There’s always someone lower on the ladder, wherever you are.
Derek Matthews has to be the ugliest boy in the class but I like him. I’ve liked every boy except Barry Pumphrey now. Barry Pumphrey likes me. He tried to kiss me on our step but I said I could see the roof rack on Dad’s car coming down Mountbatten Drive. Barry calls me Roof Rack now.
None of the boys I like like me. My status isn’t as low as Dwayne Morrison’s but I’m not far up the ladder. My parents don’t have any idea about the ladder. They are totally wrapped up in keeping the household going and are not interested in me unless they need me to peel potatoes, or it’s time to pay for my books, or I’ve hogged the Ritz crackers in my room. My mother bugs me while my father picks his teeth with the end of a plastic straw he cuts specially. He looks thoughtful but my mother says his mind is blank. I ignore the ladder most of the time. My best friend Denise—this is amazing—has entered the Miss Teen Lundrigan Mills pageant, but I’ll get to that later.
How can you ignore the fact that you are almost as low down as Dwayne Morrison? He is low down not for any reason, but because of the atmosphere around him. He moves slowly, he’s big and has pale skin. He’s no more stupid or ugly than anyone else. Nowhere near as ugly as Derek Matthews, who a lot of girls like besides me. Dwayne Morrison doesn’t have as many pimples as lots of other people, and his father’s not the undertaker like Clive Skaines’ father. Clive Skaines is low on the ladder too, but Dwayne is the lowest of the low. If you touch him, if you even graze his books in the hall, you have to wipe his germs on someone and shout, “Morrison’s germs!” Nobody ever calls him just Dwayne. They always call him Dwayne Morrison, like it’s important to completely identify him and separate him from every other human. Anyway I’m pretty close to him in status. I could let it bother me more but then I’d become emotionally disturbed and have to go to the guidance counsellor, and I don’t see myself that way. Mr. Plumtree doesn’t either. He stopped me in the hall one day after World Problems class and told me I didn’t realize it but when I got out of here I’d be beautiful; I already was but it was too early for most people to see it. He isn’t a child molesting creep, by the way. He’s just someone who I guess knows about the ladder and decided to give one of the bottom dwellers a private pep talk.
A few boys have come to my house looking for me. Snoopy is one. Snoopy arrived in our school out of jail. He passed me notes, “Meet me at Duffs Store after school,” which I ignored until he showed up at my place. My father answered the door. He teaches boys’ woodwork at East Side junior high. Whatever he said to Snoopy must have been drastic because I never got another note or visit. That’s what gave me the idea to get rid of Barry Pumphrey by mentioning Dad’s roof rack.
Dad doesn’t know about Tim Whelan. Tim Whelan grabs me by the belt loop in the church basement at Young People’s while all the other Young People are upstairs talking about their experiences with God. Selma Forsey recently had an experience with God that was so amazing only certain Young People were allowed to hear about it, because only They would understand. I’m not one of Them. I’m a Young Person that Denise invited so she’d get points, and I keep going back even though I say all the wrong answers like that “Morning Has Broken” is my favourite hymn and they have to tell me it’s of the devil. We had an art display and Selma Forsey hung my teapot behind the bathroom door after the head counsellor said it was the best art in the show. So I’m close to the lowest of the low there too, but there’s always someone lower than you wherever you are.
Tim Whelan stole ten dollars from me on the ferry the night we had our outing to the mainland. He’s from up in the bean, Jellybean Square. It’s not that far from where I live, across the road and up Waldegrave Street. Reverend Clydehops came to my cabin with the ten-dollar bill half an hour after I said it was missing. It was my spending money for the trip. Everyone else had amazing amounts, like fifty dollars. Except Tim, I guess. I think Reverend Clydehops is having an affair with Denise’s mother, Mrs. Mullett, even though it seems impossible. She cooks burger patties with gravy and onions for Mr. Mullett, who wears brown V-necked sweaters and has silky hair the tan colour of Caramac toffee, and he doesn’t do much except watch TV and shovel snow. I saw him watching Days of Our Lives. Mrs. Mullett is a lot more energetic than her husband. She goes to visit Reverend Clydehops on church business. Once I saw him open the door to his glass porch and let her in. The two of them had this shadowy air around them, like they were meeting about something important and sad.
No one said how they knew Tim stole my money. I’d put my ten-dollar bill in my jeans pocket and certainly never felt a thing if someone’s fingers went in there and took it. It was too bad Tim did it, because that’s what everyone expected of him. But maybe he didn’t do it. Maybe Reverend Clydehops just gave me a new ten-dollar bill and everyone blamed Tim. In the church basement I can’t get over how hot his, I don’t want to say crotch but that’s what it is, how hot the centre of him, which is his crotch, which makes it sound bad, how hot it is against me through both our jeans, hot as my scarf off the rad. This only lasts a few seconds before I go back upstairs to the prayer circle, where Selma Forsey is standing up and everyone is amazed at what she has just told them about her and God. I would like the same thing to happen with me and God, but I haven’t got a clue what it is. I imagine God has told her a secret that has filled her with relief. Finally she knows what she is doing on this earth. I only wish she wasn’t such a snot about it. I really like her older brother Gramson. That seems like a Bible name to me. He carries his Bible everywhere and nobody makes fun of him. When Selma goes to bed at night, I bet she doesn’t do what I do in bed, which is imagine Tim Whelan with his jeans off against my skin. I bet she doesn’t rub herself real soft until a great relief shudders through her like a heaving sob. I bet that isn’t the secret God told her, although maybe it is.
