Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Forcing the Hand of God: Chapter 21 (part 2)

“Remember the game against the Chicago Beavers? Boy, the team was sure you’d bitten the dust, but you rallied and went on to score.” Tommy rubbed his hands together. “Sure had us some good times, didn’t we, Rodg?”

Rodger waved them on into the living room.

“Mother, Aunt Carrie, I’d like you to meet my old friend, Tommy Radkins.” Rodger stepped aside. “This is his wife, Cindy.”

Madeline lowered Jonelle from her shoulder, turning to display her sleeping face. “Nice to meet you, Cindy. Of course, I remember Tommy.”

Tommy bowed to Madeline, and then lightly shook Aunt Carrie’s proffered hand. “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

Cindy nudged Tommy. “Isn’t she precious?”

Rodger noticed Madeline’s pinched smile, as if she’d bitten into a lemon. He wished for once, just this once, she’d look happy. “Do you two have any children?”

Tommy’s head bobbed in delight. “Yes ma’am. We have three.”

Cindy clasped her hands and held them demurely in front of her, lifting her head so that she could look directly into Rodger’s eyes. “I’d like you to tell Adele that I’d be more than happy to pass on the baby’s things. The little ones grow so fast; they never wear their clothes out.”

Rodger nodded. “Thanks.”

Carrie slapped her knees. “Rodger! Your manners! Why, I bet these good folks would like to sit a spell and talk over a glass of lemonade.”

Jonelle let out a lusty cry. Rodger looked at Madeline, wondering what she could have possibly done to his child. He stepped towards her. The cries grew in intensity, the sound swelling within the small room.

“She’s hungry,” Cindy said quietly.

“Give her to me,” Rodger demanded. “Excuse me while I take her to Adele.” From the corner of his eye, he noticed Tommy and Cindy exchange indulgent smiles.

Adele lay sleeping on her back, her face relaxed, but her right hand held tightly to the bunched bedspread. Rodger hesitated to disturb her. Jonelle screeched and hiccupped. Adele’s eyes flew open. She rolled over.

Rodger laid Jonelle on the bed, close to Adele’s breasts. “She must be hungry.”

“I meant for you bring her when she just started to fuss.” Adele undid the flap on her maternity bra, exposing the nipple, touching Jonelle’s cheek with it.

The baby wailed. Adele made soothing noises to her. Finally, the baby fumbled for the nipple, then latched onto it.

Rodger gawked, fascinated. Desire tickled in his groin. Voices from the other room shook him from his reverie.

“An old friend dropped by. Tommy Radkin.” He continued staring at Adele and the nursing baby. “His wife, Cindy, said to tell you she’d pass on some baby things.”

Adele looked up as if she just remembered he was there.

“Go on back to your friends. I’ll feed her and put her down, then be right out.”

“All right,” Rodger paused before he got to the bedroom door. “I’d never have recognized Tommy walking down the street. He was always such a scrawny kid. Now he’s husky and has a farmer’s tan.”

Adele wiped away some milk dribbling down the baby’s cheek. “Farmer’s tan?”

“Red hands and white forehead.” He leaned close to her, mocking her quizzical expression by wrinkling his nose. “Wearing a hat and long sleeves all day long in the sun. Working his old man’s wheat farm.”

Adele shooed him away. “You’re being rude. Go on.”

“I’d rather be with you.” But he turned and hurried back into the living room.

Aunt Carrie brought out the lemonade in a pitcher on a tray and passed a glass to each of them. Rodger checked his watch and sighed, anxious to push off and go to the gym for his daily workout.

“Boy, this heat’s a killer, huh?” Tommy leaned back and rested his arm across the back of the sofa. His wife nodded.

“Does it affect your crops?” Rodger tipped his glass, letting the cool, sour lemonade slide down his throat, thankful that it was Tommy and not he who had been left behind.

“Only them dust storms. Got most of the hard work out of the way until harvest time. Gonna be around for a while, Rodg?”

“Not very long,” Rodger looked down in his glass. “Got my orders to instruct at Fort Kelly.”

Tommy leaned forward, his hands splayed out on his knees.

“Gonna teach flyin’?”

Rodger pinched the lemon slice, dredging it up to the rim of the glass. “Yeah. New group of Army Flying Tigers.”

“Boy, oh, boy, ya can’t get it out of your system, can ya?” Tommy kneaded his hands. “We’d go sneakin’ down to Bombner Field, and Rodg would take a spin in that old plane of Sam’s. Man as mean as the day were long.”

Rodger eyed Tommy as he bit into the lemon slice.

