It was the middle of January and there was nothing to look forward to. The radio station went off at dusk and dusk came early in the afternoon and then came the dark and nothing to watch but a bleached out moon lying over fields slick as a frosted cake, and nothing to hear at all.
There was nothing left of Christmas but the cold. The cold slouched and pressed against the people. Their blood was full of it. And their eyes and the food that they ate. The people walked the streets wearing woolen masks as though they were gangsters, or as though they were deformed. Old ladies died of breaks and foolish wounds in houses where no one came, and otters could be seen travelling over frozen pastures, seeking new rivers.
The cold didn’t invent anything like the summer has a habit of doing and it didn’t disclose anything like the spring. It lay powerfully encamped—waiting, altering one’s ambitions, encouraging ends. The cold made for an ache, a restlessness and an irritation, and thinking that fell in odd and unemployable directions. The pain would start in your lap, boring up and tearing through like a big-beaked bird, traveling up your spine then to the base of your skull, entering your brain like fever. So it was explained.
Judy Jaxe and Julep Lee were the best of friends. Each knew things that the other did not, and each had a different manner of going after the things that they wanted. Each loved the handsome chemistry teacher of the high school. Love had different beginnings but always the same end. Someone was going to get hurt. Julep was too discreet to admit this for she tried not to think of shabby things.
They were fourteen and the only thing that was familiar to them was the town and the way they spent their lives there, which they hated.
They slept a great deal and talked about the same things always and made brownies and popcorn and drank Coca-Cola. Julep always made a great show of drinking Coca-Cola because she claimed that her father had given her twenty-five shares of stock in it the day she was born. Judy would laugh about this whenever she thought to. “And my father drives a Tom’s Nuts truck,” she would say. Which was true and which was the funniest thing Judy had ever heard herself say and which her father deserved because he was such a creep and left them long ago.
Their schoolbooks lay open and unread, littered with particles of bread and nail trimmings. Every night that didn’t bring a blizzard, they would spy on the chemistry teacher, for they were fourteen and could only infrequently distinguish what they did from what they merely dreamt about.
The chemistry teacher had enormous trembling eyes like a deer and a name in your mouth sweet as a candy bar. DEBEVOISE. He was tall and languid and unmarried and handsome. He lived alone in a single rented room on the second floor of a large house on the coast. The house was the last one on a street that abruptly became a field of pines and stones and dead elms. Every night the girls would come to the field and, crouching in a hollow, watch him through a pair of cheap binoculars. For a month they had been watching him move woodenly around the small room and still they did not know what it was they wanted to happen. The walls of the room were painted white and he sat at a white desk with his white shirt rolled down to his wrists. The only thing that was on the desk was a tiny television set with a screen the size of a book. He watched it and drank from a glass. Sometimes he would run his own hands through his own thick hair.
Judy Jaxe and Julep Lee felt that loving him was a success in itself.
But still they did not know what they waited for in the snow. The rocks dug into their skinny shanks. Their ears went deaf with the cold. At times, Judy thought that she wanted him to bring a woman up there. Or perhaps do something embarrassing or dirty all by himself. But she was not sure about this.
As for Julep, she seldom said things that she had not said once, long before, so there was no way of knowing what she thought.
* * * *
Julep was the thinnest human being in town, all angles and bruises and fierce joinings. Even her lips were hard and spare and bloodless as bone. Her yellow hair, thick and short and badly cut, was faded out, a parched color, the color of hemp. Her brows and lashes were the same, although her eyes, under heavy round lids that worked slowly as a doll’s, were brown. Judy said to her often,
“You were badly thought out.”
Julep’s parents had moved from the south to the north when she was four months old, and she had lived on the same bitter and benumbed coast ever since. She steered her way through each day incredulously, nonetheless, as though she had been kidnapped and sent to some grim prison yard in another world. She couldn’t employ the cold to any advantage so she dreamed of heat, of a sun fierce enough to melt the monstrous town and set her free. She talked about the sun as though it were a personal friend of hers, waiting in the next room for her to get ready and go out with it.
On Julep’s brow was always a hint of fever. In Julep’s head always waited pictures and lessons, overwhelming in their inapplicability.
