She was a sullen child, a little slow to catch on, and thus easy to make fun of—Pinny said two and two is five! And that Miami's the capital of Maine—the nickname a clever blend of "pinhead" and her real name, Penny. She was tall for her age with light hair some called ash or "dirty" blonde, gray eyes that were green in brighter light, and a clumsy gait because her feet turned in, giving her at times another name—"Pinny pigeon-toes."
She was also an only child. Her mother stayed home, and her father sold cars with a flair that should have put him on the stage. Loud suits, loud voice, dropping down to a whisper carefully breathed in the neat pink ear of a lovely young woman needing a car for her new job, or for her life as a new mother, or because she'd finally escaped her wretched marriage and was all on her own.
The flirtation took its toll. Pinny's mother—a snob who always said she'd married down—accused and swore, and then one day announced that she'd had enough, she was not put on this earth to tolerate the disgusting appetites of a fat, balding husband or the glum stupidity of her only child, and off she went, suitcase in hand, leaving Pinny and her father still at the dinner table, their meatloaf greasy and cold.
After that meals were from a can, or Chinese food containers, or pizza boxes, or when necessary, the drug store where Pinny bought candy with the change her father left on his dresser after having made his own dinner out on pretzels and beer.
Some talked of calling Child Protective Services. One teacher did, and a sallow woman with dark circles below her eyes came to the house unannounced to find Pinny doing laundry and sweeping floors, the father paying bills at the kitchen table, and determined that the pair had formed a good, viable team in the mother's absence.
Pinny didn't mind housework. She didn't mind cooking a fried egg sandwich now and then. She didn't mind her mother being gone, because her mother was often harsh and critical—No, no, Stupid, a minotaur and a centaur are two different things!—and could really sink a cold finger into Pinny's heart. She didn't mind the way her father's breath smelled when he'd been at the bar, or the jagged sobs he let out some evenings when the twilight was particularly tender and soft.
In fact, just about the only thing she minded was how people treated the fat girl.
The fat girl had transferred from another high school in the middle of the year, and often arrived after the last bell. Some said it was because she stayed too long at the breakfast table, and the bus was long gone by the time she waddled out to find it. The truth was that she had a little brother to dress and feed, and a barn to muck out, with her big rubber boots still on to prove it. She smelled funny, like earth and sweat and something sweet—like hand soap she would later say, a cheap scent of honey and lemon.
One thing was sure—the fat girl knew how to make an entrance. She took her time crossing the classroom to her seat by the window, looking at the faces turned her way as if they were all her loving fans.
The fat girl's name was Eunice, and hearing it called out by the homeroom teacher made the other students roar. A person couldn't help the name she was given—like Penny, for Penelope and her mother's passion for all things ancient Greek—any more than she could help smelling weird or being fat. Pinny was soon a quick defender of the fat girl—Oh, yeah? Well, you're ugly, how about that?—sometimes with a raised fist though she had never actually hit anyone.
"You don't need to stick up for me," the fat girl told Pinny one day. "Not that I don't appreciate it, but I got some ideas of my own on how to fix these losers."
Not long after that a boy opening his locker was met with a rotten egg smeared on photographs of racing cars taped lovingly to the inside of the door. This boy had been a principal teaser of the fat girl only days before, taunting her in the lunchroom as she ate her two bologna sandwiches, one cheese sandwich, and several cookies, calling her Blimpo and Miss Piggy. A pretty girl who'd told the fat girl she smelled like a used Kotex found exactly that in her locker the following morning.
After school the fat girl took a bus that drove sixteen winding miles through the farmland of upstate New York to deposit her at an intersection of two country roads. She walked along the one that bore east until its cracked pavement turned to gravel and then to dirt, to arrive at her house, a two-story wooden structure that must have been very beautiful about seventy-five years ago. The porch wrapped around three sides, the peak had a lightning rod with a ball of purple glass on top, and the windows were framed with shutters. The paint had long since worn away, and the bare wood stood against the revolving seasons like a tired, old face. She lived there with both of her parents and the baby brother, just a year and a half old. The father had a herd of dairy cows whose milk brought in some income, otherwise he worked for Tompkins County repairing roads. The mother sometimes waited tables at a bar six miles away, and was rumored to have a boyfriend over in Slaterville Springs, an ex-con named Lyal who sometimes sold a hot stereo or a shotgun from the back of his mobile home.
One Friday afternoon, Pinny rode the bus home with the fat girl. Their walk to the house was colored with the green light of newly leafing trees.
"It's nice out here," Pinny told the fat girl.