“Sam was a great flyer.”

“Yeah, I know. Remember that smoker in thirty‑five at Jake’s corner when ya took on Gruesome George? Thought ya were a goner for sure. Never seen anyone so fast at dodgin’ as you Rodger. Should a called yourself ‘Dodgin’ Rodg.’” Tommy guffawed at his little joke.

Rodger chuckled. Madeline shivered, averting her face from Rodger.

“What do you do for fun nowadays, Tommy?” Rodger felt the afternoon speed by, like the slip stream of Sam’s airplane, Lucy.

“Me and Cindy don’t have much time with the farm and three little uns, Rodg. I guess you could say we settle for home entertainment.”

Madeline delicately cleared her throat. “What are the ages of your children, Tommy?”

He shot a quick glance to his wife. “Uh...,”

“Two, four, and six, Mrs. Brown,” Cindy swirled her ice cubes. “Two boys and the baby, Jenny Lyn.”

Tommy scratched his head. “Sorry to hear about your dad, Rodg. Must of been quite a blow to ya.”

Madeline stiffened. Carrie stood up, collecting glasses.

“It was to us all, young man.”

Tommy flushed bright red, stretched his shoulders, before blurting, “Say, Rodg, got a Wednesday night poker game going with the guys. Wanna join us tomorrow night?”

Rodger compressed his smile. “Might. See how the day goes.”

“Well, me and the missus gotta go. Glad we got to see the baby.” Tommy pushed his hand at Rodger.

“Wait for a bit more and meet Adele,” Rodger countered. He heard the door to the bedroom open. “She’s putting the baby down.”

Adele whispered into the room, dressed in a crisp white sundress. She glided over to Rodger and entwined her hand along his arm.

“You must be Rodger’s friends,” Adele spoke evenly, squeezing Rodger’s arm. “I’m ‘The Kid’s’ wife, Adele.”

“Excuse me, honey!” Rodger extended his right hand, palm out. “Meet Tommy and Cindy Radkin.”
They both tipped their heads and sang out jointly, “Pleased to meet ya.”

As Carrie came out from the kitchen, Madeline stood, smoothing her skirt. Rodger recognized an old habit.

“We must be going ourselves, Carrie.” She picked up her purse, and the keys jangled in her hand.
“Rodger, your Uncle Kyle will be leaving tomorrow. He received a telephone call this morning from Washington. He has to go there for a meeting.”

“Tell him I’ll drive him to the station.” Rodger led the group out to the porch. “Tommy, it was great seeing you again.” He stared into the solid green eyes of Cindy. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Adele folded her long legs crosswise as she sat on the porch swing. Rodger waved until his arm ached, as Madeline and Carrie left, then Tommy and Cindy pulled away in their noisy Ford truck. He sat down on the porch step.

“I wonder if Ada will go with me and Kyle to the train station. I’m sure there’s more than just a friendship between them.”

He studied Adele’s face for a reaction, but she just smiled and gave a little shrug of her shoulders.
“I think they would make a good couple.” She tipped the swing to begin rocking gently as she rested her head on her arm and stared back at Rodger.

Rodger leaned over and stopped the swing so that her face tilted close enough so he could kiss her. He set the swing rocking again.

“I’d like to sneak off for an hour or so.”

“I wouldn’t mind. I’ve started a new book. Think I’ll just soak up some sunshine and read for a while.”

“I’ll get your book for you.” He went quickly to the bedroom and found it on the bedside table. He hastily grabbed the duffle bag with his boxing gear and walked on the balls of his feet down the hall so that his shoes wouldn’t squeak.

“Here.” He handed Adele the book and kissed her on the tip of her nose. “See you later.”

He turned and waved as he walked away. He picked up his pace as he drew closer to downtown, pushing against an inward ticking of precious minutes. He flexed his neck muscles and those along his shoulder and back. Beads of sweat dotted his upper lip and tickled down his sides.

He relished the pull of his muscles as he climbed the stairs two at a time up to the door and let himself in, going directly to the locker room to dress. Today he would spar a little with Reb.

Reb danced around him, throwing a practiced punch. Rodger surprised him with a powerful jab to his jaw, throwing him momentarily off balance. Reb quickened his pace and concentration, making Rodger stay on his toes and dance, dance, dance.

After forty-five minutes, they were exhausted. Rodger smacked his glove against Reb’s. “Nice workout. Thanks.”

“Hey, Pop, you’re good, real good. See you around.” Reb waved to him as he left the ring.

