Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Novel: Chapter Two

The Matron did indeed enjoy the positive responses to the first chapter of her novel, Prairie Rat. So much so that she will periodically post chapters!! There is, as there always is, a story behind the story. Story: yours truly penned said missive, landed an agent and learned that all interested publishers wanted a revision to create a Young Adult novel instead.

She balked! She moaned and groaned! Artistic license! Freedom!

Then she wrote a SECOND novel (even better, she thinks) that nearly got published but then eventually fell by the marketing wayside.


So periodically, as she works in revising Prairie Rat into a Young Adult book, she'll be posting chapters. This is Chapter Two and is, in her humble literary opinion, the weakest part of the book.

But still. Good. Just sayin' . . . .

and Freudians among us will read the last paragraph (which is actually great writing -- wait! taking pride again! -- and know why she named her only daughter Scarlett!

Chapter Two

Mama calls our new home a townhouse. The welfare lady who stops by on our first day calls it a low-income housing unit. She arrives with a heavy briefcase and a tight schedule. Mama wades through the mess in the living room to find three sturdy boxes for Christina, Lovie, and me to sit on while we answer some questions. Miss Welfare fans herself with one sheet of paper and reads from another: “Sebastian, what is your favorite food?”

“Pizza without crust.” He smiles, smart.

“Christina, what game do you play most often?”
“Paper dolls, I guess.”

She whips through her list, asking about eating habits, friends, sleeping arrangements and play schedules in the sugary voice that teachers use. When she sets aside the paper to ask if we miss our father, I tackle that one more strategically.

“Only on our birthdays.”

“Birthdays? Not anytime else?”

“We think about him a lot on our birthdays. The rest of the time we’re really happy.” I smile, happy, hoping to present us as a tinge sad, yet fine overall because of Mama.

Mama watches the test, tense, tucked behind the tiny new kitchen counter. Even though the welfare lady seems nice, you can’t always trust people who are paid to listen up and act friendly.

We must give the right answers because Miss Welfare moves onto Mama without a glimmer of genuine interest. They fall into paperwork and procedures: forms for welfare, food stamps, college tuition, and a low-incoming housing lease. The rules for Mama’s fresh start cover the entire kitchen counter. Mama pays close attention; everything about money makes her nervous. She nods seriously at each form. She tap-taps on her box of Marlboros and rests her chin in her hand so she can bite her knuckles. Miss Welfare checks her watch.

“Wouldn’t you kids like some fresh air? Maybe meet some of your new neighbors?” She shuttles us out the door.

Christina and Lovie inspect the huge weeping willow tree a feet away from our kitchen window—the one pretty thing I saw when our first pulled up. While they argue over whether or not the bottom branches are low enough to climb, I edge up to the house and listen. Miss Welfare doesn’t sound so sing-songy now.

“Police investigations tend to ignite tempers. I don’t mean to imply that your husband is the threat. I worry about the people we haven’t tracked down. Safety would be one reason to consider foster care. Stability would be another. Sometimes even the best parents need help. Let’s just keep our options open.”

I inch up on my toes to peek in—too high! I picture Mama reeling through her options, the back of her hand pressed against her mouth, tricked into some horrible decision. Panicked, I race through my repertoire of saints to figure out which one would oversee foster care—Jude, Teresa, Margaret, Bernard or Francis? Uncertain who is specifically assigned to endangered children, the current emergency requires me to move right up to God Himself: please make her say no, thank you. We don’t require that kind of help.

“We’ll be fine on our own. Fine.” Mama’s voice trails out the window, low and unconvincing.

My numb toes give out. I tumble backwards, loudly. When Mama doesn’t dash out, I sit on the back steps to recover. Daddy used to perch on this same spot in the old house, and toss crumbs at our private zoo: squirrels, chipmunks, birds, the occasional skunk and raccoon.

Mama will never talk business with children. Daddy likes to clarify. Let me clarify this for you, he’d say on the back steps, his hand filled with bread crusts, his voice gravely from too many cigarettes and twenty-five years in Jersey City. I’m not the bad guy, Rosie, just a guy who made a few mistakes. One of those mistakes was loading empty suitcases on an airplane and swearing to the insurance company that they were stuffed full of jewelry. Tug at that weightless handle and act shocked: where’s my wife’s diamond bracelet? Great-Grandma’s jade peacock pin? These are family heirlooms, not to mention all the clothing we bought for the trip! The insurance company pays you back, although if you do this too many times with the same airline, you get caught.

