The little girl was thirsty, so she slipped out of her seat at the back of her fourth grade classroom and tiptoed to the rear door. She checked her pocket. Yes, she had her hall pass in case anyone asked to see it, although they hardly ever did. After all, she was not a “Problem Kid.” And if they did ask to see it, she would hold it up and they would wave her on her way without a glance at a pass dated three weeks earlier.
If you’re not a “Problem Kid,” it’s easy to be invisible: Sit at the back of the classroom, behind the biggest student, never raise your hand, and never make a sound. There are so many loud kids, and kids with “Problems;” one little girl who never makes trouble is hardly noticeable.
As she stole down the hall, brushing the sand-colored tiles now and then, she could hear the whispers:
“Doesn’t she ever comb her hair?”
“Why doesn’t she stand up straight?’
Usually she tuned the voices out, but this time was different. This time it wasn’t her classmates whispering; it was the teachers.
“Why does that little girl scuttle along the wall like a frightened mouse?”
She didn’t know what “scuttle” meant, but she figured if it was something scared mice did, it probably wasn’t a good thing. She sneaked into the library to look it up: “a hurried run.” That wasn’t so bad.
She darted back into the hall. The teachers were still there. She waved her pass at them and they kind of smiled and waved back. After all, she was not a “Problem Kid.” She wasn’t worth noticing.
But maybe she could try. Maybe she could walk right out to the middle of the hall. Tell them her name. Show them she wasn’t a mouse.
She held her breath and took one step away from the wall. At the same time, the bell rang and a group of boys ran out of a classroom, headed for the gym, yelling to each other and tossing a ball back and forth. Their loud voices sounded like the angry words she heard coming from her parents’ room every night, voices that made her pull the covers over her head and make believe she wasn’t there. She darted back to the wall and flattened her hands on the tiles, pressing her face against the glossy surface, taking comfort in the cool on her cheek.
She waited until the hall was clear. Just one step, she told herself, and then another. A noise stopped her: a janitor pushing a dolly loaded with books. She raced back to the wall and the familiar tiles and watched him make his way down the hall and around the corner.
It was no use. She couldn’t do it. She scooted back to her classroom and slid into her seat at the back of the room, behind the biggest student. It was good to be invisible. No one had noticed she was gone. After all, she was not a “Problem Kid.”
When the dismissal bell rang, she waited until everyone else left, and then ducked into the hall. She scurried down the passageway, caressing the wall now and then, reassured by the friendliness of the cool tiles.
As she passed the janitor’s closet, she heard a small sound and stopped to listen. It came again. She opened the door and the smell of disinfectant came at her like an ocean wave. It was dark, but her eyes adjusted to the dim light and there, in the midst of the mops and brooms and cleaning supplies and rolls of toilet paper and paper towels and cans of floor wax, a black and white cat lay on its side. It raised its head briefly and mewed again.
She bent down and stroked the furry head. The little cat purred under her hand.
“What’s the matter, kitty? Are you sick?”
This time the cat barely moved as it let out another pitiful, “Mew.”
She picked up the cat, raced to the office, and burst through the door. The secretary looked up from her computer. “My goodness! What have you got there?”
She didn’t say anything—just held tight to the little cat.
“Do you want me to take care of the cat?”
She tightened her lips and clutched the animal closer to her chest.
“I was just about to leave. There’s a veterinarian near my house. Do you want to take the cat there?”
She gave a tiny nod.
They drove to the vet’s office. She cradled the warm bundle in her arms and whispered in its ear. “You’re going to be okay. I’ll take care of you.” Small tears trickled down her face. “Please don’t die.”
The veterinarian invited them into a small room that smelled like a swimming pool. The doctor pried the cat out of the little girl’s arms and placed it on the large steel table in the middle of the room. She rolled the little animal onto its back and examined it.
“He has something stuck in his throat,” the doctor said, “and it looks like he hasn’t eaten in quite a while. It’s a simple procedure, but he’s very dehydrated. You got him here just in time. You saved his life.”
The next day, she was back in school, scurrying along the wall, touching the cool tiles every few steps. The same teachers were in the hall and she could hear the whispers:
“There’s that little girl again. Does she ever speak?”
