When she picked up Saury on fingerpaint day, Sandy found the tall lady with the bows in her hair bending over him.
Miss Busse looked like one of the kid's creations. She adored bright, simple colors. She tossed them on her lips and nails and around her eyes. She pared her wardrobe down to the essential bands of the rainbow. Even her laughter splashed against the walls like tempera paint. She could make a five-year-old long for subtlety.
"Show your mother what a wonderful picture you made today, Saury," Miss Busse gushed, resting a hand on the boy's shoulder. "Saury was so busy, he was a little angel all day."
"See, mom?" Saury looked over a sheet of paper covered with blue and green shapes.
"It's absolutely the best barn in the whole class," Miss Busse confided in Sandy.
"It's a house," Sandy said.
"I told her it's a house," said Saury, too young to bother hiding his annoyance.
"Saury always paints houses."
"But we did farm pictures today." Miss Busse's face flushed ever so slightly, complementing her yellow blouse and bow. She seemed to forget who she was talking to. Her voice jumped back and forth between the sing-song she used with the children and the even, professional tone that worked on their parents. She pointed to a brown smear on the paper. "I thought you said that was a horse."
"Robin did that," Saury sighed. "I couldn't stop her. My dad doesn't let horses in our house."
"That's a good idea," Miss Busse laughed and stood to her full height so that her bow waved like a lonely sunflower. "That's a very good idea." Her color deepened when she saw that Mrs. Skinner was not smiling.
Sandy couldn't afford a better day care center on what she made at America Thinks, Inc. At least this one didn't let the kids drink the paint.
She tried not to think about the irony of her daily shuttle between Kid'n'Kaboodle and ATI. Both places used self-expression as a tool for manipulation.
She started at ATI as an over-qualified data entry clerk. She worked with the raw surveys, transforming the atoms of opinion into monolithic trends that inspired multi-million dollar gambles.
Sandy settled for the job because a small part of her already knew that her self-esteem would always be inversely proportional to Stephen X's influence.
She didn't work harder than Caroline and Cindy to impress anyone, but because she feared she would be exposed as lazy or incompetent. Her co-workers resented the way she never left her station for coffee or a smoke. They figured she was screwing Wally Conner, the Vice President of Information. Meanwhile, she plowed through record numbers of surveys.
The statistics she extracted rarely surprised, or even interested, her. What fascinated her was the way adult Americans—just like the ones you see every day—would dutifully color in little boxes to describe their most complex or personal feelings.
The surveys were anonymous, but Sandy could read volumes in the pencil's stroke and weight. Most people were so eager to bare their souls about dog food, dish soap or bowel movements that they attacked the surveys' hot boxes.
The question might be, "Does your dog weigh: under 20 pounds, 20-40 pounds, 40-60 pounds, over 60 pounds?" People who had marked the previous boxes with a light hand suddenly engraved the page when they recognized the goofy, lop-eared mongrel that had won the family heart.
Sandy saw how respondents bared secrets they hid from their spouses, beer buddies or shrinks. But the forms always trampled the respondents' sense of pride or individuality. By the time people had portioned their souls in the line of dark boxes, they had fallen into a pattern identical to a hundred or a thousand others. Whichever pattern prevailed dictated the diet of all America's dogs.
After her promotion to assistant data manager, Sandy immersed herself in bell curves and standard deviations to chart public opinion. She didn't really need to see the papers at all anymore. But she made a point of thumbing through a stack of surveys at least once a week, just to keep in touch with America's feelings, as well as thoughts.
That's how Thursday morning turned sour when she found the form Stephen X had completed.
The age, sex, marital, education and region boxes could have fit fifty thousand decent citizens. But Sandy could tell this was her husband by the way each box had been blackened by a dangerously sharp pencil tracing a series of ever-tighter squares. Crowding the margins were the same pointed beaks and wings that Stephen X always left on the message pad by the telephone.
It was the standard 1320 Survey Form on Marital Infidelity. Sandy followed the pattern of boxes: "What percentage of Americans have had extramarital sex: less than 10%; 10-25%; 25-50%, 50-75%, more than 75%?" "I have had an extramarital affair: never; with 1 individual; with 2-5 individuals; with more than 5 individuals?"
Stephen X had filled in, and then tried to erase, the 2-5 box. He blackened the "more than 5" box, and then circled those words to make sure that his correction would not be misinterpreted.
The discovery shocked Sandy, but only for an instant. Then she felt relief and hope that maybe some of the attention he gave her would be siphoned off to other women.
Unfortunately, whether he cheated or not, Stephen X had always been obsessed with her, just like Artie Sandoval. It seemed that men—boys—were always obsessed with women. Funny, she never knew a woman to be so caught up by a man. Of course, when she thought about it, that made perfect sense. God knows men had no mysteries. None that would attract you, anyway.
