Chapter 1

Home Alone

Monday Evening

Huddled over the white Formica-topped kitchen table, surrounded by reams of poorly taken calculus notes, I give serious consideration to the advice my knuckle-dragging brother Jack had yelled as the family camper pulled out of the driveway.

"Hey Sis, it's better to cheat than repeat!"

But after scanning the multitude of formulas and considering how many I might reasonably be able to ink onto my wrists, the answer is clear: Not nearly enough. Besides, I still wouldn't have a clue as to how to use the damn hieroglyphics. In any event, I am not a cheat, and I realize that even considering his stupid advice is just another excuse to stop trying.

I shove the book away from me in disgust - disgust for me, for calculus and for all the history books that say that Columbus discovered America. I mean, honestly, how the hell can you discover a place where thousands of people are already living?

Normally I'm quite talented at converting desperation into inspiration. And now is my big chance to prove to Mom and Dad that I can actually succeed at something. Something important. But I am getting absolutely nowhere.

And the silence is deafening. In fact, it's positively distracting. For the past eight weeks I've been looking forward to finally shaking the family and having the house to myself and now it suddenly seems spooky. When I lived in my apartment near the college campus there were always roommates around to bullshit with - probably a big part of the reason I got an 'A' in my negotiation seminar and then flunked calculus. At least when the kinfolk are in residence there is always someone around to fight with. I thought I'd be really happy after they all took off. But it's awfully quiet now. Too quiet.

A few minutes pass and I hear the welcome sound of raindrops plunking against

the roof. I shift my gaze from the calculus book and out to the safety of my own backyard and intently study the chubby droplets as they ricochet off the vaulted ceiling of our slightly mold-stained St. Peter's Basilica birdfeeder. Good. It's been so damn hot. Maybe the rain shower will help. This scorching summer has broken every high temperature and humidity record, and it's not over yet.

The phone rings and I glance at the clock - right on time.

"Calculus gulag. Hello warden."

"That's not funny Jessica! And how did you know it was me?" my Mother inquires in her perpetually surprised-sounding soprano voice. "It could have been Aunt Iris, or heaven forbid, someone from your Father's office."

"It's exactly 6:30 PM on Monday night. It's National Park pilgrimage protocol," I explain. "You always call right after you eat on the day you've left for vacation. And you always stop for a picnic dinner at exactly 5:45 PM. Then you use the payphone to remind whoever is taking care of the house to water the plants or something that you've told them to do but are afraid they'll forget. In the meantime, Dad gets gas and scrapes bird shit off the windshield."

"Watch your language Jessica! I suppose I do, but I just never thought of myself as being quite so predictable." Mom acknowledges my observation rather good-naturedly. "And the correct English, by the way, is whomsoever. I just wanted to make sure that everything is all right and that you remembered to close the garage door and to turn on the porch light."

"Mom, now you know I'd sooner be struck by lightning than forget about the porch light," I cheerfully lie. Cheerfulness is the key to committing successful perjury. Glum children make my Mother immediately suspicious.

"And be sure to close the windows if it starts to rain." Joan diligently continues through her checklist. "It's already sprinkling here and your Father says that there's a storm headed in your direction."

"Right. Windows!" I try to answer in a brisk and efficient tone of voice, which I hope will make it sound as if I've already completed this task as well. However, I glance through to the family room and see a legion of hearty raindrops plopping through the mesh screen, collecting in small pools on the maple windowsills and then running down the wood-paneled wall towards the light sockets.

"Are you studying, Sweetie?"

"No Mom. I'm trying to figure out why the caged bird sings."

"Don't be a smarty-pants Jessica."

"Of course I'm studying," I say in an exasperated tone, more out of habit than anything else. "I know you and Dad may find this hard to believe, but I didn't fail math on purpose - as if I'm trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for how many times I can repeat calculus or something."

"I suppose that's all then," Mom says hurriedly. Though time is running out and I know she doesn't wish to feed more money into the telephone, I sense there is more to come when I hear the ker-chink of another coin dropping in. "And what did I tell you about watering the garden?"

