A Well-Made Man
fiction by Katie Coopersmith
Some things about me.
Right now, my goal is to have a flat stomach by June 29th, which is the day school gets out. Liz’s stomach is already perfectly flat and she doesn’t even have to do anything to keep it that way. I think about how the beauty of so many parts of our world – wood, water, skin, body – is determined by their smoothness. I’m still skinny, but there’s a little paunch of fat on my lower abdomen that wasn’t there before. It’s making it so that I can’t wear tank tops.
I keep my notes in folders. Fold each assignment or essay or critique sheet or chem lab – usually coffee-stained – in half, place it into a labeled pink 1” Hilroy, and place that way up high on a numbered shelf in my closet, the only closet in the second of two bedrooms of the eastern-most house in Ernst, OR. These things: important. Tucked away so I won’t forget.
I don’t like pictures at all. My father keeps trying to take candid photographs of my friends and me now that we’re in our last month of high school. He says he’s trying to preserve the moments that I’m going to want to look back on. What he doesn’t understand is that I’m already looking back. I like the way things used to be better than I’m ever going to like what’s coming.
It’s the second-last Monday of my senior year. The high school parking lot is louder and more crowded than usual and the air is molasses-thick with dust as my best friend Liz and I climb out of the backseat of Jake’s little red Honda. Jake and Liz have been going steady for a while now. She laughs as he slings a arm around her shoulder and the two of them start down the well-worn path that leads to the entrance of our one-story high school. I’ve heard it referred to as our prison, our kingdom, our Mecca…whichever way you want to look at it, it won’t be ours for much longer. I consider the brown brick facade, trying to figure out if there’s any attachment at all inside me to the building itself.
Come on, Mackenzie, Liz shrieks, buckling over as Jake tickles her in the ribs. She smacks him playfully. Mackenzie, save me!
I stretch my lips apart and flash my teeth in what I hope looks like a carefree grin and jog up to the happy couple. I pat Liz on the arm and say the only thing I can think of as the bell rings to signal the start of class:
You guys are so adorable.
I didn’t know that it was possible for a person to change as drastically as Liz has in the past year. We were playmates in elementary school, finding ourselves slumped side-by-side against the dingy brick walls of the building almost every afternoon. We’d spit and sing songs and do handstands as we waited for our fathers’ pickup trucks to come rumbling up over the crest of the hill, crowned with the distinctive halo of dust and smoke that’s typical of vehicles in Ernst. Sometimes her dad wouldn’t show for more than an hour. I’d wait with her the whole time, eyes squinting in the buttery afternoon light while my father sat patiently reading in the driver’s seat and smoking out the window. Our friendship strengthened as we got older, helped along by our shared affinity for peanut butter, Tolkien, and boys that we knew we’d never get. Ours really was an alliance that thrived on commiseration – trying to make the best of our single-girl misery while secretly enjoying every minute of it. We both wanted nothing more than to have a boyfriend, but now that I think about it, neither of us really had the nerve to try to get one. Liz would only flirt with boys that she knew had girlfriends; and coquetry might as well have been a foreign language for me. I still can’t bat my eyes properly without feeling like an idiot or wear a tight sweater without worrying that everyone is going to think I’m a whore. There lies the difference, I guess, because Liz now can and does.
Jake was one of the boys we thought neither of us could ever get. He isn’t magazine-cover gorgeous, but he’s got freckles and sandy brown hair and a soft white football jacket that he lets the girls he dates wear around town. Last summer, I went away to California with my father for a week and when I came back, Liz had it tied around the waist of her pink sundress. She talked to me for hours in a voice I’d never heard her use before about how this lovey-dovey goddamn miracle had happened. There had been a party, some stolen rum, a sloppy kiss. Two dinner dates at Margaret’s Sandwich Shop later, Liz and Jake were the happiest couple in all of Ernst. That was ten and a half months ago. Liz still talks to me on the phone in the same tone she used during that first giddy conversation.