"It bites. I'd rather live where you do."
Pinny lived in "the flats," or downtown Dunston, near a creek that ran noisily in summer and froze over in the winter.
"No, you wouldn't. The college kids hit the bars, then wander around singing and shouting like a bunch of retards. It's a pain," said Pinny.
The fat girl breathed loudly as she walked, her thick arms swung wide with the effort of moving her forward, and her backpack thumped and rustled with the rhythm of her stride.
The fat girl's mother was sitting on the porch with a pan and a plastic bag of green beans. With a small knife she removed the end of each bean, threw it into the yard, snapped the bean in two, and dropped the pieces in the pan at her feet. She had the same yellow hair the fat girl had, but not as bright and shiny.
She looked at Pinny.
"Who's this?" she asked.
"A friend from school," said the fat girl.
"Hello, friend from school."
Pinny watched the fat girl's mother work her beans.
"Go on in and get something to eat if you want. There's lemonade and ding-dongs," the fat girl's mother said.
The house smelled of fried fish and sour milk. A television set was on in another room playing what sounded like a game show. The fat girl dropped her backpack on the kitchen floor, helped herself to the contents of the white cardboard box on the counter, then went to the refrigerator and drank lemonade right from the pitcher. Pinny put her backpack in the corner by the door they'd come in through. In another corner was a playpen, and in the playpen the fat girl's little brother was moving a red plastic train back and forth on bright green wheels. His yellow hair was cut so short it was a light fuzz on his head. There was a pink Band-Aid stuck to his scalp that was black and sticky looking along its edge.
He looked up and wailed.
"Stick it, Zach," the fat girl said. Zach kept up his wail. The mother called, "See to him, Eunice, will you?"
The fat girl lifted Zach from the pen. He turned to Pinny and watched her with huge blue eyes.
"He's pretty," said Pinny.
"Handsome, you mean."
Pinny shrugged. Boys could be pretty just the way girls could. There was a boy in her English class who was very pretty, small boned and delicate. He was from India. His parents taught at the university. His skin was coffee colored, and his hair was black. Kids called him "faggot" and "homo" which made no sense, because he didn't seem to like boys more than he liked girls. He didn't seem to like anyone.
The fat girl returned Zach to the pen, and then showed Pinny her room. It was bigger than Pinny's with three tall windows so dirty the sunlight was dim. On a shelf over the bed was a row of glass dolphins. The fat girl said she loved dolphins because they were smart and helped people. Pinny's mother liked dolphins, too, and had had a small golden one on a bracelet that Pinny said she'd be wearing herself right now if her mother hadn't taken it with her.
"Where did she go?" asked the fat girl.
"My dad sort of has a thing for other women."
"You hear from her?"
Pinny's mother called home once a week to update Pinny's father on the progress she was making with the injustice she'd suffered. Sometimes she wanted to talk to Pinny and Pinny managed to listen and say little. Fine was her answer to every question which made her mother say, Well, I see you haven't broadened your horizons much in my absence. Pinny's mother was living in Connecticut with her college roommate, also separated from her husband. She said they had great times, ladies out on the town, but Pinny could tell her mother found it boring, and probably wanted to come home. Pinny's father wasn't asking her to anymore, not the way he had the winter before, around the holidays, and Pinny's mother hinted that she might return before the end of the summer, if things improved. Pinny didn't know what things she referred to, and knew better than to ask.
The days got long and warm and school was as dull as toast. There was nothing to pay attention to and nothing to get upset about.
Then the fat girl fell in love. The boy was Carl Pratt, and Pinny saw nothing remarkable about him, except that he was skinny and tall, and threw a good softball in gym class.
"You're nuts," the fat girl said. "He's totally hot. And I think he likes me." Carl Pratt looked at Pinny, not at the fat girl when they were together. Pinny had gotten very curvy in the last year, and when Carl Pratt smiled, he was smiling at Pinny and Pinny knew it, so she tried to discourage the fat girl's passion for Carl Pratt, saying he was a geek, he had greasy hair, he didn't know how to tie his own shoes. The proof of that were the gray laces that flopped by his huge feet as he took himself at full tilt down the hall, his notebook pressed flat against his hard thigh, and his pen balanced with the grace of a feather behind his ear.
After making eyes at Pinny for two whole weeks, Carl Pratt appeared at her locker, put his hand firmly on her back and said, "You're super cute, you know that?" Her response was a solid blow to his upper arm, which made him gaze down at her with pure adoration before wandering away.