"I can't believe you don't remember. You only said it, like, five hundred times."

"And you wonder why you can't find a job, with a sarcastic mouth like that?"

"Mom, seriously, right before you left you told me at least ten times to water the garden on Wednesday morning."

"Well don't forget, then. Are you sure that you'll be all right staying at home by yourself this week? You can still go to Grandma's. I know that she'd love the company."

"Mom, please," I groan into the receiver. "I've lived in a dorm or an apartment since my freshman year of college."

In the background I hear my Father's Irish tenor voice complaining about the exorbitant cost of fuel on the highway, poor gas mileage due to the overloaded roof rack and falling behind schedule. He's been agitated about the schedule all week, muttering that the extreme heat is sure to draw wild animals in search of water out onto the interstate and increase the amount of road kill, thereby causing more accidents and generally slowing traffic.

"All right then. Just don't forget to water the garden, Jessica. And don't eat pizza every night. There are lots of leftovers in the refrigerator. I left some good chicken breast in there for you and some nice meat loaf. And fresh fruit for snacks." I've often noticed that Mom cherishes the adjectives 'nice' and 'good' when it comes to describing remaindered food items.

"Come along Mother!" I can hear Dad closing in. "Let's hit the trail!"

It was almost a decade ago that my Father had fallen into the married, over-forty trap of referring to Joan as 'Mother.' Unless they are at a bank function and then he jokingly says that she is his family co-CEO. Cringe. Lawn widow is more like it. My folks are probably about three years away from exchanging their double bed for two singles, sharing reading glasses, never allowing the gas gauge to dip below three-quarters and arriving at parties a full hour early.

"Jess dear, Daddy says hello. Bye-bye honey. I have to go. We miss you. See you on Sunday night then."

"I miss you too," I recite automatically.

The rain lets up and in the backyard a harsh sizzle emanates from the bright blue neon coil of death which is at the epicenter of Dad's deluxe electric bug zapper, fracturing the otherwise still evening. I jump more than slightly. I don't know why. Just edgy, I guess. After all, it's only the sound of nature taking its course in galvanized suburbia - the familiar hiss announcing the demise of another one of God's smaller and more irksome creatures. I suppose it should be a comfort to know that I'm not the only one fighting for my life, and losing.

Once again the silence hangs so heavily inside the house that I decide math will just have to wait a few more minutes. Besides, a girl can't be expected to endure a phone call from her Mother and then immediately plunge back into everyday life without some sort of a buffer zone in-between. I absentmindedly page through some mail-order catalogs which are stacked in an orderly pile on the kitchen counter and wonder aloud who the fuck is ordering stainless steel cookie cutters and liquid soap dispensers in the shape of orca whales.

The calculus book seems to be taunting me, appearing in the corner of my eye every ten seconds or so, challenging me from its place on the table. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that it is for sure demonically possessed, like one of those spooky portraits of pasty old men in charcoal suits with dark beady eyes that follow you around the stacks in musty old libraries.

When I begin to study again it's out of sheer panic. Abject terror begotten from the knowledge that if I don't manage to graduate from college the following week, I will be living out my days at home with my parents eating 'good' tuna salad with 'nice' chopped scallions and being perpetually advised to put a barrette in my hair.

I chew on a stale Power Bar in an effort to achieve tri-harmony. Mind, body, and spirit all working together in one Herculean push to grasp and absorb differential and integral calculus. The only thing I'm missing in large doses is spirit, although the mind is in desperate need of a tune-up and if the body was totally replaced I would not exactly complain or anything.

