Many of you saw the April Fool's prank I played on social media the other day. To pull that off, I walked up to a random stranger in a coffee shop and asked him to take an engagement selfie with me so I could prank some of my friends on April Fool's Day. He obliged, and I spent all of April Fool's in the highest of good humors. This event collided with having finished another J.D. Salinger book and begun yet another. I returned this evening to that coffee shop and sat down to write a short story. The piece of fiction which came out of that writing session is this: my partially-autobiographical thank-you to J.D. Salinger and that coffee-shop stranger. Enjoy!
"Eau de Lil"
by Rachel Heffington
I knew something was adrift when she changed her perfume. Her scent had always been an interesting and none-too-common Pandora's box affair of verbena, rose, lily-of-the-valley, and sandalwood. No chemist had every compounded that scent. Lillian had made it herself out of the ends of castaway bottles of more respectable perfumes, in my opinion. I had always been able to tell when my sister was home, though I never called for her. It was quite enough of a certainty to force the unyielding lock of our front door to open, to shove in the heavy wooden doors, and smell that eau de Lil.
I tossed my keys into the ugly pottery bowl on the credenza. “What's the deal?” There was a new smell of citrus and spice. It was complex. It was seductive. For a crazed moment I panicked that I had somehow entered the wrong flat in our brownstone and a half-clothed French woman would come sauntering out of her bathroom to behold me, the intruder. What a Frenchwoman would be up to in our neighborhood of Ghent was beyond me.
But no other family would suffer that hideous hand-thrown pottery crater to remain in the public line of vision. It possessed, according to family legend, the indentation of a famous potters thumb – a sometime friend of our father's before he'd quite the artistic circle for academics – and therefore the horrible thing was left quite out of the reach of those of us less discerning. I had often wished Abe, our oldest brother, would smash it in one of his drunken brawls, but did he? He hadn't the decency, I suspected. Scar the furniture, beat the stuffing out of mother's sofa. Crash half the heirloom china under one of your weighty fists but don't, by heaven, do anything merciful to the Benini Bowl. You will likely understand my position. It is a firmly held belief of mine that every family possesses its variety of Benini Bowl.
“Lil? Lillian, where the deuces are you, you overgrown kitty-cat?”
Not even the use of her familiar and much-despised nickname brought a response from my sister. I wandered down the hall to the doorway of Lillian's room and here paused. In our childhood we used to have sort of Company Meetings, so to speak, in Lil's room. We would sprawl on her queen bed which, at that time, seemed massive, and discuss the world at large. Abe and I enjoyed relatively unusual welcome from our sister; but for all these memories, I had yet to ever enter the Abode of Lillian without the strict permission and approval of its inhabitant. Today was no different.
“Lil?” My adolescent vocal changes had never thoroughly come to and end and at nineteen, I was quite the same sort of graceful parrot-throated boy I had been five years ago. I knocked two knuckles against the door-frame and leaned halfway in.
There was Lillian, not crying her eyes out as you might expect, or asleep, but sprawled across the width of her bed with her heels kicking in the air as if she were a mere girl of thirteen, not ten years past that forgiving age.
“What the heck, Lillian? Why the funny smell?”
She turned her head to give me a withering gaze. “Oh, do shut up, Sassparilla.”
My name was Samuel, but people seemed incapable of remembering that particular fact about yours truly. All sorts referred to me by this name which name had come about due to my uncommon devotion to sarsaparilla the full duration of my childhood.
I would not, however, be put out by this indignity. “Hey, Lillian?”
“Yeah?” She was scribbling something in her journal.
“Why are you wearing a new perfume?”
She didn't answer.
“Did you run out?”
“Did you lose the bottle?”
Still no answer. Lillian was never short on words. Her new reluctance to speak haunted me. I crossed into the room and felt the sacred seal break. I'm not sure it really happened, but it seemed to me that Lillian's shoulders stiffened when I silently passed the threshold. I'm not sure. But her heels came down. She suddenly seemed very much twenty-three again. Still, if I'd gone through the trouble of coming this far, it was only the dignified thing to see it through. In one wild moment of courage, I plopped onto the bed beside Lillian. I even shoved her left elbow over to try to see what she was writing. Didn't get very far, but that didn't bother me. I had Lillian's attention now. She had really noticed me. She capped her pen and positioned her chin on her arms.
“Sassparilla, you know something?”
“What?” Her window was open and the smell of baking pizza twirled into the room from the pizzeria down the street. I was suddenly inexpressibly hungry. Starving in fact.