She pushed herself off the wall and left the tiles behind. She lifted her chin, and marched up to the teachers. “My name is Maria. And I saved a cat.”
And she strode down the middle of the hall to her classroom, her head high, the tiniest of smiles on her face. Maybe they would remember her name.
Even if she wasn’t a “Problem Kid.”
With a menacing crackle, the fire ignites in the basement and darts up the steps, the dried-out wood kindling for the hungry flames. High-pitched sirens, faint at first, swell as rescuers draw near.
The blaze reaches the living room and devours the contents, leaving behind shreds of lacey curtains plastered to blistered walls, and shards of glass from cracked and blackened windows. The flames lick the ceiling; a thunderous crash echoes through the house as beams collapse.
Grey and black smoke, backdrop for red-orange flares, billows through openings where windows used to be, transporting particle-filled soot out into the cool night air. It flows over the mass of onlookers, triggering red-rimmed eyes, smut-filled lungs, and gritty tongues.
Husband, wife, and three children huddle together, shivering in their nightclothes, eyes filled with disbelief, black tears streaming down their faces. Neighbors cluck in sympathy and cast fearful glances at their own homes, suspicious of the flickering sparks carried here and there by a gentle breeze that belies the calamity of the night.
In a frantic search for fuel, the fire-tentacles scramble up the carpeted stairs. More odors drift out to the spectators: burning foam rubber, smoldering wool blankets, the stench of duck feather pillows. The blaze consumes the heavy oak furniture and, for a moment, there is a hint of a pleasant campfire. It doesn’t last.
A fireman trudges out of the house, his yellow rubber jacket and pants streaked with soot. He rips off his mask and coughs, a raspy sound that tells onlookers the smoke has seeped beneath his protective gear. His forehead and cheeks are thick with coal-black smears, but his eyes, nose, and mouth are barely soiled where the mask had been. A fellow firefighter hands him a bottle of water.
“Thanks,” he manages to gasp.
He tips his head back and drains the bottle with huge thirsty gulps. He throws it to the ground, lets out a grateful sigh, and swipes the back of his gloved hand across his mouth, smearing an inky mess over his parched lips.
Another firefighter runs from the front door, a charred metal cage in his arms. A different aroma: burning flesh. The children cry out as they recognize their pet, huddled in a corner, her fur singed and blackened.
“What about her babies?” they scream.
The hamster is dead and the babies are gone. Only a few bits of soft bone remain: the mother protected her children the only way she knew how.
The inferno reaches the room in the back corner of the house and the intense heat takes its toll. Oddly shaped puddles of plastic and scorched scraps of metal litter the floor: a Mickey Mouse puppet; a bathtub duckling; a fire truck; a pop-up clown, its bright red smile grotesque in the sticky pool. A baby doll lies on her back, one side melted into the alphabet rug, the other, by some miracle, retaining its shape. One brown eye stares out, the final witness to the devastation.
MEMORIES OF AN ADOLESCENT MALE
(As Related to the Author by a Former Adolescent Male)
I was fourteen years old when I saw her: the girl of my dreams. She was enthroned on a bench under a weeping willow tree, next to a shallow stream that wandered through the park.
I froze. I couldn’t breathe. All I could do was marvel at this goddess, this apparition that couldn’t be real. The sun glistened on golden hair that shimmered around her head like a celestial mirage. A gentle breeze ruffled her curls and lifted them gently from her flawless neck. Daisies and violets and pansies accepted their demotion, unable to deny the victor her spoils.
She caught me staring and lowered her eyes. Wispy eyelashes like tiny feathers danced on the delicate porcelain of her cheeks. Then, instead of giving me a nasty look like the girls in my school would do, she looked up and her little lips curled slightly, parted just enough to reveal perfect glistening teeth—tiny teeth, not horse teeth like the girl who sat next to me in biology all year long. And I knew my world would never be the same.
It was early summer and we were at a church picnic. Oh, I knew all about the birds and the bees: between sex classes in school (explanatory and boring), and fatherly talks (Dad said he learned a lot), I was pretty well informed. But nothing could have prepared me for the explosions in my head or the knife pains in my chest.
