By Karen Brode
Sometimes it seemed like Momma only knew one word when it came to chores:
“Margrit!” She always screeched it out so loud the whole neighborhood in their sleepy Texas town knew Margaret’s name.
Margaret woke with a start. Had Momma just hollered? Or was that just a dream?
She decided it must have been a dream. Otherwise, Momma would have burst through the door making a racket, waking up the whole house.
Margaret rolled over and edged as far as she could to the side of the bed away from Junior, her little brother, and the smell of his urine soaking the sheets. It didn’t help, though. The sticky dampness was on everything, including her legs, and it stunk. It was too much.
She eased herself up and sat on the edge of the bed. She turned to look at her sleeping brother and wondered how she managed to sleep next to him night after night. Did other fifth graders have to sleep in the same bed as their brothers? Did other fifth graders wake up each morning in a pool of pee?
There wasn’t any use in getting upset about it. It’s not like she could do anything about it. It’s not like anything ever changed. Nearly every morning she was soaked. It didn’t matter that she rubbed every part of her body with a dingy wet washcloth every morning. She could smell Junior’s urine all day long and she knew other kids could too.
It occurred to her that, in smelling like his pee, she took Junior with her wherever she went, whether she wanted to or not. Sometimes he was even mistaken as her twin. Even though his mind was stuck at three years old, he was big for a seven-year-old, and much to Margaret’s dismay, people thought they were the same age.
And Junior literally wanted to go wherever she went. He especially wanted to go to school. Looking at his fluttering, sleeping eyes, she remembered last week when she started out the door to school and he had been awake. He came trailing after her, pulling on her arm, wailing at the top of his lungs.
“Sisser! Sister! Let me goes wit you today!”
She spent the next ten minutes calming him down, reassuring him they could play school when she got back. Kids like him couldn’t go to school. It was 1962. There wasn’t a place for him. She felt guilty about it, but she was secretly glad about this. Even though she knew she would never be like any of the other girls at school, at least at school she wasn’t responsible for anybody else.
Margaret glanced at the small alarm clock she kept on the window ledge. It was after seven which meant she had about an hour to get ready and walk to school. The walk took her half an hour.
She looked across the room to the cot where her five-year-old brother, Waynie slept. She moved slowly getting up from the bed. She didn’t want to wake either of her brothers because then she’d be late for school for sure.
Once in the bathroom, she peeled her nightshirt off and hung it over the shower rod. She ran a dingy washcloth under the spigot of the sink and wrung it out. As quickly, but as thoroughly as she could, she wiped the sticky urine from her body. She knew it wasn’t perfect. She was sure the other kids could smell it on her no matter how long she took to wipe it off. When she was done, she slipped on the same clothes she had worn the day before and took the brush from the sink. She tried to tame her thick, wavy dark hair but it never looked nice. Her mother told her she had gotten her hair from her grandma, but Granny’s hair was silver and she always had it tamed in a bun on the back of her head.
Margaret took one last look in the mirror and decided there wasn’t anything else to be done. As quietly as she could, she tiptoed down the hall towards the front door. She glanced quickly into her parents’ bedroom. As usual, they were both still sleeping.
At the empty kitchen, she closed her eyes and imagined a big breakfast of scrambled eggs and maybe some fried potatoes. She especially loved her granny’s fried potatoes. But Granny wasn’t there and her parents were still asleep. Besides, she told herself, there wasn’t time for breakfast. Her stomach grumbled. The truth was, there probably wasn’t any breakfast to be had, so it didn’t do any good to daydream about it. She picked up her books and quietly opened the front door. Once outside, she looked straight ahead, pretending not to see the neighbors who were outside tending their lawns. She made a beeline for school.
She got to school just as the bell stopped ringing. She was late. Again. She hated walking into class with all the eyes on her. She just wanted to be invisible. But her teacher, Mrs. Woodcut, wasn’t about to let that happen.
“Overslept again, Miss Teadley?” she asked.
