I slowed down as I approached the landing at our apartment. Mom was a tall woman and I was small for my age, and now I wished I could shrink into a piece of nothing and disappear.
“What in hell do you think you are doing, Miss Priss?” Mom’s voice was low and dangerous. I had no idea of what she was thinking. I only knew I did something wrong, very wrong.
She grabbed me by my shoulder and snatched the butterfly dress out of my arms. Her cup and saucer fell to the floor and shattered. The white patent shoes landed on the parquet floor with two thuds and my heart slammed still with a third, as she shoved me into the living room, which was really just a corner of our large kitchen/dining/living area.
Mom pushed me back into the sofa and I sat and watched, frozen with fear, as she took the beautiful dress and tore it apart. She shredded the puff sleeves, and ripped the skirt off. Then she wadded it into a ball, marched across the room and shoved everything into the kitchen trashcan and grabbed the dustpan and broom and came back for the shattered cup and saucer. She swept the broken pottery up, then let me have it.
“I heard you had gone with that woman to the rummage sale! I suppose you know who’s princess shoes these are, don’t you?” I looked at her trying to guess whose shoes these might have been.
“These belonged to that little smartass Brenda! If you wear such fancy shoes our family will be the laughing stock of the whole goddam town!
She stopped sweeping and glared down at me. My mother was so tall and so scary when she was mad. I prayed I wouldn’t wet myself.
“I forbid you to wear those shoes! We will give them to charity. And you are never to go shopping at a goddam rummage sale again! Ever!”
Mom grabbed my braids and told me to go to bed with no dinner.
I went into the room I shared with my brother and laid down on my bed and began to cry. After a while, I heard Bill come home, hungry, asking what was for dinner.
“Well, it’s pretty near the end of the month, so we are stuck with Graveyard Stew. Let’s hope the milk holds up.”
“I hate Graveyard Stew! Why can’t we have hotdogs or tuna casserole like other people?”
I heard her suck her breath in, heard the slap across his face and he ran into our room and shoved his bed against the door and threw himself face down on his bed.
Bill and I went to bed early again. We listened to our mother pacing and muttering to herself about that Jewess, about pride, about not needing somebody’s damned castoffs.
“What’s a Jewess, Billy?” Bill turned over; his cheek was still red, but no tears.
“I don’t know, Sis, I never heard of one before.” He turned away and sighed, “Maybe it’s someone who sells jewelry.”
I crawled into bed with him and he patted me on the head and turned away. We both waited for sleep to hurry up and come before the growling in our stomachs began. If we could get to sleep quickly we would not feel the pangs.
The next morning we woke up early and spoke in whispers about whether our mother was over being mad. We decided to wait until she woke up, and listen to how her feet sounded on the floor. If she was still mad she stomped, and eventually we would hear her slam the door as she left to walk off her madness. If she was quiet she was probably crying. It was safer if she was crying.
We listened and didn’t hear anything. We dressed quickly, hoping she had already left. We grabbed our shoes and opened our door.
Mom was lying on her back on the sofa, one foot resting on the floor, one arm flung over her eyes. The ashtray was balanced on her belly and it moved a little each time she snored in and let out. My brother and I tip-toed quietly out the front door.
We reached the bottom step we sat down to put our shoes on. When I stood up I could see by my shadow on the sidewalk that we weren’t anywhere near noon. I hoped Elisabeth would bring a lot of food for lunch.
Billy said he was going over to Al’s house. They were helping his dad work on an old truck. Al’s family was Italian and they always had big lunches with pasta and sandwiches. They fed everybody who was working worked in the garage, paid or not; and anyone who just stopped by to say hello. I headed down to the swimming pool and see if any kids were there. They were pretty good about letting us swim for free if we behaved ourselves and helped some with picking up trash that the tourists threw around. We could usually count on a hot dog in return for keeping the area clean.
Nobody was at the pool yet so I went around back and climbed over the cyclone fence, and dropped softly down on the patch of grass the sunbathers used. I sat way back in the corner where the fence met the beige stucco wall of the dressing rooms, where nobody could see me, and felt the sun comfort me with warmth. I prayed the rest of the day would please be better. I imagined my special time with Elisabeth, down at the creek and eating lunch with her. Meanwhile I leaned against the stucco, feeling cozy in the warmth of the sun and dozed off.
I jumped awake and stood straight up. Elisabeth! It was time because my shadow was getting short, so I walked down to the cottages and knocked on the door of Cottage No. 14. Nobody answered. So I knocked a little louder.
The door opened and a chubby grey-haired old lady wearing a blue dress with white daisies said hello to me. When I asked for Elisabeth, she said she was sorry, but Elisabeth was ill. She would be leaving for San Francisco once she woke up.
“Aaah, you must be Mellie?” She smiled down at me when I nodded my head. “I’m Miss Anna, Elisabeth’s friend. I know all about you from Elisabeth, and also from Miss Lilly. Miss Lilly says you are a very brave and a very smart young lady, did you know that?” I nodded my head yes.
“Miss Lilly always tells me that. She says it is the most important thing I need to remember, that I’m very brave and very smart.”
Miss Anna patted my cheek, “So! You must wake up each morning with this as your very first thought! Then when you go to sleep each night you must let it be your last thought. Do this and you will have a very fine life, Mellie, I promise!”
She leaned down and gave me a little hug and a pat on the head.
“Now run along now and play with your friends. I think that Elisabeth will be coming back later in the summer.”
I turned and started to walk away. Then I stopped and looked back at Miss Anna. She had a hanky in her hand, was wiping her eyes as she turned around and went back in the cottage. She closed the door.
I ran down Washington Street and took the path down to the creek, and waded in waist deep water out to the logs under the bridge, where the turtle family lived. I climbed out of the water and hid in the pilings listening to frogs croaking and the sizzle of tires on the bridge above me. I wiped tears from my cheek as I hoped that everything would be okay when the sun went down and I went home.