My mother grew up in this town, I’m told. Went to this high school. She died from too much liquor when I was two months old. When I was about seven or eight, I remember getting angry because people were always telling me I looked just like her. There was a large black-and-white photograph of her tacked to the wall above my father’s desk, a portrait-style snapshot taken by someone standing above her. She’s lying on her back in a field of daisy-laced grass, staring at the camera with this intense deadpan gaze that always frightened me a little. Her hair is blond, much lighter than mine has ever been, and it spills over her shoulder like slack wheat. I couldn’t see even a little bit of myself in that photograph.
People were always telling my father: you didn’t deserve her.
I never got up the nerve to ask what they meant by that.
There’s a chain-link fence out behind the school that separates the track field from the miles of hop fields beyond. I’ve taken to coming and sitting here in front of this fence at lunchtime on days when I don’t feel like waiting in the cafeteria line for meatloaf or driving to the Orange Blossom Inn for a burger with Liz and Jake. The side of the school that I’m looking at has five lopsided American flags painted on it, underlined with about thirty kid-sized handprints. One of them is mine – one of the blue ones, I think, but I can’t remember which one. Can’t mash my long, rough fingers against any print that looks like it might have come from a person I used to be.
Today, I sit by the fence all through lunch and part of biology class. I ignore the fact that I’m hungry, focus instead on tanning my knees and looking for my handprint. The sun feels good, so I sit some more.
When I get home that day, my father is sitting in his brown La-Z-Boy recliner by the door, a wrinkled western novel clutched in his grimy left hand. Instead of hustling to my bedroom like I normally do, I just stand there looking at him for a moment.
Dad? I say, not sure whether or not he sees me. He looks up, smiles.
What is it, honey? he asks, patting the arm of his chair as an indication for me to come sit. I do. The words fall out of my mouth before I can stop them.
Dad, I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life. I don’t know who I am.
He laughs. Laughs! I stand up in a huff, hardly believing he could be so rude. He stops and strains forward to pat me on the shoulder.
What do you mean you’re not sure, he chuckles. You’re going to college. You’re going to get out of Ernst. That’s what you want to do, isn’t it? A fresh start? That’s what you’ve been saying. I want you to be happy. Your mom, I know, would have wanted you to be happy. I’ve got the money saved up, Mackie.
I know, I mumble, but my friends…
He wipes his hands on his jeans and turns to look me in the eye, all business, like I’ve sometimes seen him while he’s directing his team at work in the fields.
Your friends will always be here for you, hon.
I nod and swallow, trying to keep the itchiness in my eyes from turning to water.
Mackie Jane, he says, you’re about as spunky as you’ve always been, baby. You’ll survive.
I look down and see my tan kneecaps, knobblier than I’d thought they were.
I make pancakes for breakfast the next morning. There’s a newspaper sitting on the checked green tablecloth in front of my plate. The headline reads HOW TO MARRY YOUR DEMONS in big block letters. I don’t really know what that might mean. Beneath that article, there’s an ad hawking A WELL-MADE TRUCK FOR A WELL-MADE MAN.
My father stands at the window, mug in hand, staring out at the twenty-two clean rows of hops that he’s spent the spring planting. I’ve got wet hair and I’m wearing my Ernst High cheerleading sweatshirt from a couple of years back. I’ll be meeting Liz down at the end of the road in twenty minutes to go shopping for the pre-graduation bonfire that’s going to be happening down at the river tonight. I don’t usually go to parties, but Liz says she’ll kill me if I don’t come with her to this one.