NEVER PUT CHEMICALS IN YOUR MOUTH UNLESS YOU ARE TOLD TO DO SO
And Julep was an innocent, a Baptist, a clarinetist in the band, a forward on the six-girl basketball team which was famous throughout the state, undefeated, unthreatened, unsmiling in their hybrid intent. She had scabs upon her knees, a blue silk uniform in her locker, fingernails split and ragged from the gritty ball. Julep had passions but no desires.
* * *
Now, Judy Jaxe too was an innocent, but had a tendency to see things in a greedy, rutting way. Judy was tiny and tough and wore a garter belt. Almost every one of her eyebrows was plucked from her head and her hair was stacked over a foot high, for her older sister was a hairdresser who taught her half of everything she knew.
Judy was full and sleek and a favorite with the boys and she would tell Julep things that Julep almost died hearing. She would say, “Last night Tommy Saloma exposed himself to my eyes only in the rumpus room of his house, ” and Julep would almost faint. She would say, “Billy Colter touched my breast in Library,” and Julep would gasp and hold her head at an unnaturally high angle for she felt that if she held her head on the slightest cant, everything inside her would stream terribly from her mouth, everything she was made of, falling out of her head and shaking on the floor in front of them, and Julep knew that after that, everything would be changed and everything ruined.
Judy always told her friend the most awful things she could think of, true or false, and made promises that she would not keep and insulted and disappointed and teased her as much as possible. Julep allowed this and was always deeply affected and bewildered by this, which flattered Judy enormously. This pleasure compensated for the fact that Julep had white hair that Judy would have given anything in the world to have. It annoyed her that her friend had such strange and devastating hair and didn’t know how to care for it properly.
After school, they would often go to Julep’s house. They usually went there rather than to Judy’s because Julep’s room was nicer. Judy’s room was just a closet with a bright light-bulb and a Hollywood bed and no room for anything else except for Judy’s fantasies of being a gun moll holed up after a job.
Julep didn’t like to go there because it smelled of underwear.
They went to Julep’s room and never said much.
* * * *
“Look now,” Judy said, peeling off a strip of scotch tape from her bangs, “why don’t you broaden your conversational base? Why don’t we talk about men or movies? Or even mixed drinks?”
Julep shrugged, “I don’t know anything about those things.” In her head suddenly was a picture as though someone had pushed a slide through a slit just above her ear. She was on a southern river, wide and red and sluggish, and there were enormous moss covered trees and stumps and stiff vines. There were animals watching her with eyes big as pies. The top part of them was bright red and the hind part, black silky hair. She had read once in the Bible that the sun would someday become black as a sackcloth of hair and the moon would turn red as blood. This was because of the evil in people, and Julep worried that this would happen to the sun before she had a chance to get to it. The animals didn’t tell her anything and she stretched her eyes wider and looked at Judy and then they disappeared.
“You don’t know anything is all.” Judy plucked at her sweater and smiled the bittersweet smile she found so crushing on the lips of the girl models of the fashion magazines. Her new breasts rose and fell eerily beneath a sweater of puce.
“I know that someday you’re gonna poke someone’s eye out with those things,” Julep said. “If I were you, I’d be worried sick.”
Judy yawned. Julep stared out the window with her ageless sexless eyes. Judy poked her. The sun was still up but nowhere in sight. The air was blue and the snow falling through it was blue, and the trees were as black as though they had been burned.
“I’m leaving,” Judy said abruptly and swept out of Julep’s bedroom and downstairs to the kitchen.
Julep rubbed at the frost forming inside the windowpane with a thin grey nail which was bleeding beneath the quick. She felt her head sweating. If she pressed her hands to it, it would pop like a too heavy tick on a dog. If Hell were hot then Heaven must be freezing cold. She backed away from the window and thudded down the stairs.
LET US BUILD AN ELECTROLYTIC CELL AND GENERATE SOME OXYGEN WITH IT
Judy had drawn on her boots and coat. She waved coyly at Julep.
“Well, aren’t we going over there tonight to watch him?” Julep asked nervously. She swung her eyes heavily toward her friend. Looking often cost Julep a great deal of effort as though her eyes were boxes of bricks she had to push around in front of her.