Everyone was in blue jeans, shorts, t-shirts, and sneakers. Not this girl. Not my girl. She graced a frilly pink dress, with lace on top and a little fringy thing running along the bottom, which stopped at knees, attached to perfect legs, which led to adorable feet, adorned by shiny black shoes with a strap just above what I knew would be immaculate, dainty toes. A tiny white hat shaped like my grandmother’s pill box perched on top of her head, slanted at a slight angle that matched the tilt of her eyes.
And she was wearing gloves—white gloves with lace around the edges. She lifted one little hand to brush a curl away from her rose-tinted cheek and I finally understood the Shakespeare line our English Lit teacher made us read —something about some guy wishing he were the glove on some girl’s hand.
She lifted her head and sent an inviting smile granting permission to approach. She was perfect: the blonde curls framing an angelic face you would only see atop a Yuletide evergreen; eyes the color of the blue sapphires displayed only in the finest museums.
I managed to speak, well, croak: “Hi, I’m Jerry.” My voice cracked, so that the ‘ry’ of Jer-ry came out in a high, mortifying squeak. The blush started at my Adam’s apple and burned up through the roots of my hair to the tip of every strand. I wondered if I was glowing.
She didn’t laugh, just tilted her head. “Hello, Jerry,” she said in a voice that matched her exquisite beauty. It was barely a sound—more like the tinkling of bells, or the gentle sprinkle of a rippling brook, or the sweet chime of a steeple’s carillon. And then she added, in a voice that sang with a sweet southern melody, “Would you care to sit down?” And she patted the bench with a daintily clad hand.
This goddess, who could only be an ethereal, out-of-this-world visitor from Mt. Olympus, was inviting me, a lowly mortal, to sit in her presence.
I sat. “I’m Jerry,” I said again. It was all I could get out.
She laughed—more tinkling bells— “Hello again, Jerry. I’m Samantha Jean.”
Samantha Jean! A perfect name for a perfect girl. Samantha Jean. I rolled the name around my tongue. Samantha Jean. I thought of how the name would look tattooed across my chest, intertwined with mine, a big heart in the center, surrounded by roses and ivy and those little white flowers they put in corsages that make them look all dorky.
Her perfume drifted my way and I thought of jasmine and wild orchids. I’d never smelled a jasmine or a wild orchid in my whole life, but that is what the scent had to be. They were the most exotic, exciting aromas I could think of, so that had to be how they smelled—just like her, just like the girl of my dreams.
She said something else, but the chiming in my head muffled the words.
I jumped. “What?”
“I said, are you having a good time at the picnic?”
Was I having a good time? Was I having a good time?!! I was sitting next to the most beautiful girl in the universe. I’d never had a better time in my whole life.
“Uh, yeah,” I managed to say.
“Good,” she trilled. And she crossed her little feet and swung them back and forth under the bench.
She had a small blue paper plate in her lap, topped by a vanilla cupcake with pink sprinkles on white frosting. She took a tiny bite and a crumb dropped into her lap.
“Oh,” she said, brushing her skirt with the back of her elegant hand. “I’m getting all mussed.”
That’s when it happened.
The sound started from under the seat and ripped up through the slats. A noisy, rumbling sound, that blurted and blasted its way to the back of the bench and beyond. It went on forever; I thought it would never stop.
It was juicy, too—moisture mixed in with the resonance. It reverberated around the railings and surrounded us. A rolling boom of thunder, an echoing roar, resounding between us, until it finally faded into a deep grumble.
The girl of my dreams farted.
Her dainty mouth stretched into a giant, contorted O. She let out a shriek I had only heard emanating from the baboon enclosure at the National Zoo. She lifted her pink skirts and ran—sprinted—across the field. I watched her go: a blurred vision, flashing into the sun, disappearing behind a grove of bamboo trees, leaving me in a miasma that could never be the scent of jasmine and wild orchids.
I never saw her again.
