Saturday, March 31, 2012
Friday, March 30, 2012
"As for those grapefruit & buttermilk diets, I'll take roast chicken & dumplings."
Thursday, March 29, 2012
“I know what liberty is because I know what slavery was.”
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
So, it was on the 25th of March, 1911, my grandmother's 18th birthday that a dreadful thing happened. Had she been born into different circumstances, she might well have been one of the 146 people - mostly women and teenaged girls - who jumped to their deaths or were burned to death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, not able to get out. The bosses had locked the doors, lest the seamstresses be tempted to steal one of those pleated tops they constructed.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Friday, March 23, 2012
Thursday, March 22, 2012
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
"A woman is like a tea bag - you can't tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water."
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
So. Okay: Three presentations today. Three presentations yesterday, to groups of varying size of school children, grades 4, 5, 6. Their teachers, too, plus a small assortment of congenial grownups, all having in common their love of BOOKS. Where were we? At the 44th Annual University of Central Missouri Children's Literature Festival, at Warrensburg, MO, where I went to college some 40 years ago -eek. Dozens of authors & illustrators + thousands of children been a part of this glorious festival for all these years. Me? About a dozen years now.
C. S. Adler, ..........my buddy, William Anderson, who's written so much & so well about my old favorite, Laura Ingalls Wilder,....... Marlene Brill, ...........Elizabeth Bunce, .........Elisa Carbone..........my new friend, beautiful Janet Carey,........... lovely Mary Casanova, ............funny & charming Henry Cole, ............savvy baritone author/scientist/publisher, Sneed B. Collard.........Jan Greenberg. sophisticate..............gentleman poet from Springfield, MO, David Harrison...... smartypants beautybabe, Patricia Hermes .......Ard Hoyt, ......... lovely Jeanette Ingold of Montana.........my dear good Joplin friend & unofficial therapist [author of Joe's Ghost - check it out], Veda Boyd Jones ................. Brian Katcher .......brilliant gentlewoman, Claudia Mills ...... Pearl Harbor Child, Dorinda Nicholson ......... swellegant lady, Lois Ruby...... and oh my gosh, Ruth Sanderson, whose artwork I've long admired - got to meet her: big deal for me/clearly nothing special for her................lovely Marie Smith & her husband, Roland, ........... wonderful artist and book buddy - gosh, he draws so beautifully - Brad Sneed...........Mike Spradlin.............Stephanie Tolan...............Roderick Townl [what a sweet man]........sharp, funny Terry Trueman ............. gracious & creative Vivian Vande Velde ............ June Raye Wood............. wonderful Leslie Wyatt [and her handsome sons].............Judy Young ............me......got to see old friends: that's the best part: the picture here is of Professor Naomi Williamson [& me], longtime director of this terrific festival, the largest such in all the land.
Kids are herded into classrooms, recently vacated by college students on break. Don't know so much about the others. Can't speak for them so much, but I can tell you what I did today.
Monday, March 19, 2012
In which we go to school.
Four days. Three. Two. Did I sleep even one single hour the night before the first day of school? I didn’t think so. My brain was a lit-up gas station by a big highway: open for business all night long. I kept thinking about my old school where I didn’t have to change classes, Janice McFarland, the pink dress Mama made for me when I was six, what I was going to wear tomorrow, Blue Top, the blue-eyed boy I saw at the grocery store. Richie and his big chrome-y car. Where’d they go? What if Dad and Jimmy got too sad or mean like Richie and his dad did after Mrs. Scudder died? What if Jimmy ended up running away from home? And where exactly was Mama really? Did she get lost on her first day in heaven? if I’m late to classes will I get yelled at?...what if I have to be a junior high school drop-out so I can help Dad with the kids?...what if? The alarm clock jangled awake all five hundred toads, who were hopping around inside of me.
