. Grant’s niece, Linda. I’ve been helping Mrs. Grant pick out yarn, but you could do a much better job than I’ve been doing.” I raised my voice. “Beth and I will take a minute to have a soda at the fountain and will meet you later at the checkout counters.”

Before she could argue, I took Beth’s hand and dragged her away from where the two old friends were standing discussing yarn.

“Bob,” she hissed. “What is going on?” She was carrying Player Piano, a book by a new writer called Kurt Vonnegut. I’d read it last fall and would have loved to talk to her about it — and not with what was going on.

“I’m dressed like this for one of my college courses,” I said. I can’t tell her about Mrs. Grant. If word gets out they’ll put her away, for sure.

“Really?” she asked skeptically. “I’m not going to college. Daddy-o says all those college professors are Communists.”

We sat at the soda fountain at the north end of the dime store and ordered cherry cokes.

She smiled. “You’ve always been a pretty nice guy, not like some of those squares. I enjoyed taking French with you.”

That was the only class we had together. She had sat right next to me and I guess we had been friendly.

“You’re easy to make laugh,” I said. My right eye was twitching a bit. The cake mascara I has used had been clumpy. Perhaps I hadn’t used enough water dissolve to it before I brushed it on.

“You’re a fun person. Sometimes you can be way out.” She made a noise with her straw that indicated she was done. “So what’s the purpose of your psychology experiment? Are you trying to prove something?”

“Not really.” How could I be so stupid as to not have an answer ready for just this moment? “It has to do with brain waves and. . . .”

“She called you ‘Linda’.”

I swallowed hard and stared at the sign that offered “Purple People Eaters” for nineteen cents. “That’s. . . .”

“Bob — you’re not a very good liar. Everyone knows Mrs. Grant is off her rocker.”

I frowned. “Don’t say that. She’s okay. . . . She’s just fine. . . . She’s just as sane as. . . . Don’t say that, please.”

“You’re right,” Beth’s face softened and became quite attractive. She leaned toward me and whispered. “I’ll bet she thinks you’re her daughter and you’re going along with it to make her feel good.”

I bit my lip. Looking over her shoulder at the record booth I saw a sign advertising a sale, including records by Paul Anka, Bobby Rydell, and Ricky Nelson.

“That’s it.” Her face lit up as she continued to talk so low that only I could hear. “You’re the only boy in the whole wide world who would be nice enough to do this for her. She’s so lucky.”

“Ahhhh. . . . I’m sure others would do the same things.”

“I was right,” she breathed excitedly, bouncing on her stool.

“But you can’t say a thing,” I begged.

“Are you worried what people will say about you?” she asked.

“What? Why would people care about what I’m doing? No. . . .” I paused. “Beth, can I trust you?”

She nodded.

“It’s important that people don’t talk too much about Mrs. Grant. If Dr. Van Houten hears word about her thinking I’m Linda, he might commit her again — and they probably will give her a lobotomy.”

Beth took a deep breath. “Is that where they cut off half her brain?”

“Sort of. . .but we can’t let that happen. Look — I’ve been going along with this charade for less than a week, and Mrs. Grant seems much better already.”

Beth nodded and touched my hand. “Wowsville. That’s really wonderful.”

“I think she’ll be her old self by the end of the summer.”

“Are you going to stay in dresses and make up all summer,” she asked quietly.

“If I have to,” I vowed.

“Bob Isle,” Beth said quickly, surprising me by kissing me on the cheek, “you’re the sweetest boy I know. And — you don’t have to worry. If I didn’t know any better I would have said you were Linda’s cousin. . . .” She winked. “. . .because you sure look like a girl.”

“That’ll make it easier,” I said with relief. “I’ll just stay away from any place where people know us. I thought Milford was safe, but I think I’ll convince Mrs. Grant to do our shopping in Lincoln in the future.”

“Bob,” she started in a low voice, and then looked around. “Linda,” she said a bit louder, “Linda, I think you and I should become best friends this summer. You wouldn’t mind if I stopped by to see you at your pad -- the Grant’s -- would you?”

