7

It was controlled chaos as usual at the Penny household, a sixties-style colonial nestled in a cluster of similarly modeled homes. Peg Penny, the mother, was trying to deal with the remains of the evening dinner, carting dishes into the kitchen and sticking them into her GE dishwasher. At the same time, she had to cope with the baby, gurgling away in her high chair, as well as two ten-year-olds who were playing with their desserts. Meanwhile George Penny, the father, was rattling around with his stereo, trying to get his favorite station tuned in to accompany his evening’s paper-reading. And Meg Penny, older teenage daughter and ace cheerleader, was running around on the upper level, rooting through drawers for the right clothes to wear that evening, making all kinds of noises when those tried-on clothes didn’t look right for her date with Paul Tyler that night.

When Peg came out of the kitchen to get the next load of dirty dishes, she found her ten-year-old son, Kevin, balancing his entire square serving of lime Jell-O on his spoon, while his pal Eddie Beckner looked on with glee.

Before she could do or say a thing, Kevin stuck his mouth onto the Jell-O and, with one mighty suck, inhaled the entire glob!

This action was greeted with a squeal of approval by Christine, the baby. Eddie Beckner, who had disdained his own green Jell-O, opting to eat only the whipped cream on top, applauded.

“Kevin, don’t eat with your face,” said Mrs. Penny.

“We’re in a hurry, Mom,” explained Kevin. “We’re going bowling with Anthony.”

All enthusiasm, Eddie piped up. “And then to the movies.”

That news stopped Mrs. Penny cold. She didn’t approve of most of the movies they were letting young kids in to see these days, and she was more than vocal about this matter. “What movie?” she demanded.

Kevin, well aware of his mother’s opinions on the subject, kicked his friend under the table to shut him up, but Eddie’s mouth was already cruising along at full speed. “Garden Tool Massacre. Your basic slice-’n’-dice.”

Mrs. Penny did a double take. “Your basic what?”

“This guy in a hockey mask chops up a few teenagers”—and then he noticed Mrs. Penny’s reaction. “But don’t worry, there’s no sex or anything bad.”

Peg Penny was still an attractive woman, but when she frowned—as now—the severity of her expression gave no hint of her beauty. “No! Absolutely not!”

“Mom, c’mon!” said Kevin.

“Kevin, I will not have you seeing that kind of trash, and that’s final. Do you understand?”

Kevin nodded sadly. There was no use trying to argue with her when she had that kind of face on. “Yes, ma’am.”

Peg Penny had just turned to deal with baby Christine, who had tossed her spoon onto the floor, when another crisis erupted, this time from upstairs.

“Mom!” Meg, her daughter, called down from the second-story landing. “Have you seen my pink sweater?”

Yes, she certainly had seen Meg’s sweater. Peg Penny cringed. “It’s on the hamper, honey,” she said, heading for the stairs. “I meant to talk to you about that…” Leaving the children to their own devices, she started up the stairs to deal with her teenage daughter.

Meg Penny, meanwhile, was going through the hamper. A flash of pink. A blur of fuzz. She plucked up the cashmere fabric and was staring bemusedly at it when her mother walked into the room. The thing looked as though it had shrunk!

“What happened?” she asked.

“Well,” said Mrs. Penny, “I’m afraid it got mixed up in the wash. I meant to do it by hand…”

“Maybe it will stretch back,” said Meg, slipping it on over her bra, trying to get the bottom down to her blue jeans. Alas, it went only to her midriff. Meg stared down at it a moment, then looked up at her mother. “It’s an interesting look.”

They both laughed, and Mrs. Penny was clearly relieved at her daughter’s reaction. Generally they got along very well. Of course, there were the occasional tensions, inevitable in a situation where a daughter was inheriting a mother’s youthful beauty while mom traveled into middle age. Inevitable also due to the fits of independence typical of adolescence. But still they had a lot in common, Meg and Peg Penny. They were somehow good friends.

“I’ll tell you what,” said Mrs. Penny. “Why don’t you wear my Ann Taylor blouse?”

Meg was taken aback. That blouse had cost a lot of money! “Really? Are you sure?”

“I’m sure,” said Mrs. Penny.

Meg was very pleased. She would look good in that blouse, and she wanted to look nice for her date tonight with Paul Tyler. She figured her father would like Paul. He was always telling her to date guys that were “straight arrows.” Funny thing was, that was the part of Paul that she’d never much liked. He just seemed too normal. But then, when she’d joined the cheerleading squad, and she got to talk to him a little bit, she found that beneath those midwestern good looks he was actually an interesting individual. So when he’d asked her out today, she’d not only said yes, but she was thrilled at the prospect of dating him.

