Chapter Three

On the other hand, my favorite teacher pushes me to learn while making it seem like fun. Her name is Audrey.  It’s an old-fashioned name, she told me. She mentioned someone named Audrey Meadows, a former TV star. I liked that little phrase, “Audrey Meadows.” It was like a description of a park or a country estate. Every time I thought of her I would see this image in my mind.

She’s about forty-five, I would say. She has dark curly hair and freckled cheeks. She’s rather dumpy. She always wears pants suits and a blouse.  She wears a lot of jewelry on her wrists and neck. She jingles when she comes into a room. Like the crocodile in Peter Pan whose clock ticks when he approaches.

She has incredible energy. I almost feel a sort of voltage coming from her and throbbing through me when I’m with her.

“What’s this, Max?” she will ask, pointing to her watch.

She gives me a crayon and I draw a picture of the watch.

“What time is it?”

“When are we going out for a walk?”

“How many charms are there on this bracelet?”

“How old are you?”

When I give the right answer she pulls a little star out of a thing she has on her wrist and puts the star on my paper. “Max is Number One!” she exclaims.

“Number One,” I repeat silently.

Naturally I want more stars, so I always do my best not to let her down.

She also has a system for rewarding effort when you don’t succeed at the task she has given you. She will put a little sticker in the shape of a circle on the page, which will later be covered by a star when I do the work correctly.

“That means you’re on your way,” she says. “Sometimes, Max, an honorable failure is more important than an easy success. Don’t you think?”

I nod. I don’t quite understand, but I like the sound of it.

Interestingly, her eyes are tired. There are bags under them. This always puzzled me, since she has so much energy.

“Today we’re going to do something great, Max,” she often says. “Something you’ve never done before.” But this was true of every day. Somehow Audrey sensed what I already knew, and pushed me beyond it.

After a while I forgot what it was like to have any teacher but her. That crazy energy of hers became synonymous with school in my mind. I went into the building prepared to be jolted by her. I liked that.

I FORGOT to tell you, I had a sister. She died when I was four. Her name was Bethany.

She got hit by a car when she was riding her bike. She was in eighth grade at the time.

I remember her, but I wish I remembered her better. I remember her hands, which were covered with freckles, and her laugh, which sounded like water bubbling in a fountain.

She was blond, she was a little bit plump for her age. She laughed her head off at any little thing that seemed funny to her. She was left-handed.

She helped to diaper me and feed me when I was little. I learned her voice, her touch early on.  Bethany was much closer to me than my real mother. I told you about my mother, how distant she always was. Bethany was always sitting beside me, turning the pages of a picture book, whispering to me, giggling at something.

“Look at that, Max,” she would say. “Isn’t that stupid? Isn’t that the stupidest thing you ever saw?” And she would laugh harder.

She was very smart. She was at the top of her class every year. When they gave a regional test for math students, she won. She went to a gifted summer camp in Vermont.

But you never would have known that if you met her. She was jolly, funny, and very irreverent. She swore a lot, which upset my mother.

One day she was turning the pages of Time Magazine, and a picture of the Royal Family appeared. “What a bunch of assholes,” she said. I didn’t know what this meant, so I tugged at her arm.

“Idiots,” she explained. “Morons. Dopes. Jerks. Dumb bunnies.”

She drew satirical caricatures of all kinds of people, from her teachers to movie stars to the President. Each caricature had a caption. One picture was of Donald Trump. The caption was decompensated. I didn’t know what that meant. she said, “stupid and crazy.”

She wrote poetry which sometimes contained forbidden words. My parents were torn between their admiration of her ability and their worry about her bad language.

There was a boy who liked his eggs shirred.

He read the recipe, but missed one word.

The result was the eggs tasted like a turd.

She read this to me, laughing her head off. I didn’t understand it, but I laughed too.

She would sometimes laugh until the tears came. Seeing those tears run down over her freckles, I thought something about her was a little more than just human. She was like a fairy. I was lucky to have her as a sister.

She was very protective of me. If my mother reproached me for dropping something or not cleaning up something I had spilled, Bethany always took my side.

“Give him a break, Mom. He’s only three.” And she would turn to me and tickle me under my chin. “Aren’t you, honey? Aren’t you only three?”

If we were out walking and anybody called me a name, she would give them the finger and curse them out in the most colorful, even poetic swear words I ever heard.

“Fuck off, you fucker, you dimwit, you asshole, you fuckhead, you’re not fit to lick my brother’s shoes, you asswipe, you shitfaced motherfucker!”

After she died her notebooks were kept lovingly by my parents, along with her many awards, but they hesitated to show them off to relatives because of Bethany’s flair for dirty words.

The red robin knows how to flit

Around my head when I chance to sit.

Unfortunately he perches

Among the birches

And when I look up he takes a shit.

She had somehow gotten her hands on a book of Fractured French, and her own inventions in garbled French were very clever.

chez moi — Let’s play tag

chaussure — Hot enough for you?

But even in this game she had a flair for the sexual:

comme il faut — premature ejaculation

I learned later that gifted children often have strong sexual impulses and a flair for profanity. Bethany was completely normal, just gifted.

After she died my parents kept her room just the way she left it. All her school awards were on the walls in little frames. There were picture books she had used to learn to read, schoolbooks, an encyclopedia, and all her notebooks, each one a different size. On one wall was a picture of Elvis Presley. On another was a picture she had cut out of a magazine and framed herself. It showed a lion in a circus holding the lion tamer upside down with his feet in its mouth, while the audience held their hands over their mouths.

And there was a picture of me, sitting on the couch with her. In the picture I looked up at the camera with a sort of amazement, while Bethany was looking sideways at something else.

The Terrible Two was written as a caption under the picture.

The day she died I was at day care. When I came home my parents were talking to several policemen. My father looked up at me, but my mother was listening to one of the policemen talking.

I was too young to know what it meant, the death of my sister. But I felt the loss right away. The life had gone out of our house. I saw my parents wither like dying flowers. I felt empty myself. Everything was different.

Then I was diagnosed. This was the final straw. Our old life was gone forever. Even at age three I understood that.