Rodger showered, changed back into his street clothes, and massaging his neck, took the steps slowly as he left the gym. The late afternoon shadows of the sycamore trees that lined the avenue made it seem cooler as Rodger plodded home. His body ached from the strenuous workout. But it was good hurt, a clean hurt. One that he understood.

Silence greeted him as he entered his house. He carefully put down his gear and sat on the arm of the chair to remove his shoes and socks. His feet sucked at the polished wooden floor as he came to the bedroom. Adele lay with the baby on the bed.

“Hey, you two, I’m home.” Rodger plopped on the bed. The baby jerked, and then her head bobbed awkwardly, almost as if searching for his voice. Rodger touched her tiny hand with his index finger. “Do you think she knows who I am?”

Adele chuckled. “Yes, I do. Really.” She reached over and twisted Rodger’s left arm so that she could see his watch. “Let’s eat. She’s been fed and will be good until your turn.” She sat up, adjusted her clothing, and then checked the baby’s diaper.

“Wait a minute before you put her down to sleep.” Rodger went to the dresser and rummaged through his underwear drawer. “I want to give this to Jonelle when she’s twelve years old. Remember I told you about Mary Elizabeth and her birthday dinner?”

He laid the jeweler’s box in Adele’s palm. She flipped the top open.

“What is it?”

“The ivory bead that Mary Elizabeth gave me.” He looked at his daughter. “I got a chain for it.”

Adele teased the chained bead with a finger.

“It’s really quite lovely, isn’t it?” She tilted the box. “Look what Daddy is going to give you, Jonelle. See the pretty necklace?”

Rodger went back to the dresser, extracting his father’s railroad watch from a sock turned inside out.

“Mother said Dad wanted his grandson to have this. I think he’d have changed his mind if he’d seen Jonelle.”

Adele tilted her face upwards, her watchful eyes ferreting for inner truth. “Perhaps you should save it until there’s a son. Carry it with you.”

Rodger snorted. “Like a talisman?”

Adele shook her head, putting the necklace back into the box.

“No.” She paused thoughtfully. “Well, yes, kind of like a talisman.” She swaddled Jonelle in the baby blanket and lay her down to sleep in the middle of the bed.

Rodger flicked his wrist so that the watch on the gold chain began to sway back and forth.

Adele swayed with it. “I’m yours, master. Command me and I shall do your bidding.”

“Dinner, wife. Get me food.”

“Yes, master.” She stood woodenly, working her stiffened arms like an animated toy soldier, and marched toward the kitchen.

Rodger swept up his baby and followed Adele to the kitchen. She heated the tuna casserole as he watched Jonelle’s face, trying to read her expressions.

“What do you suppose she thinks about?”

He moved to one side as Adele put plates, flatware and glasses on the table. She brought the casserole to the table and ladled portions onto each plate.

“Airplanes. She undoubtedly dreams of flying.” Adele motioned for him to give her the baby and sit. “I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.”

Rodger shoveled the casserole into his mouth.

“Uncle Kyle is leaving tomorrow, sooner than expected. I’m going to take him to the train station.”
Adele’s forehead wrinkled. “I didn’t get to see very much of him. Can’t he send Carrie instead?”

“Why, woman! What do mean to imply about my favorite aunt?” Rodger gasped and put his hand over his heart. Then he wiped his mouth, tucking the napkin beside his plate.

“Here, let me have her while you eat.” Rodger nestled Jonelle in the crook of his arm as she slept. “Babies don’t do much, do they?”

Adele ignored him, hurrying to finish her meal. Still chewing her last bite, she rose to do up the dishes. It seemed as if they had been into this routine for many years, right down to night time rituals. Rodger put Jonelle in her bassinet as Adele fixed a bottle of formula, filling the pan half‑full of water to boil.

Rodger eyed the bottle in Adele’s hand. “How do I know if it’s too hot?”

Adele turned her wrist and shook drops from the bottle onto it.

“Inside, remember? It’s the most sensitive.” She clicked her tongue. “Don’t forget to burp her after a minute or so. If you get frustrated, bring her into me.”

“It’ll be duck soup, honey, don’t you worry.” Rodger pushed away from the door frame and peeled off his undershirt. “Bedtime for us.”

Adele ringed his waist with her arms and followed him duck-walking down the hall to their bedroom. They slept in a naked embrace until Jonelle’s squalls woke them.

“I’ll see to her.” Rodger stretched awake.

“Rodger, it’s much easier for me.” Adele rested a hand on his thigh.

“You just wait here.” He got up out of bed.

“Good luck, good knight,” Adele mumbled as Rodger threw on his robe and padded into the baby’s room.

