In which I climb a tree; I get a penpal and a friend.
We Cathcarts go to the store.
Mrs. Culpepper’s mouth opened and her eyebrows shot up to her teeny bangs. “I beg your pardon?”
“Uh, my…er… I mean, no thank you, ma’am. That’s real nice about the cake,” I babbled my way out the door. “But, well – we’re allergic! And I gotta go home now. Nice to meet you guys – honest!”
Outside, goony Darren and Clark were yelling, “So long!” to each other and “Hi!” to Dad as our old Rambler surged up the driveway. Harry and Larry exploded out the front door. “Daddy’s home!” Dad’s eyes and big grin looked light in his grimy face. He wiped his hand on his work pants and handed me his lunchbox so he could hug my shoulder. “Hey, Buddy. How’s your mom?”
“She’s fine.” Especially now, I thought, since I’d saved her from what we both hated: unexpected, snooty company. “Did your job go okay?”
“Well, if you don’t mind getting bossed around, being on your feet all day, lugging loads, and turning screws, it was alright. Beats looking for a job!” He stopped paying attention to me so he could pick up the twins. They clung on to him, like baby monkeys, as Dad then Clark and me followed up the porch steps, Dad hollering, “DOR-thy!”
Next door, Robin was making a silly face at me and twirling her finger at the side of her head. I frowned back at her. Did she mean me or her cranky mom? I went on inside.
Robin probably meant I was the nutty one, saying we were allergic to cake and running off like that. But then I looked around and saw what Mrs. Culpepper would have seen, through her icecube eyes.
We’d only been here one day and already George had scribbled on the walls. Toy trucks, squashed gobs of clay, TinkerToys, and blocks covered the floor. I saw baskets of clothes waiting to get folded, cereal bowls, and chocolate milk glasses perched on stacks of Mama’s beloved magazines. I saw a roach speeding home to the wife and kids living in a 1957 Ladies’ Home Journal. The little boys had crowded back around the television, their faces six inches from the black-and-white blast of Three Stooges reruns. Jimmy was flopped on our squashy couch with the poking-out springs and falling-out stuffing. He was eating a sandwich and reading about Kit Carson, using my art book for a lap desk. I sniffed at peanut butter, grubby boys and – something else.
As soon as I got my art book stowed under my pillow upstairs, I clumped back down to find Georgie. “Come on, kid,” I said. “Let’s go find you some dry pants, okay?”
He smiled up at me. “Okay, Carmie.”
“You gonna remember to go potty like a big boy next time?”
His smile dimmed. “Okay.”
Robin would be cuckoo too, if she was always having to get some little squirt to use the bathroom like
I peeled wet training pants down Georgie’s rubbery legs as he held tight to my shoulders and I imagined me perfecting this and everybody in it. Digging around for a little pair of dry pants, I decided that I’d definitely not be cheerful. There’d be no whistling while I worked, like Snow White in the cartoon. No, I’d be a goddess, a fierce one, who needed no bunnies or birdies to help her. I saw, like in a mind-movie, my white robes, my long red hair flowing and blowing against the blackest of thunderclouds, and sparks shooting out of my keen (no glasses) mythological eyes. With a well-aimed lightning bolt, CLEAN was our house! OUT went the television reception right in the middle of the boys’ cartoons – ZAP! Into a giant trash can went all our junk: Everything but the encyclopedia and whatever was mine. Flames licked the clouds!
In real life, Daddy was smooching Mama, all blushes and giggles. He even kissed her butter yellow dress where it was stretched over her belly and the baby inside. I felt my own face get hot.
I survived all of the usual suppertime burps, farts, spills, sit-up-straights, clean-your-plate’s and don’t-play-with-your-food’s, only to see Darren Culpepper’s face mashed into the front door screen. “Clark! You in there? Come get this cake, wouldja? My mom made it for you guys. Then can you come out and play?”
Robin was out there too. I hurried out to the porch, telling her, “It’s so nice and cool out here. You wanna sit on the swing?”
She did, but she stole glances through the window, trying to see what was so mysterious in our house that I wasn’t asking her to come in like any regular person with nice manners would do. Robin was probably wondering exactly what kind of a goon I was. “How come you didn’t want us to come over? And you were fibbing, right? About cake making you guys sick?”
