Eleanor & Park Page 2

‘Eleanor,’ Mr Stessman said. ‘What a powerful name. It’s a queen’s name, you know.’

‘It’s the name of the fat Chipette,’ somebody behind Park whispered. Somebody else laughed.

Mr Stessman gestured to an empty desk up front.

‘We’re reading poetry today, Eleanor,’ Mr Stessman said. ‘Dickinson. Perhaps you’d like to get us started.’

Mr Stessman opened her book to the right page and pointed. ‘Go ahead,’ he said, ‘clear and loud. I’ll tell you when to stop.’

The new girl looked at Mr Stessman like she hoped he was kidding. When it was clear that he wasn’t – he almost never was – she started to read.

‘I had been hungry all the years,’ she read. A few kids laughed. Jesus, Park thought, only Mr Stessman would make a chubby girl read a poem about eating on her first day of class.

‘Carry on, Eleanor,’ Mr Stessman said.

She started over, which Park thought was a terrible idea.

‘I had been hungry all the years,’ she said, louder this time.

‘My noon had come, to dine,

‘I, trembling, drew the table near,

‘And touched the curious wine.

‘T’was this on tables I had seen,

‘When turning, hungry, lone,

‘I looked in windows, for the wealth

‘I could not hope to own.’

Mr Stessman didn’t stop her, so she read the whole poem in that cool, defiant voice. The same voice she’d used on Tina.

‘That was wonderful,’ Mr Stessman said when she was done. He was beaming. ‘Just wonderful. I hope you’ll stay with us, Eleanor, at least until we do Medea. That’s a voice that arrives on a chariot drawn by dragons.’

When the girl showed up in history, Mr Sanderhoff didn’t make a scene. But he did say,

‘Ah. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine,’ when she handed him her paperwork. She sat down a few rows ahead of Park and, as far as he could tell, spent the whole period staring at the sun.

Park couldn’t think of a way to get rid of her on the bus. Or a way to get rid of himself. So he put his headphones on before the girl sat down and turned the volume all the way up.

Thank God she didn’t try to talk to him.

CHAPTER 4

Eleanor

She got home that afternoon before all the little kids, which was good because she wasn’t ready to see them again. It had been such a freak show when she’d walked in last night …

Eleanor had spent so much time thinking about what it would be like to finally come home and how much she missed everybody – she thought they’d throw her a ticker-tape parade.

She thought it would be a big hugfest.

But when Eleanor walked in the house, it was like her siblings didn’t recognize her.

Ben just glanced at her, and Maisie – Maisie was sitting on Richie’s lap. Which would have made Eleanor throw right up if she hadn’t just promised her mom that she’d be on her best be-havior for the rest of her life.

Only Mouse ran to hug Eleanor. She picked him up gratefully. He was five now, and heavy.

‘Hey, Mouse,’ she said. They’d called him that since he was a baby, she couldn’t remember why. He reminded her more of a big, sloppy puppy – always excited, always trying to jump into your lap.

‘Look, Dad, it’s Eleanor,’ Mouse said, jumping down. ‘Do you know Eleanor?’

Richie pretended not to hear. Maisie watched and sucked her thumb. Eleanor hadn’t seen her do that in years. She was eight now, but with her thumb in her mouth, she looked just like a baby.

The baby wouldn’t remember Eleanor at all.

He’d be two … There he was, sitting on the floor with Ben. Ben was eleven. He stared at the wall behind the TV.

Their mom carried the duffel bag with Eleanor’s stuff into a bedroom off the living room, and Eleanor followed her. The room was tiny, just big enough for a dresser and some bunk beds. Mouse ran into the room after them. ‘You get the top bunk,’ he said, ‘and Ben has to sleep on the floor with me. Mom already told us, and Ben started to cry.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ their mom said softly. ‘We all just have to readjust.’

There wasn’t room in this room to readjust.

(Which Eleanor decided not to mention.) She went to bed as soon as she could, so she wouldn’t have to go back out to the living room.

When she woke up in the middle of the night, all three of her brothers were asleep on the floor.