As I carry our syrup-streaked plates to the counter, I think a little about what my dad said about friends always being here. He’s right, I guess, they’ll always be here. But I’m starting to wonder whether I will. I’m supposed to go to Wesley Carter Women’s College up in Washington State in the fall for teaching, but in reality I’m not all that excited about it. The problem isn’t that I can’t see myself as a teacher – it’s that I can. I can picture the whole stupid thing perfectly. I’ll be twenty-five, fresh out of the college dorms, with a couple extra pounds on me and some frown lines around my mouth. I’ll wake up early on a Monday morning in May to wash my hair for a nine-o’clock interview at an elementary school in a small town just like Ernst. I’ll smile at my interrogator and present the necessary documents and before I can blink I’ll be settled into a Monday-to-Friday Driving Mackie Dullsville lifestyle that earns me just enough per month to pay for the studio apartment that I’m renting half-an-hour outside of town. I won’t make enough money to pay for a phone, so I’ll only call home when I have extra change to feed to the payphone down the street. I will spend my days with the snotty offspring of the girls I couldn’t be, smiling and nurturing and doing their jobs for them. They will use the time when their kids are out of the house to carefully select which pastel color should dominate the palette for their next baby shower. I’ll probably get glasses.
It’s a pretty crisp morning for June. Liz falls easily into conversation the moment she sees me as if we’ve already been talking for half an hour. She’s driving Jake’s car. As I settle into the passenger seat, my left foot bumps against a small flask perched atop a red flannel shirt and a few crumpled shreds of a paper bag from Margaret’s Sandwich Shop. It’s then that I see a flash of black lace underneath that pile, which is funny because Liz doesn’t wear black underwear. I’ve heard her ramble for probably about forty minutes nonstop about how underwear shouldn’t be fancy: nude is the way to go, Mackie, I tell you. I look up from the dusty tangle and she’s still going on about how I simply must stop drinking coffee, and how glad she is that she doesn’t have to worry about preparing for the SATs, and how Jake really needs to be gentler with his hands when they’re fooling around. I smile and nod and consider my stomach, hard and protruding with undigested pancake batter. The tears spring to my eyes once more. Liz notices.
What’s wrong, babe? she asks, glancing over at me with real concern in her eyes.
I laugh in surprise at the question.
What’s wrong? Liz, you haven’t asked me how I’m doing once in the past year, I don’t think, and now you decide to play psychoanalyst. That’s choice, Liz.
I feel the barbs in my words as I say them but I choose to ignore the sting.
Well, I’m sorry, Mackie, but you haven’t exactly been the most supportive friend either, you know. She sits up straighter as if to assert her womanly dominance. Is this about Jake? Mackie, you don’t have to finish high school single. We can find you someone, you know. Tonight, at the river. Didn’t you always use to have a crush on Paul LePoint?
I can’t believe her. Paul LePoint was the object of my tenth-grade devotion, but I haven’t even looked at him for at least a year. Last fall, he took a kid in a wheelchair out into the forest after last period and beat him up for looking at his buddy’s girlfriend the wrong way. It turned out the kid had a lazy eye and a girlfriend of his own and he didn’t even want to press charges. Paul got to keep his position as quarterback and his part-time job at the church. He lost me forever. This is why I’m fairly indignant at Liz’s suggestion that I go for him.
I guess, I mutter, not meeting her eyes. Yeah, I guess I did.
All I can do is stare at the floor.
That night, I spend too long selecting my outfit. I finally settle on a soft black cardigan and my nice jeans, but I’ve taken so long that I end up leaving the house much later than I’d planned to. It’s already dark out and the air smells sour like it sometimes does before a big rainfall.
Right away, I spot the little red Honda parked down at the end of the road. Liz is leaning against it and grinning like she’s already had something to drink. She’s paired the short red dress that she bought today with black tights and gumboots. The gumboots are because of the mud down at the river – everyone knows that if you try to walk that sloping path in heels, you’ll tumble down the hill in a hot second and leave your shoes behind. The dress is definitely a stunner, I tell Liz when I reach her; and in it, she is a Marilyn-level knockout. She beams and folds me into a tight hug, the first we’ve shared in a while. I’m surprised to find myself thinking that maybe we’re going to be okay.
Where’s Jake? I ask, peering around the bend where the road gets narrower. Liz, did you drive here? I thought Jake needed his car back after we went shopping.
She smiles even bigger and nods, pushing me into the waiting passenger seat.