“Well, uhm, we aren’t really settled yet and, you know, company makes my mom nervous…” My voice trailed off with her looking at me like lawyers on TV looked at criminals in the witness chair.
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I just didn’t want you all to find out that we’re a messy bunch of nuts.
“You did seem pretty crazy. Of course, I like that in a person. My mom just said that she wished I was allergic to cake so I wouldn’t be so fat.”
Instead of answering, Robin pointed at the tree in her yard. “You wanna come and see my office?”
“Sure.” I really did, too, but I got scared as soon as she was up there and I was still on the safe, hard ground. She called down through the leaves, “Come on! You’re not a scaredy-cat, are you?”
I was. I was a nut and a scaredy-cat.
I struggled up the rope ladder until Robin helped me onto the floor boards that had been wedged into three big branches. The leafy roof made deep shadows so she shone her flashlight on an old sofa cushion and a wooden box with a lid and a lock. “To keep Darren and the other squirrels out,” Robin said with a grin. It was stocked with a half-eaten bag of potato chips, pencils, a notebook, some jacks, acorns, a spare yo-yo, two candy bars, and a package of pink Hostess Snowballs. She ripped these open, handed me one and took one for herself. I fished a Trixie Belden mystery out of the box. “You read these too?”
“Yeah, Nancy Drew, Sue Barton, Betsy-Tacy, Laura and Mary on the Prairie. I like all those books.”
“This is the best part of my whole life,” Robin said. She popped half a Snowball into her mouth all at once. She ate the other half, licked her fingers, flicked a cake crumb down at her house, and said, “Mom doesn’t allow me to eat junk like this.”
We swatted at mosquitoes and dangled our legs off the edge of the treehouse in the blue-green twilight. It smelled like summer. I could see Mama moving about in the yellow light of our kitchen. It was quiet around us except for birds and cricket until we both heard Mrs. Culpepper’s voice coming from inside her house. “She sounds kind of mad,“ I said, and hoped that wasn’t rude.
Robin snorted. “Old Yeller. That’s my mom’s nickname and she doesn’t even know it.”
I put a hand over my smile.
“She’s okay, really,” said Robin. “She likes every-thing just so and wishes I weren’t such a big fat tomboy and was cute and precious like Darren instead. My dad doesn’t yell at us. He’s nice. Tell me about your folks.”
I hesitated. “It’s not a pop quiz, you know,“ Robin said,
“Well, my mom’s pretty quiet and my dad’s nice too, except for when he gets mad. He blew his top the other night and smacked me.”
I felt guilty, tattling on my basically-good dad, but I did it anyway. “He did. Right in front of half the town over at Mugs Up.”
“He did not!”
“Why?” Like I must’ve done something terrible.
“I shot my mouth off about Mom having another baby.”
“Don’t you like being in a big family?”
If I said no, I’d be a traitor plus it wouldn’t be exactly true. And it’d sound too dumb to say I’d rather be an artist than a big sister. After a long moment of me not knowing what to say, Robin handed me a Milky Way and punched me in the arm, friendly-like. A girl never did that before and it gave me a nice feeling. I punched her arm too and unwrapped the candy.
“I wish you guys didn’t have to go to Minnesota.” I wished we could just stay up in the tree forever, but no. We jumped at the sound of Mrs. Culpepper saying,
“You and Carmen had better come on down out of there. It’s late.”
“In a minute,” Robin called down.
“Now!” her mom barked. “I’ve got your bathwater running.” She disappeared with a soft thwack of the screen door.
It was late, late, late before I fell asleep. The pictures in the Botticelli book from the library were too beautiful to stop looking at. I ran my fingers over the perfect faces Mr. Botticelli painted in Italy in the 1400s. Was that how Italian ladies looked? If I really practiced could I draw and paint like that? Be a great American artist in the 1900s? The thought made a buzzing by my heart.
The book was beside me in my bed when I woke
up. I looked out the window and saw that the Culpeppers’ shiny black Buick was gone. It was off somewhere, carrying them north to Minnesota.
