The first thing I learned about Travis Becker was that he parked his motorcycle on the front lawn. You could see the tracks of it all the way up that rolling hill, cutting deeply into the beautiful, golf course-like grass. That should have told me all I needed to know, right there.
I'm not usually a reckless person. What happened the summer of my junior year was not about recklessness. It was about the way a moment, a single moment, could change things and make you decide to try to be someone different. I'm sure I made that decision the very moment I saw that metal, the glint of it in the sun, looking hot to the touch, looking like an invitation. Charles Whitney -- he too made a decision like that, way back on August 14, 1945, just as he ground a cigarette into the street with the toe of his shoe, and so did my mother when she decided that we had to steal Lillian.
Reckless is the last thing you'd call me. Shy is the usual word. I'm one of those people doomed to be known by a single, dominant feature. You know the people I mean -- the Fat Girl, the Tall Guy, the Brain. I'm The Quiet Girl. I even heard someone say it a few years ago, as I sat in a bathroom stall. "Do you know Ruby McQueen?" someone said. I think it was Wendy Craig, whose ankles I had just whacked with too much pleasure during floor hockey. And then came the answer: "Oh, is she That Quiet Girl?"
I blame my quiet status on two embarrassing incidents, although my mother will say that I've always just been a watchful person by nature, doing my own anthropological study of the human race, like Jane Goodall and The Chimpanzees of Gombe. She is probably right that personality plays a part. I sometimes feel less hardy and cut out for the world than the people around me, too sensitive, the kind of person whose heart goes out to inanimate objects -- the sock without a partner, a field of snow interrupted by footprints, the lone berry on a branch. But it is also true that humiliating experiences can wither your confidence sure as salt on a slug.
I was reasonably outgoing in the fifth grade, before I slipped on some glossy advertising circulars in our garage, broke my tailbone, and had to bring an inflatable doughnut to sit on at school. Before this I would actually raise my hand, stand at the front of a line, not be afraid to be noticed. My stomach seizes up into knots of humiliation just remembering that doughnut. It looks like a toilet seat, Brian Holmes cracked, and the above mentioned Wendy Craig laughed. And he was right; it did -- like those puffy ones that you see in tacky, overdecorated bathrooms.
I had begun to put it all behind me, pardon the pun. I'd nearly erased the memory of Mark Cummings and Dede Potter playing Frisbee with the doughnut during lunch, trying instead to remember what my mother told me, that Brian Holmes would no doubt end up prematurely bald and teaching remedial math, and that Mark Cummings was gay, only he didn't know it yet. Then it happened again: humiliating experience, part two. Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water. This time it was my own fault. I'd placed a pair of minipads in the armpits of my blouse so I wouldn't soak my underarms with nervous sweat during a science speech, and one sailed out as I motioned to my display board. At home, peeling the paper strips and sticking the pads in my shirt had seemed ingenious. Why had no one thought of this before? But as soon as I started to speak, I could feel the right one loosen and slip with every small gesture. I tried to keep my arm clutched tight to my side, soldierlike. Just because an organism is one-celled, doesn't mean it is dull and uninteresting. Finally, I had no choice but to flip the page of my board, and down the minipad shot like a toboggan on an icy slope, landing on the floor in white, feminine-hygiene victory. The crowds roared.
So I became quiet. This seemed the safe thing to do when embarrassments hunted me like a stalker hunts a former lover. Again my mother tried her wisdom on me -- Laugh it off, she said. Everyone else is too busy trying to forget their own humiliations to remember yours. You're no different than anyone else. Why do you think that years later we still have dreams that we went to school and forgot to get dressed? And again, this might be true. Still, it seems to me that if I get a pimple it will be in the middle of my forehead like an Indian bindi, and if the answer is spermatozoa, I'm the one that will be called on. I've just found that it's best to lie low.