Margaret slunk over the stack of schoolbooks in her arms and pushed a chunk of hair out of her eyes.
“Sorry, Mrs. Woodcut,” she said.
There were titters all over the room as Margaret sat down at her desk. One of the boys mimicked the way Margaret had said “Sorry” and more laughter broke out across the room.
“Enough, class,” said Mrs. Woodcut. “Please open your history textbooks to page 35.”
It didn’t take long before Margaret’s empty stomach started to rumble loud enough for the other kids to hear. She heard whispers and some quiet snorts whenever it gurgled. She put a hand on her belly and pressed to try to keep it quiet. It was only 10:30 but lunchtime aromas wafted from the cafeteria into her classroom. She was so hungry, but she couldn’t afford school lunch and she hadn’t brought any sack lunch with her from home. When lunchtime came, she would have to go without. Her stomach growled angrily. She tried not to cry.
After what felt like an eternity, the lunch bell rang.
“Settle, class. Soon enough,” Mrs. Woodcut said, waving her palms down to remind the children to stay put. “Those of you who brought your lunch, please go to your cubby now and bring it to your desk.”
The classroom filled with the sounds of scraping chairs and murmuring children. About half the students had brought their own lunch. Margaret peered around the room at the sandwiches and thermoses that came out of different bags and pales. She longed for just a bite of one of the sandwiches. Just a crumb. She bet it tasted good.
“Now, children,” Mrs. Woodcut continued, “I must go down the hall to pick up the tray lunches. No one gets out of your seats while I am gone, or expect to meet with the principal after.”
Mrs. Woodcut waddled out of the class in her diamond-patterned double-knit polyester dress and her gum-soled shoes. She had the same roundness that Margaret’s mother had, but Margaret couldn’t help compare the way the two women carried themselves. Margaret’s mother walked with her hips leading, her top half was slumped back a little, making her stomach appear bigger than it actually was. (And the worn elastic waist pants didn’t help.) Mrs. Woodcut pulled her shoulders up, as straight as her spine would allow, and although she had a sort of waddle like Momma, her whole body was upright and moved forward all at the same pace.
While Mrs. Woodcut was gone, many of the children finished up their sack lunches. Several girls on the front row pulled mirrors and powder out of purses they had stashed in their desks. They held them up and dotted the powder on perfect skin.
Behind her, boys giggled in a way that scared Margaret. If they all ganged up on her, she didn’t know what she would do.
To distract herself, she took out a book and tried to pick up where she had left off the day before. She loved to read but rarely got a chance to do it at home. There were always things that had to be done. In books, though, she could disappear. She thought of the characters as her friends, her confidantes.
Finally, Mrs. Woodcut returned. She pushed the cart into the room and gave each child who had paid for lunch a steaming plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans.
Margaret looked away. She couldn’t stand it. She knew if she thought about it too long, she would cry. So, she put her book away, folded her arms over the desk, and laid her head down. Maybe she could take a nap while the others ate.
“Miss Teadley,” Mrs. Woodcut said, “kindly move your head so I can put your tray down.”
Margaret sat up with a start and stared at the tray placed in front of her.
“I, um,” Margaret began, but she didn’t know how to ask where the lunch had come from without the other kids hearing and making fun of her. She knew her mother had not paid for the lunch. But who? How?
“No ‘ums,’ in this classroom, Miss Teadley,” said Mrs. Woodcut. “Please eat your lunch so the others are not waiting for you for recess.”
Margaret was so hungry all the questions faded from her mind. To have this wonderful meal placed in front of her made her feel grateful, hopeful. She took a bite of mashed potatoes and then a bit of meatloaf. She savored every crumb. She had even been given chocolate milk, her favorite.
For the rest of the school day, Margaret felt better than she had felt for a long time. She actually worked up the nerve to ask another girl in her class to play on the monkey bars—and she had accepted! With a full belly and a potential friend, she could believe things might be different.