Suddenly the doorbell rang.

“Oh, my God, that’s Paul!” she said.

“Now, you’re sure he’s okay, dear?”

“Paul is the kind of guy Daddy wants me to be going out with, I’m telling you. But can you deal with the door? I’m going to be very late getting ready!”

“A woman’s prerogative, Meg. I’m sure your father is dealing with the door. I’ll just go down and check.”

Mr. Penny, however, had just settled down into his La-Z-Boy with his paper and was not about to get up and answer any door.

So the task was left to Kevin. He swung it open to find a teenage boy, looking very nervous and smiling too broadly.

“What is it?” Kevin asked.

“Hi,” said Paul Tyler. “I’m here to see Meg.”

“What for?” asked Kevin, not really interested, still grumpy because his mother wouldn’t let him go with Eddie to see the movie.

“Well, uh… just to see her. Is she home?”

“Just a minute.”

The door slammed shut in Paul’s face. He took a deep breath, let it out, telling himself to stay calm. He didn’t want to blow this date. Surely it was his most important so far.

When the door opened, an older version of Meg looked out, smiling, which made Paul feel loads better.

“I’m terribly sorry. You must be Paul. I’m Meg’s mother,” the woman said.

Turning on the politeness to full power, Paul said, “Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

Mrs. Penny beckoned him to enter. “Come on in. Meg will be right down.”

As Paul entered the nicely kept home, Kevin Penny tried to squeeze out the open door along with Eddie.

Mrs. Penny caught Kevin by the back of his collar, spinning him around in a challenging manner.

“And where do you think you’re going?” she demanded.

“To Eddie’s! I’m sleeping over, remember?”

“Okay, but you’re not going anywhere without your jacket,” she insisted.

“Aww, Mom, it’s boiling out!”

“It’s September and it’s nighttime. You’re wearing your jacket.”

Kevin stomped to the nearby closet and pulled out a light-gray nylon jacket, which he tossed over his shoulder.

“Put it on!” his mother demanded.

Kevin put it on and tried to zipper it up. But the zipper jammed halfway. “Stupid coat!”

Paul watched, feeling like a third wheel, as Mrs. Penny descended upon her son in a mother-hennish manner, giving the zipper a few hard tugs until it surrendered to determined motherhood and shut all the way. She bent over and kissed Kevin on the cheek. “Bye, honey. Enjoy yourself.”

The moment Kevin and Eddie escaped through the door, a crash sounded from the kitchen, followed a second later by the wailing of a child. “Oh, Lord! Christine!” said Mrs. Penny. “Excuse me, Paul.” She hurried back to deal with the accident, leaving Paul to his own devices.

He looked around.

Nice house. Typical suburban; a lot like his own, but with a touch of individuality, plus some class and style. The same classiness showed also in the oldest product of the Penny union, Meg. The traits that Paul liked most about her were her poise, her sense of style, plus the obvious intelligence and wit she showed in conversations.

Suddenly there she was—bouncing down the stairs in a pretty beige ruffled blouse that suited her perfectly. She wore a bright, welcoming smile, and—most exciting of all, Paul thought—she looked extremely pleased to be going out with him.

“Hi, Paul!”

“Hi,” Paul said. “You look great!”

“Thanks.”

“Ready to go?”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve been looking forward to it. But I want you to meet my dad first. It’ll just take a second.”

Paul shrugged. No problem. Dads were one of his specialties. Somehow he found that he knew how to handle fathers—just talk about football and compliment them on their home and family, and they’d love him.

Paul anticipated no trouble here… no trouble at all.

Meg took him into the den, where a man lounged in a reclining chair, immersed in the newspaper.

“Daddy,” said Meg, “I’d like you to meet Paul.”

The newspaper lowered.

Paul recognized the man in his horn-rimmed glasses and neatly clipped mustache immediately. It was the pharmacist from the Rexall drugstore!

“Hello!” said Paul, extending a hand.

The man did a double take and then looked as though he were about to bite off Paul’s hand. “You!”

“Me? What—” Paul took a defensive step backward.

Mr. Penny stood up and started waving his paper at Paul. “You! You’re taking my daughter out? No! Not after what that Jesky boy had to say about you! No way!”

Meg looked totally baffled, but Paul immediately guessed what had happened. “Sir, I can explain!”

His precious date with Meg Penny at stake, Paul Tyler explained, for all he was worth.

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