Clark yelled at me from way downstairs. “Car-mie! Robin left a note for you! Under the front door! Want me to read it to you?”
“NO!” I scrambled into my shorts. I ran downstairs while Clark bellowed, “’Dear Carmen, I’m real glad you guys moved next door...’”
“Stop it, you little brat!”
“’We could be penpals if you want,’” he went right on. “’Here’s my grandma’s address....’”
I grabbed the letter away from my dopey brother. He laughed then a light bulb must’ve lit up in his pointy little head. “So then could I write to Darren?”
“If you can write,” I muttered, reading over the note for myself. I smiled: Robin Culpepper wanted us to write to each other.
“As good as you,” he told me and stuck out his tongue. It had crumbs on it plus there was chocolate frosting all around his mouth from having Mrs. Culpepper’s cake for breakfast. We all did and saved the last slice for Dad.
“Robin’s mom is kind of cranky,” I said to Mom, “but she sure makes good cake.”
“We’ll write her a thank you note.”
“I’ve got the address. Robin and me are penpals.”
When I wrote to her, I tried to make babysitting little brothers, hanging laundry on the clothesline, and making Kool-Ade sound super-interesting. I didn’t tell her about the best part of my life: staring at the Botticelli pictures and trying to draw my favorites, in case she might think I was a goon. And I was too shy and too chicken to tell Robin I missed her, but she was brave. On the back of a fish postcard she wrote:
My grandpa took me to this lake. I caught a walleye. To see what it looks like, turn this card over. Are you guys getting settled? Tell Jimmy I say hello. Yours ‘til the ocean wears rubber pants to keep its bottom dry.
Robin Delaine Culpepper
P. S. I miss talking with you.”
I couldn’t help smiling with happiness, then I chewed my lower lip. Robin hadn’t ever been inside our house. Would she really want to be my friend if she ever saw how messy we are and that we NEVER get settled? She might think we’re lazy instead of folks who can’t ever seem to get organized. We never found enough places to put stuff away and no matter how junky, our old clothes and magazines were, according to Mama, “too good to throw away.” We piled it all in corners and shoved it under beds.
“I’ll sort through it all one of these days,” Mom said, settling herself on the couch in front of the fan. “Georgie, come take a nap with Mama.”
Almost two weeks after we moved in, I found our guardian angel picture in a paper sack and put it up in the front room. It’d hung on the wall at Blue Top and every other place we’d lived. The angel wasn’t as beautiful as Mr. Botticelli would have painted her, but she was pretty. A hundred times I’d tried drawing her floaty hair and soft face. She was always on duty, keeping a pair of pink-cheeked little knuckleheads from falling into a bright blue river. How did angels get their robes off over their wings, I wondered. And did they ever get bored, sick, and tired of having to watch over people? I asked Mama, “Do you think we really have a guardian angel?”
She opened her eyes and looked at the ceiling, as if our angel might be gazing back at her through the cloudy water stains. “Oh,” she said, in her soft, vague-sounding voice. “I’m pretty sure we do.”
On a postcard with a picture of a wagon train on it, I wrote to Robin about it.
Saturday, June 14, 1963
Do you believe in guardian angels? I think I do. I saw the baby kick from inside my mom. Her belly feels like a basketball. It’s kind of creepy imagining that somebody’s INSIDE of there, thinking about stuff. What if THIS baby is twins, like another Harry and Larry? Scary! It’s boring here without you next door. I miss you too.
When you’re old and you have twins (I hope you won’t!)
Don’t come to me for safety pins,
Mama walked by me as I was writing Your Friend, Carmen.
“Carmie, don’t let me forget my pickles and sardines when Daddy takes us to the store later.”
I grimaced at (1) the treats Mama loved to eat when she was going to have a baby, and (2) the idea of us Cathcarts going to the store together.
“Oh, the kids and I will go in for you, Dee,” Daddy said, later that evening. “You rest yourself out here in the car. Just give me your list, why doncha?”
“No, now, I’m fine,” Mama told him. “I like to pick things out.”
Would it even do any good to ask to stay in the stationwagon by myself and draw? Or try, in the store, to keep my distance from my slow-moving mom and the rest of my family? Nope.