That feeling was with her all the way to the end of school that day. She practically skipped toward home. She noticed all the flowers growing and the perfectly groomed green grass lawns. She heard the birds singing. It’s a wonder what a good meal might do, she thought, smiling.
But her smile faded when she got to her block. Down the lane, she saw a bright clean van parked in front of her house. Even from half a block away, she had to squint at the sun shining off the chrome bumper. The newness of it unsettled her. Nobody ever visited their house, especially someone with a fancy van.
As she passed other homes, Margaret noticed some of the neighbor ladies talking in their yards. They gestured toward her little four-room house, but when they saw her watching them, they stopped talking. Their brows furrowed and their lips curled into half-frown, half-smile. It was a smile of pity. Margaret knew it well.
She was pretty sure she didn’t want to be a part of anything that was happening at her house, so she glanced around at Old Man Tatum’s house and saw his car wasn’t in his driveway and his curtains were closed. If he wasn’t around, she could sneak back behind his house and get to hers without being seen.
She looked behind her and noticed the ladies had moved into one of their driveways. They now seemed more concerned about a clump of weeds that had started growing alongside the edge. Margaret took the opportunity to duck behind the evergreens that lined Mr. Tatum’s driveway. Then she made a beeline to the back of his house.
From the corner of his yard, Margaret hid behind a tree she had always thought of as The Christmas Tree. Mr. Tatum never decorated it but since she could see it from her house and her family never had a tree, she had imagined it being hung with streamers and lights and filled with gifts.
“Mrs. Teadley,” said a man Margaret could hear but not see. “The Rotary Club is happy to bestow you with a brand new washing machine.”
Another man with a loud, goofy voice spoke next. “Yes. If you’ll kindly let me through, I’ll get it hooked up in a jiffy.”
Momma giggled and Margaret heard the screen door open and close. She watched through the windows as Momma and her brothers led the men to the closet that was meant to hold a washing machine.
Through one of the open windows, she heard Junior ask, “Where is Sisser?” Her mother made some motion for Junior to hush and then she turned back to the men in the house.
Margaret felt her whole body burn with embarrassment. Her mother clearly thought it was great the Rotary Club was giving them a washing machine. But this called so much attention to her family, and not the kind of attention anybody wanted.
She edged around the tree and spotted a familiar broken plank along the side of her house. She had discovered a few weeks earlier she could lift the plank and crawl underneath the house for some peace and quiet. She stared back toward the windows and noticed the men, Momma, and the boys walking to the front door. She needed to get to her hiding spot before they noticed her.
“Would you mind if we get a picture of you and your family for the paper, Mrs. Teadley?” asked one of the men.
Margaret could just barely see him as he stepped off the porch onto the broken walkway leading up to their house. She could tell he was wearing a nice suit. Momma must be beside herself.
Margaret felt sick. She had to get to her hiding place and figure out how to live in that place forever. When she heard her mother make her loud, roar of a laugh, she made a run for it to the side of the house. She edged her way to the broken plank, threw her books inside, and slid into the small opening. Once inside, she felt like she could breathe.
“Is this your whole family?” asked the man in the suit.
“Naw,” Momma said. “We’re missin’ my husband who is out driving his cab. That’s what he does for a livin’. And I’ve got a daughter who should be home from school by now.”
Margaret knew what was coming next. There were footsteps across the porch and then, “MARGRIT! Where are you?”
Her mother lowered her voice with a giggle. “Where on earth did that girl get to?”
At that, Margaret heard Junior shuffle across the porch and onto the dirt yard. “Sisser! Sisser!”
Margaret held her breath as Junior walked back and forth past her hiding place.
“MARGRIT!” Her mother walked from one side of the porch to the other. “I don’t know where in tarnation that girl’s gone. It’s not like she’s got any school friends that’d keep her.” Margaret felt her face burn with embarrassment.
“Well, we could just get the three of you?” asked the man. He sounded impatient.