BECOMING A WOMAN in the 50s
Unfortunately, it was Easter Sunday morning, the absolute busiest—and worst—day of the year for a minister and his family: three services and all the people who make what the resident pastor called their “annual spring pilgrimage” to church. Bobbie Jean Parks stood on the lower landing of the parsonage staircase, one hand holding tight to the railing, the other rolled into a fist and jammed against her mouth. Dark, sleep-tangled curls tumbled over terrified brown eyes, dampened by tears streaming down wet cheeks.
“Mom?” Bobbie’s knuckles muffled the word.
Her mother, Mrs. Shirley Parks, stood in the living room, surrounded by dozens of pots of lilies and hyacinths. In spite of her agitation, not a grey, permed hair was out of place, although the tie on her beige bathrobe was slightly askew, revealing the sensible white cotton nightgown underneath. “Not now, Bobbie. I have to get these flowers to the sanctuary in time for the eight o’clock service.”
The plants’ oversweet aroma filled the air. Bobbie knew that smell well: as a minister’s daughter she went to a lot of funerals.
“I don’t understand why they brought the flowers here. Why didn’t they put them in the sanctuary?” Mrs. Parks muttered into the plant pots. She glared at the offending blossoms covering the floor of her usually immaculate living room. “Where is that man?” she said out loud. Her husband, the Rev. Thaddeus Parks, was always ‘that man.’ “He’s got to help me with these things. Go find him, Bobbie. And find your sisters, too.”
Bobbie curled her toes over the wooden edge of the staircase landing and gripped the railing even tighter. “Mom?”
“Bobbie, whatever it is, it will have to wait. I’ve got to take care of these flowers.” Mrs. Parks stooped to straighten a fallen pot and scoop up dirt that had scattered onto the rose-patterned carpet. “Oh, why is everything left up to me?”
Bobbie pulled her fist from her mouth, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. “I th-th-think I’m d-d-dying.”
Mrs. Parks didn’t look up. She pinched last bits of soil between her fingers, brushed them off her hands into a pot, and bent closer to the plant to examine a broken leaf. “What is it this time? Let’s see, last month you had a brain tumor, and the week before that it was tuberculosis. Didn’t you have the black plague at some point? Really, Bobbie, you must stop having all these terminal diseases. It’s—”
“I’m bl-bl-bleeding,” Bobbie blurted out.
“What?” Mrs. Parks turned and looked at her daughter. “What in the world…?” She went to Bobbie and put her hands on the little girl’s trembling shoulders.
“Bobbie, what is it?” A tinge of sympathy crept into her voice.
“I’m bleeding. D-d-d-down there. I think it was the popcorn.”
Mrs. Parks blinked and dropped her hands. “Popcorn?”
“Last night. At the movies. I ate a lot of popcorn. I th-th-think the sharp edges cut me,” her voice rose higher and higher, “and now I’m bleeding and I’m going to d-d-die.”
“Let me see.” Mrs. Parks lifted her daughter’s nightgown and stared at the red stains on her underwear. “Oh, my. Oh, my goodness. Oh, dear.”
Bobbie’s eyes widened. “Is it bad? Am I going to die? I don’t want to die.” She used the front of her nightgown to wipe her running nose.
Mrs. Parks yanked the nightgown away from Bobbie’s face. “Don’t do that.”
Bobbie tried to sniff the snot back into her nose. In her mother’s proper Bostonian world, ladies didn’t wipe their noses with their nightgowns. Snuffling didn’t help, so she used the back of her hand. That didn’t work either. She let it drip.
Mrs. Parks pulled a tissue from her pocket and handed it to Bobbie. “This is impossible. You’re only eleven years old. And you’re tiny.”
Bobbie wiped her nose with the tissue. “Is that why the popcorn cut me? Because I’m little? And shouldn’t you be calling an ambulance or the fire department or whoever collects dead people?”
“Bobbie, you are not dying.” Mrs. Parks said, stumbling over her words. “It is… It is… It is perfectly natural.”
Bobbie dabbed at her nose with the disintegrating tissue. “It’s natural to bleed to death?”
Mrs. Parks ran her fingers over her hair. “You are not bleeding to death. In just a few days it will stop.”