He went ahead with the team, she whispers, like it’s some kind of secret that the night shouldn’t hear. I’m gonna meet him there.
She starts the car, and we rumble around the corner and down the dusty road.
I’m surprised at the amount of smoke that’s already hovering in the air by the time we reach the bottom of the hill where the mud turns to river rock. I inhale the perfume of campfire, marijuana, cologne and cigarettes and make my way over to the fire where a group of five or six people I don’t recognize are standing around, each one clutching a dark brown bottle. I feel a slight shiver run though me.
Guys, it’s Mackie! Mackie Jane!
I whip my head around, trying to locate the person whose deep voice is calling out my name. I squint through the darkness at the unfamiliar faces that surround me. All of a sudden, I’m feeling very warm in my wool cardigan.
Mackie, holy shit, it’s you!
Just like that, someone’s lips are planting a sloppy kiss on my right ear and I’m being crushed into my second embrace of the night. I pull back immediately and find myself staring stony-eyed into the face of Paul LePoint. He laughs.
I never thought I’d see you at one of these things. You ever see Mackie at a party, Mike?
Several of the people I’d seen standing nearby earlier start to chuckle. Paul slings his arm around me like it’s natural.
C’mon, he murmurs. Let’s get you a drink.
It’s a mystery to me why I don’t pull away right then and there. Why I don’t try. The cup that Paul hands me less than thirty seconds later is so full that some of the dark brown liquid sloshes over the top when I grip the sides. As I purse my lips to take the first sip, I realize I’ve lost Liz. The next thing I realize is that I’m not drinking beer. This is something much stronger than I’ve ever tasted before. Paul’s arm tightens around my shoulder and I feel my head growing fuzzy already. I press my face into his smoky-smelling white football jacket. Why am I with Paul? I don’t know. I take another sip. Two more.
Paul, it’s not as soft as I thought it was, I mumble.
He cackles and slips his hand down to my waist. I feel myself relax into it.
What’s not, Mackie?
Your jacket, I whisper. Your football jacket, it isn’t soft. Paul. Paul.
I raise the cup to my lips and drain what’s left. I push the hair out of my eyes and peel that stupid heavy cardigan halfway down my shoulders.
Paul, what am I drinking?
Rum and coke. Mackie, can we kiss?
What did you say, kiss? Of course, Paul. I’m drunk.
The words leave my mouth before I can stop them, and all of a sudden it’s like the thoughts that disappeared with the rum are back. Mackie, what the hell is this? It’s Paul. Paul. He’s a jerk. You’re not one of those girls. But…
Okay, he slurs. Okay, okay, come on. Kiss me.
I will kiss him. Paul is a good guy, I know he is, and I’m going to kiss him. I’ve never kissed anyone before, but I know what to do. I place my hands on both sides of his slender head, feeling the alien stubble beneath my fingers and suddenly wishing I’d had more to drink. He does the leaning in part for me and all of a sudden my mouth goes soft and I’m gone from him, running, falling, and crawling to meet the mud. My face is hot and I’m sort of crying and nobody’s laughing at me anymore but nobody’s looking either. Mackie Jane, drunk at her very first high school party, and she couldn’t even kiss Paul LePoint.
She grabs me by the shoulders and puts her face right up close to mine, squinting in the dark.
Mackie, where were you? Come on. Jake’s coming soon. Do you want a drink? To my own surprise, I start to giggle. I hear my voice, louder than I expected.
I had a drink, Liz! I’m already drunk!
She squints some more. She looks like a mean cat. I want to hiss at her.
You’re not drunk! she snickers. Mackie, you don’t have to pretend, it’s okay. No one cares if you don’t want to have a drink, okay? You want to go find some boys?
I feel hot sparks behind my forehead and my own eyes narrowing as I stare at the girl in front of me, this wobbling little nobody who won’t believe her best friend. Liz is going to be a deluded housewife. The words spill out of me fast and sharp:
Jake’s cheating on you.