Rodger grew tense as Jonelle’s crying intensified. The water was slow to boil. He tapped the pan. He plunked the bottle into the warming water, swirling it with his right hand as he cradled Jonelle securely to him, like a football. She strained against him, her wailing interrupted by little hiccups.

“Hush, little baby,” he muttered, trying to convince them both to be calm. “Damn, I should have changed your diaper and then let this thing warm.” He turned away from the stove and pried his finger into the side of her wet diaper. He took her back to the nursery, changed her while she continued to bawl, poked his finger with a diaper pin, and sucking on it, he scooted back to the kitchen with Jonelle. She kicked and stiffened her whole body when he tried to place her again in the crook of his arm.

Holding her tight against his shoulder, he paced and patted her back. “Shhh, shhh, little girl. Daddy’ll feed you and rock you and everything will be right with you and the world.”

Exasperated, he looked from the bobbing bottle in the boiling water in the pan around the kitchen trying to figure out what to do with Jonelle. Finally, he decided to return her to the bed and he would just have to let her cry until he could get the bottle ready.

He tested the bottle against the inside of his wrist.

“Ouch!” He closed his eyes and sighed, putting the bottle on the sink board. He could hear Jonelle sobbing in the other room. Adele couldn’t have possibly planned this.

He hurried back to the nursery and swept Jonelle up in her blanket.

“Okay, little girl, let’s go see Mommy.”

“Here, she’s all yours,” Rodger slid the mottle‑faced baby over to Adele. “Do you need lights on?”

“No, I do it by feel.”

Rodger heard the baby greedily gurgling milk; without seeing Adele’s face, he knew she was smiling.
“You don’t impress me as the kind of man who takes the easy way out,” she chuckled.

Rodger nested into his pillow.

“It occurred to me that I was making undue hardships for myself.” He exaggerated a yawn.

“Could you at least stay awake long enough to take her back to her room? It won’t be long. I’ll have to sit up to burp her. Would you give me a hand?”

Adele’s words fell on deaf ears. Rodger had already fallen asleep.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Happy and Productive Children and Teens

Help Your Child or Teenager Move Toward Happy Productivity
by Dona Matthews, Ph.D.
Confidence and happy productivity are built on competence, on grappling with the challenges that lead to expertise. If your child or teenager can’t seem to connect with any enthusiasms or interests, and doesn’t engage in challenging learning opportunities at school or elsewhere, you may want to consider helping them with a productivity make-over.

The first step toward happy productivity may surprise you. In order to encourage your child or teenager to become more actively engaged in meaningful efforts in one area or another, try encouraging him to step back and slow down. Even better, do the same in your own life. This step-back-slow-down approach can be particularly valuable if your lives have been over-scheduled, rushing from one activity to another.

Here are seven questions to ask yourself in order to initiate a productivity make-over. Your answers can help create a healthy balance in which you and the other members of your family can thrive, and move toward engagement in activities that lead to happy productivity.

Read the entire article for how to help your child or teenager>>

Helping High School Students Become Productive Students
by Ashley Miller, Demand Media
The better prepared and organized high school students are, the more productive and successful they'll be in their academic careers. But that doesn't necessarily mean putting in more hours of study or spending weekends poring over the books -- it means working smarter. To help high school students become productive students, you'll need to help them develop proper habits and keep them motivated with a positive, encouraging attitude.
Read the entire article for how to help high school students>>

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Stress and Anxiety in Children and Teens

"Psychologists also say that if teens don’t learn healthy ways to manage their stress now, it could have serious long-term health implications. Research finds that between 8 and 10 percent of American children and teens are seriously troubled by stress symptoms. And stress is also hitting our children at younger ages." - Michele Borba

Signs of Stress in Children and Teens
by Michele Borba
REALITY CHECK: Reports say that stress is mounting in our children, and that we parents are often unaware of just how stressed our kids are.

Each child handles and shows stress differently. A big key to helping our children is learning to recognize their unique signs, which type of events or issues cause angst, and then teach healthy ways to manage stress.

Stress: A Top Kid Health Concern
The American Psychological Association (APA) released troubling survey results about our kids. The “Stress in America” surveyed 1206 young people ages eight to seventeen as well as 1568 adults conducted by Harris Interactive. The report, building on past research, revealed that stress is a top health concern for American teens between 9th and 12th grade. Among key study findings is this:
“Parents underestimate the extent of their kids’ stress.” 