She couldn't see women as mysterious, either, but there it was. She thought of how Linda had gotten those phone calls. They hit at all hours, day and night. The guy said he knew everything about her. The police wouldn't do a thing. Linda wound up moving, getting an unlisted number.
And there were too many guys like Artie on the loose, even if their acts of love lacked the shocking finality of his.
Artie smashed the shell Sandy lived in after Bob Strunk dumped her halfway through senior year. She'd lived in a shell before Bob dumped her, too, but that was different. She reckoned her life in terms of BD—Before the Dump, and AD—After the Dump.
She and Bob used to sit next to each other at the front of the class in Probability and Statistics. The rest of the students existed as a field of uniform faces, a gray backdrop for Bob and Sandy. Artie Sandoval hid under that blanket of oblivion until Day Three, AD.
Sandy had seen Artie's striped shirt, but she could not have described his face to save her soul. She was so distraught over Bob that she hardly knew what Artie was saying when he cornered her after class that Thursday.
"I know you probably don't want to, but maybe we could go to a movie or something tomorrow?"
Sandy drew back half a step and tried to remember this boy's name, where she had seen him before. In her confusion, the silence stretched to one moment, then two.
"I didn't think so," Artie said, his face burning as he turned quickly and escaped down the hall.
Thinking back, it seemed like Artie became famous the next day, but in reality, a full week passed. Sandy sat at home that Saturday night, like she planned to do every Saturday night for the rest of her life. She watched some stupid television show and then sat like a zombie through the lead news stories. They dealt with a small war, the discovery that a minor-league politician had lied, the extinction of some slimy kind of invertebrate—things that had nothing to do with her life.
Artie led the local news as the broadcast cut away to the live camera crew beneath the Oak Street water tower. The structure erupted from a sea of ranch homes and light industrial buildings. It looked over the neighborhood like a bulletin board of lust and school pride.
Someone had painted "LIONS FOREVER" in fat letters around the enormous tank. Other messages shouted to the world that "Susie has the big ones," and "Dalton of Prunes Eats It." No sooner were the words whitewashed than the kids refreshed their messages. No matter how hard the city tried to cover them, obscene things seemed to bleed through the paint.
The giant, wild graffiti provided a curtain for Artie's one-act play. The cameras pointed up at his shadowy figure while his Yearbook picture appeared in a cutaway in the corner of the television screen. The newsman told how the kid had put his intentions in a suicide note delivered to the TV station. Just as the psychologist came on to explain how Artie's apparent desire to publicize his death showed that he did not really intend to die, Artie's body crashed audibly into the unforgiving earth.
The first camera missed the action, but a producer with keen reflexes quickly showed a replay of the fall from the second unit camera.
Sandy felt a knot of vomit rise in her throat as she watched how the jerky lens tried to track the falling body. "I know that kid," she thought, but she had no idea how well Artie knew her.
The next day, the police came around to "clear up a few routine questions."
Both officers were big. Sandy noticed the man's sparse, uneven moustache and the gold studs in the woman's ears. Together, they crowded the entryway until Sandy's father realized the business would take a little while.
The police sat on the over-stuffed sofa that no one ever used. Mr. Gore settled into his recliner and Mrs. Gore brought in a chair from the kitchen. Sandy took the seat opposite her father and noticed how stiff and lumpy it was. While the policeman talked, all Sandy could think about was how nobody but her father ever used the living room. All the seats were so uncomfortable because they'd never been broken in.
She suddenly realized that the room had become quiet. Everyone watched her.
"I'm sorry," she said, rising a bit at the sound of her own voice. "What?"
"Did you know Artie Sandoval?" the policeman asked.
"Oh, come on, young lady." Mr. Gore slapped the arm of his chair. "This is very serious. You said last night that you knew him."
"I meant I've seen him. I didn't know him."
"Then how in God's name did you know it was him?" Mr. Gore looked to the officers for sympathy. "She's always like this. I wonder if she ever listens to the things that come out of her mouth."
The policewoman explained that Artie had built a shrine to Sandy from a candid photo, a strand of hair and stacks of self-addressed letters in his dark, airless bedroom. His final note said her change of heart doomed him. The officers said they understood, they'd seen these things before. She could tell they were lying.
For weeks, Sandy's parents talked about "the Liability Question" and dropped their voices when she came in the room. One way or another, everyone at school found out that Sandy had given birth to Artie's fantasy life. She might as well have walked the halls with blood on her face. She wanted to die herself, as if it were some disease he'd passed to her in Probability that day.
Years later, Sandy understood that the horrible thing that transformed boys as they embarked on their teens killed Artie before he had a chance to grow out of it. Sandy wished he had taken his burden of guilt to hell with him instead of shifting it to her. There were a thousand prettier girls in school. Some of them had probably even talked to him. Why did he pick her?
She figured that Artie's suicide would be the worst day of her life.
But that was before she met Stephen X.
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