1. Bored to Death
Today, Saturday, June 6, is my birthday and I'm twelve although I tell people who don't otherwise know me that I'm thirteen, and they believe me. I'm an excellent liar.
It's noon and I'm sitting on our front porch in an Adirondack chair drinking pale lemonade, which looks like white wine, from a long-stemmed wineglass, which I took from the cabinet where my mother keeps her best glasses. My parents are out with my brother, Milo, probably buying me some more birthday presents because they feel terrible. At least my parents do. I had to cancel my birthday party, which was going to be today, because Rosie O'Leary was having hers and her invitations got sent out before mine did and I didn't get one from her. So my friends are at Rosie's party and I'm here.
"Maybe the invitation Rosie sent to you was lost in the mail, Ellie," my mother said, trying, as she always does, to be optimistic.
"Rosie didn't send me an invitation, Mom," I said.
"Oh dear," my mother said in that way she has of speaking when she doesn't know what else to say.
"Never mind," I said. "I don't like Rosie and I'd be bored to death at her stupid birthday party."
My mother agreed especially about Rosie, but later I heard my father say he never did like Mr. O'Leary and my mother replied that all of the O'Learys, including the grandmother, were "predatory," her favorite word this year, so I put a pillow over my ears and pretended to be asleep.
"I hope you'll be okay," my mother said just a little while ago as she left the house with Milo and my father for the shops of Toledo. I waved goodbye and said I was fine, and glad not to have a birthday party of my own and especially not to be at Rosie's.
It's exhausting to be the child of parents who worry as much about your happiness as mine do.
From the bathroom window, I had watched them drive away, then took a shower and put on powder blue shorts and an oversized white tee so the hard sticky-out plums on their way to becoming breasts don't show through the shirt. I put my wet hair in a high ponytail, took the fancy wineglass, and that's how I happen to be on the front porch making a list of my special enemies at Duncan Middle School when Tommy Bowers walks out of the yellow house next door.
I catch sight of him trotting down the steps out of the corner of my eye, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, wearing a starchy white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and his long black hair floppy across his forehead.
I'm thinking he'll stop, look in my direction, and call out to me.
"What are you doing?" I'm hoping he will ask.
"Just drinking white wine and writing a poem to my boyfriend in South Africa," I'll say, asking him to come up on the front porch and join me.
But he's on his way up the street and I don't think I caught his attention, so there's no chance of talking now.
I don't know Tommy Bowers. This is the first time I've even seen him, but I've heard all about him. All I really know is that the day before yesterday he moved into the yellow house next door with Mr. and Mrs. Bowers--her name is Clarissa--and their old calico cat, Bounce, who is missing an ear. We live in a gossipy neighborhood and people have been talking about the Bowerses ever since they bought the yellow house. Especially they've been talking about Tommy.
"The Bowerses are older parents," my mother confides in me as if she's already become friends with them even though they've never met. "And I understand Tommy's a handful."
"Handful" is my grandmother's word and she usually uses it about me. As if I could fit in anyone's hand, especially my tiny grandmother's.
I lean against the porch railing watching Tommy Bowers walk up the street full of confidence, a little swing to his walk as if he's always lived here.
Our house is gray shingle in the middle of a block that slopes upward in the direction of Tommy's yellow house, which is next to the Brittles and their twin boys. Next to the Brittles is the Watsons' house. The largest house on the block, it's at the top of the street on the corner of Lincoln Road, which is the name of our street, and Jefferson Place.
The Watsons are very old sisters who live alone, and I've almost never seen them. There used to be another Watson sister but she got carried out of the house in a box and the neighborhood kids watched, including Milo and me but not the Brittle twins because their parents wouldn't let them. Four men carried the box down the front steps and put it in the back of a long black car and drove away. The other Watson sisters stood on the porch, their hands folded in front of them, so I know they're tall and skinny and could die at any time, according to Milo, who is interested in these sorts of things and so had an especially good time watching the box come out of the house with the dead Miss Watson in it.
When I look up the hill, I see that Tommy has stopped in front of the Watsons'. He's standing, one shoulder higher than the other, looking up, and he may be talking to someone on the porch but I can't see that far even though I'm leaning over the railing so my stomach is almost sliced in half. I can't see his face although it looks as if he's wearing glasses and now he's folded his arms across his chest.
So I climb up on the railing in order to see the Watsons' porch, which is impossible to see lying on my stomach, and as I do, Tommy looks toward me and raises his hand. Just the slightest motion as if we're already friends and have a secret code. Which is enough of an invitation for me on my birthday.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Under the Watsons' Porch by Susan Shreve. Copyright © 2004 by Susan Shreve. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.