It’s hard to make money as a teen girl with an after-school job at a downtown button shop. But that’s the job I had. On this particular day I looked gloomily at my paycheck and the tiny number written on it.
“If you want to make more, Veronica, you have to work more hours,” my boss, Ms. Eliot, said.
She insisted that we employees call her that, Ms. Eliot, instead of her first name, Brenda. Today she and I were behind a messy counter stacked with swatches of fabric, spools of thread, and boxes of knick-knacks packed alongside all manner of things one might attach to fabric, including buttons — boxes and boxes of buttons, in every shape, color, and size.
“Yeah, I know, more hours,” I said. I glanced up at her from my little swivel chair. Then I folded the check and shoved it into my backpack, which rested on the shelf beneath the counter. “It’s just hard. I’m juggling a lot of stuff.”
She put her hand on my shoulder and gave me a gentle smile. Then she turned and strolled toward the back of the shop.
From across the counter my coworker, Holly, asked, “What you been spending your money on anyhow?” She was leaning on the glass I had just cleaned.
I shrugged. “Oh, this and that, dinner, subway, other stuff.”
She arched her eyebrows. “Well, obviously you don’t spend it on clothes.”
Today Holly was wearing a cute little cami and skirt set. The outfit was, as far as I understood this stuff, current. Its colors matched, along with her thigh-high socks and barely obscured bra. It was pretty darling.
I, on the other hand, wore a baggy gray sweatshirt and a frumpy calf-length skirt. I liked to dress that way. It hid my body and breasts. Guys didn’t stare at me.
I shrugged and smoothed out my skirt. Holly watched me with a smug look.
I wasn’t going to tell her what I spent my money on. The ladies (and girls) at work had no idea of my secret double life.
The little bell over the door rang as a girl came in. She looked around, seeming lost, which I expected she was.
“What the hell?” Holly said.
The girl was this crazy goth chick I knew from school. Her name was, as I recalled, Kelly Breene, but she had fashioned herself “Iris” one day and now insisted that everyone call her that. That was fine. I didn’t care.
“Hey, Iris,” I said, peeking out from behind a rack that held spools of thread.
“Oh! Hi Veronica. Can I talk to you?”
She was a tiny girl all in black: black shoes (tall and cruel), black dress (small and lacy), black dog collar (with a steel ring), black nails and hair — but tangerine eyeshadow. She had on a backpack with the outline of a skeleton-death-Hello-Kitty.
She strutted awkwardly over to the counter and fixed me with her light-blue eyes. She smiled with deep-red lips.
“Hey,” I said, “uh — talk? Sure, lemme ask.” I shouted to the back of the shop, “Ms. Eliot, I’m going outside for a few.”
Ms. Eliot’s voice returned, “Fine! Don’t be long.”
I followed Iris outside. We stepped onto the sidewalk of West Street in downtown Boston. This was in one of the more historic little pieces of the city. The buildings around us were white masoned stone. They were short, all fewer than eight floors. But still, they seemed to loom over the narrow street crowded with tourists. One group, mostly Chinese, followed a fat guy dressed as Ben Franklin. They gave us strange looks.
“So,” I asked, “what do you want?”
She watched the tourists until they passed. Then she crossed her arms and said, “So, like, I heard you can get test answers.”
“Who told you that?”
She shrugged and grinned. “Just something I heard, you know, from around.”
I stepped up to her. “No, I’m serious. Tell me who told you that!”
I said it in a sharp voice. She glanced around and stepped back. I stepped forward again, got real close.
I was bigger than her and clearly stronger. She wobbled on her tall shoes.
“Wait!” she said. “Hold on. Don’t freak out.”
I grabbed her upper arms. “Tell me!”
Secrets were important to me. Trust mattered. When I did something for a girl, even if she paid cash, I expected her to keep her mouth shut. Loose lips did me no good at all.
She relaxed and didn’t struggle in my grip. In fact, she pressed forward, toward me. “Jesus, Veronica! Way to take charge!”
At this point people on the street had stopped and were looking at us. But I held on. Her eyes blazed.
So far only two girls knew that I could get test answers — besides my girlfriend, Melanie, and she knew to keep her mouth shut. They were Mandy Mathers and Leticia Murrow. I thought they were cool and I could trust them.
I had always kept their big secret. Which of them blabbed?
“Look,” Iris said, glancing over at the scattered people watching us. “Like, chill out, okay. I need some help, that kinda help. I’ll pay good. I have three hundred.”
If word got out I could get answers to tests, someone might ask how? I couldn’t really answer that. When Mandy had asked, I told her it was magic.
I released Iris’s arms and stepped back.