I smiled. It would be nice to have someone to talk to besides Mrs. Grant.

Chapter Four

The next day was Sunday. With all the stores closed it was a day for spending time with your family. Mrs. Grant and I played board games most of the day and talked idly about our trip to Milford. Evidently she and Mrs. Maasjo had had a great time catching up. The sun was low in the late afternoon sky.

“While the two of us were gabbing. . .” Mrs. Grant said while she bought another house for St. James Place from the bank. “Hilda Thompkins came up. Do you know her son Wes?”

Do I? Wes had been my nemesis all through grade school and four years of high school. “Is he around this summer?” Wes had left after high school to become an over-the-road trucker.

“Hilda said Wes lost his commercial trucking license due to a mix-up between the State of Nebraska and him.”

I’ll bet the “mix-up” involves too many speeding tickets. “Oh?”

“Wes is working on their farm this summer, waiting for things to get straightened out.”

“Uh huh.”

I shook a seven and landed on Community Chest. I read the card out loud. "You win second prize in a beauty contest. I get ten dollars.”

Mrs. Grant laughed. “That beauty contest must have been rigged. You’d win first prize any beauty contest that wasn’t.”

I thought about how I had looked in the mirror that morning once I had gotten dressed and made up for the day and blushed deeply.

“Linda,” she said quietly, “I’m afraid I did something you’re not going to like. I’ve been scared to death to tell you and. . . .”

A knock at the front door stopped her mid-sentence. I debated going to my room to avoid questions that could disturb Mrs. Grant, but decided I needed to be with her.

Beth Maasjo stood at the door. “Hi, Linda,” she said, after I opened the door.

“Beth,” Mrs. Grant said from behind me. “What a nice surprise. Won’t you come in? I was just about to ask Linda to make me some lemonade. Would you like to join us?”

We chatted for the next few minutes about how nice it had been to run into each other the previous day and how it had been too long.

“Ohhhh,” Mrs. Grant said suddenly. “Will you just look at the time?”

“It’s only a little after six,” I said, wondering whatever she could mean.

“That’s right,” Mrs. Grant said. “It’s already after six and you haven’t even started getting ready. . .but then you look really nice just the way you are. I little lipstick. . .a spritz of perfume -- and you’ll be ready.” She smiled broadly.

Ready? “I’m sorry, Mrs. Grant. I’m not following. . . .”

“I was just about to tell you when Beth knocked at the door. Yesterday when I was talking to Beth’s mother, Hilda Thompkins came up and one thing led to another. Somehow we were talking about you, Linda, and things got confused a bit about you being my niece, which I never did understand and didn’t even try to straighten out. Isn’t it funny how things get all confused over simple issues?”

“I’m confused.” I shook my head trying to keep on the same side of the record with Mrs. Grant.

“I know,” Beth said. “One time I went into Puhr’s Mercantile for a loaf of bread and came out with a portable record player.”

We laughed.

“That’s how it was yesterday,” Mrs. Grant said. “I went into the dime store for a skein of yarn and came out with a date for Linda.”

“What?” Beth and I yelped together.

“That’s impossible,” I sputtered.

“No,” Mrs. Grant beamed. “Hilda kept saying how her son seemed to be lost since he couldn’t drive semi-tractor anymore and how he was just lolling around the house, so I suggested it might do him some good to get out. I told her it would be good if you got out of the house, too.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked, hoping she was kidding.

“Just the other day you were complaining how you were too busy to find a boyfriend. . . . So. . . .”

Beth gave me a strange look, but then smiled and shrugged.

“I can’t leave you alone,” I stated flatly. Wes Thompkins wouldn’t be able to understand any of what I’m doing and I’m forced to try to explain it to him.

“Oh. . .” Mrs. Grant said sadly. “I’m afraid I’ll have to be here alone because you couldn’t possibly back out. . . . I would die of embarrassment.”