When the fat girl realized that Carl Pratt actually liked Pinny, she was driven to bitter weeping, and flung herself down on Pinny's bed so hard the springs creaked and the headboard slapped the wall. Her milk white arms raised above her head in a gesture of defeat and she said, "I'm going to take a header off the bridge."
There were several bridges in Dunston to choose from, all built across a deep section of gorge. People committed suicide by jumping from them every year, usually students from the Ivy League university when semester grades were posted. Locals didn't jump. They shot themselves, or were found hanging from a barn beam, or on the floor with an empty bottle of sleeping pills.
"Bull," said Pinny. The fat girl looked at her with wet eyes and howled with misery. By the time she stopped crying the light had died in the spring sky, and Pinny's father called up the stairs to ask what was for dinner.
Pinny fried some hot dogs in a pan and heated a can of yellow corn. She put slices of bread in the toaster and spread peanut butter on them. Her father and the fat girl ate their food without a word. Then her father looked at the fat girl and asked, "Who's the fella?"
"What fella?" asked Pinny.
"The one who's got her down in the dumps, of course."
Pinny said Carl Pratt's name.
"Pratt. Father's Don Pratt? Sold him a Buick last year. Good car. Wouldn't go for the extended warranty. Only a couple hundred bucks more. Just couldn't talk him into it."
The fat girl wiped her nose on a paper napkin.
"Well, it's his loss," she said. Pinny wasn't sure if the fat girl meant Carl Pratt, or his father, but the statement worked, either way.
Pinny asked Carl Pratt to be nice to the fat girl as a favor to her.
"What, are you kidding?" he asked. They were in the gym where basketball practice had just ended and Carl Pratt was gathering up basketballs.
"She really likes you."
"Not to you, I'm not." And then he kissed Pinny right on the lips. She thought it was the most disgusting thing she'd ever done, and that she'd probably never kiss anyone again as long as she lived. But, since Carl Pratt seemed to like her so much Pinny soon learned she could get what she wanted by letting him have his way. The next day Carl Pratt said "Hi" to the fat girl, and even managed a weak smile in her direction. For that Pinny paid him with two kisses.
Day by day Carl Pratt paid attention to the fat girl, causing a huge stir. Though he had a reputation as a lady's man, his interest in the fat girl still couldn't be fathomed. Someone said Josh Silverman, one of the wealthier students who'd spent money on gags before, was up to his old tricks. What a good joke to build up the fat girl, only to let her down, everyone said.
Pinny kept the truth quiet by letting Carl Pratt kiss her for up to an hour, often with his hands inside her shirt. She liked it a little better than she used to, but still not too much.
"Do you kiss her, too?" Pinny asked. The fat girl didn't say what she did with Carl Pratt after school at his house while his father sold insurance and his mother slept off her night shift at the hospital. She just drifted around with a quiet light in her eyes, and a rosy glow on her round, smooth cheeks.
"Not like this," said Carl Pratt.
Pinny hadn't really thought that Carl Pratt kissed the fat girl. She had expected him to say no, she realized. She had gotten the idea that all they did was talk, because Carl Pratt had once said, "Man, she talks a lot."
Pinny was deeply jealous of the fat girl, because all of a sudden she, too, had fallen for Carl Pratt.
She refused to let either the fat girl or Carl Pratt know. When the fat girl talked about him, her voice all soft and dewy, Pinny listened with a blank face and an occasional nod. After school, on the days when the fat girl had to go straight home and had waved good-bye to him from the pushed down window of the school bus, he'd find Pinny, take her behind the building and she wouldn't lean into his kisses no matter how much she wanted to. When he finally pulled away, she made her hands let go and not clutch his hard shoulders.
One afternoon, with the end of the year only eight days away, Carl Pratt wanted to go home with Pinny after school. The fat girl had left early for a dental appointment, but Pinny still didn't think it was a good idea. The fat girl might call and she'd feel weird about answering the phone. If she didn't answer, the fat girl's voice on the machine would be hard to hear. But since there was no good way to explain this to Carl Pratt, she agreed.
A little while later, as Pinny led Carl up her back stairs, she suddenly stopped.
"What?" he said.
She turned around, and looked down at him from two steps above.
"You said you dad's at work, right?" he said.
"So don't worry, okay?" He stroked her arm and she shivered. She was afraid he wouldn't like her room, that he would think it too girly. The princess costume her mother had bought her for Halloween when she was four years old was tacked to the wall above her bed. The thought of her mother seeing her that way—as a princess—if only that once sometimes made her sad. Pinny had gone from not caring that her mother was gone to caring more than made sense, and somehow that sadness she felt—that deep longing—was all to do with Carl Pratt.