The big red flag for parents and educators to keep in mind: Our kids are much more stressed than we think. Read the entire article for the signs of stress in children and teens>>

49 Phrases to Calm an Anxious Child
by Renee Jain, MAPP
It happens to every child in one form or another – anxiety. As parents, we would like to shield our children from life’s anxious moments, but navigating anxiety is an essential life skill that will serve them in the years to come. In the heat of the moment, try these simple phrases to help your children identify, accept, and work through their anxious moments.

1. “Can you draw it?”
Drawing, painting or doodling about an anxiety provides kids with an outlet for their feelings when they can’t use their words.

2.  “I love you. You are safe.”
Being told that you will be kept safe by the person you love the most is a powerful affirmation. Remember, anxiety makes your children feel as if their minds and bodies are in danger. Repeating they are safe can soothe the nervous system.
Read the entire article for more phrases to calm an anxious child>>

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Penny in Time Chapter 2: Tell Me Again Why I Should Listen

My kind of Sunday:  rainy and the comics to be read.  Mom's humming, in just the right mood to make me waffles and bacon. I pull my mop of hair through a hair tie and just let the wispy ones get away.

Mom hands me the telephone as I pad into the kitchen.  "Your father," she smiles and tugs on my ponytail.

"Good morning, sleepyhead!"  Dad's cheery voice makes me warm inside.  "Have you had breakfast yet?"

"No," I know he knows that I just got up, but I like the way he teases me.

"I'm out the door, on my way to pick you up.  We'll have 'Connor’s Delight' this morning!"

"All right!"  I snap off the hair tie and fluff my hair as I skip down the hall to my bedroom. I hurry and get dressed, evening the ends of the scarf my Mom gave me, grabbing a new Star Trek™ poster I want to put up in my bedroom at Dad's condo.

“Hey! Nice scarf. It jazzes up the sweatshirt.” He opens the door for me as I climb into his car.
We chatted on the way, just like old times.  He seemed in a really good mood.  "How's Algebra?"

My hardest subject.  "Some of it's so easy, then I get totally lost."

He patted my shoulder.  "You have to stick with it, there's always a solution to each problem.  You're too smart to let a few numbers get the better of you."

"I hope so."  I wish I had as much faith in my ability to understand math as he does.  It was a whole lot easier when he lived at home and helped me with my homework.

"It'll click, believe me, if you just hang in there with it."

Maybe he's right, after all.  Could be his easy solutions really do work.  "Do you think we can look for bedroom furniture after breakfast?"

He slides his BMW into his parking space, turns the ignition off and unbuckles his seat belt.  "I've got to see a client this afternoon, but..."

"That's okay, Dad, we can do it some other time.  Anyway, I told Slinky I'd go to the mall with her."  I hug him back as we walk along the path to his front door.   

His condo is big and roomy, especially the kitchen and living room.  From the front bedroom I have the best view of Puget Sound, the marina and the sunset.  I've made myself cozy in that little room, pinning posters and bumper stickers all over the walls.  Dad bought me a super-single waterbed, and Mom made me a dark blue comforter silk-screened with the Milky Way galaxy on it.  All the room needed was a dresser, the next project Dad and I were going to do together.

As I came into the living room, Sylvia popped off the couch like a jack-in-the box.  "Elizabeth!  I'm so glad to see you!"

"Hi."  I stopped short.  Sometimes I think she's going to grab me, like I'm some sort of long-lost friend or relative.

She's tall, blonde and always wears make-up, even when she's dressed in blue jeans.  Sylvia's trendy, smart, the NOW! woman.  Why then does she act so dumb around my Dad?

"Your Dad's so glad that you came for breakfast!  My, how long your hair has grown!"  She reaches out, but I step aside and head for my bedroom.

"Yeah, it's getting there."

"Well, girls," Dad chirps, "let's get this show on the road.  How about eggs Benedict?"

"How about waffles, bacon and eggs?" I shout from bedroom.  "I thought you said we were having 'Connor's Delight'?"  I come out and stand beside him.

"Sylvia went to a lot of trouble to make a special Hollandaise sauce, Dusty.  The least you could do is try it."

"Oh, that's okay, Dennis."  Sylvia waves her pearly pink lacquered fingernails in the air.  "It'll keep.  Connor's waffles sound delightful."

Maybe she expected me to laugh at her little play on words, but I didn't find it amusing.  Just like I don't find her amusing.

Dad's waffles are soggy, but the bacon's crisp.  Sitting at the dining table I look at the two of them and wonder what Dad could possibly see in Sylvia.  She's not even as pretty as my Mom.