“No,” Judy said, for she wanted to punish Julep for her dullness.
Julep moved her mouth back and forth awkwardly. She thought violently and with sudden grief that her life was never going to be used up. It would dangle out of sight somewhere, useless, on a gallows.
“Sorry,” Judy said loudly. Her books were lying on the table beside a small dish that said, LET ME HOLD YOUR TEABAG. Judy rolled her eyes and then shook her head at Julep. Julep’s father owned a little grocery store. In the window, specked with ancient flies, was a hand-lettered sign.
WHY MAKE THE RICH RICHER
PATRONIZE THE POOR
“How can you stand to live in such a dump?” she asked. “With such dummies?” Julep didn’t know. Judy left and walked through the heavy snow to dumb Julep’s father’s dumb store where she bought Glamour and lifted a mascara and eyeliner set.
Julep ate supper. Chowder, bread, two glasses of milk and three pieces of cake. She felt that she was feeding something inside her that belonged in a pen in the zoo down in Boston. A plow traveled up the street, its blade ringing against the stone of sidewalk curbs, its orange light chopping through the blackness. She went to bed early, for she had tests and a basketball game the next day. She thought of the tropical ocean, of enormous white flowers on yellow stalks motionless in the sun. Things would carry distantly over the water there. Things would start out from ugly places and never reach Julep at all.
* * * *
CHEMISTRY INVOLVES EXPERIMENTATION AND EXPLANATION
Judy Jaxe and Julep Lee had become friends the summer before when they were on the beach. It was a bitter, shining Maine day and they were alone except for two people drowning just beyond the breaker line. The two girls sat on the beach, eating potato chips, unable to decide if the people were drowning or if they were just having a good time. Even after they disappeared, the girls could not believe they had really done it. They went home and the next day read about it in the newspapers. From that day on, they spent all their time together, even though they never mentioned the incident again.
* * * *
WHENEVER A SITUATION THAT IS AT EQUILIBRIUM
IS SUBJECTED TO SOME SORT OF STRESS THE
SYSTEM WILL THEN CHANGE IN SUCH A WAY
AS TO RELIEVE THE STRESS
Debevoise was thirty-four. He didn’t care for women and he couldn’t care for men. He was the only roomer in a shabby but respectable boarding house and took no part in adventure. It was a corner room and had two windows. One overlooked the field and the other the sea. There were no curtains on the windows and he never pulled the shades. He paid $30 a month and ate breakfast with the elderly owners. Coffee, ice, soda crackers any time. He drank a fifth of bourbon every week, ate lunch every noon at the high-school and drove to a hotel in the next town for dinner every night. He spent the rest of his salary on skiing gear and sports coats. He was stern and deeply tanned and exceptionally good looking. As for the teaching, he barely recognized his students as human beings, considering them all mentally bludgeoned by the unremitting landscape. He couldn’t imagine chemistry doing any better or worse by them than anything else.
Debevoise was like an arid pretty canyon with the wind blowing through it.
And the girls felt hopeless, stubborn and distraught, for they had come a long way on just a whisper more than nothing.
* * * *
They could approach the house either by walking up the beach, climbing the metal rungs welded into the rock, which was dangerous and gave them no cover, or they could walk through the little town and across the field. Their post was a small depression beside an enormous pine, the branches of which swept the ground. Further away was a rim of rocks which they had assembled as another hiding place. Every night they could see everything from either one of these locations.
Every night the chemistry teacher was projected brightly behind the square window glass and watching him was like watching a museum. It was like condoning the dead. The girls would often close their eyes and even doze off for a time, and the snow would fall on them and freeze in their hair. Sometimes he would take off all his clothes and walk around the room, punching at the wall but never hitting it. Seeing him naked was never as exciting as the girls kept on imagining it would be since no one had ever told them what to feel about this.
Even so. Julep would come back to the house smiling, as though someone had made a very exciting promise to her. No one was there to notice this, for her mother was always locked in her room, powdered and rouged and in a lacy bed-jacket like an invalid, watching TV and eating ice-cream from the store, and her father had been sleeping for hours, twitching and suicidal, dreaming of meat going bad in faulty freezers.