“How do you know?” Bobbie demanded.
“I just know, that’s all. It’s got to do with—with— with your insides. Down there,” she said, rubbing Bobbie’s stomach. “I don’t know how to explain— It’s got to do with— Oh, I just can’t talk about these things.”
“Body things. Female things.”
“Female things? The popcorn cut me because I’m female?” Confusion cut into fear. Her mother always got crazy nervous whenever what she called ‘body things’ were discussed. Especially if the ‘body things’ were female and involved parts of the body below the waist. Ladies were “expecting”—never pregnant. And people needed to “wash their hands”—never pee.
Mrs. Parks ran her hands up and down her forearms. “No. No. It’s not popcorn. It’s—It’s—“ She backed away from Bobbie. “Let me get your sisters. They’ll explain everything.” She called up the stairs. “Penny. Elaine. Get down here immediately and help your sister.” No answer. Her voice rose, close to hysterical. “Penny. Elaine. Now!”
Penny, the oldest of the three Parks girls, popped her head over the top of the stairs: big blue eyes, perfect complexion, blonde hair cascading over her shoulders, parted on the left, draped over her right eye—a style she copied from one of the movie magazines she devoured every night. Right now, half of the blonde tresses was wrapped around six empty toilet paper rolls; the other half hung over her shoulder and down the back of her black and white flannel nightshirt.
“For heaven’s sake!” One of the toilet paper rolls slipped from its bonds. Penny grabbed it and held it in place. “I am in the middle of doing my hair. What’s the emergency?” She stopped at the sight of Bobbie’s tragedy-filled face. “What’s wrong with the little pest now?” Penny had no patience with a kid sister who never sat still, never shut up, and inserted herself into her gorgeous big sister’s love life whenever she could.
“I ate too much popcorn and now I’m bleeding and I’m going to die,” Bobbie wailed.
“She just got her—her—her you-know-what.” Mrs. Parks looked up to the ceiling and shook her finger toward Bobby’s “down there.”
“Her you-know— You mean her period?” Penny’s voice rose so high she almost squeaked.
“Of course I mean her per… her—what you said,” her mother barked.
“That’s ridiculous.” Penny threw her hands to her sides, forgetting to hold onto the toilet paper roll, which tumbled off her head and bounced down the stairs, leaving behind a slightly curled damp sprig of hair. “She’s only eleven. And she’s a runt.”
Bobbie stopped sniffling long enough to glare up at her big sister. “Don’t call me a runt. It was the popcorn.”
Penny came down the stairs far enough to retrieve the paper roll. She patted her head, seeking an extra bobby pin. Finding none, she sat, braced her chin on one hand and fiddled with the roll with the other. “I can’t believe this,” she muttered into her hand.
Elaine came in from the kitchen. In her new pale green suit trimmed with white rickrack, she was already dressed for church, lacking only hat and gloves. She went to her little sister and held out her arms. “What is it, Bobbie?”
“I ate popcorn and I’m going to die!” Bobbie threw herself into Elaine’s arms and they both tumbled onto the stair landing.
Elaine recovered her balance and patted Bobbie’s back at the same time. Three years younger than Penny, she towered over both her sisters. The church’s parishioners had long ago categorized the three minister’s daughters: Penny was “The Pretty One;” Elaine was “The Smart One;” and Bobbie was “The Cute One Who Never Sits Still.”
Perched on the stair landing, her arms still wrapped around Bobbie, Elaine looked up at Penny. “Popcorn?”
Penny described the situation in a matter-of-fact, if bored, voice. “… And now she thinks she’s going to die.”
Elaine loosened Bobbie’s arms from her neck and, for a moment, gazed into the tear-stained face. “Oh.” Then she turned again to look up at Penny. “She what?”
Penny sighed and rolled her eyes. “She got her period…”
“I heard you. I heard you. But that’s impossible.” Elaine pulled Bobbie closer to her. “She’s only eleven years old.”
“I’m almost twelve,” Bobbie put in.
Elaine stood and pulled Bobbie to her feet. “Come on. Let’s get comfortable. My butt is getting sore.”
“Elaine!” Mrs. Parks said.
