(Still from independent film Tomboys!, 2004, by Julie Akeret and Christian McEwen)
This is another short story from my "vault". I wrote it in around 1993. It is fiction but only barely covered by the thinnest of veneers. This story is true. The names of the main characters have been changed to protect their identity. At the time of the events, 1964, I was eight, soon to turn nine.
In 1993 on a trip to Irving, I went looking for the apartment complex in the story, the Riviera Apartments, and found they were still standing and occupied. However, they were so crime-riddled I was afraid to get out of my car and enter the courtyard. That apartment name no longer turns up on searches, so I think it is either torn down or renamed.
The newspaper articles referenced at the end of the story are in my possession, and I quoted the lines from them without alteration except for the personal names.
(Drawing of Riviera Apartments, Irving, Texas, circa 1964; click on image to enlarge)
Peggy's family moved from Midland to Irving, Texas during the Easter vacation after President Kennedy's assassination. This move, like always, came on suddenly, but for once Peggy's mother didn't bitch every second that she spent packing. This was going to be their last move. Peggy's daddy was going to be trained in Irving. Because of this training, he would stop being a field crew chief and work instead in an office at headquarters.
Her daddy couldn't stop talking about how wonderful the new job would be. Her mother walked away from him to fill another box. He sat Peggy down at the kitchen table with a pencil and one of his Turner Drill Bit notepads. He quickly covered several sheets with sketches. He spent half an hour explaining analog processing. Peggy eventually said she understood just to keep him from being disappointed.
Her parents sold the trailer they had called home for four years. Peggy didn't think she would miss it. She didn't think she would miss Midland, either. She had lived here all of third grade so far, longer than usual, but she had made no friends. She never made friends. She was stick-thin with greasy hair and dark rings around her eyes. Her clothes were cheap. She was the smartest kid wherever they ended up. Other kids hated her.
Peggy wondered what would happen to the grave of her youngest brother, Samuel, who had been born and died that January. He was buried in Babyland at a cemetery discordantly surrounded by flat rows of irrigated crops. She wanted to ask about him. But the only person in the family who spoke of Samuel was her mother; the rest of them were supposed to just listen.
Her mother would say, "God help me, I never wanted that baby. If I'd had someone to turn to, maybe I would have realized I had toxemia in time to save him." Or "I died on that table, my womb burst open and I bled to death. I floated up to a corner and then out of the hospital, and I was the happiest I've ever been. But my mother appeared before me and told me I had to come back because I had two little ones who still needed me. The doctor said I started breathing again after five minutes."
When her mother said this, Peggy felt guilty for needing her here when she clearly wanted to go. Peggy's brother Steven, sixteen, would get up and slam out of the house. Peggy's younger brother, Donald, would sidle up and clutch her hand, whispering, "Mama's not dead?"
Peggy didn't tell anyone at school that she was leaving. This was standard procedure. They just packed up and went. The new school would send for the records from the old one. Peggy had learned the hard way two years earlier that this was the rule. She had told their friendly neighborhood grocer about an upcoming move; he had wisely demanded payment of the family grocery tab from her father before it was too late. Her father had screamed at her to keep her mouth shut. It turned out to be a smart way to live in general, not just at moving time.
But now they were going to stay somewhere, a home town. And Irving had an extra bonus: Peggy's Aunt Dale and Uncle Ash lived there, with her cousins. Girl cousins, including Terry who was exactly her age. Aunt Dale was the older sister of Peggy's mother, and Peggy loved her best. Uncle Ash was never happier than when surrounded by women and girls, and he made a lot of money selling women's clothes. Their house was big, comfortable, and full of food.
When they got to Irving, they stayed with Uncle Ash and Aunt Dale a while. Peggy got to sleep in her cousin Terry's room in a twin bed. Terry had every Dr. Seuss book there was, and read them again with Peggy even though they were kinda baby books by now. Steven was put in the attic, but Aunt Dale insisted that Donald stay down near the grown-ups, so Peggy didn't have to worry about Steven getting at Donald.
Peggy's mother changed completely around Aunt Dale. She looked younger, prettier, and could be persuaded to play with the kids. Late at night, when Peggy woke up to go pee, she could hear her mother and Aunt Dale in the living room still talking, their words laying across each other like fabric loops in the potholders she had woven for gifts one Christmas. When she peeked into the room, she would see them sitting at either end of a couch, their feet up between them, one lamp coning light down onto them and the air silver with smoke from their cigarettes. Once, she saw her mother begin to cry, harsh sounds jerking at her chest as they came out of her frozen mouth. But Peggy went on back to bed: Aunt Dale was Mama’s big sister, and would take care of her.
Aunt Dale cooked nice meals and generally fixed Peggy's plates for her. One evening, she put a spoonful of green beans in between the fried chicken and the potatoes. Peggy took her plate to the den where the kid's card table had been set up near the TV, and she ate everything. When she brought her plate back to the kitchen, her mother exclaimed, "You never ate those green beans!" Peggy nodded warily. Her mother wheeled on Aunt Dale. "What did you do to get that child to eat green beans? She won't touch them for me."
Aunt Dale was surprised. "I didn't know. If I'd known, I'd not have put them on her plate." She smiled at Peggy. "You don't have to eat anything to you don't want to, you hear?"
Peggy nodded again. But she continued to polish off anything Aunt Dale gave her.
After settling into his training program, Peggy's daddy went out looking for an apartment they could live in during the last of the school year while they hunted for a house to buy. After his training, he would be making enough money for them to afford a house. He came back saying he had found a place near where he would work. When her mother found out he had already put down a deposit, without showing it to her first, she was furious in her usual old way, shrieking at her father no matter what he said. Aunt Dale and Uncle Ash were out of the house. Peggy went into Terry's bedroom and got out Horton. She had seen a cartoon made of this book.
The apartments turned out to be nice. They were in the shape of a square, and in the middle of the square there was a pool, a playground, a picnic table, and a laundry room. Their apartment came with a storage area big enough to hold all the things they didn't need right away. When Peggy and her mother went to look at it, she could feel her mother holding back anything good to say.
Peggy went looking for her bedroom. She found only two rooms besides the kitchen and the living room. She was afraid to pester her mother, but more afraid to be quiet if it meant she would wind up in a room with Steven.
"Where's my bed?" she asked. Peggy's mother was startled, and look at her daddy for a minute.
"Well, you know how you are always wanting to share a room with Donald? We thought we'd separate the bunk beds and put you both in this big bedroom here, up front. Daddy and I will take the back bedroom."
What about Steven? Maybe he would go somewhere else. Her mother went on, "Steven can sleep on the couch and use the hall closet for his clothes and things. He'll be busy with high school, and I have a feeling he won't be here much, after he sees his surprise."
Peggy's daddy used money they got from selling the trailer put down on a brand new copper-colored Comet sedan for Steven. Steven took his parents for a ride. He offered to take Peggy and Donald out to get a popsicle. Donald said okay, but Peggy took his hand and said they needed to unpack. Steven called them idiots and left.
Peggy put away her Trixie Belden and Bobbsey Twin books in her shelves. She took the sheets her mother gave her and made up the beds for her and Donald. She dug through the carton labeled "Peggy" and pulled out her Playdoh fun factory, her Colorforms and magic set. These fit in the headboard of her bed.
Donald was rooting through his toybox, looking for plastic army men. She considered offering to play with him. Then she wondered if it would be possible for her to have a real friend now that they were going to stay in one place. She had always wanted to play with someone her own age. Maybe Donald could have friends, too.
She pushed the empty carton back into the closet and quietly buckled on her sandals. To keep Donald from tagging after her, she went to the bathroom first. She didn't flush, but tiptoed past the bedroom door and into the kitchen where her mother was putting away dishes.
"Mama, can I go outside and see if there are any kids?"
"Mmmm. What? Oh, yes, just don't go outside the courtyard."
"The middle part. And don't go near the pool."
Peggy scooted out the door and down the stairs before Donald got wise. She walked around the square of the apartments on the first floor, looking in windows at people's living rooms when their curtains were open. She stopped at the mailboxes and found their number, but there was no name in the slot yet. She was crossing the courtyard, well away from the pool, to check out the laundry room when she heard someone yell, "Hey!"
She looked up to the walkway around the second story. Across the L from her own apartment, in front of an open door, stood a sandy-haired girl, two or three years younger than herself. She was holding a pink plush rabbit. Peggy lifted her hand shyly, and the little girl said, "Who are you?"
"Peggy. We just moved here."
"You wanna play with my rabbit? I got him for Easter."
Peggy asked, "Have an Easter egg hunt, maybe?"
"I don't have any eggs left, we ate them all. But I could bring my dolls, we could play with them."
Without thinking, Peggy blurted out, "I hate dolls." She turned to look at her own apartment, to see if her mother could have heard. She was okay. When she looked back at the little girl, there was a second girl, this one Peggy's age, leaning on the railing. This new girl had darker hair, cut in a pixie. She had on pedal pushers and Keds. She looked thick, sturdy.
As Peggy stared at her, she said, "I hate dolls, too." She pushed herself abruptly away from the railing and clattered down the stairs, arriving where Peggy stood in a matter of seconds.
"I'm Robin," she waved vaguely at herself, then to the other girl. "That's my sister Becky, and we have another sister Roxie. I'm the oldest. What grade are you in?"
Robin's eyes were so pale they looked like water in a jelly glass. Peggy whispered, "Third."
"Yabbadabbadoo! Me, too. You'll be at my school, it's not far from here, we get to walk."
"Hey!" This was Becky again. "You said you were gonna play with me."
Robin turned around, hands on hips. "She did NOT. Go play with Roxie."
Peggy noticed layers of color to Robin's hair, like jackrabbit fur. She wondered if she moved her fingers through it, would there be a coat of downy white next to the skin?
Becky ignored Robin, speaking only to Peggy. "Do you have any sisters?"
As if on cue, Donald came out of their apartment. Peggy pointed to him, and Becky yelled at him, "Hey!"
"Come on," said Peggy in a low voice, "Let's get away." She started for the laundry room, but Robin grabbed her hand and tugged her in the direction of the front parking lot. As they skipped through the entry arch, Peggy stopped and slid her hand from Robin's. “I'm not supposed to leave the apartments."
"We're not, the parking lot is part of the apartments. I got a secret place."