There was no way to get up without stepping on one of them, and she didn’t even know where the bathroom was …

She found it. There were only five rooms in the house, and the bathroom just barely counted.

It was attached to the kitchen – like literally attached, without a door. This house was designed by cave trolls, Eleanor thought. Somebody, probably her mom, had hung a flowered sheet between the refrigerator and the toilet.

When she got home from school, Eleanor let herself in with her new key. The house was possibly even more depressing in daylight – dingy and bare – but at least Eleanor had the place, and her mom, to herself.

It was weird to come home and see her mom, just standing in the kitchen, like … like normal.

She was making soup, chopping onions. Eleanor felt like crying.

‘How was school?’ her mom asked.

‘Fine,’ Eleanor said.

‘Did you have a good first day?’

‘Sure. I mean, yeah, it was just school.’

‘Will you have a lot of catching up to do?’

‘I don’t think so.’

Her mom wiped her hands on the back of her jeans and tucked her hair behind her ears, and Eleanor was struck, for the ten-thousandth time, by how beautiful she was.

When Eleanor was a little girl, she’d thought her mom looked like a queen, like the star of some fairy tale.

Not a princess – princesses are just pretty.

Eleanor’s mother was beautiful. She was tall and stately, with broad shoulders and an elegant waist. All of her bones seemed more purposeful than other people’s. Like they weren’t just there to hold her up, they were there to make a point.

She had a strong nose and a sharp chin, and her cheekbones were high and thick. You’d look at Eleanor’s mom and think she must be carved into the prow of a Viking ship somewhere or maybe painted on the side of a plane …

Eleanor looked a lot like her.

But not enough.

Eleanor looked like her mother through a fish tank. Rounder and softer. Slurred. Where her mother was statuesque, Eleanor was heavy.

Where her mother was finely drawn, Eleanor was smudged.

After five kids, her mother had br**sts and h*ps like a woman in a cigarette ad. At sixteen, Eleanor was already built like she ran a medieval pub.

She had too much of everything and too little height to hide it. Her br**sts started just below her chin, her h*ps were … a parody. Even her mom’s hair, long and wavy and auburn, was a more legitimate version of Eleanor’s bright red curls.

Eleanor put her hand to her head self-consciously.

‘I have something to show you,’ her mom said, covering the soup, ‘but I didn’t want to do it in front of the little kids. Here, come on.’

Eleanor followed her into the kids’ bedroom.

Her mom opened the closet and took out a stack of towels and a laundry basket full of socks.

‘I couldn’t bring all your things when we moved,’ she said. ‘Obviously we don’t have as much room here as we had in the old house …’

She reached into the closet and pulled out a black plastic garbage bag. ‘But I packed as much as I could.’

She handed Eleanor the bag and said, ‘I’m sorry about the rest.’

Eleanor had assumed that Richie threw all her stuff in the trash a year ago, ten seconds after he’d kicked her out. She took the bag in her arms.

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘Thanks.’

Her mom reached out and touched Eleanor’s shoulder, just for a second. ‘The little kids will be home in twenty minutes or so,’ she said, ‘and we’ll eat dinner around 4:30. I like to have everything settled before Richie comes home.’

Eleanor nodded. She opened the bag as soon as her mom left the room. She wanted to see what was still hers …

The first thing she recognized were the paper dolls. They were loose in the bag and wrinkled; a few were marked with crayons. It had been years since Eleanor had played with them, but she was still happy to see them there. She pressed them flat and laid them in a pile.

Under the dolls were books, a dozen or so that her mother must have grabbed at random; she wouldn’t have known which were Eleanor’s favorites. Eleanor was glad to see Garp and Watership Down. It sucked that Oliver’s Story had made the cut, but Love Story hadn’t. And Little Men was there, but not Little Women or Jo’s Boys.

There was a bunch more papers in the bag.

She’d had a file cabinet in her old room, and it looked like her mom had grabbed most of the folders. Eleanor tried to get everything into a neat stack, all the report cards and school pictures and letters from pen pals.