Quiet People, I can tell you, usually have friends who play the violin way, way too well, and know that continental drift isn't another way you can get your coffee at Starbucks. My friend Karen Jen won the Youth Math Extravaganza (I noticed that the bold letters on the sweatshirt she got spelled Y ME, but I didn't mention this to her), and Sarah Elliott and I became friends in P.E. because the V-sit was the highlight of our gymnastics ability. Last winter, Sarah made a wild pass of her basketball and whacked Ms. Thronson of Girl's State Volleyball Championship fame on the back of the head. One minute there was Ms. Thronson, her shoulders as big as the back of a dump truck, blowing her whistle -- Threeep! And the next minute, bam, she was down on her knees as if praying for forgiveness for making us do that unit on wrestling. Sometimes you don't know your own strength.
If you are kind, or were one of my friends in the pre-doughnut days, you've cringed for me over the years, sending supportive thoughts with a glance. But maybe, just maybe, when it is my turn to read aloud in English class (because reading aloud means that Mrs. Forrester can grade papers rather than really teach), you also notice that my voice is clearer and stronger than you thought it would be. When I read Fitzgerald, when I read the part about the light at the end of Gatsby's dock, you see that Mrs. Forrester puts down her red pen and pauses with her coffee cup halfway to her lips, her eyebrows knitted slightly in a look of the softest concentration. That's when you wonder if there might be more to me. More than the glimpse of my coat flying out behind me as I escape out the school doors toward home. At least that's what I hope you think. Maybe you're just thinking about what you're going to have for lunch.
Old Anna Bee, one of the Casserole Queens, told me the same thing once, that there was more to me. She took one finger, knobby from years of gardening, and tapped my temple, looking me long in the eyes when she said it so that I would be sure to take in her meaning. I liked the way it sounded -- as if I lead a life of passion and adventure, the stuff of a good book of fiction, just no one knows it. It sounded like I have secret depths.
And I guess for one summer, just one summer, maybe it was true. I did have passion and adventure in my life, the stuff of the books at the Nine Mile Falls Library where my mother works. Summer, after all, is a time when wonderful things can happen to quiet people. For those few months you're not required to be who everyone thinks you are, and that cut-grass smell in the air and the chance to dive into the deep end of a pool give you a courage you don't have the rest of the year. You can be graceful and easy, with no eyes on you, and no past. Summer just opens the door and lets you out.
It was nearly summer, though school wasn't let out yet, when I got that brief glimpse of Travis Becker's motorcycle on the long lawn of the Becker estate. I had walked home by myself that day, instead of with my friend Sydney, as I usually do. Sydney has lived next door to me forever; we both have movies of us when we were babies, sitting in one of those blow-up wading pools, screaming our heads off.
"We're only screaming because of those bathing suits you guys had us in. They look like the kind you see at the community pool on the old ladies recovering from heart surgery. They've got skirts, for God's sake," Sydney said one night as we all watched the movies at her house.
"You were babies. The old ladies, by the way, only require heart surgery after seeing what girls wear to the beach these days," my mother said.
"Personally, I think Sydney started screaming then and just never stopped," her mother, Lizbeth, said, dodging a few popcorn pieces Sydney threw her way.
Lizbeth was probably right. Sydney was one of those people who weren't afraid to express themselves, through words, through clothes, through honking a horn at another car during her Driver's Ed test. She once got grounded for grabbing the family goldfish out of the bowl and threatening to throw it at her brother during an argument. Sydney and her whole family, really, were the kind of people who made you feel that power was possible if you could only get to the point where you didn't care what anyone thought. Sydney was a year older than I was, and my only friend who didn't know more about algorithms than was actually good for the health. She was more like family, though.
"You are a cool and beautiful person," she had said to me after the minipad incident. "Just remember that high school is a big game where the blond, perfect ones sit on the sideline while everyone else crosses a mine field trying not to look stupid. In the real world, this all reverses." She sounded a bit like my mother. "Being blond and perfect prepares you for nothing in life but being married to a brain-damaged former football jock named Chuck and having a license plate holder that says FOXY CHICK." Next year when Sydney went off to college, I would miss her more than I could say.