Some mistakes even Daddy couldn’t spin into pleasant stories. These I learned about at night, when Mama belonged to Daddy. I’d slip out of bed and into the hallway to hear Daddy explain that he didn’t steal the cars or the jewelry; he’d simply helped a friend unload. Mama would arm herself with an outline of Daddy’s sins: whisky, bad loans, and ugly friends. While every bit of Daddy’s business scared Mama, the drinking and gambling worried her the most. She sobbed and threatened in a voice saved for Daddy, different than the one she used with us, even when she was angry. She would tally up his losses and lock the doors. In over our heads, cried Mama bitterly.

We still are. Miss Welfare struts out and surveys our yard as if she owned it. Mission accomplished, she marches to her car while Mama waits anxiously for her to leave; the black pockets under her eyes are now permanent. She stares at the space where Miss Welfare’s car was for a long time, then talks to me without turning.

“What were you doing?” she asks.


“Maybe listening to my private conversation?”

“No.” I slide my legs against the steps to hide the dirt from my fall.

“Don’t bother lying to me, Rose. I’m well acquainted with that habit. Let’s hope that isn’t something you’ve inherited.”

She tells me to get upstairs and unpack boxes in my bedroom. I edge far away from the shadow she casts against the door.

I leave the unpacking to Christina and curl up on my bed with Gone With the Wind. Downstairs, the steady sound of Mama’s work begins again. Boxes scrape the floor and cupboards slam. Although the house is noisy, there’s a strange silence too. The phone never rings. Nobody fights. I never hear the familiar sound of Daddy, waiting for darkness to whisper by the back door. Mama doesn’t sing old Broadway tunes or call us in the kitchen for snacks or stories. All I hear are the flat, gray sounds of Mama setting up the household, alone.

Monday morning we drive to a squat brown building downtown, where we stand in one line for food stamps and another for our first welfare check. The place is packed full of loud children and their mothers. When Christina takes a step toward two girls talking in a corner, Mama pulls her back.

“This isn’t the social hour,” she says. “This is business.”

The only man I see is the one who hands Mama her check with a smile. “Nice to meet you,” he says.

Mama turns away. “Not really,” she mutters. We’re the only ones who hear.

We climb into our rusty maroon station wagon with a bright red ‘Impeach Nixon’ bumper sticker on the back and head to The Bargain Basement for boots and two winter coats. Now that Christina’s as tall as I am, my old stuff can’t be passed down. Inside the store, Mama surveys my sister’s new height. Maybe we should be feeding you less, she jokes, in a way that’s a little too calculating for comfort. She carefully counts out her money at the counter. Our next errand is to Mama’s new college to pick up books.

There are no other children in the hot, crowded store. Uncertain for the first time all day, Mama frowns into her list of required texts and scans the signs above the shelves, trying to map out a route through the throng. I hang onto Lovie and Christina as we weave through the tight rows of books and people. Seems like everybody knows each other, what with all the hugging and handshakes and laughter. Mama shoves our way through clusters of talking students, occasionally tracking down a clerk for directions to the psychology section, or to where the math books are stored. She has to practically yell, that’s how noisy the place is. Most of the people chatting in the long checkout line are not only cheerier than Mama, they’re a lot younger, too. She stares straight ahead, quiet in the midst of the back-to-school party.

I keep a tight grip on Lovie; a crowd like this could suck a child right in. He taps on Mama’s leg. Snickers, he pleads. Lovie sees the candy display at the register.

“Can I have a candy bar, Mama?” Lovie asks.

Mama doesn’t answer because she’s crying. Silent tears drip down her face. The two girls behind us in line stop joking. The cashier leans across the counter. “Are you all right, honey?”

Mama nods and pays, hurries us out that door.

She cries all the way to the grocery store. I rack my brain for what we did or who set her off. Christina whispers, what’s wrong, what’s wrong? No one can answer her.

“I don’t need candy,” says Lovie.

Mama sniffs in the parking lot while she sorts through the money-saving coupons clipped from the Sunday paper. She still hasn’t spoken to us when she opens her car door. Lovie tries to bolt out. Mama holds up her hand.

“No. I’m going alone.”

Once inside, she must scan for the lowest price on every item or else purposely takes her time. Maybe both. When she finally unlocks the door, we’re crabby and cold; she’s composed.