Dad grabbed a cart and patted Mama’s arm. “Carmie and I will keep the boys out of your hair.”
Looking after little kids mostly boils down to following them around, trying to keep them from getting broken while they’re breaking everything else or sliding down the slick floors between rows of canned goods. That’s where Harry dropped a can of peaches in heavy syrup on his foot, then Dad gave Larry a spanking for horsing around and busting a box of eggs.
Both twins were bawling when a woman on the loud speaker barked, “Clean up in Aisle 8.” I was keeping my eyes down or I would have noticed that the kid with the paper hat and the mop was none other than creepy Richie Scudder. “Oh man, I might’ve known,” he said, real loud, so people would know how disgusting and messy us Cathcarts were. An annoyed-looking woman and the cutest boy I ever saw turned to stare at us. And wouldn’t you know they were right next to us later on, over in Aisle 3: Paper Products and Hygiene Items, where Clark was practicing his reading. “Carmen,” he hollered. “What the heck are ‘Sa-ni-tar-y Napkins’?”
The cute, sandy-haired boy made a face and his mom rolled her eyes like we were the world’s worst, low-class weirdos.
Could there BE anything more embarrassing?
“Carmie,” Dad called to me as I fled the scene, “you’re as red as a tomato! There’s nothing to be shy
about!” Which made the whole thing even more hideous.
Before we got out of there, Georgie had another tantrum. The plump checkout girl flat refused to ask Clark “Who’s there?” no matter how many times he said “knock-knock.” When I grow up and I am a rich, famous artist and embarrassing relatives come knocking on my studio door, I’ll be just like that girl. I’ll ignore them and hope they’ll go away.
Mama collapsed into her seat while Dad and Jimmy and I loaded all the grocery sacks into the back of the station wagon. Mama fanned her red face and told us all to be quiet because she felt like all the air was out of her tires.
“Yeah,” said Dad, “Everybody just put a sock in it back there.”
I didn’t say a word, not even when we were almost home and I remembered that we all forgot Mom’s sardines and her sweet pickles.
“Oh well,” she said later on. “We’ll pick them up on the way back from my appointment on Friday. Daddy’s taking off work to get me to the doctor and Carmen, you and Jimmy can look after the little ones.”
“Will you tell them they have to mind us?”
Harry and Larry made faces at me and stuck out identical tongues. Mom gave all the boys her sternest look and said, “Everyone just be nice.”
That was what she always said about the whole world, the Communists over in Russia, Fidel Castro in Cuba, Jews and Arabs in the Middle East, black and white people in America. That goes for everybody: just be nice, for crying out loud.
Jimmy, off at the library, taking our books back, got out of babysitting. Not me. I showed Clark and the twins how to make a brontosaurus out of clay. “Look, you guys, you stick your little fingernail in its face. That makes a smile.”
“Make a tyrannosaurus rex!” cried Larry.
“Then he can eat these guys!” Harry growled.
They both roared and bared their teeth as they made their dinosaurs extinct between the palms of their hands and watched cartoons. Georgie’s thumb slipped from its mouth socket as he fell asleep on the floor beside all the toys, coloring books, broken crayons, and mashed reptiles.
“Clark, help me pick this stuff up, wouldja?”
“You’re not my boss.”
He wouldn’t quit watching Popeye and Bluto even one second so I thumped his head – not hard. I’d’ve tidied up the whole room, but the mailman brought a new magazine with Mrs. Kennedy on the cover. Inside were more pictures of the First Family plus news that they were going to have another baby too. Maybe it’d have the same birthday as our baby. Maybe they’d invite us to the White House, I thought, as I studied an especially nice picture of Jacqueline Kennedy. Next thing I knew, I was drawing her face on a piece of notebook paper. Drawing’s just daydreaming with a pencil. That’s all I was doing when I suddenly got yanked back into my real world. Where was our blockheaded guardian angel when Larry decided to skip his way downstairs? The little dope didn’t bust any bones or even bleed, but did that keep him from howling all the louder when he saw that Mom and Dad were home?
“Was everybody nice?” Mama asked.
No, but I was the only one who got yelled at.