“I could stay with you,” Beth volunteered.

“Whose side are you on?” I asked briskly.

“That would be lovely,’ Mrs. Grant said to Beth. “We could make fudge and when Linda gets home she can tell us both all about her date. He’ll be here in fifteen minutes.”

I cringed.

“Let’s go up to your room,” Beth said sweetly to me. “I’ll help you primp.”

I walked up the stairs in a fog wondering why the world had decided to take a jump into Mrs. Grant’s crazy boat.

“You should wear this perfume,” Beth said and spritzed me before I could object. “Boys love Primitif.”

“I’m not going.”

“Maybe you should take off that red lipstick and go with a baby pink. Red is a little to provocative for a first date.”

I stared at her wondering if she was enjoying making me miserable. “Didn’t you hear me?”

She shook her head. “You bit off a pretty big chunk when you decided to be Linda. Didn’t you realize something like this was bound to happen?”

“I never. . . .”

She took my hand. “You can’t throw away the chance to really help Mrs. Grant. My mother told me that she was amazed how good Mrs. Grant is doing and thinks it’s all due to you, her niece, staying with her.”

“Did your mom really say that?”

She nodded. “She’s convinced you’re Mrs. Grant’s niece, and I didn’t tell her anything different.”

“But. . .Wes will know immediately when he sees. . . .”

“Trust me — Wes isn’t going to know anything but what you want him to think.”

I paced the floor. “This is ridiculous.”

“It’ll work.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Two reasons. One — last summer I got really hard up and went on a couple of dates with Wes. We did some heavy petting, which he’s fairly good at. The thing was, even though he kept saying how much he loved me, he couldn’t keep my name straight. Of course, Wes does think Texas is the capital of Dallas.”

We laughed.

She took off the scarf she was wearing and tied it around my neck. It did look lovely with my blouse and skirt. Then she wiped off my lipstick and applied a new coat in a much lighter shade. “There. You now look about three years younger and much less like someone who’s going to fulfill Wes’ lifetime fantasies.”

“Do you really think this is a good idea?” I looked straight into her eyes, while she playfully took an eyebrow pencil and gave me a fake mole.

“No,” she giggled, “I think you and Tommy Clayton would make a much cuter couple. Maybe if you date Tommy he’ll give you his letter sweater.”

“That’s not funny,” I wailed. Tommy wore Browline glasses which made him look smart, even though he wasn’t.

“Just keep thinking about why you’re doing this. Mrs. Grant is worth it and you’re on the right track.” She gave me a peck on the cheek and a pat on the back.

Voices in the living room told us “my date” had arrived.

“On hi, Betsy,” Wes said when Beth and I came down the stairs. He was wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses even though it would be dark in about two hours.

Beth snickered behind me and gave me a gentle shove toward him.

“You must be Wes,” I said, as if I had never eaten one of his knuckle sandwiches. I noted his sideburns had grown all the way to his chinline. “I’m Linda.” I extended a hand toward him which he stared at for a second or two in just plain, dumb amazement.

He finally grabbed it and pumped it like he was going for fourteen gallons of water.

Mrs. Grant opened the door to the front yard and stepped aside for us. “I told Wes to have you back by ten. You’re okay to go to the A&W in Seward for a root beer float and to have a nice talk, but nothing else.” She raised her eyebrows at me.

“No submarine races.” Beth giggled from somewhere behind me.

Wes lightly touched my shoulder to escort me out the door.

Much to my surprise Wes acted like someone completely different. He stumbled all over himself to see to my every need. He changed the radio station on his dad’s Cadillac several times to find a song he was sure I would like. First it was Mona Lisa by Nat king Cole, then Goodnight Irene by the Weavers, followed by Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page. Strangely, I liked everything he found.

At the drive-in he parked up front where everyone could see us if they wanted, which made me feel good about how he thought of me. He changed his order, after an apparent thought, and cancelled his onion rings, which meant he didn’t want to offend me.