But positive thinking isn't getting me where I need to be and so I decide that it's time for a fructose corn syrup jolt. I'm so thirsty. This heat has been making me thirsty all the time. Lately I've been fantasizing about sticking an IV of pink lemonade into my arm. I remove a tall glass from the cupboard and accidentally knock over my sister Katie's favorite plastic Wonder Woman mug. At least it was Katie's favorite mug when she was eleven - back then she would have held her breath until she passed out before so much as touching any other cup to her lips. But now she's fourteen and cares a lot more about boys than a cartoon character who flies around in an invisible plane wearing a silly looking bathing suit. Picking up that old mug, now all chipped and faded, and putting it back in its place makes me think that I wouldn't mind so much if Katie had stayed here at home with me. Sure, she's still a kid and all, but we can talk about stuff or at least go shopping together. And she's not bad company. In fact, she's even got a boyfriend and so we could talk about what jerks guys are.

When she was younger Katie used to sort of idolize me - follow me around wanting to do everything that I did. Little sister shit. It annoyed the hell out of me back then and I'd try to ditch her or threaten to paste her or else complain to Mom. In retrospect, it was kind of cute, I guess. And for sure it's not like anyone is following me around in a state of total admiration nowadays. Not that they should, since lately I've been a total puke. Even I'll admit that. And of course, Katie's grown up and doesn't feel that way anymore. Earlier this afternoon, when I was looking for an eraser, I came across this little square of construction paper in her top desk drawer on which she'd mapped out how she's going to rearrange our room after I move and get all my shit out of there. I'm not mad about it or anything. I mean, it's not as if she's being presumptuous, because the fact of the matter is, I threaten to move out every day. All I need is this stupid degree and a stupid job and I'm going to do it too.

I pour a tall glass of cola, none of that diet shit, and dump in six packets of sugar just for good measure. After a big gulp I place fingers to temples and psyche myself up. 'You can do this!' I silently scream.

Chapter 6. Introduction: Synthetic division is a short way of dividing a polynomial by a binomial of the form x-b.

I read it again. And then again. I highlight a few lines with an electric pink marker. Now, with all this information seeping into my brain, I feel in control. I can do this. It's just a bunch of stupid numbers, excuse me, integers, and all I need to remember is that there are different tricks for putting each heap of them together. That's all. In other words, the entire calculus course is just another conspiracy against me.

And it might actually help if I could see the numbers. If I can just get this fucking hair out of my eyes once and for all. If only Mom would stop insisting that I use barrettes to clip it back then I believe I might actually consider doing just that.

The excessive humidity commingles with the bright orange pizza grease and makes my book pages stained and gluey so that they stick to one another. The air in the kitchen is moist and stagnant. So much so that I wonder whether I might be able to carve my initials in the watery haze with my index finger.

To make synthetic division shorter we leave out all the x's and just write the coefficients.

What is a coefficient again? And who does the author think he is saying 'we,' as if we are all in this mess together.

After half an hour I finally get up the courage to tackle the sample problems that are housed at the end of every chapter in a light gray shaded box. Everyone knows that being able to complete the sample problems is what separates the future mall clerks from tomorrow's bank managers. And I certainly wouldn't mind being among the latter.

Unfortunately, they make absolutely no sense to me. Is it possible the printer made a mistake in my copy? How am I ever going to get through this stupid exam? I purposely crush my pencil tip into the tabletop, drop my head down on top of the page and try to cry. But I am barren and if I cannot produce the answers to differential equations how can I possibly yield tears?

A natural logarithm of a positive number x is the logarithm of x to the base e, where e = 2.71828

Surely, they must be joking. My degree is in marketing, for Chrissakes. Selling! Shopping! Giving the professor a blowjob is probably out of the question. He keeps referring to a wife and six-pack of kids back in Bangladesh.

Somehow I force myself to solve problems for almost an hour and a half. I feel slightly relieved. Like some days calculus wins, maybe even most days, but some days Jess wins. Although I'm not anywhere near being able to pass that stupid final exam on Friday.

The doorbell rings. Hallelujah! Study break! I prepare to buy whatever they're selling, sign all petitions, and donate to whatever cause - anything to escape natural logarithms for even five minutes. The neon numbers on the microwave oven clock flash 8:41 PM. Surely it's too late for the proselytizing of the Jehovah's Witnesses. Too bad. That could have easily killed an hour, arguing imminent destruction and the world's wickedness.