Through the cracks in the planks, Margaret could just barely see parts of Mr. Tatum’s backyard next door which led to the next neighbor and the next after that. Each one was green with a grassy lawn and dotted with bushes of flowers. They seemed to enjoy tending their lawns and flower beds. She had seen Mrs. Waxly give Mr. Tatum a bulb from her tulip bed and he had gone to plant it immediately into a special pot along the edge of his back patio that now bloomed with the long, green leaves of a tulip plant.
The only neighbors who had a yard remotely as desolate as theirs were the Johnsons across the street. Their grass was lush all the way up until the summer when it turned yellow and died in the hot Texas summers.
She was pretty sure all those people owned their homes. She had heard her parents arguing over the rent for their house. Momma was proud that they could live on a nice street like regular people. But Margaret knew other children at school who lived in a housing complex for people like her family and she often thought that if they lived in a place like that, maybe they wouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb. Children would wear tattered clothes that had been given to them from some agency and it wouldn’t hurt so bad when other girls laughed behind their hands because she’d have friends who understood her.
Finally, she heard the men telling Momma goodbye and loading up in the van. She heard her mother ask Junior and Waynie what on earth happened to their sister. Junior yelled for “Sissie” again. Before long, she heard the screen door open and bang shut and the shuffle of three pairs of feet overhead.
She sighed and laid down on the dirt floor. The day had gone so well up until then. Now she just wanted to go to sleep and dream it all back.
Margaret woke to the sound of Junior and Waynie fighting over something and Momma yelling at both of them. She could hear them all the way under the house. It was amazing how loud they could be. She could tell from her hiding place that the sun was much lower in the sky. From the smells wafting in, she guessed it was almost dinner time.
With the boys fighting and Momma yelling, she knew she could sneak out without being noticed. She was just about to walk to the front porch when she heard the dog whine in the backyard. He was tied to a post in the ground. There were no trees, no grass; just dried up ground. Margaret wondered why they had him. Nobody ever gave him any attention. He didn’t even have a name. And if he saw one of them coming towards him, he sort of cowered, hoping he would not be punished. In fact, she had seen her father kick the dog once when the poor thing strained at his chain so hard that he almost choked on his collar.
Her father had never wanted him, though. “Another mouth to feed,” was all he said when Momma led him into their backyard to meet the new puppy.
Margaret looked at him now. How many times had she almost unhooked him from his chain? She wished she could do it without fear of getting in trouble. Momma would never forgive her, even though she had never been out to play with the pup since bringing him home. His ribs showed beneath his mangey coat. No animal should have to live like that.
She looked around to see if anyone was outside. It was dark enough that she didn’t feel obviously seen. She set her books down by the corner of the house and carefully, slowly walked toward the dog.
It whimpered. She crouched a little and whispered, “Shh, it’s okay.”
When she reached him, he rolled over on his back. It was the first time she had been this close to him. His bones stuck out all over. She scratched his belly and up near his neck. He stunk, but then she figured, so did she.
“At least one of us should be free,” she said, her heart beating hard in her chest.
She took one more look around and then gently undid the dog’s collar.
At the click of his collar being released, the dog jumped up. He had a look in his eyes that told Margaret he knew exactly what was happening. He took a look at Margaret and snuffled, then sneezed. He shook himself out and, for a moment, looked almost healthy. His eyes sparkled. Margaret felt she understood him now, too. With that, he took off running for the woods in the distance. She almost wished she could go with him.
Margaret heard one of the boys yelling from the back part of the house. She jumped up and ran to her schoolbooks. She scooped them up and walked as nonchalantly as she could to the front door. She felt a little stronger now and her fear about letting the dog go disappeared as she thought about the look in his eyes. Plus, she figured nobody would notice for who knows how long.
“Well, now you show up!” said Momma when Margaret walked into the kitchen. “You know that you missed the newspaper men! They took our picture!”
Margaret tried not to wince at Momma’s excitement. She sounded like Junior whenever he got over-excited about something.
“I had to start fixing supper without you.” Momma stood beside the stovetop and cut into the bologna slices that were puffing up in the middle of a frying pan. “Grab the bread and set out enough for a sandwich apiece.”