“Takes lots of patience to be poor, doesn’t it?” asks Mama with a strange smile. Easy to say when you’re the one strolling around in a temperature controlled building. She fires up the ignition without another word, as if crying uncontrollably and locking us in cars was something she did every day.

We drive to our new neighborhood, which is at the end of a long cracked road that leads away from the scrubbed lawns in the nice parts of Mankato. Pass ancient gas stations, empty hotels, and junkyards until you smell oil, the signal that you’ve hit the canning factory at the top of Harper Street. Mama turns left on Harper, and drives down the hot line of thin new trees, small dingy houses, and mobiles home that have been parked permanently. We pull up to pea green U-shaped housing projects with the giant weeping willow on one side.

Unit One at the top of the U building is our new home. Seven front doors face the sidewalk running down the center of the rambling structure. Seven back doors open into tiny small squares of private, treeless back yards. Our lucky position means the bonus of a side yard that has the willow.

Two skinny boys in matching t-shirts play with cars on the sidewalk near their front door. While Christina and I wobble under heavy brown bags, Lovie circles slowly in their direction, eating Quisp right out of the box.

“Can we say hello?” he wonders. “Please!”

Mama assesses weighs their dirty faces and scraggly hair against the ease of putting away groceries without us.

“A few minutes,” she says.

Before long, Tim and Tom Olson are filling us in on the Prairie—that’s our neighborhood’s name, they say. Eight-year old twins, they live in unit seven and point out the landmarks that mark the four corners of the Prairie: the canning factory, the Baptist Church at the other end of Harper Street, the gravel pit by the river, and an old Mini-Mart that sells canned food and milk.

“For anything else, you need a car,” announces Tom.

“We ain’t got one,” adds Tim, helpfully. “Ma takes the Frankie’s truck. The Frankies live in number three.”

Correcting grammar is rude unless you’re family. I let that one pass. “Where does your father work?” I ask them.

“Ma cans at Castle’s. Everybody does.”

No father. Next question. I feel like Miss Welfare. “Do you go to that church, too?”

“Sure, everybody does,” grins Tom.

“You’re Baptist?” marvels Christina. The first real live Baptists we’ve ever met keep grinning.

We grill them. They don’t know about Limbo or Purgatory, have never heard of the Holy Spirit. We ask them lots of questions to make sure this isn’t a trick. The boys barely look up from the Hot Wheels that they push around with Lovie.

“This is serious, Tom. If Tim was in Purgatory, how would you get him out?” demands Christina.

He shrugs. “Dunno,” he says, amazingly unalarmed.

Dunno, they both answer again and again, even when I ask a simple question about Saint Joan: tell me who dressed like a boy and was burned and betrayed?

They shrug their shoulders in the exact same way. When Christina breaks the news that they can never go to Heaven, they don’t believe us. I’m sad to see them so certain they’re safe—playing car wash with trucks as if nothing bad is ahead when we know better.

Religion isn’t their only blind spot. We find out that the twins don’t know about protestors in jail because of Viet Nam or Watergate or anything else that Mama used to worry about before Daddy took up all of her time. Tom even has to think hard to come up with the name of our President.

“Nixon?” he asks hopefully.

Tim points to a bunch of boys looping banana seat bikes down the center of the street. “There’s Sean Casey and his friends. Better get on their good side.” The boys race by without looking in our direction.

When it comes to the neighborhood, the twins are the experts. You three are rats, they tell us. Land on the Prairie, and you have a reputation to uphold—tough like Sean Casey. When we hit Franklin Elementary, we’ll be expected to stick to our own kind. There’s a pecking order on the Prairie too, where kids who live in pea green housing units are lower than the regular rats. Everybody calls the townhouses chicken coops, says Tim, even the adults who walk by and stare as if they lived that much better one block away.

“Rats in a coop!” laughs Tom. They race around the yard, giddy with the prospect of showing us how far we’ve sunk. Even in the late afternoon light, I suddenly notice that Tim and Tom could use a good soap bath in addition to the obvious problem of haircuts. By the time Mama opens the door and says, time to eat, I’ve discovered how familiar the twins are with swear word, too.

Never trust a four year old. At dinner, Lovie starts babbling about the twins before a single bit of ravioli touches his fork. Here I thought he wasn’t paying attention. Although she should know better, Christina joins in, too so by the time Mama’s pushed her plate away, she has a more or less accurate grasp of our new neighbors.