Peggy forgot all mention of the courtyard and followed Robin. At the end of the lot was a row of motor boats on trailers, backed into slots and covered with tarps. One of them was very big, with a blue cover. Robin scrambled up on the wheel of the trailer, deftly unhooked the cover, and slithered into the boat. An instant after her Keds had disappeared, her head poked back out and she hissed at Peggy, "Hurry!"
Peggy couldn't get up on the wheel--her sandals had slick soles. Robin leaned way out and pulled her up. Underneath the cover it was dusty and close, and Peggy was afraid to inhale deeply. Robin was crawling away on all fours. Peggy clambered after her, banging her elbows and knees. They slid under another piece of cover and came down into a roofed cabin with a wide glass windshield. Peggy plopped down into a seat and fanned her face.
"How come you're breathing so funny?" asked Robin.
"I have asthma." Peggy waited for the inevitable question of "Can I catch it?"
Instead, Robin said, "Do you need me to open up one of the side windows?"
"No, I'll be okay if I just rest a second."
"Do you have medicine for it?"
"At home. My mom has to give it to me."
"Will you get better? I mean, all better."
She had never been asked this. "I don't know. Maybe when I grow up."
Robin sat down behind the wheel and began spinning it. "If you make that breathing noise a little louder, we could pretend like it's waves crashing over the boat."
Peggy giggled and moved over next to Robin, fingering the instrument panel.
"Go ahead, nothing happens."
Peggy twisted knobs and flipped switches.
Robin said, "I'll be Captain Nemo and you can be my matey."
"From Mysterious Island?"
"Yeah! And there's a giant octopus holding onto the boat, and we have to get away."
As they were being thrown violently around the ship by the enraged octopus, Peggy heard her mother calling her name. It sounded like she was in the parking lot. They froze. Peggy was afraid to stretch up and look out the window, in case her mother saw her.
"Your mom?" mouthed Robin. Peggy nodded.
"I have an escape hatch." Robin led them back under the cover. They pulled themselves on their bellies the length of the boat to the stern. The cabin hid them from view as they slid over the rear behind the outboard.
Robin parted the hedge behind them and motioned Peggy through. They raced along the hedge, which Peggy could see was definitely part of the apartments next door, not her apartments. After a run longer than Peggy could usually manage, Robin crashed back through the hedge. They were in the rear parking area, where Peggy's parents parked their car. Peggy stopped at the car to lean on the hood and catch her breath. Robin patted her lightly on the back.
"Peggy! What are you doing back here?" Peggy's mother marched at them from the courtyard.
"Hi, mom, this is my new friend, Robin." Peggy was wheezing too much to pull it off. Robin stepped out and said, "Hi. Peggy was showing me your car. It sure is nice."
It was not a nice car, it was beat-up old Chevy, but Peggy knew her mother wouldn't pay attention anyhow.
"Peggy, come on in the house, I'll have to give you some Isuprel. Just listen to you."
"Can Robin come too?" panted Peggy.
"You need to--"
Robin interrupted deftly, "We could read, we'll be really quiet. Is my sister with your little boy?"
"Oh, is that your sister? They're playing Peter Rabbit on the walkway." Peggy's mother had her hand now, and she didn't object when Robin followed them upstairs.
After taking her spray, Peggy showed Robin her room. She lay down gratefully on her bed. Robin sat cross-legged beside her.
"What do you want to read? I got a new book yesterday from my Aunt Dale, about four sisters. She says it's the best book ever for girls."
"Sure, let's read that."
"It might be kinda hard."
"That's okay, I'm smart. I'm the smartest girl in my class. There's a smartest boy, Neal, but boys are never as smart as girls. Do you make A's?"
"When you're in my class, which one will be the smartest?"
Peggy felt upset. She had never known a kid smarter than her. She didn't know what to say.
"I say let's share it, okay?" Robin grinned at her.
Peggy grinned back. She rolled over on her tummy and put the book in front of her. Robin stretched out beside her and helped her hold it open. They began reading.
A few pages later, Peggy heard her mother opening the front door and saying, "Hello? Come on in." Robin stopped reading, listened a second, and squirmed upright. "It's my mom!" Peggy followed Robin into the living room.
It turned out Robin's mother was also named Robin. She laughed and said she was Robin, Sr.; she patted Robin's shoulder and called her Robin, Jr. Peggy was amazed. She hadn't known girls could be Sr. and Jr.
Robin's baby sister, Roxie, was there too. She had the cracker-colored hair and bright blue eyes of Robin Sr. and Becky. Peggy's mother made coffee, and the two women sat down at the kitchen table. Peggy whispered to Robin, "Maybe our whole family are going to be friends."
Robin scowled, her pale eyes hidden behind a squint. "I don't think so. My dad doesn't make friends."
Peggy thought of Steven. "Yeah. My big brother, grownups think he's polite, but kids don't like him."
They went back to their book, finishing the first chapter.
The next Monday, Peggy's mother drove her to the elementary school, registered her, and walked with her as far as the door to her new classroom. Her teacher was named Miz Kleine. She was young and wore a lot of make-up. When she led Peggy into the room, she did that thing grown-ups always did, putting Peggy up at the front of the class and saying her name for everyone. Peggy had learned the trick of keeping her eyes locked on the teacher: Grown-ups looked away when you stared at them, but kids stare back. This time, though, Peggy had reason to look up and down the rows. When she didn't find Robin's face, she took a long breath and did another scan, this time with care. No Robin. She didn't hear the teacher calling her to an empty desk until the voice rose a notch.
She passed the morning lessons in a fog. At recess, she wanted to stay inside but knew the teacher wouldn't go for it. Trailing out after the others, she saw another class lined up to go inside. A waving arm drew her gaze to Robin, who beckoned her frantically over. Before the line got all the way into the hall, Robin managed to whisper, "I forgot there's more than one third grade in this school! I'll see you at lunch, okay?"
Peggy felt her chest fill with air. She turned back to the playground, ready to take a chance. Some of the girls stood in a cluster, giggling and talking at a rapid clip. Not there. Another scatter of girls were playing jacks. Peggy was very good at jacks, but she didn't have hers with her and, anyhow, these girls had the quiet concentration of professionals.
Most of the boys, of course, were at the far end of the schoolyard in wild motion that seemed to be mostly punching, goading, and doing nasty things with their bodies. A few boys and two girls were playing something inside a square painted on the pavement, with what looked like a tether ball removed from its rope. She walked over to them.
One of the boys watching, the shortest one, grinned at her. She felt shy. His cottony crewcut and brown eyes reminded her of Donald. The ball bounced past a boy in the square and he stepped out, saying to the short boy, "Your turn, Hal."
Hal pointed to the square and said to Peggy, "You wanna play? I've already been."
Peggy confessed, "I don't know how."
"Come ON, Hal," urged a skinny girl wearing a bright red sweater. Peggy murmured, "I'll just watch." Hal took his place and the skinny girl flashed a brilliant smile his way. No one else near Peggy spoke to her.
After a few minutes, Peggy had some sense of the game. She noticed that the skinny girl, whose name turned out to be Toni, always bounced the ball to Hal whenever it came to her square. When Hal finally missed, he came back to Peggy and plunged into explanation of the rules. Within a minute, Toni had been rotated out of her square, too, and when she joined them Hal hushed up. She pointed her chin at Peggy: "You never heard of four square?!!"
Peggy's radar told her the group of girls behind them had fallen silent and were watching her intently. She studied her saddle oxfords, then shrugged like Jack Paar on the late show. Toni persisted. "Well, why don't you play? She can have a turn, can't she, ya'll?" Now Peggy was aware of all the four square players standing still, waiting on her. She frantically rehearsed what she could remember of the rules, unlocked her hands, and was about to step forward when the recess bell rang.
At lunch, she was picking up her tray when Robin appeared at her side. "I'm over here, come on," she ordered, and took Peggy's tray. They sat at the end of a table. Peggy showed Robin how if you drank chocolate milk and white milk at the same time through two straws, it tasted like strawberry milk. Robin tried to make a cootie catcher from a napkin, but it was too floppy. After leaving the cafeteria, Robin led her to a quiet place in front of the school where they could sit on shady grass. They plopped down. Peggy leaned against a tree and closed her eyes.
"Is your mom going to drive you to school every day?" Robin asked.
"No, just today. You can ride home with me today if you want."
"Sure. Will you walk with me tomorrow?"
"How's that class you're in? I wish you were in mine."
Peggy opened her eyes. "Me, too. I don't like my teacher, she made fun of how I said pen."
"What's wrong with that, pen? Sounds right to me."
"I don't know. She kept saying she meant a pen like you write with, not a pin like you pin a diaper with."
"But there's no difference, except in spelling, I mean--you say 'em the same. Spelling's how you tell 'em apart."
"She was mean, she was laughing at me like I was dumb. That girl, Toni, she laughed too, loud, but you could tell she didn't know what the teacher meant, either."
"Well, she's a Yankee, they all talk funny--maybe she just didn't understand you."
"Pen? She couldn't understand PEN?"
Robin rolled her eyes and Peggy cracked up. Then she remembered to ask, "When we get home, will you teach me how to play four square?"
"Yeah, okay. It's kinda stupid, more of a little kid game."
"Well, just for a little while."
"Becky has a ball, we can get her and Donald to do it with us. But before dinner, I want to read some more on Little Women."
"Yes! Maybe after dinner, too."
"I can't. My dad is in a real bad mood right now."
"Listen, Robin, you know what I figured out? If I was your sister, too, there'd be four of us, and we could be the Little Women."
Robin's looked full at her. "Wouldn't that be great?"
"Except which one of us would get to be Jo?"
There was a long pause. Robin said decisively, "You be Jo."
"But then who would you be? I mean, Amy is silly, and Meg is so bossy. You can't be Beth, cause Roxie's the littlest, she should be Beth."
"Becky should be Meg, she'd like pretending to be the oldest. And we could let Donald be a honorary sister and be Amy, cause he is the next to littlest."
"Well, if we did that, I guess you and I could take turns being Jo."
"I said, you be Jo."
"Robin Houser, Junior, you aren't making any sense! If I'm Jo, and Donald is Amy, then who would you be?"
Robin's cheeks were vivid. She watched Peggy's hand as she replied quietly, "Laurie."
Peggy considered this. "Perfect."
That afternoon, Miz Kleine pulled out a record player and directed the boys to one side of the room, the girls to the other. A girl with pointy glasses explained to Peggy that once a week, they did a little dance to "Comin' Thru the Rye". Peggy knew this song by heart from singing it with her mother. She allowed herself to be excited.
