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~Author Jennifer Leigh~

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Killjoy

This may be my favorite novel.  I started writing it the very night I wrote my last chapter of Riding True.  Killjoy kept me up all night.

Chapter One

 

Her name was Joy, which was funny because she wasn’t.  Joy, I mean.  And I don’t mean hilarious funny.  I mean ironic funny.

          My Grandma Essie told me that Joy should be called Killjoy and until then, I’d never heard that word, but she told me what it meant, which is basically spoilsport and did that fit Joy to a Tee.  So that’s what I called her ever after.  Killjoy.

          Need I mention that Killjoy was my stepmother?  What a cliché that I didn’t get along with her.  I had wanted a mother when Dad brought Killjoy home.  And he hadn’t been stupid enough to introduce her as my new mommy or anything like that.  I mean, I was 11, and way past calling anyone Mommy.  But my real mother had died a year and three and half months before.  She’d gone to the market to get me some mint chocolate chip ice cream, and never came back.  Coroner said she’d had a heart attack behind the wheel, and hit two other cars before our van came to a stop.  The people in the other cars lived, but one man is in a wheelchair, and one lady had damage to her cornea, which at the time, I didn’t even really know what a cornea was, or that it could be damaged.  But I always thought I’d rather have a mother who was in a wheelchair and both corneas damaged, than not.

          When Dad showed up with Killjoy, I was all for it.  She was young, hip, had several earrings in each ear, and teeth so intoxicatingly white that I wondered if she painted them with shoe polish every day. 

          Three months after she married Dad, when I questioned her authority as a mother since she was rather young (though at the time, I think I had said juvenile and she got that look on her face like, what does juvenile mean?) She said she was old enough to be my mother, to which I replied, “Since you’re 25 and I’m 12, that would mean you would have had to give birth to me when you were 13, and probably gotten pregnant when you were 12.  Are you telling me you’d be cool with it if I showed up in a year, knocked up and ready to drop out of school?”

          I didn’t think I was giving her lip.  I was trying to prove a point, only.  But her eyes flashed and she raised a hand to me as if she was going to hit me, which was never a good idea.  My dog Boogers walked over to her, like he always does, and sat on her foot, and wouldn’t move.  Killjoy yelled Ow, and Boogers sat and sat, with a slobbery doggy smile on his face, until Killjoy said, “Edie, dear, will you please call off your elephant of a dog before he breaks my other three toes?”

          I wanted to tell her I didn’t like her tone when she said dear, but didn’t want to push it.  So I smacked my lap with my hands and called Boogie off, and he sauntered his 200 pound butt over to me and sat down, next to my foot, but not on it.  He’s the best watchdog around.  I call his tactics passive resistance, like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did.  Booger staged his own sit ins, and got fantastic results.

          My friend Iris cracks up whenever I call my stepmother Killjoy, and Iris is so smart I didn’t have to tell her what killjoy meant, which is one of the reasons I like her.  She’s a Word Person like me.  She also wears glasses like me, is average height and weight, but sadly lacking in the boob department, unfortunately just like me, as well.  I think it’s pretty pathetic that I chose my best friend because she mirrored me in looks.  Of course, that wasn’t all of it.  However, I don’t think that I could be true best buds with someone who looked like Marilyn Monroe.  Even if Marilyn Monroe friend did like words, I’d always wonder why she was friends with me, bookish, flat-chested Edith. The miserable truth is, boobs are what counts when you’re 12.  Grandma Essie says this stands true forever, and she should know since her boobs went south years ago and she hasn’t heard one Hubba Hubba since.

          Speaking of boobs, Killjoy has a Barbie set of them, and Iris told me they have to be fake.  She told me to watch Killjoy the next time we go to one of Dad’s community baseball games.  Killjoy always jumps to her feet, and hops around in the bleachers, squealing and clapping.  Iris says Killjoy’s boobs do not bounce normal, in that they don’t seem to bounce at all.  According to Iris, this proves that Killjoy got a boob job, but she must have gotten the non-bouncing bargain basement variety.  Iris suggested I find out for sure if Killjoy’s boobs were fake and I asked how she reckoned this could be accomplished.

          She said, “Well, I guess it would be weird to just happen to walk in on her in the shower.”

          “Um, yeah, Iris, it would,” I said.  But then I had this image that Killjoy’s boobs were like football pads that you just strapped on every day, and it would have been pretty interesting to find something like that out, in the event I never grew any of my own boobs.  But I didn’t really think Killjoy’s boobs were that fake.  I pretty much knew they were attached to her body.

          So Iris suggested I just come out and ask.  Say, Joy, did it hurt when you got your boob job?  Or ask my dad, Dad, does it feel weird to be married to someone who purchased her enormous boobs, like choosing melons at the grocery store?

          But I told Iris that she had a seriously convoluted idea of appropriate conversation between my father, my stepmother, and me.  And frankly, I don’t have to know the pure truth in this matter.  I was secure in being pretty sure, period.  Which finally shut Iris up.  Getting her to stop talking about subjects sometimes requires skill, savvy, and a loud voice.  Which I like to think I possess, all three.

          I’ll say one thing for Killjoy, though.  She was a hard worker at her job as ‘Jewelry Consultant’ at the local K-Mart.  I personally think fine jewelry and K-Mart an oxymoron, but what do I know?  However, the downside of Killjoy’s ‘career’ is she spends her entire paycheck on the very jewelry she sells.  I’ve never seen more rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings on top of a dresser, in three jewelry boxes (or cases, Killjoy told me to call them) than my stepmother owns.  She’s the Imelda Marcos of costume jewelry.  If it has a genuine imitation something on it, my stepmother has it, and a double, in case the first one gets lost.

