It’s 1967, and two sixth-grade girls are selling candy so Baltimore’s Herbert Malone Elementary School Orchestra can travel to regional competition in Harrisburg. Both girls have “sworn they would absolutely die if they didn’t get to go . . . ”
“Hold the whole carton up when they open the door,” Sonya told Willa. “Not just one candy bar. Ask, ‘Would you like to buy some candy bars?’ Plural.”
“I’m going to ask?” Willa said. “I thought you were.”
“I’d feel silly asking.”
“What, you don’t think I’d feel silly?”
“But you’re much better with grownups.”
“What will you be doing?”
“I’ll be in charge of the money,” Sonya said, and she waved her envelope.
Willa said, “Okay, but then you have to ask at the next house.”
“Fine,” Sonya said.
Of course it was fine, because the next house was bound to be easier. But Willa tightened her arms around the carton, and Sonya turned to lead the way up the flagstone walk.
The house had a metal sculpture out front that was nothing but a tall, swooping curve, very modern. The doorbell was lit with a light that glowed even in the daytime. Sonya poked it. A rich-sounding two-note chime rang somewhere inside, followed by a silence so deep that they could begin to hope no one was home. But then footsteps approached, and the door opened, and a woman stood smiling at them. She was younger than their mothers and more stylish, with short brown hair and bright lipstick, and she wore a miniskirt. “Why, hello, girls,” she said, while behind her a little boy came toddling up, dragging a pull toy and asking, “Who’s that, Mama? Who’s that, Mama?”
Willa looked at Sonya. Sonya looked at Willa. Something about Sonya’s expression–so trusting, so expectant, her lips moistened and slightly parted as if she planned to start speaking along with Willa–struck Willa as comical, and she felt a little burp of laughter rising in her chest and then bubbling in her throat. The sudden, surprising squeak that popped out seemed comical too—hilarious, in fact—and the bubble of laughter turned to gales of laughter, whole water falls of laughter, and next to her Sonya broke into sputters and doubled in on herself while the woman stood looking at them, still smiling with a question smile. Willa asked, “Would you like—? Would you like—?” But she couldn’t finish; she was overcome; she couldn’t catch her breath.
“Are you two offering to sell me something?” the woman suggested kindly. Willa could tell that she’d probably gotten the giggles herself when she was their age, although surely—oh, lord—surely not such hysterical giggles, such helpless, overpowering, uncontrollable giggles. These giggles were like a liquid that flooded Willa’s whole body, causing tears to stream from her eyes and forcing her to crumple over her carton and clamp her legs together so as not to pee. She was mortified, and she could see from Sonya’s desperate, wild-eyed face that she was mortified too, but at the same time it was the most wonderful, loose, relaxing feeling. Her cheeks ached and her stomach muscles seemed to have softened into silk. She could have melted into a puddle right there on the stoop.
Sonya was the first to give up. She flapped an arm wearily in the woman’s direction and turned to start back down the flagstone walk, and Willa turned too and followed without another word. After a moment, they heard the front door gently closing behind them.
They weren’t laughing any more. Willa felt tired to the bone, and emptied and a little sad. And Sonya might have felt the same way, because the sun still hung like a thin white dime above Bert Kane ridge, but she said, “We ought to wait till the weekend. It’s too hard when we’ve got all this homework.” Willa didn’t argue.
I observed in a recent post that Anne Tyler has a tendency to kill my favorite characters (and characters my favorite characters care about). I declare today that if Anne Tyler does that in Clock Dance, she will have much to answer for.
I don’t buy many physical books these days; in the interest of storage space and the planet, I buy ebooks. But reading some books, even those by authors who keep killing off characters I love—especially those who keep killing off characters I love—requires old technology. It’s an emotional thing.
And so today, breaking my own rules, I bought a paperback copy of Clock Dance. I’m up to page sixty-three and already see trouble coming—because Tyler writes about real people and tells the truth. And the thumb on my left hand—I call it my holding-the-book-open thumb—will protest for weeks after its job is done.
What’s worse, I’ll probably cry and my head will get all stuffy.
But as David once told me, “That’s okay. I’m getting used to sad movies.”
So, no matter how many crying towels I go through, I’ll have a warm and fuzzy feeling and memories of being curled up with a good book.
Vintage (July 10, 2018)