“Don’t get too friendly. We’re visitors here. This is temporary. The people around here can’t see beyond that factory, which is where those boys will end up someday. You three will have a real education,” she says firmly.

“Why is the Prairie bad?” wonders Christina.

“You can’t judge people by geography,” declares Mama. “But you can tell by hair and grammar. There must be a handful of children around here whose parents tend to their appearance and language. Find them. They can be your friends.”

As long as I can remember, Mama has trimmed Christina and Lovie’s hair once a month. Christina has a pixie cut, which suits her. My hair hangs down the middle of my back so only my bangs require tidying. Style may vary, but rules about proper language apply uniformly: says gonna and you have to stand stock still and repeat ‘going to’ five times, loudly enough for Mama to hear. We never drop our endings and double negatives aren’t tolerated in our house, not ever. That’s a tradition that Grandma started; she scraped every cent to give her five children Catholic schools, college, and better lives. Now it’s Mama’s turn to do the same.

I don’t need friends. I have Scarlett and the willow and night. Scarlett’s snapping eyes and quick wit allow her to poo-poo all of her neighbors, no matter where she lives. Nights, I trudge through battles with her, my bed tucked underneath the window that opens into the willow. Nights, I have her courage. I close my eyes to the Prairie and lean, as far as I dare, out of the window. Nights, I lose myself in that sweet tree smell and the steady, smooth breeze of autumn.

At first, I think we’re the same, only without Daddy and in a different place. We sail into our new schools. Even though Franklin Elementary is a public school and I’m used to Catholic, nothing negative stands out, except for Scott Janke. He winks at me on the first day. The look on his face makes my stomach turn—a small churn that I don’t pay much attention to, and that’s my first mistake in fifth grade. My teacher is Mrs. Tesch. She’s older than Mama and very cheery, introducing us to each other and the school rules in a style that’s much more upbeat than the nuns had.

There are two other kids from the Prairie in our class, Sean Casey and Carrie Thurmon. From the minute I step on the bus, I see that Sean spells trouble. If we’re all on our best behavior for the first few days, then Sean’s idea of a good start means bullying his way to the long backseat of the bus and snickering at teachers. The first free minute we get at recess, Sean and Scott saunter off with a pack of sixth grade boys from our neighborhood to kick dirt and map out territory.

Carrie has powdery freckles, shiny brown eyes and hair that her mother pulls back, tight, into a ponytail. She quickly becomes my friend, party because the twins are right—Rats do stick together. But I also like her because her hair stays tidy and her Dad sells refrigerators at Sears instead of canning corn down the street. Being Baptist is her one shortcoming. She proves her friendship right off the bat by inviting me to a kids’ night at her church called Awana, which I have to turn down, politely, in order to not hurt her feelings. I want to start with a clean, Catholic slate at my new church.

Christina and Lovie settle into school and daycare nicely. Christina’s teacher is Mr. Bjork. Since we’ve never seen a man teach before—unless you count priests—we’re all excited to see what will happen in third grade. I don’t know what Grandma was worried about, because Lovie adores the young mother-types at his daycare, where he stuffs his face with ginger cookies at snack break and spends the rest of the day playing with more toys than I’ve ever seen in one place.

We never find out what Mama’s school is like. She runs out of steam the minute college begins. After her first long day of classes, Mama stretches an old crib sheet across the couch. “Don’t want to stain the one good piece of furniture we have left,” she says quietly. She spends the evening watching TV and reading the paper. Her books sit on the counter, untouched.

Mama stops cooking and cleaning, too. By mid-week, we’ve caught on: menus are limited to a can or the freezer. We eat TV dinners and soup. Say you’re still hungry, and Mama hands over a bag of chips and a warning: food stamps don’t stretch far. But that’s only part of the problem. The other part is Mama—Mama, who used to fuss over homemade pudding and crunchy baked bread, now treats canned corn like dinner.

Clutter spreads quickly through the tiny downstairs, which is about as big as our old living room. Comment on the cramped quarters to Mama, and she’ll stop talking to you altogether. There’s an alcove kitchen, a rectangle space that’s half dining room and half living room, and a small hallway leading upstairs to the three box-size bedrooms and a bathroom. Since Mama’s not interested in cleaning, mail piles on the table and stacks of coloring books, crayons, clothes, and baseball cards grow in every corner.