Then Miz Kleine said, "All right, every boy go across and ask a girl to be your partner for the dance." Peggy pulled back into herself instantly. Whenever sides were chosen, she was the last. She'd get stuck with the most horrible boy in class, which in this case appeared to be big dumb Jeffrey who had already failed two grades. She avoided looking Jeffrey's way, focusing instead on the wall clock, trying to see how long it was until 2:30. She jumped at a shy touch on her arm and jerked her head around to face Hal.
"Will you be my partner?" he mumbled.
The dance turned out to be wonderful, even with Toni glaring at her frightfully the whole time. The girls got to sing along with the record, and Peggy was on the same level with everyone else. When they trilled, "Ev'ry lassie has her laddie, nane they say ha'e I", Peggy felt smug about knowing what it meant, that it had nothing to do with a dog. Hal's hands were small and grubby, like Donald's, but his feet moved well. For the first time, she was reluctant to stop for reading lesson, usually her favorite part of school.
She and Robin met in the hall after the last bell and went out to find her mother. Robin's mother and sisters were in the car with Peggy's mom and Donald. "We're going to a place that was on TV last night!" yelled Donald.
Worming into a back seat full of little arms and legs, Peggy and Robin finally swept clear space for themselves next to a window. They began demanding, "Where? Where are we going? Will we be on TV, too?"
Peggy's mother laughed. "Don't get worked up, it's just a store that on the news. We need some milk, and Robin said we might as well have a look." It was funny to hear her mother call a woman "Robin" the same way she called Robin "Robin".
Her mother went on, "It's like a miniature grocery store, and you just run in, get what you want, and run out."
"Don't you PAY?" demanded Becky, and Robin thumped her.
Peggy said, "Like a icehouse."
"Well, it's newer than an icehouse, and the main thing is, it's open from early in the morning until late, late at night. And the first one is here in town, but they're going to open them all across America, and every store will be just the same."
Every store looking just the same!
They pulled into a small parking lot. "You kids stay in the car--no, we are not buying candy--while Robin and I get some milk and cigarettes. Do NOT get in the front seat, do NOT open any doors."
Donald squinted at the sign overhead, looking for familiar D's and O's. Giving up, he pointed and asked Peggy, "What does it say? What's the name?"
She read to him, "7-11".
"That's numbers, that's not a name," Becky protested.
Robin explained, "It's named after the time, bozo. It's open from seven to eleven."
Peggy was impressed at Robin figuring this out. She stood up out the window and could see a low cooler inside the store that almost certainly held fudgesicles and nutty buddys. She decided to walk back here some afternoon with Robin, if Robin could remember the way.
The next morning Peggy and Robin walked to school together, using the light to get across the four lanes in front of the apartments, then left three blocks, right half a block. After pledge of allegiance and prayer, the principal came on over the loudspeaker with some announcements. At the end, his voice became very stern as he talked about how some children were still breaking the rule about only crossing the street where there was a crossing guard. Peggy couldn't remember seeing a crossing guard on the way to school. She kept quiet.
She played four square at recess and did okay. Toni wore the same red sweater; she must be cold a lot. Peggy's teacher had apparently looked over Peggy's record the night before, because she kept calling on Peggy in class. She would go "VERY good" after Peggy answered. Some of the kids were already starting to not like her.
At lunch, Robin said her dad was all upset about the boxing match between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. "I don't know why he's so mad. He called Cashiss Clay a bad word." Robin stopped.
Peggy knew the word she didn't want to say. "Yeah, Steven called me that once. Not around Mama or Daddy, they won't let us say it."
"But you're not, not the word I meant."
"I know. Steven's dumb."
"What's wrong with Cashiss Clay winning? Isn't he the best?"
"I guess. But grownups don't care about what's right, not really." Peggy was struck by a memory. "When I went to school in New Mexico, some boy went into the boy's bathroom and peed all over the walls and floor---"
"And there were only two Negro boys in the whole school, but the principal said it was one of them and paddled them both at assembly."
"Why did they pee on the floor?"
"They didn't, it was the boy who sat next to me named Corky, his daddy was a doctor. We all knew it, but the grownups never asked us."
"How do you know Corky did it?"
"He bragged about it. He bragged about everything. He had warts all over his fingers. I hated him."
"I woulda moved, I wouldint have sat next to him. What if you caught his warts?"
"You don't catch warts from people, only from frogs. Besides, my granddad can get rid of warts."
"He rubs his fingers over them and thinks a certain word that he won't tell anyone. Then he gives you a nickel, and he says he's buying the warts from you, and they go away. He did it to my mama, and it worked."
Robin was deeply impressed. "That's magic."
Peggy stopped to think. "Is it? I don't believe in magic any more."
"When my mama was pregnant with the last baby, I wanted a sister so bad. A sister, well, that would make things okay. So every night I prayed to Jesus, and then I did magic. I used an old watch of Daddy's that was broken. It was good magic. But it didn't work. The baby was a boy."
"Donald's a good brother."
"Not Donald, another one. He died."
"Maybe you did the magic wrong."
"No. I did it right."
"Did you light a candle?"
Peggy was shocked at the idea. "No, it was secret magic. Besides, the praying didn't work either."
Robin's voice got low. "Don't you believe in Jesus any more, either?"
Peggy didn't answer. She looked Robin in those pale, pale eyes. Robin crossed herself. Peggy felt prickly.
"Let's go outside, I brought my jacks.
On Mondays, her class danced to "Comin' Thru the Rye". On Tuesdays, they had an hour of art in the library with other classes and a visiting art teacher. On Wednesdays, they had declamation, which was reading poetry out loud. On Thursdays, Miz Barbour came, the music teacher. She was younger even than Miz Kleine, with glossy hair braided down her back and a long skirt made out of blue jean material. She carried a guitar slung over her back.
Miz Barbour taught them a couple of songs, going over and over the melodies until everyone could sing along. Then she said, "I just have time to do one more. What would you like to hear?"
Everyone else in the class began shouting words that Peggy couldn't make out. Miz Barbour smiled ruefully and said, "Are you sure? That's all you ever want to hear." Everyone shouted, "YES!"
"Okay", and she pulled her guitar in front of her. The class got very still. Peggy felt a tickle on the hair of her arm. When Miz Barbour began the song, her voice was high and pure, but sad. Peggy closed her eyes to listen.
"I peeked in to say goodnight
And then I saw my child in prayer
‘And for me, some scarlet ribbons,
Scarlet ribbons for my hair.'
All the stores were closed and shuttered
All the streets were dark and bare
In our town there were no ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for her hair.
Through the night my heart was aching
Just before the dawn was breaking
I looked in, and on her bed
In gay profusion lying there
Were lovely ribbons, scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for her hair.
If I live to be one hundred
I will never know from where
Came those ribbons, lovely ribbons,
Scarlet ribbons for her hair."
By the end of the song, Peggy was crying wholeheartedly. She could hear weeping all around her. She wiped her eyes to have a look, and saw Hal with his head buried on his arms. Another boy was pointing at Hal and pretending to boo-hoo; some of the kids near him snickered. Toni whirled around in her desk and scorched them with her eyes. Peggy watched Miz Barbour wave bye and leave.
After school, she asked Robin if Miz Barbour came to her class, too.
"Yeah, before lunch. We get her to sing `Scarlet Ribbons', you know it?"
"Us, too. It made me cry."
"I wish it were true."
"You want ribbons? You don't have enough hair."
"No, I mean about a grown-up caring like that. And about God listening to prayers."
Peggy stopped walking. "You think God doesn't listen to your prayers either?"
Robin crossed herself quickly. Peggy wished she knew how to do that; it looked comforting. "I don't know. God doesn't answer your prayers if you're bad, you know."
"Robin." Robin wasn't looking at her. "You aren't bad. I swear you're not."
Robin gave a thin laugh. "Swearing isn't nice."
Peggy laughed back, louder than she felt was true. They began walking again. When they got to the four lane road that ran down to their apartments, Peggy turned toward the crossing guard, a half block out of their way but the only one across the boulevard. There was already a mob of kids waiting for their turn to be led through the crosswalk. Robin grabbed her arm to stop her. "I know a short-cut." She led Peggy down the sidewalk in the direction of the apartments. When they were directly across from their apartments, Robin stopped and casually bent down to tie her shoe. She took so long about it, Peggy looked at her. Robin was watching up and down the road out of the corner of her eyes.
Robin stood again. "All clear, no one's paying any attention to us." She took Peggy's hand, checked one last time for oncoming cars, and headed out into the street. Peggy wanted to pull away, to plant her feet and stay, but she could not. In the middle of the four lanes, they had to wait a half minute for some cars to pass going the other way, then ran fast across the last two lanes.
Peggy didn't know if she was out of breath from the run or from terror. She looked back toward the distant crosswalk, bridged by a thick line of kids. Only the orange jacket of the guard showed distinctly. Robin said, "See? We're way ahead of them."
"But we could get in trouble," gasped Peggy.
"I've done it all year, haven't got caught once." Peggy wasn't convinced. Exasperation crept into Robin's voice. "I know how to be careful, Peggy."
Peggy decided not to say anything.
At Friday breakfast, Robin pounded on their door. She said a quick hi to Peggy, and walked over to Peggy's mother at the sink. "My mom says to ask can Peggy come spend the night tonight? She'll make us pigs in the blanket for dinner, and we can play Uncle Wiggily."
Peggy's mother looked like she didn't know what to say. Peggy had never had a sleepover before. Peggy wasn't sure where to throw her efforts, in trying to persuade her mother, dealing with the outrage clouding up on Donald's face, or keeping Steven from being too mean.
"Well," her mother began. Too late: Steven couldn't resist.
"Uncle Wiggly! Is that all you babies can handle, a dumb game like Uncle Wiggly?" He was leaning back precariously in a kitchen chair, buttering a biscuit.
Robin slowly swung around to him, and spoke in a grim tone. "You're not invited."
The legs of his chair slammed down on the floor. Donald's storm swiftly vanished. Peggy's mother laughed, a little nervously.
"I don't see why not. Come here right after school, Peggy, and I'll help you get ready."
Peggy abandoned her Bosco and grabbed her books so she could leave with Robin.