He didn’t even slurp his root beer. This was the same Wes who had taught everyone he could how to put peanuts in their Pepsi to get a certain “rush”.

He had to have used a half tube of Brylcreem in his greasy black hair which was combed into a D.A. -- but aside from that he was pretty handsome, if you looked at him in a certain light. He had a unique bolo tie and his shirt was pressed neatly.

We found common ground we could talk about in discussing things he seen on the road, places I wanted to go to before I died. He had been through the Grand Canyon and down the California coast. Surprisingly he described them in a way that left me seeing a clear picture in my head. Lighthouses off the coast of Maine. Moose in northern Minnesota. A catfish sandwich he’d enjoyed in Mississippi.

When we pulled in front of Mrs. Grant’s house it was fifteen minutes to ten and it felt perfectly natural for me to slide a little ways across the seat so I wasn’t clear across the car from him. Before I knew it his arm was around my shoulder and he kissed me.

For some reason it was a few not-so-awful-at-all seconds before I shoved him away.

“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding like a ten-year old who had broken his mother’s best dish.

I actually felt sorry for him. “That’s okay,” I said, and patted his cheek, while sliding away. “We both got a little carried away.”

“That’s it,” he said. “Girls get carried away around me all the time. It’s probably happened a dozen times this spring alone.”

Poof! The Wes I’d known all my life had resurfaced. The little, pink bubble that had been fogging my brain had gone away.

“Goodnight, Wes,” I said after he opened my door and I got out. “You don’t have to bother walking me to the door.” I moved as quickly as I could in my stilettos to put distance between me and the biggest creep in Seward.

The door wasn’t even closed behind me when Beth squealed. “Your lipstick is smudged — tell me all about it.”

Mrs. Grant had already gone to bed and Beth and I sat next to each other on the couch while I told her minute-by-minute how things had gone.”

“I’m jealous,” Beth said after she had wrung the last detail out of me.

“Why? For gosh sakes. He’s five foot eleven of total doofus. You can do so much better. I’ll bet Roger. . . .”

She put a finger to my lips. “I don’t have any interest in Roger. And — I’m not jealous of you for kissing Wes. I’m jealous of Wes for kissing you.”

“Wha. . . .” For the second time that night I found my lips occupied in a most pleasant sensation. This time there was no shoving away.

Chapter Five

Beth stayed by me throughout the summer. We went everywhere together which seemed to make things easy for me to pass as a girl, although I stayed away from Seward, not wanting to push my luck with the “cousin” cover story. Of course, we never left Mrs. Grant by herself, but for some reason she seemed to go up to bed awful early most nights.

Beth and I had really gotten close. She even told me about a time when she had used Ivory Soap and peroxide in her hair and how her mother had rushed her to the beauty shop before anyone saw her. She had missed a day of school to hide her mess, which had cost her a perfect attendance medal at graduation.

Mrs. Grant and I were home alone that night and had just finished a game of Gin Rummy. We preferred Canasta, but only like to play it when Beth was there for three-handed. Mrs. Grant was dressed in a sheer blouse with a lacey camisole with a pretty heart-shaped pin above her left breast. She looked a little old-fashioned, but that was her.

I no longer wore a wig. My own hair had grown out enough for Mrs. Grant and Beth to gang up on me and give me a home permanent. My hair was a mass of those tight curls; and I loved how I didn’t have to do much with it in the morning to look good. Beth said I had the cutest poodle cut she had ever seen.

“Are you happy?” Mrs. Grant asked.

“Are you being a sore loser,” I asked. I had finally gotten a run of good cards and had beaten her pretty handily.

She laughed lightly. “No — I mean -- are you happy as a girl?”

I stopped putting away the cards into their box and looked at her. “What did you just ask me?”

“Mr. Grant will be back in a three days. Your college courses start in a week. It’s time for you to make a decision.”

I choked back a gasp. I had become so comfortable in the role of her daughter that I had forgotten about . . . reality. “Whatever do you mean. . .Mom.”