“I’m sorry for getting in your face, but please, tell me who told you. Like, who told you what? And who else did they tell?”
She blinked and said, “I’m not ratting anybody out. Anyway, I have three hundred.”
I waited. She didn’t say anything else. Instead she fumbled around with her backpack and pulled out a stack of bills. She held the money out to me.
I turned and walked back into the shop. As I passed through the door, she said, “Fuck! Wait! Please.”
When I got home that evening, I peeked through the TV room door and saw my mother sitting on the couch. It was quiet, but for the hum of traffic that filtered through the open window. She sipped slowly from a cup of tea.
I gave her a small wave. She noticed and said, “Hey, Veronica, sweetie.” Her voice seemed flat and distant.
Tonight she wore her tattered bathrobe and fluffy slippers. Her legs were up on the coffee table.
“Hey Mom. Everything okay?”
She took another sip of tea. Then she curled forward and set the cup on a silver tray, on which sat the rest of her tea set: the porcelain pot, the little jar that held milk, a bowl of sugar with a tiny spoon.
She left her hand resting on the cup for a few seconds. Then she sat back with a long sigh. I entered the room.
“Mom… What’s wrong?”
She stretched out her legs and stared blankly out the window, which showed the faint glow of our neighborhood. I noticed that my dad’s chair was empty. Next to that, his little tray table had a pile of empty beer cans — a much larger pile than I was used to seeing.
“Sweetie, sit down.” She patted the couch next to her. I went and sat. She took my hand. With her other hand, she fingered the edge of her robe, the small blue buttons, the embroidered flowers which had long since grown frayed.
She swallowed, as if she were getting ready to say something.
“I lost my job today.”
I sat completely still for several seconds while the bottom dropped out.
“Jesus, Mom. Oh, fuck, seriously?”
Her face was blank.
So this was it. I’d heard about this stuff, how everyone was losing their jobs, and how nobody could seem to find a new one. My dad hadn’t had a job in a long time (nor would he ever again, most people thought). Mom, on the other hand, had settled into a posh gig as a creative director at a Back Bay marketing firm. It paid really nice — or, it had.
She let out a small laugh. “Wanna know the best part?” She turned to me with this crazy smile, like she was about to crack. “They hired me right back, minutes after they fired me.”
“As a contractor, paid hourly. Get it?”
Not really. What was she saying? “You still have a job?”
“When they’re busy! And they aren’t busy right now, so they string me along with bits of this and that, ’cept no benefits and I’m lucky if I make half what I was making. Nice, huh?”
The question hung there, incomplete.
Can we make the rent, Mom? Can we eat? Will I have to steal?
She leaned forward again, picked up her teapot, and poured another cup of tea.
“It’s gonna be tough, sweetie. Rent, food, some clothes, not much else. Gotta get used to that, okay? I’m not going to find another job. Not now — it’s just too hard. And business isn’t likely to pick up.”
She sat back with the cup nestled in both her hands, like she was praying over the tea. I reached down to my backpack, which I had set by my feet, and took out my paycheck.
“Veronica…” she said.
I laid it flat on the coffee table. Then I signed my name on the back.
“Take it, it isn’t much.” I held it out to her. “Just give me enough for the train.”
She took it and studied it, read the meager number written there. It wouldn’t make much difference, hardly any. But I gave what I could — I had to give something, to feel like I made some difference. She folded my check and tried to smile.
I needed my money for two reasons, besides the obvious stuff like lunch and the train. The first was my sweet girlfriend, Melanie Kelleher. The second was witchcraft.
The next morning I pounded down the rear stairway of our three-story building to Melanie’s apartment door, on which I knocked, just once, before I poked in my head. No one was in her kitchen, so I stole across to her bedroom door, which was opened slightly. I pushed it open further, crept through, and then closed it behind me.
“Hey, sweetie,” I said.
She was lying face down on her bed lit by the warm glow of the bedside lamp. Her panties were light blue, her tee-shirt orange. One knee was bent, her foot pointing up. Around her, strewn across the bed, were blankets and pillows — along with an old book bound in red cloth. Beside the book was a pile of scattered loose-leaf pages.
I crawled into her bed next to her. The book she was reading was my great-great-grandma’s spell book.
“Hi, babe,” she said without removing her eyes from the yellowed pages.
I kissed her cheek. She smiled, turned, and kissed me back. We snuggled close.
“I think I understand what we did wrong,” she said, turning back to the page filled with strange, occult formulas. “I’ve reread the recipe, again and again, and the trick ain’t there. But I think she talks about the recipe here in her notes.” She pointed to a page of my Grandma Emma’s notes, a barely legible scrawl of disjointed prose and diagrams. “I don’t think we let the saltpeter steep long enough.”