Robin and her sisters shared a room that was almost filled by the biggest bed Peggy had ever seen, almost as big as two double beds pushed together. Most of their toys and some of their clothes were on shelves running up and down the walls. But all of their dolls and stuffed animals, maybe a hundred of them, were arranged on the bed in rows.
Peggy had a glorious time. Everything she did seemed more fun because she knew she didn't have to go home later. She even invited Peggy's father to play with them. He stared at her with a blank expression for a long minute before saying no, he had work to do. Peggy could feel Robin's tension in that minute, and wondered how careful to be with this man; but it was hard to be afraid looking at his silvery eyes, so much like Robin's.
They got to stay up an hour later than usual. Robin's mother let them get ready for bed by themselves. Robin's nightshirt looked more like a long blue T-shirt than a gown. No lace on it anywhere. Becky started to squawk about Roxie getting to sleep next to Peggy, but Robin just pointed at her and Becky hushed. Becky slid in next to the wall, and Roxie got in beside her.
"I have the outside," explained Robin. "You're here in the middle, with Roxie."
"Do you get the outside cause you're the oldest?" asked Peggy.
"No, cause she's MEAN!" whispered Becky. Robin looked at her hard. She turned on the nightlight, turned off the overhead, and, without making a sound, began piling up all their stuffed animals and dolls in the doorway of the room.
Peggy giggled, "Are you afraid of ghosts?"
"Ghosts?" repeated Roxie in a small voice.
Robin looked at Peggy, and Peggy hoped she didn't get the pointing finger. Robin said softly, "There's no such thing as ghosts." Peggy helped Robin with the last of the dolls, and crawled under the covers with Roxie. When Robin got in, the bed was full. Peggy and Robin turned sideways to face each other, and began whispering.
"Wish we could read; I want to know how Beth is doing," said Peggy.
"Me, too, but my dad gets mad if the light is on."
Peggy breathed deep. "You know what you smell like?"
"Like lime sherbert."
"That's nice. You know what you smell like? Crayons."
"Your hair is all over the pillow."
"I know, it's so long, I wanna get it cut like yours."
"I like it; feels like, like old lady clothes, slicky."
There was a long silence.
"Are you asleep yet?"
"Well, would I be able to ask if I was?"
"If you were talking in your sleep, you could."
"Maybe I'll talk in my sleep--you stay up and listen, okay?"
"Let's both stay up, let's stay up all night."
Another silence, this one even longer.
No answer. Robin breathed, "G'night."
The next week at school, Hal again asked Peggy to be his partner when they danced. Peggy felt like maybe she could belong in this class. She wondered if she and Hal would still be in the same class next year. She asked Robin about it while they were walking home.
"You're gonna be in my class," said Robin sharply.
"Well, I hope so, but how do we know?"
"What do you care about Hal, anyhow, he's just a stinky old boy."
"He likes me."
"So WHAT!" shouted Robin. Peggy was stunned. Robin began running down the sidewalk, away from her. She was too strong for Peggy to hope to catch up with her. When she got to their crossing point, she didn't wait on the traffic but instead shot out into the stream and dodged a couple of cars. The driver of one car stopped and began yelling at her. Peggy walked on like she didn't live here, going down two blocks to the traffic light, crossing over legally and coming back. She felt weak and trembly. Her mother asked her if she was coming down with something and Peggy said no, she was just tired.
Her mother said dinner was going to be a little early because afterwards they planned to go out looking at houses, did she want to ask Robin to go along? Peggy didn't know what to say. She nodded numbly, and walked slowly out the door. Before she got around the corner to Robin's apartment, Robin came and started toward her. Peggy froze.
Robin's face was splotchy. She stopped a few feet away from Peggy and wrapped one arm around a pole on the railing. She said in a thick voice, "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have run away."
Peggy wished she had a pole to lean on, too. "It's okay. What made you so mad?"
"Boys," said Robin. "They get everything."
"I know. It's not fair."
They stood there for a while, looking at each other. Peggy finally remembered her errand. "Wanna go looking at houses with us after dinner? My mom said to ask you."
Robin looked mad again. "Are you gonna move?"
"Not until after the summer, and we have to stay in this neighborhood cause Daddy works near here."
Robin's shoulders finally came down; Peggy hadn't realized how hunched up she was. "I'll go ask."
"I have to warn you, Steven gets first dibs on the back seat; he always wants a window."
"What about Donald?"
"He sits up front."
"Then you can have the other window, and I'll sit between you and Steven."
She shouldn't let Robin do this, she should let Robin have the window. But Robin looked stubborn, and she didn't want to argue with her any more today.
At announcements the next morning, the principal gave dire warning about some boy who ran into traffic the day before and almost caused a wreck. He said if the boy was caught, he would be paddled. Peggy focused on her desk. Her heart was racing. She wished more than ever she was in the same class with Robin, so she could sneak a look at her right now. She bet Robin wouldn't care about the announcement. She bet that was right.
At lunch Robin said they should have another sleepover. Peggy agreed, and after getting home from school she met Robin in the courtyard.
"I asked Mama and she says it's your turn to sleep over at my house, okay?"
Robin scowled at the grass. "I can't tonight."
"Why? I can help you with homework."
"My mom works tonight."
"Well, she works every night, but your dad is there."
"She doesn't work every night, you dummy, she's home on Friday and Saturday nights. But on Saturday nights we all go to Mass."
Peggy didn't say anything for a minute. She wasn't sure what Mass was. More, it seemed like Robin was thinking about a problem Peggy didn't understand. She waited until her patience ran out. Then she said, "When I played at your house on Monday night, your mom was gone but your dad was there. Wasn't that okay?"
"Sure. It's okay if you come over."
Peggy kept feeling her way. "Won't your dad let you sleep away? Couldn't you get your mom to ask him..." She trailed off as Robin finally lifted her head and clamped a fierce gaze on her. Peggy didn't flinch. Robin's mouth was tight, but she opened it just enough to say, "I have to be there. For my sisters--they're too little."
The answer boiled through Peggy. She turned around and looked at Donald playing with Roxie and Becky. She thought about asking her mom if Robin's sisters could come over, too, could sleep on the floor like a slumber party. She guessed her mom would say yes, maybe once, but not every week. She was so angry she wanted to scream names at someone. She could scream at Donald, but he wasn't who made her mad.
She looked at Robin again. Robin looked scared. Peggy stepped up beside her and slipped her hand into Robin's the same way Donald did to her when they were being punished. Robin wouldn't stop staring at her.
Peggy said, "Okay. Friday night. And I'll tell mama she has to let me stay with you more than you stay with me."
"What if she asks why?"
"I'll say...I'll tell her Donald toots at night and it stinks!... And we want to be with all girls."
"Yeah! Go tell her now, okay?. And I'll tell my mom. Meet you back here."
On Saturday morning, Steven came back in the house yelling "My car is gone! It's been stolen!" Peggy and Donald stood thunderstruck in the doorway to the living room. Their mother told him to pipe down, and took the phone away from him when he said he was going to call the police. Her voice was hard as she began, "Damn your father, I knew this would happen. He's gotten behind on the payments, and they sent a notice saying they were going to repossess it. He said he took care of it, but, as usual, he had something more important to do than look after his family. I'll call the finance company and see if they've got it."
Steven sat down on the edge of the couch, his right leg tapping up and down vigorously, his face flushed. Peggy silently herded Donald back into their room and offered to play army mans with him if he'd get them out. As he was scrabbling for them in his toybox, she listened intently to her mother's call. She could tell it wasn't going well. Her mother hung up by slapping the receiver down and said, "Sonsabitches. We have to come up with the whole past due amount, and we just don't have it."
Steven's voice came out high and panicky, "But my car, I have to have my car, how can I get to school?"
Her mother cut him off ruthlessly, "Don't talk to me about it, talk to your father. He's the one who had to buy the damned thing in the first place, I told him we couldn't afford it." She stalked past Peggy's line of vision into her bedroom and slammed the door. Peggy wondered briefly where her father was, but knew without asking it was something to do with work, it always was on Saturdays, holidays, late nights. Her mother called him a goddamned slave, willing to do anything they asked without ever getting overtime. Whatever that meant, her father would simply leave when she said it.
Peggy began wishing Steven would leave now. But how would he go, without his car? And Daddy had the family car. Why didn't he walk to the 7-11 and get a Coke? Why didn't he turn on the TV?--except it was only cartoons on Saturday morning. Oh, God, just don't let him come into their room.
She had trouble concentrating on the battle Donald was creating; all of her nerves were stretched out to the doorway, listening for footsteps. She was afraid to look, afraid that might draw him in. Almost half an hour went by. She finally let herself relax, breath by breath.
Donald got up and said he had to go pee. She let him trot out of the room without her. She heard the bathroom door close, then, after a minute, heard it open again and Steven say, "Deedo? I gotta brush my teeth." The door shut. She stood, her pulse pounding. She wasn't sure what to do; she sat down on her bed, looking at the bathroom door across the hall.
It didn't take long. She heard an unbelievable scream from Donald, and although she leaped for the hall, and her mother likewise charged out of her bedroom, Steven got out the bathroom door first, Donald hanging in his arms. Donald's shorts were around his ankles, his hands were wet, and his small penis was bright purple, with a drop of blood at the tip.
Steven said, with laughter in his voice, "He was playing around at the toilet, laid his tallywhacker on the seat and accidentally dropped the lid on it." His face was wearing that fake, I'm-one-of-you look he used so successfully on grownups. Donald continued to scream with every breath. Her mother bent down to look at his penis, saying, "Shhh, shhh, you're all right." In between screams, Peggy saw Steven breathe something into Donald's ear. She saw the words land in Donald's head. His crying lost some of its punch.
Her mother took Donald back into the bathroom, saying she was going to run some cold water on it. Steven said earnestly, "I'm sorry, I'm really sorry, I wasn't watching him, maybe if I had been I could have caught the lid in time." Her mother looked back over her shoulder at Steven, trying hard not to smile, and said, "These things happen. At least now he'll learn to be careful where he puts it." Steven grinned back.
When he turned around, Peggy was still standing there, staring at him. He pushed by her and went into the kitchen. She followed him. Standing just out of arm's reach, she said quietly, "I know what you did." He drank some milk from the carton, wiped his mouth, and leaned toward her. She forced herself not to flinch. He hissed, "You're next, you and your fat little boyfriend." He set the milk on the counter and left the apartment.