I don’t know what made Denise sign up for the Miss Teen Lundrigan Mills pageant. Worse than that, she’s convinced she will win. She tries to get me to enter it too. Our friendship is one of convenience, I know that. She uses me for a stand-in friend because she has no one else, and I go along with it. We hang out in her bedroom studying for our bronze swim medallions and drying our hair. She has all the binders for the course. When we do the written test, they read everyone’s marks out except mine.
“How will it make my hair look?” I ask this while she burns my scalp. I don’t have a hair dryer. I walk home from swim class to the creaking sound of my frozen hair.
“It won’t make it look like anything.” She is irritated. She has begun her pageant research and knows real secrets. If I’m not going to enter with her, she isn’t going to waste her time telling me any of them. “It’s just a hair dryer.”
She has to have an escort to the pageant and she finds Tyrone Jesso, who’s in grade twelve. He comes to the door for me and my father lets me go out and speak to him. Tyrone asks me if I want to go out to a movie and I tell him he better ask Denise. My mother tells me afterward that my dad is puzzled as to why a guy like that would ask me out. I say a guy like what, and she says, “Your dad thinks he’s effeminate.”
Everyone knows Denise is entering the pageant but nobody makes fun of her. They pay no attention to her at all. Tamara Manuel is entering and she’s so beautiful everyone knows she’s going to win. Every time you look at her your heart falls off its little cliff. She’s really nice too, not snotty, although she has never talked to me.
The pageant is this Saturday. In three weeks Denise has transformed herself. She gets her hair cut so short she looks like a model in Vogue. She gradually stops talking to me. I don’t take it personally. It’s like she’s decided she needs time to separate herself from the ordinary world before she enters the world of French perfume and sashes with her title on them and Kinsmen floats down Main Street. She wears dance leggings and a black angora sweater to class. She would be beautiful if she wasn’t in our school. I have to say she’s become amazingly elegant even if no one else has noticed.
Tamara Manuel wins the pageant and Denise is first runner-up. I’m amazed Denise has managed to get this far, but she is furious. She has to sit in the back of the winners’ float with the second runner-up, a girl from Presentation, and Tamara in her tiara up front. You can see Denise is furious right there on the float in her white dress with silver sparkles. Her dress is form-fitting, not a flowing gown like Tamara’s. Denise feels the judges have made a stupid choice. She pulls out of town and enrols in Bible school in New Brunswick, where she gets a boyfriend right away.
Denise’s mom takes me on the road to see her for Easter break. I can’t believe my parents have let me go, and I wish they hadn’t. Later they will let me do a lot of other things I can’t believe as well, like go to Lance Tremayne’s apartment, and camp in Lake Ursa Park with Dave Holloway. Mrs. Mullett passes transport trucks when other trucks are coming from the opposite direction. Dozens of times we drive through the corridor between transport trucks with two inches on each side of her car, pasted to the double yellow line. Target Furniture. Doyle and Sons Produce Suppliers Limited. M. M. Kelly Factory Freezer Parts. When we get to the Bible school we hardly see Denise at all. She is off smoking and having sex with Neal Prescott. Her mother goes off somewhere too, leaving me to eat mealy room-temperature red delicious apples on Denise’s chair by her stinking ashtray. At midnight Denise climbs through her window with a mickey of brandy and says she has decided to stay at Bible college in case God is real. If he’s not real, it doesn’t matter—she’ll graduate and marry Neal anyway. If he is real, her diploma will keep her out of hell.
Back home Samuel McGill from the other grade ten class asks me to the dance. He has never been in jail. He goes to Young People’s but is not one of the people in Selma Forsey’s divine seances. He’s a quiet boy and handsome in an inert way that doesn’t stir up anything inside me, like James Bond and Superman. I wonder if he’s asked me because Gwen Aimers or Evelyn Anthony said no. My father picks his teeth silently. Samuel walks me down Mountbatten Drive and up Glendale Heights, which is two miles, and in all that time neither of us says a word. I can’t even think of anything stupid to say. My brain’s language centre has left the country. We dance a few times, we waltz once. There’s no heat from his body and I think of Tim. Samuel walks me home. The first thing he says to me is, “Would you go with me to the next dance?” I drag out of me the courage to say no thanks, not because I don’t like him but because I haven’t got a clue what he, like Denise, can be dreaming of.