Margaret did as she was told. She set five plates out on the countertop—one for each of them and her father when he got home—and she laid two pieces of bread on each. The last piece of bread was the heel. Even though it wasn’t her favorite, she took it because nobody else in the house liked it and there wasn’t any more bread after that.
“Everyone gets one sandwich” Momma warned. “That goes especially for you, Junior! Don’t wolf your food down because there isn’t anymore.”
Margaret handed off the plates of sandwiches to her brothers and set the other plates down where she, her mother, and her father usually sat.
As she took her seat, Momma walked to the table with the pan of bologna. Margaret thought again about how similar her mother and Mrs. Woodcut looked but how differently they held themselves. Momma led with her hips and, now that her pregnancy was starting to show, that posture was even more pronounced.
Margaret knew she didn’t understand all that much, but she also knew another baby was going to need things they didn’t have. Momma was just happy to have a new baby coming. It was something to look forward to. It made her happy to be expecting a new baby, but Margaret could already see how things would be.
Momma sat down at the table and, while her brothers were inhaling their sandwiches and her mother was settling into hers, Margaret wondered if her mother had ever been beautiful. She noticed now that Momma had brushed her hair out, probably for the Rotary Club and newspaper people. When it was brushed out like that and certain light caught it, her mother’s red hair shone like stained glass. Most days, though, she didn’t bother to comb it. It just hung out from her head in a ratty mess.
But then Momma belched and laughed. Margaret pretended to laugh as she tucked into eating her own sandwich. She lowered her eyes because she had caught sight of Momma’s teeth. They looked like they had rattled around in the palm of God’s hand before they were scattered like dice into her mouth.
Margaret swallowed her bite of sandwich and clenched her teeth together in a sort of grimace. She tapped her front tooth with her fingernail and remembered all the times she had lost teeth as a kid. It had been sort of a celebration at the time, even though the tooth fairy never came to give her money for them. The teeth that grew in made a U around the top and bottom of her mouth. They certainly weren’t straight, she thought, but they were all there. Had Momma’s teeth not all grown in? Or did people lose teeth as adults, too?
The next day, Margaret made a point to make it to school on time. It was show-and-tell and Carol Piper had brought her Barbie doll, complete with car and house and little hangars for Barbie’s clothes. During lunch, the children were allowed to play outside or take more time looking at the items from show-and-tell. Margaret was enamored with Barbie, so she chose to stay inside.
She had to wait until other girls had moved on to other items before she could spend time with Barbie, but it was well worth the wait. She marveled at all the intricate and perfect details. She had never seen a Barbie doll, but she immediately wanted one. She unbuttoned and rebuttoned Barbie’s blouses and unzipped and zipped Ken’s pants. Where had they found such tiny little zippers? She wanted to keep looking at all of it, but the bell rang. As children filed in from outside, Mrs. Woodcut told everyone to take their seats.
Margaret held Barbie in her hand just a moment longer. She touched her hair and then bent the doll at the waist to set her down against the wall in Barbie’s house. Margaret took the two, perfect little shoes and set them in a little pull-out drawer in Barbie’s bedroom and returned to her desk.
Margaret daydreamed about Barbie for the rest of the day and into the next. She hoped Carol had left the doll and all her possessions at school overnight. Margaret made a point to get to school just a little early with hopes of having a few more minutes to play with the doll.
How happy she was when she walked into Mrs. Woodcut’s classroom to see that Carol had left Barbie overnight! She started to walk over to the dollhouse but Mrs. Woodcut made a noise with her throat and gestured with her fingers for Margaret to take a seat at her desk.
That’s when Margaret realized that Mrs. O’Dell, the principal, was there. Margaret wasn’t sure how she had missed her. She was standing at the front of the room, and even in the hallways, Mrs. O’Dell was a formidable figure. She always wore heavy skirt suits, no matter what time of year it was. She wore glasses on a chain around her neck and bright red lipstick that scared Margaret. Everyone was afraid of Mrs. O’Dell. Even the toughest boy settled down when threatened with a visit to the principal’s office. From the very time Margaret was introduced to Mrs. O’Dell in first grade, she had made up her mind she would never do anything that would get her sent to the principal’s office.