“You need a haircut,” she said.
“I need food. What's up, Lillian?” I asked again. “I know something happened to you.”
“Okay.” Lillian sat upright and started picking at her cuticles. “Something did happen.”
I almost gave tongue to my satisfaction at being right, but I didn't want to shut down the confessional factory. I made the most encouraging, “Go on. Please do,” face in my repertoire and waited.
Lillian continued picking at the beds of her nails with a funny smile. It was a smile I saw infrequently. A smile that meant something – and this was rare – had gone well beyond Lillian's powerful imagination. The first occasion had been when she'd got free lipstick from a beauty counter at a drugstore just for happening to be the five-hundredth customer that day. Another time she had successfully sneaked into a stranger's wedding reception at a fancy hotel, signed the guest-book, and taken away a piece of cake while I watched from a service elevator. The third time the smile had lasted a full week and had, according to reports, much to do with the acquaintance of one Robert Cavendish. The Robert Cavendish affair had died down pretty rapidly and it had been months, come to think of it, since I'd seen that smile.
And now here it was, devilishly red and amused. Finished picking the right hand, Lillian began on the cuticles of her left. Her nails needed re-painting, I noticed. Lillian hated the whole process of nail-painting but she did it religiously every Friday night. It was Thursday. The manicure had survived the week about on-average.
“You remember the new bank on Llewellyn?”
“Which new one?” I brought up my mental file of our wedge of Norfolk and considered each bank in my knowledge.
“The one on Llewellyn!”
“Ah – hate to tell ya, Lil, but it's not new. Been open three years at least.”
“New to me.”
“Everything's new to you.”
“I like to be impressed,” Lillian replied with an arch smile. “It's quite satisfying.”
Lillian's eyes suddenly became serious. She nodded. “I know. I am. Totally nuts.”
Here we came, creeping closer to the disclosure of whatever secret was eating at Lillian, doing things to her...changing her perfume. I deepened the “Please, do,” face and rolled over on my back.
“Well,” her voice felt for the edge of the topic like when you're at the beach in springtime and you're quite certain the ocean's still frigid but you feel compelled to put your foot in anyway. “I was at the bank and...you know tomorrow's April Fool's?”
I wriggled. I'd forgot. And I needed a good prank to pull on dumb old Abe for not smashing the Bellini Bowl. “Uh, yeah.”
“Yeah.” Lillian had finished picking her nails. Now she started on peak of her top lip – a nervous habit leftover from a traumatic teething period during toddlerhood. “Well, I thought what a joke it'd be to pretend I was engaged. You know, just for the heck of it.”
“Who pretends they're engaged for the heck of it?” I asked.
Lillian shrugged. “I don't know. I told you I was crazy.”
“What'd you do? Propose to a stranger?”
“Noooooo...” Lillian quit picking at her lip. “You know my Polaroid camera?”
“Well, I thought I'd get somebody to take a photo with me. I had my class ring in my pocketbook – just got it cleaned at the jeweler's. So what I figured is, if I could get some man to take a picture with me...”
“What man?” I put in.
“I don't know. Some man.”
“Lillian – you didn't.”
“Of course I did!” My sister glared at me, then the smile came back. She shrugged. Picked at her lip again. “I mean, nobody would believe me unless there was photographic proof. You can't prank people by telling them anything. Everyone's a doubting Thomas in these progressive days. I needed a picture so what I did is – ”
I sat up and shook my head. “You're absolutely crazy.”
“Didn't I agree? Now shut up, Sassparilla, or I won't finish telling you.”
I hated people who didn't finish telling things. “What'd you do? Pick the handsomest one?”
That smile came back. “Well look, if I'm going to fake a fiance, why not choose someone I'd actually marry, for heaven's sake? I mean, you can't just pull this trick a few times. It's a one-shot game, Sass. You're done, you're done.”
“I get it, Lillian. Don't have to convince me!”
She settled back down on the bed and hugged herself. I thought how she looked thirteen again. Funny how a person can go back and forth ten years like that.
“Well,” she said. “I had a guy all picked out. A teller. You know. I'd gotten used to him, sorta. I went through the scenario at least five times in my head and had it all worked out. And then...well, I started thinking about how it would would be if I went through all the trouble of asking him and he wouldn't pose with me and how embarrassed I'd feel, and then I saw his eyes.”
“What was wrong with his eyes?” She had me curious now.