"I went to another exhibit of Mom's watercolors.  Jane Olsen said Mom's the 'Showcased Artist of the Year'."  I said this directly to my Dad, but he didn't have a chance to answer before Sylvia piped up.
"You must be awfully proud of your mother, aren't you Elizabeth?"

I am not going to answer her. I’d like to explain in a language she’d understand that my name is Dusty. Someday I'm going to ask her if her middle name is Elizabeth or if she just likes to irritate me.
"Would it be too much trouble to drop me off at Slinky's, Dad?"  I collect all the plates and take them to the sink and begin rinsing each one very carefully.

"Elizabeth, don't bother, I'll clean-up."  Her Majesty rises out of her chair, caressing my Dad's shoulder as she comes to the sink.

"Let Dusty finish, Syl.  I've got to make a phone call, then we'll go."

He left me and Sylvia standing side by side.  On the way up to Victoria next weekend, maybe Dad and I can talk things out, and I can make him understand that Sylvia gets on my nerves. "You look good in blue, especially that aquamarine sweatshirt. And that scarf! Très chic! It offsets your pretty eyes and hair."  She wants me to look over at her, but I don't.  "Pink would also be a good color for you."

"I hate pink," I answer and just keep on parking those plates into the dishwasher.

"Let me finish here.  Your Dad's ready to go."  She snatches the sponge out of my hand and swipes the countertop.

I dry my hands down the legs of my jeans and head for the door.  Dad scowls at me, not making a move to leave.

It's a stand-off until I give in.  "See ya, Sylvia."

"Have a good time with Susan at the mall, Elizabeth!" she calls, her voice echoing after us.  It's almost like she's in the car with me and Dad the whole way to Slinky's house.

There's not much chance to talk as Dad is on his cell.  I want to make it all right between us, but I don't know how.  Two blocks from Slinky's I finally ask, "Will you pick me up Friday night or Saturday?"

He doesn't answer right away.  "I'll call you Saturday morning."  He pulled up beside the curb, the engine idling louder than I remembered it ever doing before.

"Okay," I nod, opening the car door.  "I'll be ready to go."

"Princess," Dad gestured for me to lean closer and kissed my cheek, "have a good week at school."

"Bye, Dad, love ya."  I stand and wave until he's out of sight, then make a beeline for the door, hoping that Slinky will answer and I can avoid any more adults.

"Dusty, it seems such a long time since I've seen you!"  Mrs. Hillard beams, like she really is glad to see me.  Sometimes I wonder if her cheeks ever hurt from smiling so much.

"Hello, Mrs. Hillard."  I look her straight in the eyes.  "How are you?"

She laughs and gives me a motherly hug.  "You always ask.  It makes me feel appreciated, you know?"

I have no comment to that, so I smile back at her.  She points upstairs and without any more talk, she goes toward the basement and I take the steps two at a time.

It's a relief to go up to Slinky's room and be totally away from adults.

"Hi, Dusty.  Your Mom said you had breakfast with your Dad.  How was it?"

"Ugh," I grunt, sitting on the bed.  "I liked it better when weekends were just the two of us.  Now, it's always with the third person, plural."

Slinky has met Sylvia three times, and was politeness incarnate, but I assumed she felt the same as I did.  I can't like Sylvia just because it would make everyone feel better.

"I think Sylvia's in love with your Dad.  And I don't know why you don't like her.  She's so nice and really wants you to like her."

I lean over into Slinky's face.  "Which I don't."

Slinky presses her forehead against mine.  "She's pretty, isn't she?  That long, lean body!  I'd die for it!  She always looks like a Vogue model, too."

"Yeah, real plastic.  You know," I picked at my hair, and pretended to put on lipstick, "she tries too hard."

"What do you mean?  Tries too hard to do what?"

I roll my eyes and heave a sigh.  "Never mind, Slinky." "Well, did your Mom go out on a date last night?"  Slinky's into romance lately.    

"Yeah.  She acts like a spacey teen when she's getting dressed to go out.  'Is my make-up on right?  Too much, too little?  Does this dress make me look hippy?'  You'd think she'd lighten up at her age."
Slinky howled at my imitations of my mother.  "Oh!  Stop it!"  She sucked in a big breath.  "Don't be so hard on her.  I heard my Mom say that living with your father couldn't have been all that easy."
I hate to be the object of gossip.  "So what does your Mom know, anyway?  How to sew and make brownies is about all.  And if you ask me, my Mom gets plenty of breaks, so...."

"Dusty, Dusty!  I'm sorry!"  Slinky grabbed a fistful of my shirt and pulled.  "Don't let's fight about parents.  They spend enough time screwing up their lives without it getting to us, okay?"