Lovie races through the tiny messy house as if he was still roaming wild outside the way he used to. When he turns curtains into a superman cape and jumps off the kitchen table, Mama turns up the volume on the TV. I’m the one handing band-aids out this week. Christina occupies herself with knitting; she gravitates toward the couch to purl and watch the Brady Bunch with Mama. Me, I can’t focus on television shows because of Scarlett, who just lost Bonnie, the one person she truly loved. How can I care about Jan going to the prom, when Scarlett is dying inside?

Mama doesn’t actually care about Jan, either. She’s killing time until the news. Then she sits up and listens because politics are so important: an election even brought Mama and Daddy together. They met at a Young Democratic Farmer Labor Union rally, when Mama had just started Mankato State University and Daddy was finishing. He was smart, a real leader. I came along quickly enough that people asked questions. Once Mama showed me the certificates: marriage and birth, exactly nine months apart. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, she said. Mama and Daddy fell in love over civil rights and Viet Nam, but Watergate was their last passion. Before he left, they poured through the morning paper to argue happily about who was guilty of what and when the downfall would begin. When Daddy wasn’t around, Mama took up the cause alone. She served dinner in front of the evening news and taught us the names of the famous men, pointed to the building where the break-in happened. There is a huge world outside of this family, she would tell us. I may not see much of it, but you will. Sebastian, she would call out, sit up closer and watch this. She held him on her lap and guided him through the complexities.

Nixon finally inspires Mama again. Friday night—after a slow sleepy week—she jumps at something the news anchor reports and turns up the volume.

“Sebbie,” she calls. “Bring me the newspaper and the scissors.”

She laughs out loud when she finds the article, and cuts out two columns. When Christina asks her what’s up, Mama reads out loud. Dull stuff: taxes, court orders, the Vice-President.

“Looks like Agnew will be the first one ousted. Now here’s some good news!” she grins. Mama empties one of her brown college folders and slips the article in. “The betrayal will go right here.”

We spend the rest of the evening revisiting old newspapers piled near the television. Everything about Watergate gets clipped and filed. Our hero is John Sirica, the judge who has the power to repair damage. Mama says she just wishes she’d been organized enough to start keeping track earlier, when people first sat up and took notice. This may not be the rough and tumble play of the old days when Mama built forts and climbed tree, but she talks to us and lets us take turns cutting. We ask more questions than we really care to, since this is the peppiest we’ve seen her all week.

“The whole country is waiting for these crooks to go,” she says. “This is history. Remember everything.”

We do. Until the end comes, Mama explains, we wait. We spend another week watching the world fall apart each evening on our fuzzy black and white screen. Mama stops asking about homework and doesn’t want to be interrupted during the news. She spends hours with the newspaper but never touches her schoolbooks. I make the peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Fires burn out of control in California, forgotten P.O.W.’s languish in Viet Nam, Russia builds bigger bombs, and Elizabeth Taylor divorces again. Take one at a time, Mama says, and the troubles seem small. Put them together, and you see everything’s going to pieces. Entropy, she calls it. I don’t bother to get the dictionary because I can feel out that meaning myself.

The Sunday we’re slated to start St. Anthony’s, I wake up guilty—what kind of girl forgets all about prayer unless there’s Mass or a crisis? Before I let my feet slide to the floor, I say ten Hail Mary’s to tide me over and promise: I will do better from this minute on.

Our best clothes have been neatly spread across the couch, but there’s no sign of Mama. Lovie and Christina already watch TV.

“I want pancakes,” complains Lovie. We’re used to something tasty and sweet on Sundays. In the old life, Mama topped blueberry waffles with whipped cream, and sprinkled cinnamon or brown sugar on thick French toast. I miss those meals.

“Where’s Mama?” wonders Christina. “We shouldn’t be late the first day.”

I take control. “You two get dressed. Don’t worry about breakfast.”

Since I’m not allowed to use the stove, I put two slices of Wonder bread in the toaster, butter them and slab on a thick layer of maple syrup to make French toast. I practically hold my nose through the whole process: the refrigerator is full of soggy leftovers, brown apples, and sour milk. Nearly every cupboard has one moldy surprise inside. Large sticky spots dot the floor.

Our makeshift breakfast isn’t bad until Lovie’s tantrum. He’ll sit at the table and eat my cooking, but he won’t obey a simple command.

“Let me tie your shoes,” I say.

“Only Mama can tie my shoes,” he yells. The long laces flop and trip him as he dodges out of my reach, jumping from couch to chair and back again, yelling: “I want Mama.”