The next Monday, Peggy was still feeling funny, sometimes cold despite the late spring light pouring in the tall windows in the classroom. When she danced that afternoon with Hal, she was so weak she kept slowing down and making them fall behind. After dancing, Miz Kleine asked her to hand out some corrected papers. She wished she could say no, but instead trudged silently up and down the rows. When she got to Toni's desk, Toni looked at her hatefully. What else was new. But before she got to the next desk, Toni had spoken to her.
"What's that on your arm?"
Peggy looked down at her bare arms. There were red spots on the inside of her forearms. She was puzzled; she'd had rashes before, and eczema, but this looked different. Toni whispered, "I know what that is! That's measles!"
Peggy's stomach squeezed into a ball. Lots of kids in the school had been coming down with measles, and grown-ups talked about it like it was a terrible sickness. She whispered back, "It is not!"
"It is, too, my sister had it! I'm telling!"
Peggy had the urge to knock Toni down as she shot out of her desk. Toni went straight to Miz Kleine and said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "Peggy's got measles!" Peggy couldn't move.
Miz Kleine looked worried. She walked fast to Peggy and felt her forehead, then examined her arms and face. "Oh, no, it does look like measles." She led Peggy down the hall to the nurse's office, left her there and came back with her schoolbooks. The nurse called her mother. Peggy lay down on the rollaway; her head was starting to throb. She thought about how much she hated Toni. She wondered if Toni had given her measles on purpose.
Her mother arrived with Robin Sr. They looked Peggy over and decided yes, it was measles. Robin Sr. said Robin Jr. and Becky had already had them, but Roxie hadn't. Peggy's mother said Donald hadn't either, she might as well let him stay around Peggy, catch them and get it over with, the damage was done. By the time they got home, Peggy was glad to go to bed. She dropped off to sleep.
When she woke up, the room was dark. Was it night already? She looked at the windows, and saw the curtains were pulled down tight. Behind them, there was still sunlight.
Her mother and Donald came into the room. Donald climbed up beside her, saying, "Show me your measles! Do they hurt?"
Her mother offered her some scrambled eggs and toast with jelly. She said she wasn't hungry. Her mother replied she had to eat a little bit anyway. She gave her a baby aspirin and said matter of factly that Peggy had to stay in the dark until she got well because if she didn't she could go blind.
"But how will I read?"
"No reading. No TV either. I'll bring in my radio and you can listen to that, and Donald will play with you, won't you, Deedo?"
Peggy felt like dying. No reading! And Donald's games were all dumb.
"Can Robin come over?"
"No, no visitors."
"But she's already had the measles, I heard her mother say so!"
"Yes, but Roxie hasn't. You have to be careful about spreading this around. If you give the measles to a pregnant woman, it will make her have a Mongoloid baby."
"Am I going to get scabs and itch, like when I had the chickenpox?"
"No. But you're going to be plenty sick." Her mother stroked her head for a minute. "I have to go make your eggs. Donald can stay and talk to you."
Peggy didn't want to talk with Donald. If he left the room, maybe she could lay with her head nearest the door and get light from the hall to read Little Women. She immediately felt bad about wanting to read without Robin; then she felt worse when she remembered Little Women was over at Robin's house, anyhow.
She ate some of her eggs and drink a glass of Hi-C. Donald got bored sitting in the dark with her and never came back after dinner. She heard the TV go on and recognized the music from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. She lay close to the wall, trying to hear the dialogue.
After a few minutes, she began hearing her name, so low she couldn't make out the voice. She pulled away from the wall: Steven must have figured out she was trying to listen, and was taunting her. But the whisper got louder. It was coming from the window. She pulled up the curtain until she could see out a crack. There was Robin, kneeling on the walkway outside her window. Peggy wished she could reach through the screen and touch her.
Robin held up Little Women, grinning. Peggy deflated with disappointment. "I can't read," she whispered, "I'll go blind."
"I know," Robin whispered back. "I'll read aloud to you."
Peggy watched as Robin arranged a pillow underneath her, to cushion her knees. She opened the book to where they had left off the day before, and began reading. Peggy lay down, her head as close to the window as she could get. By the time Robin had to go home, Peggy was sound asleep.
When Peggy's mother discovered what Robin was doing, she didn't raise any fuss at all. Instead, she asked Robin to also go over Peggy's homework with her every day; their classes were at the same place in the lessons. The only time Peggy didn't get to see Robin was when she spiked a very high fever and Mama had to cool her off in the bathtub. She was delirious that night; she saw giraffes wearing Beatle wigs frolicking near her ceiling. Robin went home without reading to her.
Peggy was out of school for two weeks. Near the end of her convalescence, Donald came down the measles and spent all day in bed next to her. He complained about Little Women, saying he couldn't understand the words. Peggy told him it was too bad, he just had to listen. He would drop off after a while.
Peggy returned to school on a Monday. When it was time to dance to "Comin' Thru The Rye", Hal avoided looking at her and instead walked over to Toni. Toni's face was shiny red. Peggy left her side of the room, went to Miz Kleine and said she still felt too sick to dance. Miz Kleine said she could sit at her desk instead. Peggy pulled out a library book and read while the music played, not looking up once.
Walking home with Robin, for the first time she didn't feel worried about crossing the street in the middle of their block. She laughed as they sprinted the last lane. After changing her clothes, she met Robin in the courtyard holding a Big Chief tablet and two pencils. "Let's write a story, like Jo does," she said breathlessly.
Robin gave a little hop of excitement. They sat down at the picnic table and began trying to think of ideas.
On Thursday, Miz Barbour came and sang some songs about the Erie Canal. She finished up with "Scarlet Ribbons", and Peggy cried again. She didn't look to see what Hal was doing. She thought about how much she had wanted a sister before her baby brother had been born. Maybe Jesus had listened, like the person in the song, and was giving her a sister her own age. She cried so hard Miz Barbour walked over to her desk, still singing, and cupped her hand on the top of Peggy's head. When she told Robin about it after school, Robin gingerly touched her head right where Miz Barbour's hand had been, as if she might be able to feel it, too.
By Friday they had settled on a story about a brown velvet rabbit who was trying to stop a bigger rabbit from picking on him. They argued for a long time about names for their rabbit. Peggy said his name had to start with "R", but Robin hated that idea. She wanted a name that meant something brown. Neither would budge.
They began drawing pictures of various scenes they had imagined in the life of their rabbit. As they sat coloring them in at the picnic table, Steven walked by on his way out. He stopped to look at their drawings, giggled, and said, "Is that a rabbit or a coon?"
"Coons don't have big floppy ears and a puffy tail," said Peggy in a deprecating tone of voice. Robin wasn't amused; she looked wary.
"You feeb, don't you know what a coon is?" jeered Steven. Peggy was baffled, and pressed her mouth tightly closed. Steven spit on the picnic table and went on.
After he was out of sight, Robin said softly, "A coon, not a raccoon."
"A coon is a raccoon, it's a nickname for it, isn't it?"
"Sometimes. But mostly a coon is a very bad name for Negroes."
Peggy felt sick to her stomach. She looked at their drawings. They had used a rich brown for the fur of their rabbit. Would everyone think it was funny? She didn't want to have to start over.
Robin took in a sudden breath and said, "I've got it! He can be a chocolate bunny--like we get at Easter!"
Peggy gazed at her in admiration. Robin began laughing wildly, "And now I know what we can name him: Cashiss Clay!"
Peggy wrote it on the page underneath the biggest picture of their bunny. Then she added beside it "Wins The Fight."
"There's the title," she said. They began writing the story in a rush.
That Sunday, Peggy's family was supposed to have dinner with Aunt Dale and Uncle Ash's family. Aunt Dale called to say her girls were attending a church picnic that day, did Peggy and Donald want to plan to go along? Peggy felt too shy to spend the day with a group of strangers, even with Terry there. She begged her mother to let her stay with Aunt Dale instead. Her mother said she didn't want to have to entertain bored kids all afternoon.
"We won't be bored, I promise, I'll read to Deedo in the other room."
Her mother wasn't buying it, she could tell. Peggy jumped to another track.
"Then let me stay here with Robin, Donald can see Becky and Roxie, I'll go ask--"
"The last thing Robin needs is extra responsibility on the weekend. Hell, no, you're going, Dale specifically asked to see you."
"Then let Robin and Becky go with us! That'll be easier on Robin Sr., she'll just have Roxie, and we can all play with each other. Aunt Dale can get to see Robin, she told me she wanted to the last time I saw her." Peggy felt like her voice was out of control.
Her mother eyed her, a little irritated. "Well...Ash'd love to have some new little girls to charm. You'd have to promise to behave. And I have to ask Dale first."
Peggy knew Aunt Dale would say yes. Her mother finished her cup of coffee before calling, and Peggy wanted to scream at her to hurry her up so she could go tell Robin.
The next day when Aunt Dale met Robin, she shook her hand like a grown-up and called her the "famous Robin Junior". Peggy's mother laughed and said, "Infamous is more like it." Peggy looked a question at Robin, but she didn't seem to know what that meant, either.
At lunch they had chicken and dumplings. After scraping their plates, they sprawled in the living room on the floor and watched as Uncle Ash and Peggy's father showed each other card tricks. They were drinking Scotch, and Peggy could tell her mother was mad about it.
When Donald and Becky got fidgety, Aunt Dale said they had to have a nap. Becky's face was incredulous and she looked to Donald for moral support, but Donald knew there was no point in fighting the rules here. Aunt Dale put them in her and Uncle Ash's bedroom and turned on the TV at the foot of the bed for them, saying kindly, "Now, stay on the bed and don't make a ruckus. I'll come get you after a bit." Peggy knew the little ones wouldn't dare make a peep. She felt immensely proud to be allowed in with the grown-ups.
In a few minutes, Steven and the two men went outside to throw around a football. Robin was being unusually quiet; maybe it was because she wasn't the boss here. They edged closer to the sofa where Peggy's mother and Aunt Dale sat, looking at old photos and talking about people with funny names. All of the photos were long before Peggy was born.
She began to feel very drowsy. She laid her head sideways on her forearm and unfocused her eyes a little, looking at a blurry Robin. Robin seemed wide awake. She snapped her head back up, determined not to be like a little sleepy kid. Aunt Dale noticed her, smiled, and said, "Are you still doing that dance at school you were telling me about?"
Peggy thought furiously, wondering how to change the subject. "Yeah, I guess so."
Robin chimed in, "We have the same music teacher, and she sings the same songs to us."