Lillian shook her head. “No sense of humor. Not a twinkle of a sense of humor. He was awfully nice-looking. Just my style. But I bet there wasn't an atom in his body that'd let him laugh at me, let alone allow him to stoop to taking a photo with a strange girl. I mean, don't get me wrong. He was terribly nice-looking. Probably smart too. But I bet he wouldn't laugh even if Harpo Marx came in there.”
“I wouldn't laugh if Harpo Marx came over to me,” I said.
My sister made an exasperated sound. “Yeah but you don't like comedy. You're just like That Man, Sassparilla, darling. You're very intellectual.”
I didn't much like how that sounded when Lillian said it like that. I didn't much like what I'd heard of That Man, as she called him, and being told I was just like him wasn't my idea of a clear compliment. I said so. Lillian said that I was being sensitive. I said, would she just hurry up and finish her story so I could go get a snack. She said I was free to go. I said if she didn't finish, I wouldn't make Bananas Foster. She loves my Bananas Foster and, because she's the most awful cook in the world, her hands were tied.
Lillian bounced on the bed, so I bounced too. We bounced together, she and I, and she might've even looked a couple months younger than thirteen at this point.
“Well, I'd just about screwed my courage to the sticking point. I was going to do it, by Holyrood. I'd loitered forever, filled out deposit slips with false names, reapplied lipstick, put on this new perfume sample rolling around in the bottom of my pocket-book – ”
“AHA!” I squawked, rather more violently than necessary.
“My word, Sassparilla!”
I blushed. “It's just, you were finally getting to the perfume.”
She ruffled. “And I'll go on getting to it if you'd just shut up for five seconds.”
“Okay. I'm shutting up. I'm shutting up.”
“Anyway, just as soon as I'd gotten myself all ready and riled, do you know what happened? He up and left. He left! A teller! As if he had permission to leave right as I got brave. I'd got used to him, you know. It had taken an hour to get that far. And he left.”
“Wasn't there a – ”
“Sassparilla Martin. Shut up. I looked for another man but I didn't like their noses.”
“I'm not particular about much but when it comes to noses, I have standards.” This wasn't news to me – Lillian had a very nice nose herself and wanted to be sure her children got it. “They were handsome enough and stylish enough and men enough in the place but they just didn't have a good nose on them.”
The story seemed to be drawing to a climaxless close. Her teller left and she hadn't been crazy enough to ask a stranger for a photograph in the bank. All this seemed a relief to me, though it was a little too bad for her, you know. With her impressed little smirk and sparkling eyes.
“I was furious with myself, Sassparilla.” She kicked her bedroom slipper across the room. “How would you feel if you'd stuck around a whole darn hour getting your courage up and the thing you were hunting just skipped town?”
“I'd feel relieved Fate had got me out of an embarrassing position I'd never put myself in to begin with.”
She sighed. “Well, I actually stomped my foot I was so crazy mad. And then I saw him.”
“Listen to the educated young owl.” Lillian shook back her brown hair, smiling. “I saw another man. With blue eyes.”
“Very adequate. He was tall and broad-shouldered. Not quite what I'd call my style, but attractive all the same. And he had good teeth! Do you know, Sass, how hard it is to find a man with a nice smile?”
“Do I have a nice smile?”
“Don't flatter yourself, darling. You know your teeth are crooked. Oh, don't look at me like that! It isn't your fault you lost your retainer on vacation.”
I mentally cursed Abe, who had thrown my retainer into Lake Champlain three Augusts ago. My teeth were a sore point with me. “So you saw this man.”
“Yes, I saw him and I don't know what came over me. I felt perfectly calm and cool and collected and I just slipped that ring on and took my Polaroid camera out of my pocketbook and marched right up to him. He had one of those faces that looked ready for a laugh. He might never teach at Harvard, but he certainly would know a joke when he saw one.
'Excuse me,' I said, smiling my brightest. 'I realize this is a strange request, but I wondered if you might be willing to help a girl out with pulling an April Fool's trick on a friend?'
He sort of smiled.
Then I said, 'All I need is a snapshot of you and me and this ring.' And I held up my left hand with my class ring. The guy was really grinning now, like he thought it was the best idea he'd heard all day. Never-mind I was a total stranger in a bank lobby and I'd just asked for his photograph. He just sort of grinned at me, put his arm out to embrace me, and said,
'Let's do it!'” Lillian leaned back on her hands and laughed. That's another thing I liked about her. She never giggled or tittered, for heaven's sake.
I let out an appreciative whistle, just for her. “I hate to say this, Kitty-Cat, but your brain is one in a million. Even if you are certifiably nuts. Who'd you get to take the photo?”