I sat up, gathered my things, hurried downstairs, my heart pounding. Water cannoned into the clawfooted bathtub. I got myself wet, clean, dry, and dressed in my new blouse and green jumper. I wiped steam away so I could see the pale girl in the mirror, putting on her dumb glasses, scrooging up her face as she untangled her hair and finally gave up trying braid it. My fingers were shaking plus I didn’t have time and I almost cried, thinking how Mama would’ve braided it – wait – did I hear the baby? I rubber banded my wild, red horsetail and hurried into my folks’ room where Velvet was whimpering and kicking her legs in the air.
I bundled her up in my arms so she wouldn’t bother Dad, climbed back upstairs to knock on Jimmy’s door. “Hey, in there. It’s time.” Back downstairs the rest of the boys were sprawled out, feet hanging off their rumpled bunks. Velvet fussed louder helping to wake up the boys before I went down to the kitchen. It was a good thing she was so little. It only took one arm to hold her.
That left me a whole ‘nother one to fix Velvet’s bottle and pour out cereal and juice for the twins.
“No, Harry, I told you already. I can’t come with you; Jimmy will walk you to your class. Old Yell – uhm, Mrs. Culpepper will be your teacher. You know her. She’ll be real nice. You’re going to be so smart and have so much fun!”
“No, we will not either.”
“Will the other kids know our mom died?”
“Maybe. Don’t worry about it. You’re going to make a lot of friends.”
“Are we orphans?”
“Only semi-orphans. Quit asking me stuff while the baby’s bawling! Hurry up and eat your cereal!”
Bleary-eyed Dad came into the kitchen. “Mornin’ you guys. Carmie, gimme the baby. Jeepers, let’s get a bottle in her mouth before she blows her stack. I can’t hear myself think! Jimmy, go get me those dry diapers in off the line out back, okay?”
I pounded upstairs to grab my school things and art supplies and back down again, fuming. “Some stupid little
brat spilled paint on my notebook paper!”
I wrapped wax paper around a peanut butter sandwich and jammed it into my shoulder bag. Dad, holding Velvet and her bottle, kissed me goodbye and slipped me a dollar. “For milk money. Knock ’em dead, Buddy. Love you.”
“Love you too.” I kissed Dad’s whiskered cheek and sped out the door, Dad calling, “Be safe! And take a breath, will ya?”
I hurried down the steps, up the street, to meet angry-looking Robin up at the corner. “What’s the matter?” I panted, still walking, fast, fast, fast, feeling like I’d forgotten something. “You mad at me?” I asked Robin. “Am I late?”
“No. And I’m not mad.”
A lie, I could tell by her frowning eyebrows.
“Okay,” said Robin. “My mom was just sort of extra-cranky, that’s all. Slow down, will ya? We don’t have to run!” So we walked along regular and I remembered breakfast: I wished I’d eaten some. Half a block over, turn the corner, up four blocks more, me get-
ting more and more nervous the closer we got to the junior
high. Fine for Robin, I thought. She’d spent all seventh grade in this big brick box full of strangers all talking and laughing at the same time. I blew out a huge sigh. “Okay, Robin, now tell me you’ve known every single one of these kids since kindergarten.”
“Now, now, Carmie,” she sing-songed, before I jabbed her with my elbow. “You’re going to make lots of nice new friends.”
She introduced me to a bunch of kids in homeroom, English class, but did I know what to say to anybody? Nothing that wasn’t stupid. Could I remember anybody’s names? No. Except maybe Becky Scott. Robin whispered to me that Becky was “stuck-up” and that Mike Martinez with the stiff, new blue jeans had been “shy ever since kindergarten.” Randy Flanagan: “Super-good in sports.” Jenny Moffat. “Brainiac.”
I’d remember Jenny because (1) Her locker was next to mine. (2) In spite of all of our moving around, I’d never really met a black person my own age before, and (3) I embarrassed myself by looking once too often at the neat way her hair flipped up, and at her glossy penny loafers. Jenny’s had dimes.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“Nothing. I mean, I...“ I stammered, ashamed, “I just like that, uh, your outfit.”