“Excuse me, Mother,” Elaine said. “My derriere is getting sore.”
“That’s not much better,” Mrs. Parks sniffed. “And sarcasm is unbecoming.”
With her arm around Bobbie’s shoulders, Elaine threaded their way through the flowerpots toward a blue sofa adorned with three white antimacassars along the back and one on each armrest.
“Wait!” Mrs. Parks said. She dashed through the plants, grabbed the Sunday paper, and slipped it onto the couch beneath Bobbie.
“It’s all right, Bobbie,” Elaine said as they sank into the sofa. “Nothing to be afraid of.”
“Bleeding to death is nothing to be afraid of?” Bobbie said.
Penny pushed herself up from her perch on the stairs and joined her mother and her sister. “Only Bobbie could turn a natural process into a Shakespearean tragedy.”
“Oh, shut up, Penny,” Elaine said.
“You shut up,” Penny said to Elaine.
“Don’t say shut up,” Mrs. Parks said. “It’s not ladylike.”
Penny rolled her eyes, folded her arms, and leaned against the wall.
“What in the world is going on in here?” The Reverend Thaddeus Parks came out of his office and confronted the four females in his life. Every Sunday morning he got up at five o’clock and practiced his sermon into a tape recorder. He was almost fully dressed: navy blue suit, white shirt, maroon tie, black socks, one shoe. His trousers humped over an abundant abdomen, revealing a lump that had caused one annoying three-year-old to ask why the minister had a beach ball in his pants.
“It is Easter Sunday morning. I have to conduct three services and the flowers aren’t even set up. And there are stockings and brassieres all over the bathroom. And I can’t find my shoe.”
He spotted Penny and her new hairdo and went to her, kicking over one of the lily pots on the way. The lily fell onto one of the hyacinths, and the soil from both pots spilled over.
“My carpet!” Mrs. Parks shrieked. She knelt to scoop up the dirt before it got ground into the fibers of the living room rug.
“What in the world have you done to your head, Penny?”
“Oh, Father,” Penny said. “I’m merely setting my hair.”
Rev. Parks tapped one of the toilet paper rolls. “You set your hair with toilet paper?”
Penny pulled away and adjusted the rolls. “Oh, Father, really!”
Rev. Parks cocked his head on one side. “Why is it only half of it set?”
“She’s trying to be a rock star,” Elaine said.
“I am not,” Penny said.
“What’s a rock star?” Rev. Parks asked.
“Like a movie star,” Elaine said.
“Movie stars,” her father snorted. “Can’t tell one from another.”
“They all have long blond hair that hangs over their eyes,” Elaine explained.
Rev. Parks swiveled his head toward Elaine. “Why?”
Elaine shrugged. “So they can look sexy, I guess.”
“Don’t say that word,” Mrs. Parks said.
“How does making herself half blind make her look sexy? And what does that have to do with toilet paper?” Rev. Parks asked.
Mrs. Parks moved to stand between Elaine and Rev. Parks. “I asked you not to say that word.”
“Which word? Sexy or toilet paper?” Penny said from the wall.
Mrs. Parks raised her nose into the air. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”
“Helloooo,” Bobbie said. “I’m still here. Bleeding to death. Remember?”
Mrs. Parks grabbed the sides of her head, almost disturbing the carefully arranged waves. “I told you, Bobbie. You are not bleeding to death.”
“Then, what—?” Bobbie started to say.
Rev. Parks looked around the room. “Somebody’s bleeding to death?”
Mrs. Parks pulled her husband to her side. “Thaddeus, do be quiet. Look at your daughter. And straighten your tie.”
Rev. Parks struggled to adjust his neckpiece—difficult with his several chins. “Which one?”
Mrs. Parks sighed. “Your youngest daughter.” She went to her husband and yanked the tie into place.
“Oh.” He craned his neck over his wife’s hands to look at Bobbie. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She just got her first period,” Elaine said.
“Her period? It can’t be. She’s only eleven and she’s a…”
“Daddy!” Bobbie sat up to glare at him.
“And she’s very little,” Rev. Parks finished.