“That's just it! This fellow was kind enough to flag down the bank manager. We took our photo and I thanked him and that was that. He even waited around till I'd shaken it to see if it came out all right.”
That smile again. Lillian turned, reached into her journal, and brought out a fresh Polaroid. There was my sister all right: womanly and vivacious, smiling so hard you worried her face might shatter with gladness. Her class ring shone on her left hand which she held up between herself and the strange man. To tell you the truth, a big lump formed in my throat when I looked at the picture. She looked so happy. Like it was real. Like she'd actually got engaged to a man she really loved. He looked happy too. Thrilled, in fact. Funny thing is, they looked like a couple of kids. Lillian wasn't even twelve in that photo. She looked hardly eleven. The lump bobbed in my throat. I worked around it to say,
“Wow, that's nice, Lil. Picked a good one.” I quickly put the Polaroid photo face-down on the bedspread. I couldn't stand to look at it anymore. “What was his name?”
She shrugged and picked up the photo, cradling it in her palm. “Funny thing is, I was so excited to have been that brave, I forgot to introduce myself.”
I couldn't take it any more. I stood up and plunged my hands into my pockets. “Do you see your face in that picture?”
“What's wrong with it?”
My stomach growled like three caged lions. “Look at it! You're grinning like he actually proposed or something!”
“I was over the moon!” she said defensively. “All a person needs is one wild, crazy moment of bravery to touch off unspeakably interesting things. And after failing to nab the first guy, I was doubly satisfied with myself.”
“You're too easily pleased.”
She rolled her eyes. “What was I supposed to do? Ask him to the movies? He was a good sport, darling, but I'm no femme fatale. I don't ask men for Polaroids just to lure them in.”
“I know you don't. That's just the trouble with you.”
“The trouble with me?”
“Yeah! You're too darned nice. You're too genuine for anyone. You ought to try ulterior motives sometime, Lillian Martin. They're good for things like catching men. They're good for getting what you want in life. You act like yourself, you act normal, you're not going to get anywhere. That's the matter with you, Kitty-Cat. You're too apt to think the best of people, or act all the way like yourself. You've got to go into the world arms akimbo or it'll never make space for you. That's what I think.” I flapped my elbows, fists still in my pockets. “Gotta try some complexity. Some duplicity for gosh sake.”
Lillian's face went quiet. She still had the Polaroid in her hand and traced the man's features absently with one fingertip. “I don't believe that, Samuel.”
My blood positively clinked with ice cubes. I couldn't remember the last time she'd looked that old. She looked almost ancient. Probably nearly thirty. Neither could I remember the last time she'd used my real name.
I breathed heavily through my nose. “You gonna see him again?”
She shrugged. “Probably not.”
“Think he'd remember you if you saw him again?”
Because she didn't, I said what I knew my sister was thinking: “Probably not.”
I sneaked another look at the snapshot. The tonnage of senseless joy in that photo killed me. I took a deep breath. The unfamiliar, new smell of her perfume did nothing to dissipate that blockage in my throat.
“Hey, Lil?” I squeaked.
I cleared my throat. “Why're you still wearing that perfume?”
I didn't expect her to answer and she didn't. She just stood up and retrieved her bedroom slipper, came back to the bed, and jammed it on.
“Why not use the old stuff?” I pressed. “You've never changed it up before. You make such a thing of having a 'signature scent,' you know. It's not like you to start wearing something new.”
Of course she didn't say anything. She just sat there looking embarrassingly thirteen. But despite it all that rare, fortified smile drifted back onto her face. I almost didn't want to look at her. She was such a ridiculous, hopeful little thing sitting there smiling like that when we both knew the joke was up. My stomach roared again. Gosh, I loved Lillian.
I stalked to her bedroom door, then wheeled about. “You two look great together. I'm just saying.” I took a step into the hall, then poked my head back in. “And he's a damned fool if he doesn't realize a once in a lifetime girl when he sees her.”
“Don't swear, Sassparilla.”
“Sorry, but I'm only saying...”
Lillian started to pick at her lip again but I watched her age rack back up: fifteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-three. “Hey, Sass?”
She looked pretty much back to normal now. “The perfume.”
“How else is he supposed to recognize me? I'm just saying, maybe...” Pink, pink color ran into Lillian's face and that smile beamed in full strength. “...maybe the scent...maybe it'll trigger memory. You know, if we ever meet again.”
I just looked at her, marveling. Then I smacked the door frame with the flat of my palm and stalked off into the kitchen. I had Bananas Foster to make for a girl who damn well deserved them.