I mean, I was mad, real mad, but what did it matter?  I guess I couldn't expect my Mom not to go out with an occasional bozo.  "My Mom the party-hardy-girl," I muttered. Slinky perks up.  "Let's go see a movie."  Her remedy to forget our troubles is to go see a movie, any movie, so long as it has a nice ending.

She's eyeing the ad with a couple about to kiss.  I scowl at her.  "No romantic junk, either."

"You know, Dusty," she taps the paper with a fingernail, "this movie could be about how people stay together forever."

"That, Slinky, is only in fairy tales and you know it."  I fold my arms, feeling suddenly much older than my friend.  "I don't even know why people bother getting married."

She holds her hand up, stopping the argument.  "All right, Dusty, but I still want to see this one."  She jabs the newspaper with her finger.

"Fine, Slinky," I snip, "see it with someone else."

"I will, Dusty, I will," she hisses.

"I don't want to hear the details, okay?"

"I won't tell you anything," she whispers, pushing her face into mine.  "I won't even tell you if I liked the movie or not, okay?"

"Okay," I spit.  "I don't know why you want to waste your money on that kind of crap, anyway.  You know the man and woman will end up getting married and instead of living happily ever after, something'll go wrong."  Maybe she was curious what life was like for the unlucky ones, but I sure didn't need to be reminded all the time.

But I thought I'd better patch things up with her.  "Do you still want to go to the mall and look around?  If your Mom takes us, I'll call my Mom to come get us."

She fluffed her long, honey-brown hair away from her face.  I'd give up my lighted stellar globe for hair like hers.  "Sure."

We climbed into the back seat of her Mom’s SUV. 

"Oh, Dusty," sighed Slinky.  "I don't like it when we argue."

"So who's arguing?" I ask and she gives me back a tight little smile.  We sit quietly watching the world flash by, until Mrs. Hillard lets us off in front of Nordstrom.  After we browsed, we head for hamburgers at a McDonald's restaurant, both of us back to being good friends.  It was, you might say, one more phase of our friendship.  We might not agree on certain things, but we still like each other. "Dusty," Slinky punched her straw into her Coke, "it seems to me like you antagonize your Dad, you know, like the way you treat Sylvia."

Slinky can be like a pit bull when she gets hold of an idea.  I nibbled a French fry, trying to think of a way to shorten this conversation.

"We have absolutely nothing in common."

Slinky narrows her eyes, her 'intense look'.  "Why don't you give her a chance, Dusty?  She might have a good idea or two, you know?"

That touched a hot spot in me.  "Yeah, I'm sure she does.  Somewhere beneath the ton of make-up and over-moussed hair."

Slinky screwed her lips in a funny sort of sneer at me, which makes me laugh.  She dabbed her lips with a napkin, careful like so as not to smudge her lipstick, reminding me of Sylvia in a way.  "Look, you're going to have to get along with her if she's your Dad's girlfriend, you know?  So why not give her a break?"

"No, I don't know."  It looks like I'm going to have to explain a very important point to Slinky.  "Sylvia never lets me have a minute alone with my Dad, like she's afraid I might cop a moment without a 'Sylvia this, Sylvia that'.  Like she needs all his attention, every minute of the day!  She makes me sick."

That about sums up how I feel about Sylvia, when I see Frank and Jorge coming in.  "Anyway, next weekend my Dad and I are going to Victoria, solo..."

Slinky's not paying much attention to me, I can tell by the way she keeps sneaking a peek at the guys in line ordering Big Mac, fries and milk shakes.  Finally, I lean over and whisper, "Let's just go over and say, “Hi” to them, okay?"

Slinky turned about the same color pink as her lipstick.  "No, let's just go, Dusty."

I waved to Frank, patting the table top to let him know we were vacating the premises and they could have our prime spot.  "It's all yours’. We're outta here."

"Thanks, Dusty.  Hey, Sludge, nice lips."

"Oh, stuff it, Frank."  Slinky brushed imaginary crumbs from her skirt.

Jorge stood there smiling, not saying a word, looking at Slinky like a basset hound.  "Hey, Jorge," I snapped my fingers under his nose, making him wince, "are you going to sit down or stand there all day holding that tray?"

He slipped into the seat as Slinky stepped aside.  I don't know what might have happened if either one of them had accidentally touched one another, maybe both of them would have disintegrated like Styrofoam in acid.