She wondered where the rest of the stuff from the old house had ended up. Not just her stuff, but everybody’s. Like the furniture and the toys, and all of her mom’s plants and paintings. Her grandma’s Danish wedding plates … The little red ‘Uff da!’ horse that always used to hang above the sink.

Maybe it was packed away somewhere.

Maybe her mom was hoping the cave-troll house was just temporary.

Eleanor was still hoping that Richie was just temporary.

At the bottom of the black trash bag was a box. Her heart jumped a little when she saw it.

Her uncle in Minnesota used to send her family a Fruit of the Month Club membership every Christmas, and Eleanor and her brothers and sister would always fight over the boxes that the fruit came in. It was stupid, but they were good boxes – solid, with nice lids. This one was a grapefruit box, soft from wear at the edges.

Eleanor opened it carefully. Nothing inside had been touched. There was her stationery, her colored pencils and her Prismacolor markers (another Christmas present from her uncle). There was a stack of promotional cards from the mall that still smelled like expensive perfumes. And there was her Walkman. Untouched. Un-batteried, too, but nevertheless, there. And where there was a Walkman, there was the possibility of music.

Eleanor let her head fall over the box. It smelled like Chanel No. 5 and pencil shavings.

She sighed.

There wasn’t anything to do with her recovered belongings once she’d sorted through them – there wasn’t even room in the dresser for Eleanor’s clothes. So she set aside the box and the books, and carefully put everything else back in the garbage bag. Then she pushed the bag back as far as she could on the highest shelf in the closet, behind the towels and a humidifier.

She climbed onto her bunk and found a scrag-gly old cat napping there. ‘Shoo,’ Eleanor said, shoving him. The cat leaped to the floor and out the bedroom door.

CHAPTER 5

Park

Mr Stessman was making them all memorize a poem, whatever poem they wanted. Well, whatever poem they picked.

‘You’re going to forget everything else I teach you,’ Mr Stessman said, petting his mustache. ‘Everything. Maybe you’ll remember that Beowulf fought a monster. Maybe you’ll remember that “To be or not to be” is Hamlet, not Macbeth …

‘But everything else? Forget about it.’

He was slowly walking up and down each aisle. Mr Stessman loved this kind of stuff –

theater in the round. He stopped next to Park’s desk and leaned in casually with his hand on the back of Park’s chair. Park stopped drawing and sat up straight. He couldn’t draw anyway.

‘So, you’re going to memorize a poem,’ Mr Stessman continued, pausing a moment to smile down at Park like Gene Wilder in the chocolate factory.

‘Brains love poetry. It’s sticky stuff. You’re going to memorize this poem, and five years from now, we’re going to see each other at the Village Inn, and you’ll say, “Mr Stessman, I still remember ‘The Road Not Taken!’ Listen …

‘ Two roads diverged in a yellow wood …’”’

He moved on to the next desk. Park relaxed.

‘Nobody gets to pick “The Road Not Taken,” by the way, I’m sick to death of it. And no shell Silverstein. He’s grand, but you’ve graduated.

We’re all adults here. Choose an adult poem …

‘Choose a romantic poem, that’s my advice.

You’ll get the most use out of it.’

He walked by the new girl’s desk, but she didn’t turn away from the window.

‘Of course, it’s up to you. You may choose

“A Dream Deferred” – Eleanor?’ She turned blankly. Mr Stessman leaned in. ‘You may choose it, Eleanor. It’s poignant and it’s truth.

But how often will you get to roll that one out?

‘No. Choose a poem that speaks to you.

Choose a poem that will help you speak to someone else.’

Park planned to choose a poem that rhymed, so it would be easier to memorize. He liked Mr Stessman, he really did – but he wished he’d dial it back a few notches. Whenever he worked the room like this, Park got embarrassed for him.

‘We meet tomorrow in the library,’ Mr Stessman said, back at his desk. ‘Tomorrow, we’re gathering rosebuds.’

The bell rang. On cue.

CHAPTER 6

Eleanor

‘Watch it, raghead.’

Tina pushed roughly past Eleanor and climbed onto the bus.

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