Jenny’s look clearly said: ‘weirdo.’
Have some dignity, I grumped at myself as she walked away, her flip bouncing, her pleated skirt swishing this way and that. I got through Social Studies and Math, then sped down two crowded hallways full of noisy kids whacking lockers shut, then up a flight of stairs to get to Science. After that would be lunch, thank goodness.
Miss Spurgeon had a big bosom and a plaid suit. She stood by her posters of The Human Body (skinless, so we could see the muscles and innards) and Our Solar System, glaring at two late kids until everybody was totally quiet. That’s when my stomach growled. Maybe I only imagined that it sounded like a bear waking up from hibernation and nobody noticed it, really. Then I heard kids laughing. I saw Robin covering a smile with her hand and I saw that boy, the boy I hadn’t seen since he saw all of us embarrassing Cathcarts in the supermarket!
When sourpussed Miss Spurgeon took the roll, I found out his name: Greg Tuck. Robin talked about him on the way to lunch. “That Greg is so cute. Had you met him before? You looked like you did.”
“It’s a long story.” But before I could tell it to her, Robin saw a lot more kids she’d known since before they’d learned how to tie their shoes. In the big, confusing school cafeteria, as I gulped down my sandwich and milk, she had lots to say to lots of friends besides me, who didn’t know what to say to anybody. Still, I forgot about my crummy morning, stupid P. E. class, and every other horrible thing when I walked into the Art room. I breathed in the scents of fresh paint and sharpened pencils. This was how heaven smelled, really, not like lilies or angel perfume, like some people might think.
Mrs. Montisano’s yellow smock and the load of pink rouge on her cheeks made her look extra-cheerful. She’d covered her bulletin board with color wheels, pictures of famous artists, and copies of paintings , even my favorite Botticelli goddess looking like naked-Rapunzel-on-a-seashell. That boy, Greg Tuck, was studying her, real close.
“Okay, class,” said Mrs. Montisano. Greg turned around and grinned the minute he saw my face, then he went and sat at another table with a bunch of boys. My face felt hot as a frizzy-haired girl plunked herself down beside me.
“Everybody settle down now.” The teacher tapped her table. “This is a still life,” she said, sweeping her hand over a pile of squashes and bottles with dried up weeds stuck in them. I picked up my pencil. Almost automatically, I began outlining a bottle-shape, straight, then curved, then straight again, forgetting about everything.
“You’ll be drawing all of this later,” said Mrs. Montisano, inspiring groans from some kids, “but today we’ll just get to know each other. You may not think you can draw, but you’ll be surprised, I know you will. And you’ll see why art’s important. It helps you to see the world better.”
As she talked, as I listened and drew, I knew one thing for sure about art: it made my heart feel better. I couldn’t wait to do every single project Mrs. Montisano
talked about: Color charts. Mobiles. Self-portraits. Collages. Suddenly, a folded piece of notebook paper appeared under my nose. Under the table, a hand belonging to the frizzy-haired girl was wiggling and pointing. My eyes followed her finger and landed on Greg looking sideways at me. I frowned at him, then at the unfolded note in my lap.
Aren’t you the girl me and my mom
saw in the store? You and yourfamily?
I think your mom was going to have a
baby. So, did she have it? My name
(Here’s where he drew an arrow pointing
to his signature.) Greg Tuck.
I stuck Greg’s note in my pocket just as Mrs. Montisano’s red shoes came clicking across the wood floor. And she was frowning at me! Was this stupid, note-passing kid getting me in trouble? In Art class? On the very first day?
“I’d really prefer that you give me all of your attention while I’m teaching,” she said. Then she picked up my drawing and her face changed from stern to surprised.
“You’ve been doing this?”
“Yes, ma’am.” I’d drawn another bottle, and started in on a squash, liking its bumps and curves. She asked me my name and I told her.