“Lovie! Come here and let a big sister give you a hand.”

“My name is Sebastian! Only Mama can tie my shoes.” He screams and leaps into a pile of clothes growing in a corner. “Don’t call me Lovie,” he orders.

He wails for Mama loud and long, until I’m thinking he needs a nice swift smack. Christina’s no help. She leaves the breakfast mess on the table and starts knitting, right there, next to a lake of spilled syrup.

If hitting a four year old is a sin, I don’t care. I yank down those green plaid pants and whack him twice on his bare butt. Now we really need Mama—what with Lovie sobbing underneath Baby Blue and Christina sitting in maple syrup. I think of Scarlett, who can’t be bothered with babies and whiners. A new power fuels me into someone strong enough to walk away from a child crying and march upstairs to see Mama.

I creak back her bedroom door—there she is, beautiful and soft for Sunday, sitting on her bed and staring out the window. She has on a filmy flowered blouse with a bright pink skirt and has painted her lips the same color. Everything’s a little used, she liked to say in the old life, but I wear it well, don’t I? She does. I hope someday my hair curls coppery black, my arms grow smooth and long and perfect.

“Mama?” I say.

She doesn’t answer, won’t turn. Look closer, and you see red streaks from crying. The weight of her silent set shoulders makes the room too wide to cross, the air too thick to breath freely.


I see her jaw move with the effort to swallow. She whispers in the voice saved for Daddy: where do I hide the children, can we make a fresh start, what if they come when you’re gone? I know her night voice, the sound of fear.

“Rose, go downstairs.” She leans against the wall.

I tiptoe away, afraid of making her worse. Christina doesn’t ask what happened—one look at me and she says, “Lovie, want to watch cartoons?” She lures him out from the blanket with gum. They watch Bug Bunny quietly, one cartoon and then another. Just when I think we’ll never make Mass, Lovie finally forgives me and Mama walks downstairs.

“Let’s go,” she says softly. Her face has been composed into something similar to her old self, calm and ordinary. Now I know how well my mother can wear a mask.

We step into a bright September day that’s sharper than I expected, the sun burning into the red and yellowing leaves. I walk into the smell and color, the end of summer’s green life, and remember last year when autumn meant fresh starts: another school year, a pressed plaid skirt, and the scent of new loafers and boxed lunches.

The skinny priest who presides at St. Anthony’s is barely Mama’s height. Father Nick has bright red hair, freckles, and a suspiciously friendly smile. He lingers outside after Mass, sipping a Coke and laughing with the parishioners—something old Father Gregory, with his strained face and stingy habits, would never do. Mama said that she found us a church for these changed times, one with guitar Masses and nuns who don’t wear habits. I’m not sure I like the slick happy atmosphere. I can’t believe God appreciates such gaiety.

Father Nick hands Lovie a sucker and he’s won over, that quick. He tries a different tactic with Christina and me, complimenting us on our names.

“Rose of Lima! You and your mother share an unusual saint.” Father Nick squats down to my eye level and squints at some pain in his knees.

Mama’s rules for polite conversation with priests limit us to: ‘yes Father, no Father, fine Father.’ So I’m surprised to hear myself say that I don’t care much for my name.

“I like Stephanie or Marguerite or Anna-Maria. Long names you read in books.” Saying them out loud gives me a chill; they’re that perfect.

“Those names are pretty all right. However, Rose carries on a tradition.” He smiles and straightens toward the next person waiting to talk. “Tell you what—we’ll be sure to touch on Rose of Lima while you’re preparing for the sacrament of Confession.”

In the old life, Mama kneeled and prayed in the chapel on Saturday mornings, serious as the nuns with rosaries. When her turn came, Mama went into the box—a coffin standing up straight. They put Grandpa in a coffin, covered him with dirt, and now he’s gone forever. Everybody cried. Saturdays, I’d hold my breath and pray for Mama’s return, until she slid into the pew to say lots of Hail Mary’s. That box never made her happy: she often cried right in front of the other ladies and nuns, who pretended not to notice.

During the car ride home, I mull over strategies for avoiding that fate. My stand-bys, mysterious new allergies and sudden illness, don’t strike me as effective long-term solutions for Confession. Maybe I could launch a letter writing campaign? Confess through the mail, or something. Get myself sent back a year in Sunday School? I could ask to repeat my First Communion, pretend I didn’t fully understand its significance. Priests love that sort of drama. I’ll check my book for ideas; Scarlett manages to avoid all religious obligations.