Carl Pratt didn't say anything about the costume, or the flowery scarf she had across her lamp, or the rocking chair, or the stuffed yellow mouse in the corner. He put down his backpack and took her in his arms.
A few moments later they were lying on her bed and he was wrestling with her shirt.
"Come on." He stopped. Then he said, "Let's screw."
"No, it's not."
Pinny lay in a state that swung between fear and joy like the heavy brass pendulum of the clock downstairs. To stop that swing she held Carl Pratt's hand and squeezed hard.
"I don't want to get pregnant," she said.
He let go of her hand. "You won't."
"Well, because thin girls like you don't get pregnant very fast. It takes a long time."
The sound of Pinny's father's car in the driveway ended the conversation. They were sitting side by side with a science book between them when her father came into her room to say hello.
Pinny introduced Carl Pratt to her father, and hearing the name he gave Pinny a good hard look, and went downstairs to watch television.
"You better go," Pinny told Carl Pratt.
Over dinner Pinny's father sipped his beer and watched Pinny eat the fried chicken he'd bought. His bright blue tie had a grease stain Pinny couldn't help staring at.
"Honey, about this boy. I'm not the best one to give advice in matters of the heart, obviously, but you should be careful about who you spend time with. No good making people jealous," he said.
Pinny saw her father thinking about her mother, who had sent him a letter saying she might have been wrong, too harsh, too quick to judge, but that she still doubted his strength to resist the Siren call of the young and restless, mixing mythology with a stupid soap opera in a way that made Pinny wonder who was dumber than whom.
"We're just friends. He helps me with my homework," Pinny said.
That weekend the fat girl called and said she knew damn well Carl Pratt didn't really like her and only invited her over when he wanted to cop a feel.
"But that's okay, it's payback time," she said, with a sniff.
"What do you mean?"
"You'll see." The fat girl hung up.
Monday and Tuesday dragged by. Carl Pratt was busy with basketball, and the fat girl was sullen.
On Wednesday, the last day of school, the fat girl appeared with her hair short and spiky. The nine inches she'd cut off herself were stuffed in a plastic bag, which she handed to Carl Pratt in front of a crowd of people and said, "This is the only thing you ever liked about me, so here, keep it."
Someone grabbed the bag, and when the fat girl reached for it, the bag was thrown from hand to hand, always above her head. "Here, Fat Girl," and "Hey, Fat Girl, over here," people called.
The fat girl brought her fists to her face and screamed. A teacher emerged from an open door, everyone scattered, and Pinny didn't see the fat girl again all day.
After the last bell rang Carl Pratt found Pinny waiting by the fat girl's locker. "She's not here," he said. "I think she skipped out."
"Because those kids were so mean to her."
"I should have stopped them," said Pinny.
"I don't know."
Pinny stared down at Carl Pratt's sockless feet, stuck inside his big, torn sneakers. She was to blame, for wanting Carl Pratt to be nice to the fat girl in the first place. She hadn't seen how stupid it was to ask someone to fake what he didn't feel. But even if he'd felt nothing, and hadn't liked her at all, not one bit, he should have felt bad for the way she'd been teased. Pinny wanted him to, if only a little.
"Look. I have something fucked up to tell you. I'm going to California for the summer," he said.
Pinny lifted her eyes and stared firmly into his.
"I got a cousin there, a park ranger. My folks think he'll make me straighten up and get all serious about school," he said.
Carl's grades sucked, everyone knew that. He was in Pinny's math class, and she couldn't believe some of the things he didn't get. Carl Pratt looked at his watch.
"Crap. My mother wants to take me to get a haircut. I have to go," he said.
He pressed a small gold chain into her hand and said to wear it around her neck every day until he returned. There was a metal heart hanging on the chain with his name engraved. Pinny looked at the chain, her throat heavy and tight. Then Carl Pratt trotted off, his back pack bouncing on his bony shoulder.
Pinny left the building and walked slowly home. The air smelled of the season to come. Hollyhocks would climb below her dining room window, flies would buzz against the screens, the air would be as still as glass. Her mother would be in Connecticut, drinking her iced tea in a different back yard, Carl would be climbing mountains out west, and Pinny would be there, in boring old Dunston, thinking about both of them.
The fat girl was sitting on the front porch of Pinny's house eating a candy bar and sipping soda pop through a bright pink straw. Pinny slipped the chain that was still in her hand into her pocket.