But that day, fate sent Sydney to the dentist, and I walked home on my own. I got to go the way I liked: the long way. After you get out of school and pass the Front Street Market and the used bookstore and the community theater where they put on plays that usually star Clive Weaver, our postman, you can go home two ways. Sydney's way, the quickest on foot, is down a side street, cutting through Olsen's Llama Farm and the property of Johnson's Nursery. But I like to take the main road, Cummings Road, the same one we take in the mornings when Mom drives my brother and me to school on her way to work. Nine Mile Falls sits in the center of three mountains, and Cummings Road weaves through the valley of the largest one, Mount Solitude.
When you walk, you can look at it all more closely -- the winding streets named after trees that lead to snug neighborhoods; the small houses that sit right on the road near town, with their lattice arbors and gardens packed tight with old roses. If you go far enough, you walk past the sprawling lawn of George Washington's house, at least that's our name for it, the huge colonial that is odd and unexpected in our Northwest town, as odd and unexpected as finding a decent car at Ron's Auto, the place you pass next. Ron's Auto is in a dilapidated building with old junkers parked in front and RON'S spelled out in hubcaps on the fence. If you're looking for a car that actually starts, I'd probably look somewhere else.
You get a little of everything on Cummings Road. Mom says it's like a living bookshelf, each piece of property a separate, distinct story. If that's true, then it's a shelf organized by wacky Bernice Rawlins, mom's co-worker. When she puts away the books at the Nine Mile Falls Library, you never know what will end up where. She once put How to Be Lovers for the Rest of Your Lives in the children's section next to Horton Hears A Who.
The best part of Cummings Road, though, is Moon Point, a part of Mount Solitude. Paragliders leap from Moon Point in numbers that are almost mystical -- thirty-five at one count, soaring like brilliant butterflies and floating so close to the road before they land that if you ever drive past in a convertible, you worry that a sudden, unexpected passenger might drop in. There is something special about the winds there, how they whip down from Mount Solitude and swirl back up again. I don't know how it works; I only know that people come from all over to paraglide off Moon Point. There's even a school on the grounds, the Seattle Paragliding Club, housed in an old barn. The club's logo, wings carrying a heart aloft, is painted on the side of the barn, huge and colorful.
You get all kinds at Moon Point -- the professionals with their gliders all rolled up into neon cocoons and strapped to their backpacks with precision, and the people who don't have a clue what they're doing and get stuck in the trees. Chip Jr., my younger brother, saw one once as we drove past. "There's a paraglider in that tree," he said, his face tilted up toward the window. I didn't believe him -- Chip Jr.'s favorite joke, after all, is telling you that he saw the governor in the men's bathroom on his field trip to the state capitol. But sure enough, there was a guy stuck high in a fir, his legs dangling down and his glider tangled hopelessly in the branches.
I love to see those paragliders weaving softly around Moon Point, their legs floating above you in the air. When they drift in for a landing, their feet touch the ground and they trot forward from the continued motion of the glider, which billows down like a setting sun. I never get tired of watching them and I've seen them thousands of times. I always wondered what that kind of freedom would feel like.
That day, I stopped at Moon Point for a while. I walked past the row of cars that were always parked in front of the school -- active, mud-splattered cars and trucks. I looked for my favorite one -- the van with a whale painted on the side and an I LOVE POTHOLES bumper sticker, and was happy when I saw it there. A car with a sense of humor. I sat on the ground with my chin pointing upward and counted an even twenty paragliders soaring against the wooded backdrop of Mount Solitude. I stayed a long while, sat on the grass, and listened for the flapping sound of tight nylon wings against the wind. I had some things to think about. That morning, even before my alarm clock went off, I could hear my mother running the vacuum. It was a bad sign, a sure start to at least three days of hurricane cleaning, endless whiffs of lemon Pledge, odd colored liquids in the toilet bowls, the seeek, seeek sound of paper towels wiping down ammonia-squirted mirrors. This cleaning -- it meant that my father was coming. It meant that my mother would once again lose her heart to a man who was no longer even her husband, but whose ring she still wore on a chain around her neck. And it meant that my brother and I would be walking around the broken pieces of that heart for days after he left.