“Well, Carmen Cathcart,” she smiled, her cheeks plumping up like apples, “you’ve got a fine talent.”
I bit my lower lip and smiled back at her, too happy to say anything and not wanting to be dumb with everybody staring at me twice in one day!
“But,” she said, looking at me then over at Greg, “pay attention in class from now on,” just as the bell rang and everybody scuffed back their chairs.
I’d worked my way through the crush of kids and out the door when I heard Greg behind me. “Boy, Carmen Cathcart, I thought I was a goner! It’s a good thing you turned out to be teacher’s pet!”
“I gotta get to class,” I said, hugging my books to my chest.
“Well, me too. English. Room 204.”
“Health. Room 117!” I had to yell so he could hear me over the kids all around us who had to yell too.
“That’s goony Mr. Henderson’s class!” he hollered, walking backwards away from me right into a scowling teacher! I sure hoped it wasn’t Mr. Henderson’s best friend or something. I didn’t have time to hang around to see what happened next. I sped down the hall.
At the end of the day, we had lots of stories to share, Robin and me.
“Your day was more exciting than mine,” she said. “I hope you weren’t too embarrassed when your stomach growled in Science class. That was so funny!”
Just thinking about it sent her into such a bunch of giggles that I had to laugh too, then the thought of Miss Spurgeon made Robin serious: “Her class is going to be so hard.”
“You got any candy in your pocket? I’m still hungry.”
“Me too,” she said, digging cherry Lifesavers out of her pocket. “It’s all I got.”
I remembered Dad was waiting for me at home and walked faster so Robin would too. Our feet swooshed through dry leaves, me thinking about Dad having to get to work, Robin thinking about her own worries.
“Boy, I bet my mom’ll have a whole day’s worth of nagging saved up for me.” Robin started mimicking her: “‘After school snack? No, I don’t think so. Dusting then piano practice then dinner. Are you really going to have another piece of pie? You’re such a pretty girl, Robin, to be so plump.’ Maybe if I was ugly she’d leave me alone!” She made a face at me, a real ugly one.
I couldn’t help smiling at it, but I was worried for her. “You and your mom had a fight this morning, didn’t ya?”
“Naah.” She wrinkled up her nose. “Well, you know, she was nervous, first day of school and everything. She just took it out on me, that’s all.”
“Anyway, I’m glad I’m not the only one with family problems,” I said, giving her arm a squeeze. We’d gotten as far as our street with the empty-looking Scudder house on the corner. “Do you think Richie ran away from home?”
“I wouldn’t blame him,” Robin snorted as we walked on down to her yard. “You know what Mom asked me? Why was I getting chunkier every day? She just couldn’t understand!” Robin made a comical face. We both looked her treehouse.
“How come she’s never climbed up and discovered your Twinkies and stuff?”
“Oh, she probably just wants something to crab about,” Robin said, then she burst out, “You know what, Carmen? At least your mother really loved you. Sometimes I don’t think my mom even likes me, not really.”
“How could she not? Robin, you’re the neatest person I ever met! You’re –”
“Carmie, you comin’?” Dad was in the doorway, in his work coveralls.
“Yeah!” I hurried across the yard, calling out a real good invitation as I went. “Come on over later! I’ll let you change the baby’s diaper or something.”
Robin’s face brightened. “I’ll go change my clothes first. Mom’d have a conniption if Velvet got poop or anything on me.”
Velvet, in her basket, tried to follow Dad with her
eyes, him talking and moving like a blur through the house.
“How’d it go? You do okay? Have any trouble? Meet any nice kids?”
I told him school was fine and yup, nope, yup, as he grabbed up his lunch box and coffee thermos. “You got any homework?”