And I’m sure that the river is still thundering past, but I can’t hear it. The noise from the beach has dulled, and the fire’s died down. Eyes are on me. Liz’s eyes. She moves towards me again, but slower this time, and I feel my stomach clench as a hot, stinking wind blows past us. She looks like she’s waiting for me to say I’m kidding. I think of the way she used to wait and wait for her dad after school. It’s partly because of the alcohol and partly because I’m thinking of this that I don’t register the pain in my cheek for a few seconds. I don’t hear the shriek that erupts from her mouth as her fingernails rip across the skin on my left cheek. She steps back and looks at me again, eyes wide, and I can feel the searing gash she’s left on my face. I look in Liz’s eyes and I see what a mean life can do, see screaming and vomit and humiliating shyness and lockers slamming shut. Without a word, she tears Jake’s car keys from a pocket in her dress and begins to run up the muddy path in those goddamn rubber boots. All I can do is sink until I hit the ground.
I sit there like that for a very long time, just hugging my knees and weeping. Then a strong arm wraps around my shoulders and I choke a little bit in surprise. I turn to face Paul LePoint, crouching there beside me in the guck with a look on his face that I can’t read.
Do you need a ride home? I’m pretty sure Liz is gone.
Thanks, but I’m good. I think I’m just going to walk.
Are you sure? It’s like fifteen miles into town, isn’t it? I’ve got my pickup, the boys are just gonna ride in the back. You’d fit in.
Later, I’ll spend a lot of time wondering what he meant by those words.
Nope. Thanks, though.
Well, okay, if you’re sure…
Paul clears his throat and begins to stand up, wiping his muddy hands on his jeans. He leaves me with a tentative pat on the shoulder and jogs down to the water to join his buddies. I stay for a few moments, watching as he greets his teammates with loud guffaws and slaps on the back, and then I stand and begin to hike up the path away from my peers and into the night.
The road is alien hardwood beneath my feet, a shock after the porous mud that now cakes my sneakers. I’m swaying a bit as I walk but I’m too tired to care. I feel defeated and disgusting and all I can think is thank God my father can’t see me right now. I realize it’s been a long time – years, maybe – since I’ve walked this road. I’ve been driven around these bends plenty of times over the past few years, but the last time I actually took myself down to the river was probably back in fifth or sixth grade. The thought sobers me a little.
I spot my house in the distant dark, somehow cheery and smiling there at the end of the road beneath a drooping moon. The kitchen light is on. I jog the last stretch of the road, suddenly desperate to get inside and drench myself in hot water, wash the sticky night off my skin. I’m sure I look a mess as I stumble into our garage and up the three small steps. The screen door whines in protest as I jerk it open.
There’s a single sheet of paper lying on the linen tablecloth in front of me. I can make out three short lines of my father’s chicken-scratch scrawl. I move closer, preparing for whatever it is I’m about to read. A hand-written reaming for staying out so late? A notice informing me I’m grounded until college starts? My father’s not much of a punishment man, but then again, I’ve never stayed out past midnight before. I pick up the note:
I’m out with a friend from the office (Claire Thomas).
I may not be home until late, so don’t worry about me.
You’re the greatest girl, Mackie. Remember that.
The paper flutters from my hand to the floor. My father is on a date, or so it seems. Instead of waiting up for me, he’s staying out late and making the world his goddamn oyster just like everyone else in this town seems to know how to do.
Liz is always telling me to be a woman. Right now, I feel like the smallest child in the world.
Suddenly, I’m ravenous. I go to the cupboard and take out a box of cereal. I place it in front of me on the swimming green-and-white linen checks, shovel handful after handful into my mouth with the determination of a soldier on the battlefield. The tears pour from my eyes. After ten minutes of feasting, I’m spent, and I leave the box tipped on its side, spilling its guts out in the middle of the kitchen table.
Alone in my bedroom, I peel my clothes from my body like sunburned skin, fingers brushing the rude bulge of my overstuffed belly. At last, I climb between the polka-dotted sheets, ugly of conscience, face, and deed, clad in nothing but my black lace bra and underwear.