"What songs do you sing?" Aunt Dale was looking at Robin now.
"There Was An Old Lady, Clementine, On Top of Old Smoky, Scarlet Ribbons--" began Robin.
"Oh, I love Scarlet Ribbons. It reminds me of something Daddy used to sing -- 'The Baggage Coach Ahead'" Aunt Dale said to Peggy's mother.
Peggy's mother was very still, staring at Aunt Dale with a hungry face. Aunt Dale's eyes were already filling with tears. She began singing a tragic song about a dead mother and a crying baby on a train.
By the end of the song, Peggy's mother was crying pretty hard. Peggy noticed that grown-ups cried badly, as if they had forgotten how. Or maybe something happened to your throat when you got bigger and the sounds coming out of it were harder to make. Aunt Dale pulled her mother over so her head rested on Aunt Dale's shoulder. Peggy thought maybe she shouldn't look, but Aunt Dale began talking right to her.
"You know that your grandmother Bertie, our mama, died right after your mama was born, don't you? Yes. Well, I was four when she died, and two years after that, the year I started school, our daddy died. We were split up and given to different aunts and uncles, because it was the Depression and it was hard enough to take on an extra mouth to feed, let alone two. I'm the only one now who remembers our mama and daddy, I have to do it for the both of us."
Peggy felt a grief in her like she had never known. None of this was really news, her mother had mentioned all of it in scraps here and there. But this was a story, and the people in it were real. They had been children, and now they were grown-ups, sitting here in front of her, with the children they had been almost visible inside them. She imagined Donald being given away to another family and her not getting to see him again until they were old.
She scooted over to Robin. Robin's cheeks were wet. She wanted to ask Aunt Dale to promise she'd never be hurt like that, but she was afraid it would hurt her mother's feelings. She pressed her side hard against Robin.
Aunt Dale laughed suddenly and said, "Look at us, just like a bunch of women! No wonder the men run outside. Here," and she reached for a kleenex to hand to Peggy's mother. "Peggy, you know where I keep the fizzies in the kitchen? Why don't you and Robin go make yourselves one?"
Peggy was glad to stand up, shake the fear down into her shoes. She picked out a rootbeer fizzy, while Robin wanted a grape. They sat at the kitchen table to drink them; Aunt Dale didn't allow food in her living room.
Robin tried to stick her tongue out far enough to see if it was purple yet. She said, "I like Aunt Dale, I wish she was my aunt."
Peggy said without thinking, "I wish she was my mother." She froze, slowly inching her eyes around to see if the kitchen door was closed. It was.
Robin didn't act shocked. "Why can't grown-ups do that all the time?"
"No, why don't they remember what it was like when they were a kid? Grown-ups were mean to them, too, when they were little. How come they grow up and forget it and start to be mean too?"
Peggy had often wondered this. "Well, I'm not gonna forget."
Robin took another sip, and said, "Wanna make a pack?"
"No, make a pack. It means promising something together, that you'll both do something. Let's make a pack to never forget what it's like to be a kid."
"Okay. How do we do it?"
Robin stuck out her little finger in a crook. "Hook yours through mine. Now repeat after me: Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye, Scout's honor, I promise to never forget, what it's like to be little." She stood up and came right up to Peggy's chair, grabbing her shoulders.
"Now we do the French part." She kissed Peggy on one cheek, then the other, and back to the first. Peggy had seen that in a Bugs Bunny cartoon once. It was fun. She grabbed Robin back and did the French part. Robin sat down. "Now we have a pack. If we break it, lightning will strike us dead."
Peggy felt better. "What do you think you're gonna be when you grow up?"
Robin looked evasive. "I don't know, what about you?"
"I asked you first."
"Well, it's a secret, okay?"
"I wanna be a nun."
Peggy was speechless. She stared at Robin's silvery eyes. After a moment, she said, "Me, too."
"You can't be a nun, you're Babtist!"
"Don't Babtists have nuns?"
"No, they have missionaries. You'd have to go to Africa and get leprosy if you were a missionary."
"Well, that's not what I want to be, anyhow. I wanna be a writer, like Jo."
Robin looked impressed, but didn't say she'd change her mind. Peggy started feeling angry.
"Where would you be a nun? Can you do that here?"
"I'd have to go away to a convent in the country somewhere, and live with other nuns. And maybe I'd not be able to talk, take a vow of silence."
"Why would you do a stupid thing like that?"
Robin's eyes took on a glint. "It isn't stupid. Nuns are doing Christ's work. Are you saying Christ is stupid?"
Peggy was relentless. "Could I see you there, in the convent? Could I live in a house next door, a little house like the March's?, and we could have tea together in the afternoons."
Robin didn't answer. Peggy boiled over.
"I hate nuns! I hate them! They look like freaks in those clothes, and they're mean to everybody, making them not talk and not see anyone!"
Peggy's mother swung open the kitchen door. "What do you think you are doing in here?"
Peggy involuntarily jerked her arm and knocked over her fizzy glass. Her mother swore and leaped for a sponge to mop it up. Aunt Dale came in to help her, and Peggy slipped into the dining room and away. She didn't wait for Robin. She went to Terry's room and opened the closet. After selecting a handful of Dr. Seuss books, she sprawled on Terry's bed and began to read.
On the drive back, Robin sat on the opposite side of the car from Peggy. Peggy was beginning to feel sorry, but not all the way. When they were almost home, Peggy said, "Do you want to come over and work on our story?"
"No," said Robin. Peggy mashed her face against the glass and looked at the road.
After dinner, she decided to work on the story by herself. When she went to her room to get it off the shelf, it wasn't there. She remembered they had left it at Robin's house, in a box under her bed. She got mad again. Why should Robin have it if she was too holy to write on it any more? She asked permission to go over to Robin's to get something, and her mother said okay, but don't dawdle.
Peggy walked around the corner to Robin's apartment. As she passed the window to Robin's bedroom, she heard tapping on the glass and stopped to look. Becky was sitting in bed, her knees up against her chest, her face terrified. Roxie was huddled behind her. Peggy motioned for her to open the window; Becky shook her head. Peggy heard Robin scream "no" from another room. She threw herself at the front door and turned the knob. It was locked.
She began pounding on the door. Robin's father flung it open and stood there, his face contorted. A belt hung from his right hand. Peggy looked around him for Robin. She was not visible. He yelled at her so loud she jumped back. "What the fuck do you think you're doing here?"
She couldn't speak. She looked at his face, looked away, and looked back, afraid he might hit her if she wasn't watching him. Then she saw a flicker of motion in the room beyond. Robin was peeking out from her parent's bedroom. Peggy knew enough not to act as though she had seen her.
"I need to talk to Robin," she stammered.
"Well, you fucking can't talk to Robin. She's in bad trouble, and if you don't want to be in the same boat, you'd better get the fuck out of here." He moved as if to shut the door.
Peggy raised her hand as if she were in class, and immediately felt stupid, but it stopped him. "I left something here and I need to get it back." She saw motion again and realized Robin was shaking her head at her. She had never seen that look on Robin's face before; maybe it was because she dared not look directly at her.
"Not now," he said, and slammed the door. Peggy heard the door lock. She felt crazy. She ran back to the window and tried to push it up by herself, but it was latched. Becky shrank away from the glass. She heard Robin's voice, high and desperate. She put her hands over her ears and stood a moment, trembling. Slowly she walked back to her apartment. No one else in the complex seemed to be hearing anything.
She waited for Robin out front the next morning until she was almost late for school and had to run the last half block. At lunch, Robin wasn't in the cafeteria. Peggy couldn't think all day of anything except Robin's face as she shook her head at Peggy. A smelly boy named Gregory asked Peggy to dance with him that afternoon, and Peggy hardly noticed, going through the familiar movements like a ghost.
After school, she didn't even go home first but went directly to Robin's apartment. Her mother answered and said, in a regular voice, "Oh, hi, honey, did you miss Robin at school today? She was feeling puny, crawled into bed last night with her daddy, and this morning I let her sleep in."
Peggy was still having trouble talking. She just kept gazing at Robin's mother, her eyes wide. Robin Sr. motioned her in and said, "Go see her, she could use some company."
Peggy stepped around Roxie and Becky, watching TV and ignoring her, and dropped her books on the couch. When she went into Robin's room, Robin's back was to her, a curve out toward her under the covers. Peggy swallowed. "Robin?"
Robin rolled over a little, and turned her head over her shoulder so she could see Peggy. She looked flat and waxy. Peggy suddenly remembered the face of her baby brother as he lay in his tiny coffin at the funeral. Peggy stood about a foot away from the bed. "What happened?"
Robin closed her eyes. She rolled all the way over, and Peggy saw her wince. She opened her eyes again and wiggled her finger at Peggy, as if she wanted to tell her a secret. Peggy leaned down. Robin whispered, "He found our story."
Peggy didn't move away. She could feel Robin's breath puff, pause, puff on her cheek. She whispered back, "How?"
"I forgot, he looks through my things when I'm not home."
Peggy made herself check out Robin's eyes. There were darker threads in the colored part. "Why didn't you tell him it was my idea?"
Robin just shook her head.
"I'll take it to my house and keep it there."
Robin closed her eyes again. "He tore it up."
"We'll write another one."
Robin shrugged listlessly. Peggy wished she would cry, or yell, or something.
"Do you wanna play a game? Or read, I can go get Little Women."
Robin looked at her again. "No, I guess not. I'm too tired."
Peggy didn't want to leave. "Robin, I'm sorry. You can be a nun if you want. You'd be a good nun. I was just jealous."
"Okay." Robin rolled over again. Peggy patted her awkwardly on the back. She left the apartment without saying goodbye to anyone.
Robin walked to school with her the next day. Peggy held her hand the whole way. At lunch, she imitated Gregory's dancing and made Robin laugh so hard that apple juice came out of her nose.
The last week of school, Steven got out earlier than Peggy every day and was usually home before her. As she and Robin crossed the courtyard one afternoon, he came in through the opposite arch and planted himself in front of them.
"I saw you little morons today. Wait'll I tell Mom you've been playing in the traffic every day."
Peggy felt like she'd been sentenced. She tried to think of something to offer him, to persuade him not to tell. She could feel the nails of her right hand biting into her palm, and relaxed her fist. She could hardly believe it when Robin calmly replied, "I wouldn't if I were you."