I didn’t have the patience to study magic the way a witch needed. Honestly, it didn’t interest me, the flows of energy, the feel of the deeper step, the gnosis of subtle metaphor — all those concepts were too tricky and weird for me to grasp.
“So,” I asked, “when do we try again?”
“Soon, but we need more saltpeter. Did you get paid?”
No, I didn’t care much about magic. But Melanie did, and I loved Melanie more than anything in the world.
Suddenly, we heard a crash from the kitchen just outside her door.
“Mom, is that you?” Melanie said. She slid away from me.
“Yeah, sweetie,” a voice returned from outside. “You getting ready for school?”
“Yeah. In a second. Veronica is here.”
I gave her a quick kiss. She popped out of bed and began to sort through her clothes.
“Anyway,” I said, as she picked up two cottony, floral skirts, peering at them in the light, “about the money. So, like, they cut back my mom’s hours — and made her a temp-contractor or something, so I gotta help out.”
Melanie held the skirts in front of me. I pointed to the pretty blue one with lilac flowers. She nodded and tossed the rejected skirt back into her clothes pile. Then she leaned down and put her legs through the chosen one. As she did, she said, “So what does that mean? No money?”
I watched her shimmy and pull the skirt up. “Not for a while.”
She sighed and pointed to her nightstand, on which lay a darling pink bra with puffy, girl-sized cups. I grabbed the bra and handed it to her. She pulled off her tee.
I smiled big at her bare chest. She squinted and motioned to her door. We could still hear her mom outside fumbling with pots.
She continued to get dressed. I said, “I turned down three-hundred bucks yesterday.”
That got her attention. “Huh? What? Why?” She squirmed and got her head and arms situated in her tee-shirt. She adjusted the waist of her skirt.
“You know that Iris Breene girl?”
“Yeah, emo-goth?” I nodded. “She’s in my Social Studies class. What about her?”
“She offered me money to get test answers, or whatever. She didn’t go into details, but obviously Leticia or Mandy told her something.”
Melanie sat on the side of the bed and began to pull up her knee-high pink socks. I put my arms around her from behind. She said, “You should have taken the money.”
I pulled her tight and kissed her neck. She wiggled to get away. But she didn’t wiggle too hard. I let her go.
“I wanna know who blabbed.”
She stood in front of me. Her mom poked her head into the room. “You guys want bacon?”
I nodded. Her mom left, closing the door behind her.
Melanie sat back down and began to put on her shoes; she chose her darling saddle-shoe style sneakers. I put my hands on her shoulders. “I need to know who’s spreading stories. I need to know really, really bad.”
She grew stiff in my grasp. “You wanna cast?”
She turned to me with a grin. She slid near to me, pressed her small body against mine. Then she cupped her hands over my cheeks and kissed my mouth.
“Cool,” she said. Her soft, brown eyes peered up at me.
She loved when I did magic. All her hard work, all her research, her deep study, the long hours fretting over trivial things, all of that, only came to matter when I did magic.
I liked it because, afterward, we usually fucked.
At lunchtime she and I sat on a wooden bench beneath the shadow of a tall, white tower that stuck up from the highest point of Dorchester Heights, a grassy park on a hill nestled in a neighborhood of wooden houses. Our school sat on one side of that hill. We often snuck out here for lunch, away from the other students and their disapproving looks. We sat close, touching, but not too much. No heavy kissing or petting. Nothing obvious. We weren’t invisible, and while folks at school more or less knew we were together, our parents did not know, and this was a neighborhood where word got around.
Melanie was quiet. She had been quiet since lunch started, no doubt thinking about something deeply subtle, like magic or trigonometry.
I was thinking, like usual when we were together, about her; about getting money for saltpeter (and whatever other sundry ingredients we would need for our magic concoctions); about the tall white tower in front of me, where I had once rescued her from an enemy witch named Jessica.
Melanie had slept with that witch, instead of me, on the hopes that Jessica could bring her into the spirit world, the place of magic and metaphor, where a witch expressed her power.
Indeed Jessica had brought her to that place — and trapped her there. I, on the other hand, could not bring her there. I had never learned the proper spell.
The midday autumn sun was low in the sky. The air was chilly. I bunched my sweater tight around my neck and slid closer to her. “What are you thinking about?”
She pressed down her skirt, which did not quite reach the top of her knee-high socks. “I think my legs are cold.” She shot me a little half smile. I squished closer. “Actually, I’m trying to think how we can get money.”
Of course she was. She looked at me only briefly, then she looked away, back at the tower, the trees, the birds, who were busy eating all they could, preparing for their long flight south. I squeezed her hand.