“I made a pot of chili for your supper. I don’t like leaving you alone. No, sir, I don’t,” he said. Head-kiss for Georgie who said, “Don’t go, Daddy!” Quick cheek-smooches for me and Velvet and talking fast. “Daddy’s girls. I’m late for work. Don’t let me forget to put a quarter under Harry’s pillow tonight. He lost his other front tooth and Larry’s jealous. Had to fish it out of his Cheerios.” He kept hold of my hand in a hard grip all the while he went through his lock-the-door-call-if-there’s-trouble drill.
“We’ll be fine,” I called to him as he backed down the driveway. I fixed me a quick peanut butter sandwich and glass of milk plus an aspirin for my headache, then hurried up past the loneliness oozing out of our parents’
room, and up to mine. I got out of my school clothes, into my jeans, then back down to flop on the floor to color with Georgie.
“Tell me ‘bout school,” he commanded. “I wanna go. When can I? When are the big boys coming home?”
“Right now,” I told him. “Can’t you hear that herd of elephants outside? Better go see!” Georgie scrambled to his feet.
Clark brought three new friends home from third grade. “This is Mike and Jerry and Edward. They wanna see the new baby,” he told me. “Don’t touch her,” he ordered. “You’ll get germs on her.”
“Mitheth Culpepper wath nithe,” Harry announced, through the gap in his mouth.
“Really?” Now there was a nice, big fat surprise.
“Yeah, she was happy because we’re smart already.” With both hands Larry jiggled his own front teeth, trying to loosen them up.
“Sounds like you’re lucky and she’s lucky, huh?” They nodded at me then held the door open for Jimmy. We all said hi and even Georgie asked him how his day
went, but he just clomped past us and up the stairs.
I frowned at Clark. “What’s the matter with him?”
“Some kids were pretty stupid out on the playground, asking questions about Mom.” Clark’s buddies nodded as he went on, “Like how did she die and junk like that.” He rolled his eyes in disgust. So did Mike, Jerry, and Edward.
Poor Jimmy. “Did kids ask you about Mom too?”
“Not after I socked ’em,” Clark replied. He and his friends were studying Velvet’s teeny toenails. “I got in trouble, but it was worth it.” His buddies nodded again.
The only thing normal in the blurry, nervewracking evening full of mom stuff was talking to Robin on the phone. “My mom thinks I need to stick around home this evening and I can’t come see you, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Yeah....” and “okay,” I said again as she told me about the piano piece she was going to practice and what her brother Darren did. All the time I was fixing bottles and stabbing my fingers at plates, giving boys silent orders to set the table. I told her “bye and see ya in the morning,” so I could make the little squirts eat
their supper and help me wash the dishes. I cheered up Jimmy by getting him to read to Velvet and change her wet diaper.
We visited with Mr. Herman, I made the boys take baths and wipe up all the water they splashed out, I got Velvet to sleep, and I yelled at Larry for popping a balloon and waking her up. So I had to be awake, too, and Larry was mad, upstairs, under his bed, probably, but I didn’t care.
Now we waited, Velvet and me. The clock ticked. It chimed twelve dings for midnight. In my lap, she was like a happy pigeon. In her basket, she sounded more like a cranky piglet. Then: Car sounds, headlights swooping across the stained ceiling, car door closing, footsteps, key in the lock. “Daddy’s home!”
Velvet shrieked and gargled at him, but Dad and I just smiled. He was real tired-looking, like he’d spent his evening pushing a piano up a mountain or a cow up a flight of stairs. “Hey, Buddy. Lemme go wash my hands real quick, then I’ll take that baby off your hands.”
When he flopped down next to us on the couch, I got a nice whiff of sweat, gasoline, and Juicy Fruit. Dad swooped Velvet from my arms and did a quick lean-down, putting his cheek against the top of my head. “How’d it go? Did you have any trouble?”
“No, everybody was nice, mostly. Mr. Herman came to visit and play patty-cake with Georgie and the baby. Did you have to work real hard?”
Daddy was holding Velvet on his chest and nuzzling her. “Naah, it was easy. You better go on to bed now, honey. I’ll take over here.”