Bobbie dropped her head back onto Elaine’s shoulder.
“This is all your fault,” Mrs. Parks said to her husband, struggling with the tie. “You should have talked to her.”
“Not so tight. I can’t breathe.” He slapped his wife’s hands away and loosened the knot. “I should have talked to her? Women. Couldn’t I have just one boy?”
Twinkie, the family dog, ambled into the room and sniffed at the flowers. Rev. Parks pointed to the black and white mutt, a mixture of unknown origin. “Even the damn dog is a female.”
Mrs. Parks whirled to face her husband, hands on her hips. Swear words were almost as forbidden as body words. “Thaddeus!”
But Mrs. Parks was not one to let things go. “You know how much it bothers me when you use language like….. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” She managed to scoop Twinkie off the floor before the little dog had even settled into her squat.
“She’s probably confused by all the flowers,” Rev. Parks observed.
Bobbie stood up and appealed to her father. “What’s going on? What’s happening to me? Why does everyone keep talking about how old I am and how little I am? I’m bleeding. Don’t I need a band aid or something?”
“Oh, good grief,” Rev. Parks said. He took Twinkie out of his wife’s arms and left the room. “I’m going to get a damn male fish.”
Penny burst out laughing. “A band aid!”
“Stop laughing at me,” Bobbie shouted at Penny. “I’m dying. And you’re the one who gave me all that popcorn. It’s all your fault.”
Elaine pulled Bobbie back down to her side. “You don’t need a band aid, Bobbie. You need a sanitary napkin.”
“A sanitary napkin? You mean one of those gauzy things?”
Mrs. Parks was wringing her hands again. “She goes to camp in just three months. What if it happens while she’s there? What will she do?”
“You mean this is going to happen again?” Bobbie yelped.
Mrs. Parks slumped into the overstuffed chair opposite the sofa, her head in her hands. “Maybe we should have talked to her about—about—“ She searched for the words. “—these things.” She dropped her head back into her hands.
“You mean things like what happens to a woman when she reaches puberty?” Penny said.
Mrs. Parks stood up and tiptoed to Penny. “I wish you wouldn’t use those words,” she whispered.
“Which words?” Penny whispered back.
“What words?” Bobbie said. “And why are you whispering?”
“The P word,” Mrs. Parks explained. “And the W word. We are ladies. We are not wo- wo- uh, that word you said.”
“Women, Mother. Women,” Penny said.
Mrs. Parks shook her head and retied the belt on her bathrobe. “I just don’t like that word.”
Bobbie raised her hand. “Excuse me,” she said. “Could somebody please tell me why I am bleeding to death?”
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Parks fretted. “She was supposed to learn about these matters in school.”
“Yes,” Elaine said, “but not until seventh grade. Remember? The Board of Education voted on it when a lot of parents complained. As I recall, you were one of them.”
“I thought we had more time,” Mrs. Parks said. “She’s only eleven and she’s so small. She’s just a baby.”
Bobby jumped to her feet. “I’m not a baby. And I’m not that small. I’m bigger than Alison Chambers.”
“Yes, you are bigger than Alison Chambers,” Elaine said. “But she is five years old.” She stood up and reached for Bobbie’s hand. “Now come on upstairs. We have some important things to tell you. Are you coming, Penny?”
“I suppose,” Penny said. She pushed herself off the wall and trudged up the stairs after Elaine and Bobbie, pushing a loose bobby pin into one of the toilet paper rolls. “But let’s make it fast. I have to do my hair. Steve might be in church today.”
“Who’s Steve?” Bobbie asked.
“None of your business,” Penny said, “and stay away from him.”
Mrs. Parks called for her husband. “Thaddeus, you must help me with these flowers.”
“I don’t care what you do with the damn flowers,” Rev. Parks yelled from the kitchen.
Thirty minutes later, a puzzled eleven-year-old sat on a twin bed opposite her teenage sisters, a book on her lap opened to a picture of the female reproductive system. She studied the picture, and then lifted her head to stare at Penny and Elaine. “So it wasn’t the popcorn?”
“No, Bobbie, it wasn’t the popcorn,” Elaine said.