“Rose? Are you listening?” Mama interrupts.

“Oh, sorry. What?”

“I have a surprise lined up for this afternoon.”

Daddy. Before I can stop myself, I see the quarter-sized bald patch on top of his head and the neat gap between his front teeth. Christina has the same space. Braces, Mama thinks. I like my sister’s smile.

“A pony!” Lovie screams.

“Better,” replies Mama. Her hands are white around the steering wheel. “You’re all in the YMCA Big Brother and Sister program. Lovie will get a brother. Christina and Rose get sisters.”

I know all about this charity set-up, have seen the fatherless children begging on TV. Anyway, why would I need some rented out sibling? I am the big sister.

“My stomach hurts.” Christina’s voice wobbles convincingly.

“Too bad,” says Mama, “since they’ll be here this afternoon. This will be a short visit, just to get to know one another.”

“I don’t want to get to know anybody.” I protest. “Aren’t I too old for this?”

“You don’t have a choice. Signing you up for this program was the social worker’s suggestion. We’re part of the system now,” she says crisply. “We need to take what we’re offered and act appreciative.”

“I’d like a big brother,” offers Lovie.

Nobody talks the rest of the way home.

Christina and I retreat to our room and survey each other’s unhappiness. “Let’s play Helen Keller,” she suggests.

“You’re the teacher,” I say quickly.

We can never remember the teacher’s name since she doesn’t matter. Helen’s the star. I’m Helen. The trick to becoming Helen is to be as alone as she was. Like hers, my long hair flies crazily and folds me inside like a screen. I squeeze my eyes shut and mutter gibberish loud enough that hearing is impossible. I hurl myself around the room, grunting and waving my arms. I take this flailing seriously because if Christina can slow me down long enough to rub words into my skin, I’m saved. Then she gets to be Helen. She rarely gets the chance. I’m good at throwing myself into the darkness of motion and my own voice spinning and humming alone.

My reign ends when Christina’s yells break through the darkness. “Rose! Stop! Mama’s calling us.”

I open my eyes to Christina looming over me with a comb. We go downstairs to meet our big sisters.

Mama is in the only chair. Jim, Amy, and Colleen sit closely together on the edge of the couch. They have white teeth and skin that shines from two parents and twenty years of good nutrition. None too politely, Jim surveys the stacks of newspapers at his feet, the jumbles of books, toys, and clothing. The conclusions that whip across his face make me angry.

Mama is as strained and nervous as she was with Miss Welfare. “The children are lucky to have such wonderful new friends. Thank you so much for coming,” she says. Each new helpmate takes a turn chattering while Mama gnaws at the edge of her thumb. She can’t wait to see us out the door, pretending to be happy for our good fortune. She waves from the doorway as Christina, Lovie and I each climb into a strange car and drive away.

Colleen goes to college like Mama, except she has a nicer car and more money. At the ice cream store, she steers me toward expensive sundaes and banana splits.

“You can get two scoops on that cone, you know. Maybe we should get an Archie comic book for later?” She smiles kindly, but she’s nothing special—not with the bland blonde hair cut in a pageboy.

We head to the park to eat our cones, where I stick to Mama’s rules for polite conversation: yes, no, fine, thank you. Ice cream on a windy day is a bad idea—so much dirt sticks to my drippy Peppermint bonbon cone that I have to throw the mess away. Colleen tries hard to be fun. She kicks at dry fallen leaves and tells me all about the farm she grew up on. She’s studying to be a child psychologist some day. I may not be completely clear right now, but am sharp enough to see that I’m practice for her career. I keep my head low and my thoughts private: Mama home with nobody to talk to and Christina confused about who’s in charge of sisters.

“Time to go home yet?” I ask when Colleen wonders, what should we do next? She drops me off in front of the townhouse, full of promises about the fun we’ll have next Sunday.

Inside, Mama’s not pining the way I imagined. She’s cutting apart the Sunday paper in search of articles for her file.

“Colleen is going to be a psychologist.” I can’t remember a single other defining quality.

“I can’t talk about her.” Mama clips angrily. I see that Colleen is stamped onto Sunday afternoons forever, no matter how unhappy that makes us. I head upstairs to finish Scarlett’s story.

