The wolfman honked his horn at seven o'clock.
Sandy, a makeshift Cinderella, flew out the door before her father could leave his seat.
Stephen X had peeled back the top of his bone white convertible to show off the immaculate red interior.
"You have a Mustang," Sandy said, climbing in without letting the image of her father's face in the window crowd more than the corner of her eye. The beast in the car seemed more appealing.
"I have a Mustang," the driver said. He made a broad, rolling gesture that took in the car and ended with his hand tangled in the ratty hair on his face.
"Nice costume," Sandy said. "You must do this a lot." She paused an instant, then looked directly at him as she buckled her safety belt. "You are Stephen X, aren't you?"
"Not tonight," he said, looking into the rear view mirror as he backed out of the driveway. "But we're late for the ball."
As he straightened the car in the street, he glanced at her and added, "You're beautiful in rags."
They drove to a modest ranch house where the town thinned out in a patchwork of two-acre lots. Cars fanned across the grass in all directions. Music shook the bricks, swelling to a sharp crescendo whenever the door swung open to let a cowboy or gladiator pass. On the porch, a surgeon held two bottles of beer and lit a cigarette for a cave woman.
"You're going to have a great time," Stephen X said, placing his fingertips on the small of Sandy's back to guide her through the crowd inside. "You're going to want to meet everybody.
"Enrico, hey, Enrico," he said, waving to a bullfighter in the far corner, but not raising his voice over the noise. "Come here. You have to meet someone."
Enrico's disinterested eyes panned the room. "I don't think he heard you," Sandy said.
"He never listens. He's not classy enough for you anyway," said Stephen X, his voice muffled by the mask. He surveyed the party, comfortable in his element. "I'll get us a drink. What are you having?"
Everyone in sight held a longneck Budweiser. "A beer, I guess," she said.
"Yeah, but what kind? You want a Bud?"
She nodded. "Sure. Whatever's easy."
A wall of costumes covered Stephen X's retreat.
Sandy never cared much for parties. They always seemed to be too loud to talk, too frantic to enjoy. Last spring, she'd let Linda drag her to one a month after she broke up with Bob Strunk. Everyone talked like Bob was some vital organ torn out of her instead of a patch of dead skin she'd sloughed off. The next morning she woke up with a slight hangover and the certainty that she would never attend another party for the rest of her life.
She convinced herself it might be better with Stephen X. Nobody would know her or judge her for the actions of her boyfriend or her father. She could start at point zero and nurse her life along from there.
But the costumes made it worse. People at Stephen X's party seemed nice enough, but they were all strangers. She couldn't be sure if she were meeting them, or the alter egos they'd chosen for the night.
A few minutes after Stephen X left to hunt for beer, it occurred to her that almost everyone there was a man. A muscular woman in a low-cut top and a high-cut bottom walked by, munching from a plate of crackers and cheese. Sandy stopped her.
"Hi. I'm Cinderella," Sandy said, hoping to fall into the spirit of the evening.
The woman arched an eyebrow. "Hi ya doin'? I haven't seen ya around. Ya workin'?"
"Just part time." Sandy shrugged. "I'm going to school."
Cracker crumbs flew through the air as the woman laughed. "You'll learn plenty here, I'm tellin' ya."
Sandy thought the woman's tight, shiny costume might have been modeled after some comic book heroine. "Who are you supposed to be?" she asked.
"Anyone they want." She laughed again and put her hand on Sandy's shoulder to draw her close. "Maybe we can work together if we find the right job. Let me know." She shifted her weight back and looked past Sandy. "Gotta go."
Stephen X must have gotten lost looking for a beer. Sandy edged back toward the wall and watched the people around her. A few, like her, had tossed together a few things on a theme. Others wore elaborate, detailed costumes. She studied the perfect likeness of a youthful Adolf Hitler and wondered what kind of a person would devote so much energy to that image.
"You're with Stephen X, aren't you?"
She turned to see Babe Ruth hulking at her side.
"Why, yes—" she smiled.
"I knew it! That son of a gun." He propped his bat against his shoulder and walked away.
It seemed like hours passed. Sandy grew bored with watching people when she couldn't even tell who she was looking at. Feeling awkward standing alone, she walked through the kitchen and out the back door.
That's where she found Stephen X sitting on a few oil drums with a mad scientist and a bicycle racer.
"I thought you got lost," she said, hoping he'd tired of her already and would take her home.
"I've been right here." He spread his arms and scooted over to make room for her.
"We'll catch you later, Stephen X," the guy in the white frock said as both of the others stood up. "Nice to meet you, Sandy."
Hearing her name caught her by surprise. "Nice to meet you," she said. When they were gone she asked, "Who were they?"
"Friends of mine," Stephen X said. "Everybody here is a friend of mine."
"Then why do they all call you Stephen X? It sounds so stiff."
He turned his head toward her and the teeth and hair of the mask suddenly chilled her. "It's my name," he said.
"Would you please take that off while we talk?"
He peeled it from his smooth-skinned face and became harmless again, kind of cute, the self-assured, nerdy guy she'd seen at Burger Castle. He draped the mask over his knee.
"What else would they call me?" he asked.
"I've never met anyone with the initial X. What does it stand for? Xavier?"
"It's not an initial; it's the whole name." Stephen X let a smile spread over his lips. In the years ahead, Sandy would think of smiles oozing across his face like butter stains in cloth. She would see how they served him as camouflage, as automatic as a chameleon. But that night she had no reason to be on guard. "In fact, my brother is Roscoe X Skinner," he said.
"Two X's in one family? Couldn't your parents afford a book of baby names?"
"My dad had his reasons." He let his hand stroke the mask on his leg. "His name was Benjamin Franklin Skinner. They kidded him about that when he was growing up, so he went by B.F. Skinner from the time he got out of grade school."
"B.F. Skinner—" Sandy started, but he waved and turned on his deep sincerity to keep her quiet.
"I know what you're going to say," he said. "But 'B.F. Skinner' was okay until he moved here. A college town is no place for a name like that. Every fall he got a ton of calls from psych undergrads who needed help.
"Reporters would call and ask him what life with a famous name was like. There used to be a Franklin Roosevelt and a Woody Guthrie living here and they talked about forming a support group, but it was easier for them because they had actually been named for those guys. Dad was B.F. Skinner before B.F. Skinner was."
"You're kidding me, right?"
"No." He shook his head very slowly, as if her doubts were so inconsequential they didn't need a quick rebuttal.
"You know from your math that X is a variable—it can mean anything—when it comes to numbers," he went on. "But for names, it's just the opposite; it identifies you very precisely. He named my brother Roscoe X and me Stephen X because he wanted us to be secure in who we are. He didn't want us to be mistaken for anyone else."
"How did you know that?" Sandy brushed a strand of hair from her forehead.
"He told me."
"I mean that I'm taking math."
"Like I told you, I have my ways, Sandy." He stretched the mask back over his face. "Ask anyone here, I'm very big on research."
Nobody had ever studied Sandy before. Nobody had ever even asked her what she thought about anything. The idea of being researched was so novel and flattering that she overlooked the creepy side of it.
Stephen X straightened his mask and they went back inside to escape the quickening chill of the November morning.
Go back to Chapter 1 of Stress Test.
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