She had been after me all summer to call her “Mattie” but short of that she insisted that I call her “Mom” which seemed right.

“Do you like wearing Tweed?” she asked, referring to the perfume Beth had given to me for my birthday during the second week of August.

“It’s nice.” I said. And, Beth seems to like it on me.

“The big question is, a week from now will you still be wearing it. Or, will you go back to Old Spice?”

I shook my head, not exactly sure where my footing was in this conversation.

“For goodness sakes, Bob,” she said, sounding impatient with me. “Are you a boy or are you a girl?”

“I’m Linda. . . .” I started.

“Poppycock. You’re Bob Isle, and you have a big decision to make.”

“Mrs. Grant. . . .”

“Oh, for goodness sake. For once could you please. . .please. Call me Mattie. All my friends call me Mattie and you . . . Bob . . . are my dearest friend.”

“I don’t know. . . .”

“For goodness sakes, Bob. You’ve had all summer to try out life -- as a woman. What do you think?”

I tugged at the folds of my skirt, one of many habits I had developed over the summer. “Are you feeling okay?” I studied her -- wondering if she would shift back into the world where she thought of me as her daughter.

“I guess it’s high time I leveled with you.” She got out of her chair and went toward the kitchen. “I have a bottle of wine I’ve been chilling for this discussion.” When she came back she was holding two glasses and gave one to me. She clink my glass and raised it in a toast. “Bob, you are one of the nicest people I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet. You’re a credit to Dot and the job she’s done raising you.” She took a sip of her wine and I mirrored her action. Then she sat next to me on their couch.

“Bob — when Dr. Klein came to the asylum, at my husband’s request, he immediately put things into action to get me out of there. I never really had a nervous breakdown. There was nothing wrong with me that a little extra sleep couldn’t fix. Once I was away from that hospital and home in my own bed, things fell back into place. But, Dr. Klein recommended that I find a hobby, and I followed his advice.”

“Him telling me to find a hobby turned out to be Kismet for you and me. You see, Bob. Your mother and I have been concerned about you for years. You’ve always been . . . sensitive. In this day and age it’s not easy to be even slightly different. But a boy like you doesn’t have to go through life . . . a boy.”

“You two. . . .”

“Dot and I cooked a sweet little pie. We knew that in this era of everyone being sheep, you would never agree to try a summer in skirts, if we simply asked you. So between her ‘rules’ and my acting, we arranged for your good nature to convince you to help me. Your compassion took over and seemingly overrode any of the fears you might have otherwise had.”

She handed me a book I hadn’t seen before then. On its dust cover was a picture of a pretty blonde in a black blouse with a silver brooch at her throat. “This book is called ‘Christine Jorgenson Reveals’. It’s the story of a young man who changed his life . . . and his sex.”

“I know about him. . .her.” I said defensively. “Why are you giving me this book?”

“Bob . . . you’re dressed as you are and have been dressed like this for the last almost three months, and you’re asking me why I’m giving you this book?”

“I’m not like that. I’m doing this because. . . .”

“You’re doing this because the hobby I took up is reading psychology books. I read a book by Dr. B. F. Skinner. Are you aware of him?”

“Vaguely.”

“He’s a Harvard professor who advanced the study of conditioned learning. His papers seem to be nothing more than good common sense. I and your mother applied his techniques to get you to spend the summer as a girl.”

I took a large swallow of wine, trying to center my thoughts.

“It’s apparent that you and Beth have more than a casual interest in one another.”

I nodded. She must have heard us after she went to bed.

“I don’t have a clue how all this gender and sex stuff works, but it’s obvious it’s complicated. Christine talks in her book about something called ethinyl estradiol, you need to read about that and maybe find a good doctor. The question remains, Bob. Are you going to go through life as a frustrated male, or, are you going to change your life before you get a huge burst of testosterone and miss your chance?”

I stared at my glass — trying to decide if it was half full or. . . .
 
 

THE END

 
 



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