"Hey, Dusty," Frank always talks with a mouthful of food and I can see chunks of hamburger, "'Gone With the Wind' is on next week.  Can I watch it at your place?"

"Sure, Franko, I'll do the popcorn, you bring the drinks."  I tug on Slinky's arm to get her to move as I head for the door.

"See ya."  Frank crams another fry into his overloaded mouth.

"Bye, Slinky.  Dusty," Jorge adds hastily, so I'm not to think he had meant anything special for Slinky.
We're out the door when I look at Slinky, still pinkish in the face.  "Do you like him or something?"
"Who?" she effects a confused expression, which cracks me up. "The Man from Mars, dodo.  Not that anyone could guess it the way you're blushing and all big-eyed when Jorge smiles at you."

She sneers at me, which makes me laugh even harder, cause I know she likes him, more than she can admit, even to me.  She stammers, "He's kinda cute."

"Yeah, the strong, silent type.  Your kinda guy, right?"  I see some of our classmates down at the other end of the mall.  "Hey, is that Marcy in a mini-skirt?  How'd she get out of the house in anything so short!"

Slinky grabs my arm, hurting me enough to make me stop dead in my tracks.  "Listen, Dusty, don't make any wisecracks about Jorge in front of them, okay?  I mean, I don't like being embarrassed like that."

I take a full minute to stare at her, this chameleon friend of mine.  "I won't say anything, Slinky.  Really, I wouldn't hurt your feelings or embarrass you, not on purpose.  Honest."

We didn't have much of chance to speak with them, anyway, as they headed in the opposite direction, probably hot on the trail of some seniors. "Dusty," Slinky slides onto a bench with a questioning frown, "do you like Frank?"

I picture Frank:  tall, clumsy, his sandy blond hair cut in a modified crew-cut, making his blue eyes the first thing you notice about him.  "Like Frank?  Like like or like?"  She's squinting at me, obviously annoyed.  "You mean, friend or boyfriend?"

"You know what I mean."  She examines her newly grown-out nails, polished to a perfect shine, and I wonder if she fights the urge to chew on them like she used to.

"Frank's just a buddy.  We watch TV and talk about how it is to be kids bounced between divorced parents.  He's been at this game longer than I have and outlines how to take full advantage of the situation, if you know what I mean."

She looks me straight in the eyes.  "Has he ever kissed you?"

"No!" I yelp, causing the lady at the other end of the bench to glare at us.

I lower my voice so as not to broadcast my disgust.  "Get real, Slinky."  Slinky puffs out her upper lip when her feelings are hurt, so I try to explain how I feel.  "I don't want Frank to kiss me, okay?  It would ruin everything.  I mean, then I wouldn't feel it was right for him to be there alone with me, so he better not ever even think about trying it."  I focus on her face, looking for a telltale sign.  "Have you ever been kissed?"

She turned scarlet, like she'd swallowed a gallon of red dye.  Stun me with a laser gun!  "Who?" I demanded.

"Nobody you know."  She picked at the little fuzz balls on her sweater.

I have to scoot close to whisper.  "Are you going to tell me or not?"

"You know that hayride I went on?  Well, there's a guy I like and he likes me, and we were the first ones back to the truck and he threw some hay on me, then I threw it back on him, and then he just sort of kissed me on the lips."  She shrugged, like it was no big deal, but I could tell it was.

"So, did you like it?  Being kissed on the lips?"  This was the most interesting thing that she had ever told me except for the time she snooped through her mother's dresser.

She waved her hands around, like shooing away gnats at a picnic.  "I guess, I don't know."  She turned and looked at me, as flustered as I've ever seen her.  "I don't think I like him that much."

"Well, then don't kiss him again."  I didn't see the problem anymore.  "Let's go to the bookstore.” I want to get going, change this subject. “I want to see if the new Star Trek novel's out yet."

"Dusty," she bit her lip and I felt sort of sorry for her, looking totally rattled.  "He asked me to the movies.  I don't know if I should go with him or not."

"Well, if you go," I stood up, "don't see anything romantic.  He'll think you liked him kissing you.  Go see a Disney movie.  That'll turn him off for good."

"Oh, Dusty, can't you be serious?"

I placed my hand over my heart and intoned dramatically, "I am, I am!  What better advice can I give you?"

She closed her eyes and sighed before she got up and walked with me toward the bookstore.  We've been friends for a long time, yet there are these moments, like now, when it seems we exist in two different universes.  I peeked at her long face, wishing I'd said something that made her feel better.  How ironic, I thought:  I wasn't going to take her advice about Sylvia and she wasn't going to take my advice about the Mystery Man.