I watched the paragliders until the sun snuck behind Mount Solitude. The shadow it cast quickly stole all of the summer heat, and so I decided to head home. Past Moon Point, right after the tiny Foothills Church with its white steeple, that's where the Becker estate is. Construction men worked on that house for nearly two years. The only thing that was on the property before then was an old remnant of an earlier building, broken segments of brick and stone, a single fireplace, something that once was, only no one remembered what that something was. Then one day a bulldozer suddenly arrived, followed shortly after by men in orange vests directing traffic around all of the equipment that was coming and going. Traffic backed up badly on Cummings Road for three straight months. First there was the smell of fresh tumbled earth, and then the smell of mud, and finally of cement and asphalt, new wood. The day the driveway was poured and work began on a pool, my mother, a terrible driver, knocked down a record of five orange traffic cones as we wove through a narrow channel. The lawn was laid out using the same method as does Poe, our dog, when he snitches one end of the toilet paper and trots off -- it was unrolled that same way. Instant lawn. Green as money, Sydney's father said, but it wasn't really true. It was brighter than that, bright as cartoon grass. Sydney's dad just had lawn envy.
The stone wall, that's what took the longest. After the wall itself went up, masons with cement-splattered overalls came day after day to add small tiles of intricate designs. The disappointing thing about the wall, and the iron gates that were added last, was that after they went up you could no longer see what was going on behind them. So we filled in the details on our own. The house inspired gossip all around Nine Mile Falls. First the owner was a movie mogul, then a chain-store tycoon, then the owner of a hotel; he came from southern California, Florida, Boston. Everyone agreed that the piece of property had been too long overlooked as one of our best, set against the firs and evergreens of Mount Solitude, a segment of Fifteen Mile River running through the back of the property.
The truth about the Beckers was not nearly as interesting as the stories. John Becker was from Seattle and made his money as an early stockholder in Microsoft; he and his wife, Betsy, had two sons, Evan and Travis. After we had all of the facts, stories continued to circulate. It was as if we had a need to make this house and the people in it more than they were; maybe the size of the place required a story big enough to fill it. Evan and Travis went to private schools; Evan had supposedly been kicked out. Travis had been arrested. Girls were always claiming that they were dating one or the other, or both at the same time. Every four or five months, John and Betsy were said to be getting a divorce, with plans to put the house up for sale, but no sign ever went up.
That day, after I watched the paragliders, something relatively rare happened -- the gates were left open. Not to say that this never occurred; just usually, to your bad luck, you only noticed it too late, when you were zipping past in the car and what you saw was only from looking back over your shoulder. This time they were open, and I was on foot and alone. It was like something out of The Secret Garden. A hidden place that compelled you to go forward to a mystery that lay beyond. I pictured myself at that point in the old movie, when it goes from black and white to color as she steps through the gates. All right, let's be honest. I trespassed.
I stopped when the house was finally in view. I let my eyes take in that beautiful yard and the oak tree picturesquely just left of center that the construction workers managed to leave in the ground. I saw it there, then. This motorcycle. All gleaming chrome, parked there so boldly, so wrongly, right on the lawn. Think of a defiant act -- think of a boy in black leather talking back to a policeman, think of a stone thrown through a plate of glass -- that's what that motorcycle looked like. Stepping too close to the edge, saying no, or yes, and not caring about the consequences.
Right then one of the garage doors went up, giving me the fright of my life. I felt frozen in place, and I wasn't sure if I would seem more guilty staying where I was or walking on after I'd already surely been spotted. I don't even know why I felt so bad when it was really only a glimpse I had been stealing. My feet, by default, made the decision whether we were staying or going -- they wouldn't move. So as the door went up, same as a curtain when the play is starting, revealing Travis Becker on that almost stage, I was still standing there, staring.
I didn't know it was Travis then, of course. I only saw this boy, good-looking, oh, God, with a helmet under one arm, looking at me with this bemused smile. Right away I got that Something About To Happen feeling. Right away I knew he was bad, and that it didn't matter.
Copyright © 2004 by Deb Caletti