On the nights when the girls saw the chemistry teacher without his clothes, Judy pretended to swoon with delight but actually felt very hostile and dissatisfied. The vision was both improbable and irresistible. His body was brown all over and did not seem real. The boys she knew were so comprehensible. Of Debevoise, she understood nothing. She could pretend he was a movie star, beside her, naked, about to press his tongue against her teeth. Mr. Debevoise was going to put a bruise on her neck! He was going to take her hand and place it on his belt!! But she was not truly interested, and it made her mad.
* * * *
ASK YOUR MOTHER FOR AN OLD METAL SPOON THAT SHE NO LONGER NEEDS
The morning after Judy had refused to go spying. Julep woke with a headache and a terrible thirst. She thought for a moment that she had taken up the watch all by herself and something awful had happened to her. As soon as she stepped outside, someone was going to tell her about it.
* * * *
MANGANESE DIOXIDE IS A DIRTY BROWN PRECIPITATE
The sky was grey with pieces of black running through it like something that had died during the night. Walking to school, Julep suddenly started to cry. Her throat ached and her head felt heavy. She pulled savagely at her colorless hair, arranging it so that it fell more directly into and around her eyes. She stood in front of the school, her arms dangling, looking at her feet. She looked and looked, shocked. There she began. There were her boots, tall scuffed riding boots, her only winter footwear, which let in the damp, staining her feet each day the color of her socks. Then came her chapped knees, yellow and grey from spills on the gymnasium floor. Then her frayed and ugly coat. Her insides, too, were not what she would wish, for she knew that she was convulsively arranged—a steaming mess of foods and soft scarlet parts, Baptist Bible quotes and queer bumpings and pains as though there was something down in her frantic to get out.
Debevoise, she knew, was pure and warm with not a speck of debris about him.
Julep walked to school and moved down the busy halls like a wraith, meek and bony and awkward, her tow head glowing like a lamp. The classes before Chemistry were endless. The cold seeped past the window sills and over the plastic rosebud on the teachers’ desks.
The classroom fell away and she was alone with Debevoise in a rubber raft on a clear green ocean. Small sweet fish nibbled on each other without rancor and parts of them fell off with no blood attached. Julep’s knees touched his and they both had cameras and were taking pictures of each other. The sun was burning a hole in the top of her head. . . .
* * * *
No one ever played in the snow or used it for anything. It came too often and it stayed too long. In the cafeteria, the windows were even with the ground and criss-crossed with a steel mesh to protect the glass from objects flying through the air and across the ground. The snow was higher than the windows. Judy sat alone at a long wooden table. Old food and bobby pins were lodged in its cracks. The cafeteria was a terrible place which everyone recklessly frequented. When Judy saw her friend’s narrow nervous frame move jerkily across the room she decided on the spot that she would forgive her and they would resume watching Debevoise that very night. Afterwards, they would go to Julep’s room and drink gin and Coca-Cola. They would have highballs and she would make Julep talk about men whether she wanted to or not. Julep could provide the Coca-Colas since she was making money on drinking them.
Julep sat down and looked at Judy shyly. The chemistry teacher walked past them and sat at the faculty table on the other side of the room. He wore a lemon colored suit, a dark blue shirt and deep yellow tie and the fixed smirk that was his usual workaday expression.
They watched him respectfully. Julep closed her eyes. It was like wallowing in the sun just looking at him. Judy jabbed her friend’s arm. With her eyes shut. Julep looked sick and unconscious, beyond the range of instruction. “What do you really want him to do? What would you have him do if you had your way?” Judy asked impatiently.
“He’d take me away.” Julep said. “He’d keep me warm.”
Judy scowled. She tapped her fingers on the table and then leaned toward Julep and whispered in her ear.
“The way you’re sitting there and the way you’re talking, you look for all the world as though you’d just gotten raped.”
Julep’s eyes fell open, blurred and out of focus for several seconds as though they’d been somewhere other than her head for the last few years. “You could ruin the heavenly city itself,” she finally said.