More than likely it is not a representative of a religious order, but a member of Jack's not very highly-evolved rat pack of eighteen-year-olds who have probably not received word of the annual MacGuire family camping trip. If this crew were any dumber they would need to be watered and pruned twice a week. Personally, I am of the opinion that Jack enforces a strict 'zero intelligence' policy when it comes to choosing his cronies.

Before swinging open the heavy oak front door I peer through the little side faux-stained glass window to check who's there, more out of habit than anything else. But it's already too dark. Damn. Serves me right for lying to Mom about turning the lights on. One point for you, God.

I hate to switch on that eerie urine-colored bulb once a visitor is already standing at the front door. It's such a blatant act of suspicion and always seems so rude when the tables are turned and I'm the illumination victim. Nevertheless, I flick the switch in the front hall as I've been taught to do and once again peer out the narrow window.

There stands a middle-aged man I've never seen before, apparently surprised by the sudden bath of garish yellow light, as if he wasn't really expecting the door to be answered in the first place. He appears to be late forty-something, of average height with salt and pepper hair and owlish glasses that make his blue eyes appear slightly lampy. Under an open black windbreaker he has on a faded, forest green LaCoste polo shirt, an obvious late-80s purchase, the de rigueur tan pants of the suburban male, and on his feet are the standard I-work-in-an-office-but-they-sometimes-set-me-free-on-Sunday Docksiders. It's definitely not the uniform of the meter reader from the local gas company. Though he looks like the kind of guy who carries one of those Swiss Army Knives in his pocket.

He glances up as if to confirm that the source of the gaudy glare is indeed the overhead fixture and then hastily turns and retreats down the driveway.

I pull open the front door and speak at the retreating windbreaker, "Excuse me mister, can I help you?"

The man spins around and squints at me curiously. He deliberately hikes back up to the porch, towards me, and stops directly underneath the light. By now a few triangular white moths have begun dive-bombing the frosted glass fixture. "I'm sorry," the mysterious stranger says. "I-I didn't think that anyone was home."

"Oh," I remark curiously and can't help but wonder why a person would ring a doorbell if he doesn't think that anyone is home.

"Well there nearly wasn't, I mean I almost didn't open the door but then I decided you don't exactly look like the murdering kind. In fact, you sort of resemble an encyclopedia salesman, though you aren't carrying any books or a briefcase. Actually I've only seen door-to-door salesmen in the old movies that my parents like to watch, but you're how I picture a modern one might look. So what can I do for you?"

It takes the guy a minute to recover from my blast. In situations where I'm not sure what to say I have a habit of rambling. Besides, prattling out a pile of garbage gives me time to think and basically confuses the hell out of the person who is causing my consternation.

The man eventually revives. "I - uh, I used to live here," he explains. "I was just sort of reminiscing." He casts his gaze up at my two-story white clapboard house and then over to the garage as if to prove his point.

"Oh," I say. Well at least this is now starting to make some sense, since I'm aware that people occasionally embark on tours of their past. Though not usually at nine o'clock at night. It's just like calling up old loser boyfriends on a Saturday night when you're alone and miserable. We are all guilty.

"I guess it's rather late," he says as he glances down at his watch, as if he has read my mind. "I'm sorry that I bothered you." He again starts turning away.

No way baby. I need some company around this cracker box and there is no one else in the frame. And suddenly I get a little help from old Mother Nature as a cloud bursts directly overhead and the rain pounding on the aluminum overhang makes it difficult to hear anything.

"Why don't you come in and dry off and wait for this to stop?" I shout above the din. "Besides, my folks would never forgive me if I didn't give you a chance to look around your old home." And who knows, maybe the guy is a whiz at calculus.

He looks past me and inside the house, as if he is going to make his decision based on the color scheme that my Mother has selected for the front hallway rather than the weather. "Yeah, okay, sure," he replies uncertainly and follows me inside.

© Copyright 2002, Laura Pedersen. All rights reserved.