Steven looked like he didn't believe it either. He grabbed at Robin, and she evaded him but stayed beside Peggy. "I saw you in the park with your hood friends. I saw you smoking. Wonder what your Mama would say if she knew you were smoking?"
Peggy was so busy watching Robin's eyebrows, cocked and high, that she forgot to keep an eye on Steven. He thumped her viciously on the head before he walked off.
Rubbing the ouchy spot, she said, "Was he really smoking?"
"Yep. My mother saw him, too."
"He is so dumb."
"How soon till we can go swimming?"
"Splash Day; I think it's two weeks."
"I'm going to swim all day every day."
"You'll get pruny."
"But I'll never have to take a bath again."
Robin's mother generally got up around noon on the days she worked. Robin would get cereal for her and her sisters, and they could watch morning TV or do anything else as long as they didn't leave the apartment or make too much noise. After lunch, Robin Sr. took them down to the courtyard so they could swim. Peggy's mother got into the habit of meeting Robin Sr. at one of the picnic tables, where they would smoke and talk without interruption about things Peggy found mostly completely boring.
The pool had a wading section for Roxie and Donald. Becky, though, could swim better than even the older kids. Her skin turned brown, and she was so sleek and swift in the water Peggy's mother began calling her The Otter. Swimming seemed to take over Becky's brain; that's all she ever wanted to do any more, which was okay with Robin and Peggy because it kept her out of their hair.
Peggy and Robin would swim a little bit, play Marco Polo with the little ones, then scramble out to sit together in a lounge chair and read more on Little Women.
"When I'm a writer, I'm gonna go away, like Jo," said Peggy.
"Me, too. Except I'd take my sisters with me."
"Especially. When is she going to get better?"
"Soon. She has to."
When Beth died, they were sitting in the blazing afternoon light, so bright it bounced off the paper and they had to slit their eyes to read. Peggy was half on Robin, her mouth hanging open as they raced down the page, feverishly looking for a last minute recovery that never came. Her eyes began blurring, and to her intense embarrassment, she burst into wails, just like Roxie. Even more embarrassing, she could hear Robin doing the same.
It attracted the attention of everyone in the courtyard. Peggy's mother reached her first. "What on earth is the matter, did something bite you?"
"B-b-b-Beth!" was all she could get out.
"Oh for Christ's sake." She could hear scorn in her mother's voice as she turned to Robin Sr. "They just reached the part where Beth dies."
This bald statement pushed her even further over the edge. She burrowed into Robin's shoulder, holding nothing back. She could feel Robin's chest heaving in and out.
"This is ridiculous," said Robin Sr. "Here, give me that book, you've had enough of this, it's obviously something you shouldn't read till you're older."
Peggy clamped off her grief instantly. She felt Robin lift up slightly as she slid the book under her thighs. "We won't cry any more," whispered Robin. "We promise."
In the choked silence, their mothers wavered, then said, "Oh, well" and went back to their cigarettes. Robin and Peggy sat there, pressed together, for a few minutes. Robin said, "Let's get in the water."
"Okay." Peggy dropped her towel over the book when they stood up, protecting it from view.
Two days later, they were again at poolside, reading. Jo told her family something worse than Beth dying happened. Peggy actually took the book away from Robin and leafed back through the last couple of chapters, looking for some proof of sense. She slowly noticed Robin was trembling, hard, like she had a chill. Robin's jaw was clenched.
Peggy put down the book, called to their mothers, "We're going in the house for a minute" and hauled Robin out of the chair. She held Robin's hand into her apartment. She shut the door behind them and was instantly blind in the shady apartment. Robin pulled away and went ahead somewhere.
By the time Peggy's eyes adjusted to the new light, Robin was back in the living room. She had a butcher knife from the kitchen. Peggy was petrified. Robin walked toward her and buried the tip of the blade in the middle of the coffee table. When she let go of the handle, the knife quivered a couple of times. Peggy kept watching it.
Robin's voice was deep as a grown-up's when she said, "I hate her. How could she do that?"
Peggy knew what she was talking about, but couldn't stop herself from asking, "What?"
"He's old. He's old and ugly and he smells bad. She doesn't love him. Why is she letting him marry her? I HATE HER!" Robin's voice rose to a scream.
"She loves Laurie," said Peggy, feeling pulled in despite her anxiety.
"HE'S OLD! HE'S LIKE HER DADDY!" She ran out of the room, and came back in no time with her father's belt. She threw it on the floor, picked up the knife, and began hacking at the belt. Peggy watched in fascination. She counted nine pieces when Robin was done. Robin started crying. With each sob, the blade jerked, coming dangerously close to her wrist.
Peggy stepped over to Robin and, very cautiously, like she was going to pet a strange dog, she slid the knife out of Robin's hand. She took it into the kitchen and put it away. She returned to the living room with a piece of foil. She spread this on the coffee table, picked up the belt pieces and wrapped them tightly in the foil. She carried her package into the kitchen and buried it in the bottom of the trash. All this time, Robin stood in one spot, crying horribly.
Peggy felt sure of herself now. She pulled Robin over to the couch, pushed her down onto her stomach, and lay on her back. She didn't weigh enough to matter. As Robin went on crying, she listened acutely for any sound at the front door. She felt heat well up where her skin touched Robin's, then wetness that actually beaded out and ran down Robin's side.
After an unmeasurable amount of time, Robin slowed down and began sucking snot back into her nasal passages. Peggy's ear was on Robin's cheek, and these noises were impressively detailed to her. Robin cleared her throat, and said, "We need to make a pack."
"We already did that," said Peggy, "remember?"
"No, a new pack. I want us to promise to never get married."
How could they do that? Everyone got married. But maybe they could figure out how to do it when they got older. "Okay," she said.
Robin squirmed and Peggy pushed off to the side. Robin rolled over and hooked her pinky through Peggy's.
"I swear I will never get married, so help me God," she chanted.
Peggy repeated it. She stared at Robin's pale eyes, streaked with red. "Your face looks funny. You need to wash it or something."
"All right. I'm ready to swim some more, are you?"
"Yeah. I don't think I want to finish that dumb book."
"Me neither. Let's start one of your Trixie Belden's instead, maybe The Mysterious Code. I've read it already, but we could memorize the code and write secret letters." They walked out of the apartment, chatting.
The next week, they began making plans for Peggy's birthday, six weeks away. Their favorite idea was to have a spy party, with the invitations written in disappearing ink, except they weren't sure where to find disappearing ink. One night Peggy stayed for dinner so she and Robin could draw pictures of the costumes they wished people would wear to her party. At 8:00 Robin's mother told her it was time to go home, and she walked to her apartment.
When she opened the door, she could hear her mother shouting. "You're gonna kill me, you bastard. I've already died once, I can't go on like this. You promised me, you swore this was it."
Her mother was standing in the kitchen, backed up against the sink. Her father was sitting at the table, looking at his hands. Steven and Donald were on the couch, and swung their heads to gaze at her when she stepped in.
Her mother pointed to her and said, "Tell her, you cocksucker, tell her yourself. I've had it, I'm not gonna sit around and watch you destroy this family." Her mother ran into their bedroom and slammed the door so hard it bounced and she had to slam it again.
Peggy waited. Her father didn't move. Steven finally said, "We're moving."
To a house? No, that couldn't be right. "Where?"
"Some hick town in South Texas," said Steven, suddenly furious. He threw himself upright, and shoved Peggy against the wall as he left the apartment. Her father said, "Son!" but the door was already closed. Donald looked at her beseechingly.
Instead of going to him, she whipped out of the apartment like Steven had done. She heard her father yelling her name, then her mother's name. She flew back to Robin's and whacked on their bedroom window; she could see Robin at the closet. Robin jumped, looked at her, and mouthed, "What's wrong?" Peggy held up her crooked pinky finger. Robin stared only a second and disappeared into the hall. In another second she was out on the walkway with Peggy.
They tore off down the stairs. Peggy could hear Robin's father screaming after them. They ran out the back arch to the hedge and down the side of the hedge. Peggy was all for heading down the street, but Robin tugged her back through the hedge and under the cover of the boat. They lay in the pitch black, hearts racing, until Peggy's breathing stilled.
"They're taking me away. My daddy is moving us again."
Robin scooted over so she could breathe right in Peggy's ear, "No."
"What are we going to do? My mama can't stop him. She gets mad and calls him names, but we always move."
They heard footsteps in the parking lot and went silent. There were voices, and a car starting up. Peggy wasn't sure if she recognized any of the voices. They waited until there had been no sound for a long while.
Peggy whispered, "Maybe we could live here, like Anne Frank."
"They found her." Peggy could tell Robin was thinking. She almost held her breath, waiting.
"We have to get someone to help us. A grown-up."
"Someone who isn't scared of fathers. Someone who's nice."
Peggy thought of whoever it was who wrote "Scarlet Ribbons". "Like Miz Barbour?"
"No--your Aunt Dale. Do you know how to call her?"
As a matter of fact, Peggy did. She had memorized Aunt Dale's phone number even before they moved to Irving. "But we can't go back home to use the phone, they'll catch us."
She felt Robin scrabbling beside her. "I've got my lucky dime from my loafers. If we can get to 7-11, there's a phone booth there."
They cut through the apartments next door and found a back way into the park. Staying behind bushes, they got to the edge of the 7-11 lot.
"Okay, here's the plan," said Peggy behind her hand, like a commando. "If we can get inside the phone booth, we can duck down below that colored part and no one will see us. We can talk into the phone from down there."
"Don't close the door all the way, cause when you do, a light comes on," reminded Robin.
"Roger," said Peggy. Robin clutched her dime in one hand, Peggy's hand in the other. They waited until there were no cars in sight before dashing to the phone booth.
"This floor is nasty, it's sticking to my thighs."
"What's the number?"
Robin handed the receiver to Peggy.
"Aunt Dale? Can I come live with you?"
"Peggy? What are you doing, child?"
"Daddy says we're moving again. Please, Aunt Dale, can I come live with you? I'll be good, I promise, I'll do anything you say."
"Oh, dear Lord, Peggy, let me talk to your mother."
"I've run away from home. I'm never going back, no matter what. Aunt Dale, I never had a friend before now, Robin's the only friend I got. Please let me stay here."
Peggy could hear Aunt Dale saying something to Uncle Ash with her hand over the receiver. "Peggy? We'll come and get you. Where are you?"
"Can I stay with you? You're older than Mama, she'll do what you say."
"Where are you, Peggy?"