Some of the children were looking down at their desks, but then Margaret realized some of them were looking at her. A cluster of little girls near the front had turned to glare at her. She felt her hands clutching the sides of her chair so hard that it made her fingers hurt. Why were they all looking at her?
“Carol Piper,” said Mrs. O’Dell, “Please come to the front here beside me.”
Carol stood and walked slowly to the front of the room. Margaret feared for Carol. What could she possibly have done? It was clear she was upset, though. Her face was red like she had been crying and her shoulders slumped a little. Even so, Margaret noticed how almost like Barbie Carol looked—her long, chestnut hair pulled back in a smooth ponytail and her skirt bounced just a little when she walked.
Carol’s father was a car salesman at the ritzy car dealership downtown where all the rich people went to buy cars. At least that is what Momma had said. She said they wouldn’t be going there if they ever bought another car. Margaret could not imagine her parent’s going anywhere. They barely had enough money to cover their rent. Carol had everything she wanted. Margaret imagined she probably had French provincial bedroom furniture and pink walls. Margaret couldn’t imagine Carol ever having to sleep in the same bed as someone like Junior.
“We have a thief among us!” Mrs. O’Dell roared. Margaret sat up straight, shocked by the news as well as how loud Mrs. O’Dell could be.
“Carol Piper has told Mrs. Woodcut that someone has taken her Barbie doll’s shoes. She is pretty sure she knows who did this, but we would like for that person to come forward now of their own accord.”
Margaret glanced around the room, trying to guess who might take Barbie’s shoes. As her eyes moved from one face to the next, she realized they were all looking at her!
Carol broke out in tears and pointed a finger. “Margaret took the shoes! She was the last one to have them!”
Margaret felt her stomach shoot up into her chest. She thought she might faint.
“Me?” she asked in almost a whisper. “I would never.”
Carol cried even louder and Mrs. O’Dell pulled her toward her.
“There, there,” she said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“Miss Teadley,” continued Mrs. O’Dell, “Please come to the front of the room.”
Margaret stood up but held onto the desk out of fear she might fall over her feet. “I didn’t take the shoes, Mrs. O’Dell. Honest!”
“Come, please,” said the principal.
Margaret shuffled to the front of the room and stood, shaking before the class.
“Did you take Carol’s doll’s shoes?” asked Mrs. O’Dell.
Margaret swallowed hard. “No, ma’am,” she said. “I would never do that.”
Carol sobbed into her hands. “She’s lying! She’s the last one to have them, everybody knows that!”
Margaret shook her head slowly. Her mouth was dry. “No. I promise!” Her voice cracked. She felt even more lightheaded. “I put Barbie’s shoes in the little drawer in her bedroom.”
Carol looked up from her hands and glowered at Margaret. She walked to the Barbie house and reached into the bedroom and opened the drawer. There were the shoes, just where Margaret had put them the day before.
Mrs. O’Dell looked from Carol to Margaret and back again.
“Okay, then,” she said with an exasperated sigh. “If I am no longer needed,” she turned to Mrs. Woodcut and they nodded at each other. Mrs. O’Dell turned on her heel and, without looking at Margaret again, she marched out of the room.
Carol turned to the class, holding the shoes out as if they were still evidence against Margaret.”Well,” she said, “she didn’t put them in the right place!”
Margaret didn’t know how long she was meant to stand there until Mrs. Woodcut told her to return to her seat. More than anything she longed to be at home under her house where no one could see her.
Karen Brode is the senior contributor Jet Planes and Coffee. She grew up in Denison, Texas and graduated from Denison High School in 1972. She took courses at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and worked in a church office for 25 years. She and her husband, Gary, have been married for more than 40 years. They have one son, Brandon. Karen’s hobbies are writing, sewing, and gardening.