          I asked her once if she had all her fine jewels insured, though I was only kidding.  She looked at me, horror-struck, and asked, “Do you think I need to?”

          I chortled.  “I think Boogers will keep all your nice stuff safe,” which was another putdown, but she didn’t even get it, and said, relief oozing from every pore, “Oh, thank goodness.” Then she smirked, thinking she had the upper hand with me, and said, “Nice to know that elephant is good for something besides breaking a certain innocent person’s toes, who shall remain nameful.”  (Yes, she said nameful.)  I was dying to ask her, is it normal to name one’s toes? But she wouldn’t have understood anyway.

          That’s one thing Killjoy and I have in common, our willingness to work hard.  By the time I was twelve, I had several jobs.  Every morning I took three neighbors’ dogs out to do their business.  (The dogs’ business, not the neighbors’.)  It was fortunate for all concerned that these dogs all got along with Boogers, who also went on these potty jaunts.  But then, what dog in their right mind would try to fight a 200 pounder like Boogie?  You’d have to have a serious death wish for that.

          At precisely 7:10, I picked up Mr. Craig’s Pekinese, Joey.  At 7:12, Ms. Lewisham’s Dauschund Rolf joined the pack.  Old Lady Gretsky’s Cockapoo Silver Bell Starlight (which I was required to say in its entirety) was my last client. By that time, all the dogs, and most especially Silver Bell Starlight (SBS to me, out of Old Lady Gretsky’s hearing, which was pretty poor even if you stood right next to her) were doing the peepee dance, and I had to jog to get them to the empty lot a block and a half away before they all started to go.  I’d gotten them trained pretty well, as long as we kept to the schedule.  I heard that empty lot was up for construction soon, which would put a real chink in my before school doggy potty duty.  But heaven help those poor construction workers as they start planting those little pointy wood pieces all over.  At the end of each day, those workers’ boots were going to be encrusted with a goodly portion of two years’ worth of dog doo.

          Iris didn’t help me with this job.  She told me she was allergic to dogs, though I saw no symptoms of this when she had extended exposure to Boogers.  She told me she didn’t sneeze around Boogers because Boogers was a member of the family. I tolerated her lie.  We both knew she was full of it, and didn’t want to help me in the mornings in the off chance one of the dogs had an accident on the street and we’d have to scoop it up into a plastic bag and deposit it into the nearest receptacle that wasn’t in front of a shop on Main Street, since the store owners had a fit if there was eu de dog doo wafting in for their customers’ puking pleasure.

          Iris and I were a team for our after-school jobs, however.  Tuesdays and Thursdays we babysat four-year-old twins, Tamara and Tony Tuttle.  They were sweet kids, and basically all we had to do is take them to the park and push them on the swings, push them on the merry-go-round, and push them down the not very slippery slide.  We did a lot of pushing at the park, and the kids loved it.  Made Iris and I feel like Superhero types, which with our skinny arms and legs didn’t happen too often.  I always brought a book to read to the twins that encouraged their preschool vocabulary, making sure that the pictures were colorful and not grotesque, as some recent picture books had tended to be.

          Tamara and Tony’s mother had an art class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but she was always really fixed up (real jewelry, too, as I was an expert of semi precious by that time) and shrouded in perfume when we arrived to relieve her of her motherly duties.  Iris speculated that Ms. Tuttle was either having an affair or had a crush on her art instructor.  But I said, maybe she just likes going out in public not smelling like Play-Doh or adorned with kid barf.  I always try to look for a person’s better nature, unless, of course, we’re talking about Killjoy, who has no better nature.  I also truly hoped that Ms. Tuttle was faithful to Mr. Tuttle because I liked him, even though he had let himself go to seed a bit around the spare tire.  And he couldn’t really help being bald and having a rather large nose, could he?  But Mr. Tuttle doted on Ms. Tuttle, and adored his kids, sure his family was the Most Brilliant, Most Incredible, Most Beautiful, blah blah.  He did tend to run on, but it was all so sincere.  I hoped this was a marriage that would last.  I harbored a secret desire to tell him never to ask Ms. Tuttle to go to the store to get mint chocolate chip ice cream, but even I knew that had no real relation to my mother’s death.  But you can never be too careful, Grandma Essie says, and this is one caution I feel almost obsessively compelled to broadcast.

          Our other afternoon job was what Iris and I liked to call our Secret Job, since if anyone knew what we really were paid to do, or how ridiculously much we were paid for doing it, we’d be teased by any and everyone.  We were, what our employer Mr. Evans called, Plant Nurturers.  We’d come over to his house while he was at work, he’d even given us a key to his remarkably clean apartment.  First, we watered all the plants, and there were 57 of them of varying sizes and types, in pots in the apartment and out on his small balcony.  It was a jungle in there.  After we watered, we’d get a couple of spray bottles and fill them ¾ full with warm water (warm water only, girls, he’d told us when he’d first hired us, as if he suspected that we were plant freezers or something).  The rest of the mixture varied according to Mr. Evans’ taste.  Some days it was commercial plant food, some days it was some sort of green slop he’d made himself, some days it was just what he called Happiness, and this is where the job got a little peculiar.  He told us to whisper things that made us happy into the bottle, and those psychic messages would intermix with the water and encourage the plants to grow better, fuller, lusher.  Personally, I didn’t know if his apartment could take much more happiness and lushness since it was already spilling over with greenery.  But we got paid well, Mr. Evans always left us interesting snacks that usually were something with granola or tofu or both.  So, as I’ve said before, what the heck? And I found it rather satisfying to be able to tell the plant misters my happy wishes.  It’s nice to be able to articulate them, but not have anyone remember them except a bunch of plants, and they weren’t prone to talk out of turn.

 

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