"We're at the 7-11." Peggy heard Aunt Dale's hand go over the receiver again, then she came back.
"Peggy, are you sure about the move? Last time I talked to your mama, she didn't say anything about it; they were still house hunting."
"Daddy told us tonight. Mama's having a fit. She said he's killing her."
"Oh, Peggy, I'm so sorry. It's just a fight, don't you worry about it. They'll make up."
"I don't want to go any more. I like it here."
"They're your parents, Peggy. You belong to them, you have to do what they say."
Peggy's voice went way up. "Why? What if they're mean, what if they hurt us? Steven hurts me, Aunt Dale, and Robin's father hurts her real bad."
"Well, sometimes children misbehave and have to be punished, Peggy, you know that, but it's for your own good."
Peggy held the phone away from her ear. Robin turned over her palm in question. As Peggy was trying to figure out what to say, there was the sound of squealing tires nearby. Two bright lights came right at them and stopped inches away. A car door opened. Peggy lifted her eyes to the upper glass of the booth. Steven was grinning down at her.
Robin Sr. brought Robin and the little ones over to say goodbye the morning they left. It was the first time Peggy had seen her in days. She already looked unfamiliar.
Robin handed her a piece of paper. "It's my address. We could write letters."
Peggy folded it into the side of her shoe. Standing back up, she stood with her hands behind her back. Their mothers were hugging and fighting back tears. She hated them.
"Come on, then, get in the back seat," her mother said. Peggy met Robin's eyes. She lifted her hand in a wave. Robin waved back, and Peggy saw that her little finger was curved out. Peggy curved hers, too.
In the new town, Peggy was sick a lot more. Her mother said it must be the coastal humidity. Steven went out for the football team and became a star. Peggy wrote letters and asked for stamps. Her mother said she would mail them, but sometimes Peggy found them in her mother's purse weeks later. All of the girls in her new class had been friends with each other since first grade.
At Christmas, they got a card from Robin's family. It was signed "Ray, Robin Sr., Robin Jr., Rebecca", in Robin Sr.'s handwriting. Peggy held it up to her mother and said, "Where's Roxie?"
Her mother re-read it and said, "That's funny. I imagine she just forgot to write her name, she was probably signing a lot of cards."
"Maybe something happened to Roxie."
"Oh, I don't think so, we'd have heard."
"Can we call? Please, can we call and see if Roxie is okay?"
Her mother thought it over. "Tonight, after supper."
Peggy couldn't sit still all afternoon. She couldn't read, either. She pulled out their book of Christmas carols and sang them all at the top of her lungs until her mother told her to shut up, she go enough of that on the radio.
After her mother finished the dishes, Peggy began pestering her to call. "You're gonna let me talk to Robin, aren't you?" Her voice got frantic. "I want to talk to her myself."
"It's long distance, honey," her mother began.
"It's almost Christmas, it can be my present! Please, I have to talk to Robin."
"Calm down, let's see if they're home first."
Roxie was okay. Her mother laughed a lot, talking about Peggy like she was retarded for imagining the worst. Peggy keep a hand on her mother's elbow, shifting from one foot to the other. Finally her mother gave her the phone.
Robin sounded funny. Their sentences were too short. Peggy wished her mother would leave the room. She had to tell Robin about Steven, about the new thing he had started doing. But Steven had said if she told her mother, he'd kill her. Robin would know what to do. Before she could figure out a way to say it, her mother was reaching for the phone back. Peggy clamped onto the receiver. "I'm not done."
"Yes, you are, little miss."
"Robin? Don't forget."
Her mother had the phone. Peggy sat down in a chair and leaned her head against the wall. Her mother hung up after talking a while more. She lit a cigarette and went back into the kitchen.
Peggy got out her Trixie Belden book. Using the stickman code, she wrote to Robin. She couldn't remember if Robin had a copy of this Trixie Belden or not. She gave the letter to her mother to mail.
In February, Peggy mailed a birthday card to Robin. Robin wrote back, telling what presents she had gotten. She said Miz Barbour was still coming to sing once a week. At the end of her letter, she wrote, "You remember Toni? She's in my class this year. We are friends now." She never mentioned the code letter. Peggy didn't write back.
Early in fifth grade, Peggy had been home from school all week with another round of bronchitis. In the afternoons, she would lie in her bed in the dining room listening for the soft swish of the mail dropping through the flap by the front door. She had the habit of checking the mail before her mother got to it. If there was an envelope with a plastic window in the front, her mother was going to be in a bad mood later on.
Today there was a square envelope bearing the dark, round loops of Aunt Dale's handwriting. It was addressed to her mother only. After resting a while in the rocker to catch her breath, she walked slowly into the kitchen and delivered her prize. Her mother was at the table working a crossword while she waited on some cornbread to bake. Peggy sat down silently in the corner chair and watched her mother read; it would be her turn after.
There were two sheets of crinkly white paper and a piece cut out of a newspaper. Her mother unfolded the letter, then changed her mind and looked at the newspaper first. After a couple of heartbeats, her face went blank and she said, "Oh dear god no". She read the whole thing, her eyes darting back and forth, her lower lip sucked in. By the end, tears made her eyes look like they were bulging out of her lids, and she closed her lids to squeeze them away. She picked at the tablecloth.
Peggy whispered, "What's wrong?"
Her mother twisted, looked at her, looked away. "You should be in bed." Her tone was fierce.
Peggy moved her legs out, but dared, again, "Is Aunt Dale okay?" She got a glimpse of Donald slipping into the hall doorway, wide-eyed. His radar had already picked up trouble. She willed him, with a look, not to say anything. He stayed put.
Her mother finally said, "She's fine. So is Ash and the girls. It's nothing for you to worry about. Now go back to bed." Peggy carefully padded back into the dining room, pulling Donald with her.
Since she was too winded to talk, she gave Donald a treat: She asked him to tell her one of his stories. These were rambling, plotless messes full of long pauses where he tried to think of what to say next, followed by explosions of wild action involving G.I. Dalee, Dalehnny Quest and big spiders. All Peggy had to do was listen.
By the weekend she was enough better to get up and get dressed, but not to leave the house. Her mother had to go to the store, and when Steven wasn't around to look after Donald, she took Donald with her and left Peggy on her own. Peggy counted to 100 chimpanzee after her mother's car was out of sight before she headed for her mother's bedroom.
Her mother hid all her important stuff in the bottom drawer of the dresser. This drawer had a big hasp screwed into it, with the screws well-hidden behind the metal flanges. It was always kept tightly closed with a brass Yale lock. Peggy had never been able to find the key. However, one day she was sick and hanging out in her mother's bed. Her mother had come in to put away clean laundry in the dresser, and Peggy had finally figured out how to get into that drawer.
Now, she pulled out the drawer just above the locked drawer. Grunting, she tilted the drawer up far enough to get the lip out over the frame. She managed to carry the drawer to the bed, and caught her breath. She found a small metal fingernail file on her mother's bedside table. There was a piece of wood that covered the bottom of the drawer slide, and between this wood and the frame of the dresser was a thin crack. Peggy jimmied the tip of the file into this crack and pried upward. From numerous prior removals, it came up easily, and she slid it out of the space. The locked drawer lay exposed.
She wasn't sure how much time she had, so after she located Aunt Dale's letter, she hid it in the middle of her father's Masonic rule book on the bottom shelf behind the sofa in the living room. She reassembled the drawer and put away the file. She could return the letter another time, after she had a chance to read it in safety.
Sure enough, while Peggy was going to the bathroom her mother got back home. Peggy sat in the kitchen while her mother put away the groceries and started dinner. Steven slammed in a while later; Peggy heard him picking at Donald in their bedroom. When her mother yelled at him to come talk to her, Peggy decided to have a try at the letter.
Going by the hall instead of the dining room, she made it to the living room unseen. She slithered in between the couch and the bookshelf behind it--this space was only wide enough for a cat or a pencil-thin child. She tucked her feet under the edge of the couch. Now the length of the couch, and the shadow, concealed her utterly. Even little Donald had never been able to find her here. She calmed her breathing as best she could, with all the dust back here, and got out the letter.
Like her mother, she began with the newspaper. It was an article with a headline: "IRVING GIRLS CLING TO LIFE". She read it with hands as weightless as the paper. She read "...an attempt by their father to wipe out most of his family..." She read "...had ended their marriage of 12 years in a divorce action Monday..." She read "Hotel employees said the man and the girls appeared calm and relaxed when they checked in and were shown their room..."
But her eyes kept focusing on those familiar names, repeated over and over in the print: "Roxanne, 6, and Rebecca Houser, 8, had been shot in the head; Robin Houser had been shot in the head and the chest, police said." "It was at that time Robin Houser staggered into the elevator, telling the bellhop `Get some help, trouble'." "The officer saw Robin, covered with blood and in hysterics, huddled in a lobby chair." "He found the youngest girls lying side by side on the tile floor, where Robin had apparently tried to hide them when her father began firing." "Father dead at the scene, Roxanne died at 5 p.m., and the two older girls surviving at the hospital in critical condition."
As Peggy refolded the newspaper, she could smell pork chops frying in the kitchen. She opened Aunt Dale's letter. Aunt Dale called her mother "Baby Sister". At the bottom of the first sheet, she memorized how to spell the word "paraplegic" to look up later in the dictionary. She had never heard it, but she guessed it meant Becky might not be able to go swimming any more.
At the top of the second page, it said, "Robin's in speech therapy and has no permanent spinal cord or lung damage. Her hair is growing back and will cover the scars, they think. It is hard to know how extensive the brain damage is, but we are praying for the return of enough that she will be able to go home and not stay in an institution."
After putting the letter back in the book, Peggy lay very still, watching dusk steal the colors from the living room. She heard crickets start up outside. Finally she heard her mother tell Donald to wash his hands. She roused herself and began inching out from behind the couch.
She was not hungry and would not eat but if she didn't get to the table before Steven, he would wolf most of the pork chops behind her mother's back, then steal Donald's food from his plate. She could generally hide enough in her lap from her own servings to give Donald later. Her mother didn't eat with them. Instead, she stood in the kitchen, ate the scrapings from the pot, then lit a cigarette and stared out the back door.
© 2008 Maggie Jochild
(Róisín Murphy featuring Tony Christie performing "Scarlet Ribbons")
Friday, May 30, 2008
(Still from independent film Tomboys!, 2004, by Julie Akeret and Christian McEwen)