“And this is going to happen every month?”
“Yup. You might as well get use to it,” Penny said.
Bobbie looked down at the picture again. “Oh, yuck.”
NOT EXACTLY TWINS
Today is Dad’s birthday and I made a present for him that, to anyone else, would sound kind of weird. It’s because we live on a dairy farm. Sometimes it gets kind of smelly, but I love it. Mom, Dad, and my brother and I do all the work.
Dad has trouble milking the cows because he got thrown from a horse and hurt his hand, so I made him a glove with rubber bands wound around the outside that will curl the glove around a cow’s teat and help him squeeze. It took a lot of experimenting, but I think—hope—it will work.
I didn’t want my dumb kid brother, Omar, to find out because every time I get an idea, he comes up with something to make it better. I kept the glove hidden in the woods and didn’t tell a soul.
Actually, Omar isn’t dumb at all, and that’s the problem. He’s a genius. It isn’t fair. We’re twins, but I’m the oldest. I should be the smart one.
When we were in pre-school, he was reading picture books while I was still looking at the bunnies. In second grade, he was doing fractions and decimals while I was trying to figure out how to add big numbers and carry the twos.
Now we’re in seventh grade and he’s reading Aristotle and I’m struggling through the social studies textbook
Besides all that, his teeth are perfect and he’s never had a zit.
Omar knew I was keeping a secret so he followed me around and spied on me. Yesterday, I heard him coming through the woods and just had time to stuff the glove in a tree stump.
“What are you doing, Adele?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“What do you mean, nothing? You come here every day.”
“None of your business.”
“Maybe I can help.”
“I don’t want your help.”
This morning, I wrapped the glove in purple and pink paper and put a big red bow on top. I handed it to Dad and bit my lip and chewed my thumbnail and crossed my toes as I watched him open it.
Dad turned the glove over and over in his hands. “What is it?”
“It’s for milking,” I said. “See? The rubber bands will help you curl your fingers.”
Dad put his arm around my shoulders. “What a great idea! Let’s try it.”
We went out to the barn. Dad sat on the milking stool next to Carol, my favorite cow. Carol is brown with white all around her eyes so she always looks like someone just jumped in front of her and said, “Boo!”
Dad reached for Carol’s udder. I gripped my hands together so hard my knuckles turned white. He grabbed a teat and squeezed. The glove worked perfectly: the milk squirted out just like it’s supposed to.
“Uh, oh,” Dad said.
My stomach did a flip-flop. “Uh, oh? What uh, oh?”
“I can’t let go.”
Carol let out a squeaky moo. I never heard a cow squeak before. I didn’t even know cows could squeak. She rolled her eyes and swished her tail and stamped her right hoof. She tossed her head so hard she almost knocked Dad off the stool. She would have, too, except that his hand was stuck. Dad peeled the glove off the teat and patted Carol’s rear end while I stroked her nose. Finally, she settled down.
“Let me see it,” Omar said. My father handed the glove to my kid brother.
“No!” I tried to grab the glove, but I was too late.
Omar pulled on one of the elastics. “This rubber band just needs to be stretched the other way.”
He did something with the band and handed the glove back to dad. “Now try it.”
Dad put the glove on, reached for Carol’s udder, and squeezed one of the teats. “It’s works. Great job, you two.”
I backed away. “You ruined it!” I shouted at Omar. “Why don’t you mind your own business?”
I ran out of the barn and back to the woods. I leaned against the same stump that had kept my secret. “It’s not fair!” I told the stump. “He always does things better.”
I heard him coming and didn’t even look up.
“I’m sorry, Adele.”
“I just wanted to help.”
I snuffled and wiped my nose with the back of my hand. “I didn’t want your help.”
“But you get such great ideas,” Omar said.
What was he talking about? “What?”
“I can make things work. But you’re the one who thinks up the neat stuff.” Omar dug his toe into the soft dirt around the stump. “I wish I could do that.”
I looked at him. “You like my ideas?”
“Uh, huh. We’re kind of a team. You get the ideas and I help make them work.”
Imagine that: me and my kid brother a team.
It’s worth a try.