“You want me to do Harry’s tooth fairy quarter for you?”
“I’d’ve forgotten all about it.” I held out my hand as he felt around in his pocket. “Don’t know what I’d do without ya, Buddy,” he said, slapping a quarter into my palm.
It was almost one o’clock in the morning, already tomorrow, when I stuck the money under Harry’s pillow. Parts of the first day of school were neat. Other parts were pretty crummy, but it was a pretty nice day compared to those that came after it.
In which I have trouble getting my homework done.
My favorite teacher, next to Mrs. Montisano, taught English. He looked like an average guy with a white shirt and a big chin. His hair, pants, shoes, his skinny necktie, even his close-together eyes were dull brown, but those were the only dull things about Mr. Fisher. On the very first day, he wrote on the blackboard: “It was the best of times and the worst of times.” His chalk moved fast, squeaking and thumping, ending with five loud cracks: two quotation marks plus a period, then he thumped the blackboard with his fist. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, whipping around, “that’s the first line of the best book in the world: A Tale of Two Cities. Anybody know who wrote it?”
Only Robin, Jenny Moffat, and another kid raised their hands. I just wrote the sentence in my notebook and repeated it to myself because it was so neat. Jenny knew Charles Dickens was the one who made it up. “Correct!” said Mr. Fisher. Robin nodded, like she’d have said that, if only he’d called on her. He held up a book and smacked its cover. “Anybody know who’s going to read it?”
A bunch of us kids looked at each other and at the book. It was awfully thick.
“We’re going to read a lot,” he told us. His teeth were kind of yellow, but his grin was wide. “And we’re going to write a lot.”
Science class was hard; Robin was right about that. “I shall tell you now,” said Miss Spurgeon, “that I am a firm believer in homework.”
That went for all of the teachers, except Miss Riley who taught hideous, embarrassing P. E. She only believed in clean gym suits, white tennis shoes, and everybody taking part.
My little brothers and the baby didn’t care if I ever did any homework, but I did. Instead of drawing the view from my bedroom window for Mrs. Montisano or even just lady-doodling for myself, or reading A Tale of Two Cities and learning about London and Paris in the 1700s. Me, I was stuck in Independence in the 1900s, putting supper on the table, a diaper on the baby or a Band-Aid on a head. Instead of studying the planets, I was kissing owies. “You still have lots of blood and anyway, that’s what you get for
horsing around.” Or there I’d be, leaning over the baby’s crib and praying to God to let Velvet to be as sleepy as I was so I could do my math and read chapter 3 for Social Studies.
“Do you want this?” But Velvet turned away from the bottle I tried to poke into her pink, bawling mouth, milk and baby snot all over her face. Did she want a pacifier? No. A dry diaper? No. A burp? To be rocked? To be sung to? No, no, NO! To have her real mother? Mama’d know how to make you and me feel better. “Sorry, baby. You wanna just scream and holler until you feel like shutting up?” I guessed she meant yes.
“Look, I’m miserable too, and so sleepy I could throw up, Mama’s gone, and I’m gonna get in trouble tomorrow -- do you hear me bawling? Listen!” I scooped her up. “You hear the car? Lookee, Velvet, Daddy’s home. Pipe down! You want him to think I’m bein’ mean to you or somethin’?”
“How’d it go, Buddy? Did you have any trouble?”
That’s what Dad always asked me.
“We got along fine,” I’d say, even if it wasn’t exactly true. I gave him reports almost every night, if I was still up when he got home. For instance, “The Monroe ladies came over this evening to goo-goo-gah-gah over the baby and tell Georgie how cute he is. Miss Effie read him a book.” Mr. Herman liked to walk across the street for a game of Old Maid with Clark and the twins. Some evenings, Aunt Bevy brought food, presents, and happy Mr. Beeler with her when she came to check on us. “And Dad, Robin’s mom comes to see us too. Jimmy thinks she’s spying on us to make sure we’re not burning the house down.”