“Rose!” Mama hands me the thick book that’s on the table next to the paper. I recognize the cover—The Lives of the Saints.

“The oldest daughter in our family is always Rose Theresa. I hope yours will be, too. Maybe if you understand the tradition, you’ll appreciate your name a little more.”

In the old life, mention of our namesakes meant a story. Mama made the saints real, their feats connected to our everyday lives. Negotiate a fight and model good manners? You’re like Margaret of Scotland. If you don’t want to wipe your baby brother’s nose, think of Catherine of Siena starving herself and healing the sick—see if that changes your tune. As for Rose of Lima, I already know about the sacrifices she made. Chosen by God when she was still a young girl, she left her family to live in a small hut, sleep on nails and eat thin gruel. God filled her instead of food. Rose endured demons, surviving their torture as proof that she was genuinely Jesus’ bride. When people didn’t appreciate her devotion, she straightened her chin and plowed straight ahead anyway. Rose didn’t need any reassurance except God’s. My name links me to miracles. Mama made that happen.

But I don’t hear a story from Mama today. She places the book in my hands before turning away, back to the table. “I hope you read the chapter on Rose of Lima.”

I take the saint stories to my room and tuck the book under my pillow next to Gone With the Wind. Scarlett is my new favorite name. I won’t tell anyone that because Scarlett says damn and only cares about hell in moments of extreme guilt. It’s probably wrong to respect her for that.

Late that night, warm in my domed lilac quilt, I turn on the flashlight to learn more about my namesake. I add her to my heroines, the beautiful girl who found God and left her body behind. If she had lovely hair, she cut it. Long perfect fingers rubbed in lime and shining peach skin scarred with pepper. Good-bye to her family, too. Rose finds a small hut for silence, wraps a throbbing thorn crown across her head and a spiked metal chain around her waist. Jesus will be here and she abandons herself to him, her soul flooding with extra hope to offer those who aren’t as strong or brave, the ones who can’t see what they’re missing. The first Rose trembles before sleep, afraid: her bed is shards of glass and sharpened stones, thorns plucked from her crown. The first saint of the New World drifts through me, and my bed is light and smooth, soft with the sounds of Mama downstairs and the willow moaning low beside me. There’s another world at night, where words don’t matter and Atlanta burns thorns and babies, where Jesus speaks to those who will hear and the ache and stab melt into the stories of sweet, colored sleep.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Marathon Matron

The Matron made a mistake.

Monday and Tuesday, she spent nearly seven hours transporting children, largely due to this:

Scarlett's theater schedule.

5:30 am: Get up and get ready for HWCBN to awake
6:00 am: Offer HWCBN some food and get ready for bus
6:30: Bye! Off he goes to the bus stop!
6:40 am: Frantically try to work
7:45: Wake up Merrick and tend to his needs
8:45: Wake up Scarlett and tend to her needs (considerable)
8:50: Drop off Merrick at school
9:30: Leave home again with Scarlett
10:00: Drop off Scarlett at theatre
1:00: Return to theatre for hour and a half lunch break which requires parental supervision
2:30: Leave theatre and frantically try to work on lap top from nearby coffee shop
3:30: Pick up Merrick
4:30: Pick up HWCBN after debate (why isn't there an after school activity bus?!)
4:50: Deposit boys at home with instructions for homework, walking the 55 lb. 9 month old puppy and picking up his gifts in the backyard.
5:30: Return to theatre to retrieve Scarlett
6:00: Deposit Scarlett at SECOND theatre because her current shows overlap (and never, ever again)
6:30: Arrive home to make dinner
6:40: Order takeout and clean instead
7:00: Bring HWCBN to a friend's house to exchange computer goodies
7:40: Return home and frantically try to work
8:30: Leave to get Scarlett from theatre
9:20: Return home with said child and put everyone to bed, including Merrick who is shell-shocked from the new schedule
10:00: Small lecture from HWCBN and over-scheduling Scarlett and her future failure in school, and therefore, in life.
10:50: Scarlett's psychological collapse because one of her shows requires her to be an 8 year old Chilean girl who speaks only Spanish. So she's not only acting, but acting in a foreign language (those years of elementary school alphabet recitations seemed not to do much).
12:30 am: Exhaustion overtakes psychological collapse and Scarlett finally sleeps
12:45 am: Wine.

That's where she's been. More of the same today!

Thank goodness there's a whole novel to anthologize. . . look for chapter two tomorrow!