[Now and then I like to try my hand at writing in the style of an author I admire. No points will be awarded for guessing the inspiration here.]
My sister Lila was smart as hell, she really was.
Not that Hazel and I were stupid- all three of us Salinger kids were what the adults liked to call “gifted,” whatever that was supposed to mean- but Lila was about as smart as both of us put together. She had this real great way of looking at the world, and then figuring out how to put it down on paper without it getting all jumbled up. She wrote the most beautiful stories you ever read. You’d cry if you could read how beautiful some of her stories were. She was a real genius and everybody knew it.
They skipped her up two grades and gave her a scholarship to this fancy writing program, and about six publishing agencies practically had guys camping outside her dorm room waiting to see what she was going to come out with. Lila was probably the smartest, most talented person in the whole world, and then she went and did a goddamn stupid thing like jumping out that window.
They expected me to say something nice at the funeral, being the older brother and all. A poem or a song or any old thing, as long as it sounded nice. So I tried to come up with something, but if you want to know the truth I really didn’t see the point. Lila was the writer, not me.
I wasn’t going to say so and make everybody feel even worse, so I sat up in my old bedroom with lot of books and a blank page in the typewriter and tried to look like I was really trying.
Hazel kept coming up the stairs to stand in the doorway and look at me, but she didn’t say anything until about the eighteenth time I saw her there.
I could tell that time that maybe she was going to say something, because she kept kicking the toe of her tennis shoe against the doorframe like she wanted my attention. I turned around to look at her, but I figured it was better if I just waited and let her say something first. You can’t say anything to girls her age, when they’re about twelve or thirteen- you can’t say anything to them or they get upset.
Finally Hazel said, “Have you got any money?”
She shrugged. “A couple of dollars. I just want to go down to the drugstore.”
“Sure. Come here.”
Hazel came over and put her hand out, palm up. I gave her the spare change out of my pocket. “Thanks,” she said. She started to turn around and leave.
“You know, it’s polite to ask me if I want anything from the drugstore.”
Heaving a very loud sigh, Hazel said, “What’s polite is not to stay locked up in here all day and make me have to sit with our mother and Douglas all by myself.”
I stood up. “Maybe I’ll walk down to the drugstore with you.”
“No thank you,” Hazel said immediately.
“Oh, come on. Take a walk with your big brother, it won’t kill you.”
I didn’t think twice about my word choice until I saw the way Hazel was looking at me.
“Sorry,” I added. “Look, I won’t come with you if you don’t want me to.”
Hazel sighed again and thrust her hands into her pockets. “Let’s go already.”
Summer Street in the middle of a weekday was eerily still. You got the feeling that a great big black pit had opened someplace and swallowed everyone up.
I guess it had, in a way. The world had just about stopped turning when word got out about “that unfortunate business with the Salinger girl.” A couple of the neighbors tried to come over and ring the bell, but it wasn’t any good because none of us wanted to answer the door. And none of the neighbors really cared anyhow. They just came over because they kind of figured that they’d better.
See, we never exactly got along with the neighbors. They used to accuse our mother and father of being real elitists, which didn’t get better when the three kids came along being “gifted” and everything, and getting all the attention in the school system and all that. And then when our father left it got worse than ever, everybody turning up their noses and saying that they guessed we weren’t really so much after all.
And now after all this business with Lila, our mother would probably have to sell the Summer Street house and move out to wherever Douglas’s people were from. The Midwest or someplace, I thought. Really I’d never thought much about Douglas one way or another, but I’d spoken with him just enough to start to wonder why my mother married him.
More to break the silence than anything else, I asked, “What’s Douglas like, anyway?”
“You’ve met him,” Hazel answered noncommittally.
“To live with, I mean.”
“Well, how should I know? Ask your mother.”
Making conversation with Hazel could be a chore on even the best of days, but in her current frame of mind it was nearly impossible.
“You’ve lived with him just as long as she has, haven’t you?”
Hazel looked down at her shoes, watching her looped laces flop to one side and then the other with each step. “I don’t know,” she said. “He reads the paper a lot. He always tries to ask me what I want to be when I grow up.”
“That’s not so bad,” I said.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“Walt,” she said. “Can’t you just shut up and walk?”
I couldn’t. I changed the subject instead. “Read any good books in school this year?”
“No,” said Hazel.
“No? The curriculum is just trashy French novels and pulp fictions, is that it?”
“Maybe. I don’t know, I didn’t read any of them.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t read any of them?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? I just didn’t feel like it. I’m surprised no one wrote you to complain. I’ve been in trouble at school all year. Cutting class and not turning in assignments. Having a negative attitude.”
It was news to me, and I didn’t like it one bit. “Are you trying to flunk out or something?”
“No, I just-”
“Because that’s what’ll happen, you know. You’ll flunk out of school and you’ll never make anything of yourself. What are people going to say then?”
“I don’t care what-”
“You should,” I said. “Jesus Christ, Hazel. You’re too smart to flunk out of school. Think what they’d say about that, if one of the Salinger kids failed the eighth grade.”
“Alright,” Hazel snapped. “You don’t have to shout.”
I was about to argue, but now that she pointed it out I realized that I was shouting.
“And anyway,” Hazel added, “There are worse things a Salinger kid can do then fail the eighth grade.”
She stopped walking and sat down right there on the curb. I kind of stood around for a minute to see if she was going to get up again, but it didn’t look like it.
I sat down next to her. “Hazel.”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, I’m sorry.”
I let her sit there for a few minutes without bothering her, just looking up and down Summer Street.
We were still within sight of our house, pea-green with its white trim. I noticed for the first time that somebody had hung a black ribbon on our mailbox. Now even people who didn’t know us at all would be able to pick out the Salinger house, when they were informed in a hushed whisper of that terrible thing that the middle girl had gone and done to herself.
After a while, I said, “When I was your age I think I wanted to be a policeman.”
“Little boys always want to be policemen,” said Hazel. “And little girls always want to be ballerinas.”
“Is that what you want to be?”
“No,” Hazel said. “That’s stupid. But Lila did, did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Well, she did.”
I tried to picture Lila in a white tutu, or anywhere other than hunched over her typewriter, glasses sliding down the end of her nose, hair pulled back into a messy ponytail.
“When did she tell you that?”
“This week. She called the day before… you know. She called the day before.”
“What did she say?”
“She didn’t tell me she was going to jump out a window, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Well no, I didn’t think-”
“She sounded normal. We didn’t talk about anything.” Hazel stood up suddenly. “Come on, or we’re never going to get to the drugstore.”
She started off at a brisk pace without bothering to look back. I scrambled to stand up and go after her.
This time I didn’t try to break the silence again, and we came to the end of Summer Street and turned the corner heading into town proper.