“Well, that’s nice of her. It ain’t much of a house,” he said, pushing his fingers through his stiff red hair and looking around the room, “but it’s shelter.” He brought his hand down to rest on my leg and said, “I sure hate like the blazes leaving you kids alone here every night.”
I thought maybe I’d better change the subject. “Did things go good at work?”
Daddy puffed out a long sigh, blowing out his lips, like horses do sometimes, before he said, “Well, it ain’t like I’m not grateful for the job, but I’ve had a heckuva night, I don’t mind telling you.”
One night his coming home woke me. My head popped up and a little line of drool ran from my mouth to my Science book. I’d promised myself to learn about the Earth’s crust and all of its other layers as soon as everybody quit bawling, fighting, and breaking things. Instead, my book was a slobbered-on pillow.
“Sorry, honey,” Dad whispered. “I tried to be quiet.” He had dark circles under his eyes and the tired way he walked over to Velvet’s basket reminded me of movie-zombies until he smiled at the baby.
“Hey, little lady!” he said. “You’re not supposed to be awake!” To me, he asked his trouble question while Velvet wondered, maybe, ‘Why doesn’t Dad ask me about my troubles? A diaper pin stuck me. I had to burp really bad. It was pretty in heaven, and nice, not like this place.’
“How’re you doin’, Buddy?” Dad asked me. “Okay?”
“I’m all right.” A lie. Junior high had turned into a big fat mess. It’d be too babyish to bother poor, tired
Dad about how I was already falling behind and Harry and Larry were doing better in school than I was.
“How’s school then?”
“Fine.” It’d be too pitiful to talk to Aunt Bevy or Robin about it. The only time Robin didn’t get an A was when she got A+ and, up until yesterday, I thought only stupid kids flunked tests. I asked Dad, “How was work?”
“Went okay, I suppose.”
That gave me a new thought: maybe Dad was lying to me like I was to him.
“Did you guys have any trouble ‘round here?”
I shook my head. I lied. “Huh uh.”
Was my math homework done? No. Did I understand the problems? Not even. Mr. Fisher wanted book reports from us before Halloween: “No trick-or-treating for you, ladies and gentlemen, before I have your thoughts on Mr. Dickens’ book IN my hands! Are you enjoying it, by the way?” I was, honest, but I still had 197 pages to go. Even Greg Tuck looked kind of surprised and Mrs. Montisano acted mad, like she didn’t think I was so very special anymore, when I didn’t get my complementary color chart painted on time.
When I asked Jimmy if he’d made any friends, he just pushed his glasses up on his nose and said, “My teacher told some kids on the playground they should feel sorry for me and try to be nice to me and that I was just shy. I heard her say it. And Clark socked this one kid, bigger than him even, for teasing me.” Both Jimmy’s face and his voice were mad.
“There’s this one other kid who’s new, Wally Williams, and I told him extra stuff I knew about Africa, because we were studying it? For him to know and to try and make friends? He just looked at me like I was the dumb one and now I don’t think he even likes me. Does that answer your question?”
“I guess so.” I punched his arm, friendly-like. “If I said I liked you pretty much, would that help you feel better?”
“Sort of.” Jimmy wouldn’t look at me, just kept reading the funnies in the back of the newspaper. I leaned in close to read the front page. There was another story about the four girls who’d died a couple of weeks ago.
They were my age, just about, and just because they and their families were black, somebody’d exploded a bomb in their church down in Birmingham, Alabama. Probably just as I was picking up Georgie’s nickel-for-the-offering up off the floor and Dad was making Clark stop folding his church program into a paper airplane, those girls were getting killed. ‘Poor babies,’ Mama would have said.
I sighed and looked over at our old angel picture on the wall. What if our angels were the dumb ones in heaven, I wondered, and plain old couldn’t stop awful stuff from happening?