"Where have you been?" the fat girl asked, chewing.
"I skipped the rest of the day."
"I know. It won't matter now. The year's over."
The fat girl ran her fingers through her hair. "It feels weird," she said. "Like my head's too light."
"Was it hard to cut it by yourself?"
"I'd have helped you."
"You'd have told me not to."
Pinny pushed a candy wrapper off the step and sat next to the fat girl.
"Carl Pratt's going to California for the summer," said Pinny.
"Really? How do you know?"
"Someone at school said so."
"Well, I say good riddance, Fuck Face."
Pinny wanted to explain about her and Carl Pratt, to clear the air and let her know what to expect when he came back and school started again in the fall, but didn't see how. The truth was that she'd gone behind the fat girl's back.
"Let's take a walk," said Pinny.
They watched their shadows move along the slate sidewalk, Pinny's so long and thin and the fat girl's a bobbing circle. Where the road began its steep climb to campus a waterfall spilled over thin shelves of rock. A footpath ran along one side of the falls, and Pinny led them up slowly to give the fat girl time to catch her breath.
They reached a level spot on the path and stopped to watch the water rush and spray. They leaned against the metal rail in silence. The fat girl's face was in shadow.
"He wanted me to do it, you know, and I wouldn't. He said, 'What do you have to lose, you're just a fat girl.'"
Pinny's cheeks got hot, a lot hotter than the afternoon's eighty-five degrees would cause.
"He's a jerk," said Pinny.
The fat girl took a candy bar out of her backpack, unwrapped it, and bit off the end.
"I mean, it's not like I love being like this. I've tried to lose weight about a million times," she said.
"What about those programs where you drop twenty pounds in two months?" asked Pinny.
"They cost money. And then you have to pay for food."
"My mother once lost thirty pounds all on her own. Try eating a lot of protein, or slashing your carbohydrates for a while."
The fat girl stopped eating and stared at the water. Then she turned to Pinny with an eager gleam in her eye.
"Tell me something," she said.
"Why do you act dumb, when you're not?"
"Come on. Remember that one day at lunch, when someone said, 'Irregardless of that,' you said to me, 'It's regardless!' And in History that time, when Mr. Cain called on you and asked who the fifth president of the United States was, you said you didn't know but I saw you had James Monroe in your notebook with a big circle around his name."
Pinny watched the water run. She didn't know what to say. Playing dumb was something she'd learned to do long ago, maybe as a defense against her mother's constant disappointment in her.
"I don't like people bugging me. If they think I'm stupid, they leave me alone," Pinny said.
"Don't you hate getting bad grades when you can get good ones?"
"I don't care about grades."
"How about being treated like an idiot?"
"Melissa Franks called you a moron when you answered wrong in Spanish, and you got all red in the face. You dug your nails in your palm. I saw the marks," the fat girl said.
She had a point, Pinny thought. A good one, too. She did hate being treated like an idiot, especially by Carl Pratt. You won't get pregnant. It takes longer with thin girls. After sitting in the same health class with her, hearing the same words from their teacher, he still thought she didn't get it. In a way it was her fault for playing the part so well, but if he'd cared—really cared—he'd have raised the issue first.
"What are you doing?" the fat girl asked. Pinny had just taken Carl Pratt's chain out of her pocket and thrown it into the falls.
"Making a wish. A reverse wish. To fix something I shouldn't have done."
"Well, if I tell you, it'll hang on me forever."
They started back down. Pinny remembered a little blue stone bracelet she'd once found in a store. It was the prettiest thing she'd ever seen. She'd begged and begged for it, and her mother said it would get lost, or broken, and wasn't the kind of thing a child should wear. She'd cried for weeks and then one day she just didn't care. Maybe that would happen with Carl Pratt. Maybe all of a sudden the ache for him would just go away.
The fat girl looked miserable. She had a film of sweat on her face that she wiped away with the back of one hand. Then she stopped walking and pinched her stomach.
"Know what?" she said.
"I'm really sick of candy." She removed the last bar she had in her backpack and threw it into the street where it got flattened by a car few minutes later. That made them laugh so hard their eyes got wet.
They laughed a lot that summer; at the way the stylist looked at the fat girl's hair when she went to get it done; at the fat girl's little brother who learned to talk in complete, bossy sentences; about the tie Pinny's father bought with pink and yellow dots. In quieter moments, as they reviewed the year behind and looked to the year ahead, they promised never to be Pinny and the fat girl again but only Penny and Eunice, and the whole time, as the heat rose and then fell, they didn't mention Carl Pratt once.