Miss Effie and Miss Lillian looked pretty bowed down in their Sunday hats when they got home from church that day of the bombing. They went straight into their house and pulled their window shades all the way down. And the next day at school, Jenny Moffat was in a real bad mood. After our Math class when I said hi to her, she grabbed her lunch sack, banged her locker door, smacked her lock shut, and walked away like she didn’t hear me, all the while I was still trying to remember my combination. It made me feel bad. Then, as I hurried to get to Science, I began to feel worse. I’d covered it fast
with my hand, but Jenny must have seen the big, red F on my math test. How could she help it? A thought, a pretty crummy one, came into my mind: smart kids treat you different when they think you’re dumb. Did I do that, I wondered, when I got good grades all the time?
Two times last week I didn’t know the answer when Miss Spurgeon called on me. What if Robin started not wanting a stupid friend who’s sad all the time? Behind my eyes tears stung, trying to get out and run down my dumb, gloomy face. It was bad enough that Mama was gone and the world was so mean and I couldn’t get my school work done, but I felt worried about Dad, more worried than usual. Something he’d said last week -- what if he really meant it?
He was extra tired and sad, about leaving us by ourselves of an evening and missing Mama. “I don’t know, Buddy,” he sighed, staring down at his dirty hands in his lap. “Maybe we oughta just clear on out of this hard-luck house and go back to the country. What do you think?”
He needed to get his head examined was what I thought. He needed to go soak his head in a bucket, then go take a long nap, wake up, smell the coffee, and be his old self again before we all drowned in stupid gloom, for crying out loud. He needed Mama. Well, join the club, Dad! And now he wanted to move again? That sounded like a solution he’d come up with. My Dad: he was the restless kind. How much more could we stand?
“I think that’d be dumb,” was what I told him and kissed his rough cheek good night. At least he hadn’t said anything more since that night about moving away. And I was glad but then, maybe a different school wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I wasn’t doing very good in William Chrisman Junior High.
I’d wanted things to be different in junior high and now, I told my glum reflection in the bathroom mirror, I was. “Carmen Cathcart: Semi-Orphan Stupid Kid, that’s me. Motherless Babysitter Held Captive in a Rotten World.” I yanked on the blue outfit Aunt Bevy bought for me and twisted my hair into a messy braid. What if I flunked Miss Spurgeon’s class? I gulped down a bowl of cereal and grabbed my books. What if I flunked all my classes? “‘Bye, you guys,” I told everybody and hurried to meet Robin. What if, when she’s a freshman next year, I’m still a stupid eighth-grader? In my mind, I stomped on this horrid, crawly roach of an idea, as we kicked our way through piles of October leaves, Robin and me, on a regular Thursday morning.
“Carmen?” Robin gave my pigtail a yank. “Hey, you look like your brain is about six hundred miles away from your head.”
“You’re probably just nervous about the Science test today. Don’t forget: Earth’s diameter is 7,926.41 miles. At the equator, anyway. She’ll ask how big it is around the North and South Poles too, I’ll bet.”
I stopped walking, like I’d smacked into an invisible wall all of a sudden.
“There’s a test today?” Each of my feet took a step backwards from Robin, standing there looking at me, her head tilted, like I had crawdads growing out of my ears. I stepped back another step from just too many troubles. “I, uhm...” My eyes fell to my scuffed shoes. “I think I forgot 227
something.” I looked up at Robin’s mystified face. “I mean…uhm…” I shifted my grip on my Science book and notebook so I could put my hand over my stomach. “I’m sick.”
“I can’t go to school today,” I said, backing further away from her, from the noisy school up ahead, then I turned and ran down the sidewalk with Robin yelling after me, “Where’re you going? You’ll be late! Car-men!” I just ran faster and faster, away, away and Robin kept calling after me, “Come back! Where’re you going?” fainter and fainter.
I turned a corner and didn’t hear her at all, just my shoes hitting the sidewalk.