Monday, January 2, 2012

Just For You to Know

Here is the first chapter of the darling of my heart, first published by HarperCollins in the summer of 2006.



In which we go to our new town by way of

the graveyard. Decoration Day, May 31, 1963.

Well, what’s our address going to be?” I asked.

“715 North Cottage Avenue, Independence, Missouri, U. S. A., Western Hemisphere, Planet Earth, third planet from the sun in the Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe,” my little brother replied. Jimmy was ten years old and happy to offer information anytime, anywhere. “We’re going to be at 39º north and 94º west.” He pushed his glasses up with his stubby finger. “That’s our longitude and latitude address, just for you to know.”

As if there was a tiny X marking us on the world.

“No foolin’?” Dad grinned at Jimmy in the rearview mirror as he turned our old stationwagon through the graveyard gate.

You know that things are pretty crummy when

going to a cemetery is a high spot. We stopped and I escaped out the car door and filled my lungs with cool green air. I filled my eyes with crooked stones, some of them topped with concrete lambs and angels, all marking long-ago funerals. Every year, no matter where we lived, we came to this old graveyard by the Missouri River and set a canning jar full of peonies by Grandma and Grandpa’s tombstone.

I looked to see if there were any tears in Mama’s eyes for her folks who died before I was born. There weren’t. Her freckled face was mild as milk, like always. Mama was quiet as usual and her chapped hands rested on her broad middle.

“Can they hear us up here,” Clark wondered,

“like reindeer on the roof on the night before Christmas?”

Now in my personal opinion, you don’t exactly have to be Clark’s age (seven and a half) to believe in Santa in the chimney, but did I want to imagine dead people down under the grass, listening to us, maybe jealous of us tramping around upstairs, alive in the fresh air? Nope. Still, Clark’s idea sure got the twins going. Waking up the oogly-booglies in a pair of freckle-pussed six-year-olds: this is not difficult.

“What if they reached their hands up through the grass?” Larry asked Jimmy who shrugged.

“What if they waved at us or grabbed our feet?” Harry asked me. I rolled my eyes. The twins went prancing about on tiptoe as if the cemetery were paved with hot bricks, lifting their feet high out of reach of ghostly hands. That’s exactly what I want to do when I’m dead: lie in the ground waiting to scare little kids even more witless than they already are. As traced my fingers over the carved name of a dead stranger, an idea reached out and grabbed me. It sent me hurrying back to the car for my pencil and my sketchbook.

I put a sheet of paper across the face of an especially mossy old marker, one you couldn’t even read. With my No. 2 pencil, I revealed a hand pointing up to the dear dead person’s heavenly home. I hunted for another really old tombstone and found an even neater one. Biting my lower lip, I rubbed my pencil fast. A face appeared, an angel’s face with eyes like headlights and bird wings on its shoulders. And then, calendar dates: November 25, 1814 ~ April11, 1873. A birthday and a deathday. Bookends, they seemed like, on each end of Sarah Somebody’s shelf of days. I couldn’t make out her real last name, the carving was so worn down. I began imagining all her sad relatives standing around this marker, this place in another springtime, all dressed in black and crying. What was she like? I imagined Sarah What’s-her-name when she was alive and pale, in a long white dress.

Then, on the same page, beside her pencil-rubbed angel, I slid into a daydream, drawing her long black hair, her dark eyes, staring back at me from across a canyon of years, staring like the eyes of the tombstone angel when – Smash! Into my imaginings came grubby fingers, grabbing at my drawing, smearing the pencil, crumpling the paper. I smacked two-year-old Georgie’s slobbery hand away from my drawing.

“I wanted to look at it!” my littlest brother wailed.

“You messed it all up!” I shouted into

his face. It crumpled up too as Georgie bawled out his hurt feelings, like he was the only one who had any. He was still blubbering as we piled back into the car, Harry and Larry

scuffling like little lion cubs, Dad telling me what a snot I was. “How can you be so mean over a piece of paper?”

“How come you don’t yell at him for ruining my picture?”

“Be nice now, Carmen,” Mama said.

Clark and Jimmy opened up their books and I pressed my face against the cool window glass as our car rumbled past the rusty graveyard gate. That’s when I saw an old lady off and away by the crumbliest stones in the weediest corner. Our eyes met in the instant before we were lost from each other’s view. Was she there to decorate her sweetheart’s grave? Maybe he had been a soldier and got killed in a war. Now there she was: a bent old lady with a jar full of lilies. Just when she’s remembering their very last kiss, she sees a red-headed, twelve-year-old girl staring at her out of the back of a station wagon full of kids and junky card-board boxes. Maybe she’d think I was trying to tell her something. I imagined myself hollering, ‘Help! I don’t belong with all these dopey little brothers! I’m being kidnapped!’

‘She didn’t look at all as if she belonged with them, Officer. Here, I wrote down their license number on the newspaper I wrapped around these lilies I brought for Harold.’ Then the police pull Dad over. ‘Sorry, Mister,’ says the cop, ‘but we got a report you got a kidnapped girl here.’

‘No, Sir, we’re the Cathcarts! That’s my girl, Carmen, my oldest. I’m Gene and this is my wife, Dorothy. We just stopped here to leave off a jar of peonies.’

‘Is that true, little lady?’ the policeman asks, narrowing his squinty eyes behind his sunglasses.

‘We’re the Cathcarts, all right,’ I sigh.

He peers into the junky station wagon crammed full of Gene and Dorothy Cathcart and their six kids.

‘You got my sympathy, kiddo,’ he says to me...

“Hey!” I felt a poke in my shoulder then Jimmy said, “I’m talking to you.”


“You’re always daydreaming.”

He’s next to the oldest in our family. James Eugene Cathcart. We’re both red-headed, marshmallow-middled,

glasses-slipping-down-their-noses kind of kids other kids ignore. One thing at least, Jimmy’s a lot squashier in the middle than I am.

“No, I’m not.” Then I lied again. “I was just thinking about Blue Top.” Well, not a lie exactly. I had been thinking about it some. Anyway, Jimmy believed me.

“Remember when we stood out there and saw Friendship Seven?” he asked, in a far away sort of voice. “And Clark kept waving his flashlight so that astronaut –”

“John Glenn,” I supplied.

“Yeah, so John Glenn could look down and see us?”

The good memory made us smile. Blue Top was where we lived, until this morning anyway, more than a hundred miles back down the road, on the other side of Osceola. Like rich people in books name their mansions, I named our crummy, weedy, old farm after the meadow-topped hill there. All summer, all over, it bloomed with clover and sky-colored cornflowers. A person could lie down in them and imagine fairies in the grasses and king-

doms in the clouds. Or, lying very still, with your head pointed north and your feet to the south, you could feel the earth turn. Plus, out in the tall weeds, nobody could find you and make you come inside and babysit or something. Now, as one of the boys took a littler boy’s toy away and they were screaming and punching each other, I said, “I guess I’ll sort of miss living there.”

Jimmy nodded thoughtfully. “It was sort of a dump.”

The way he said it told me that he was proud too, partly, of our folks for doing something as nutty as buying a goat and a brushy bunch of land with a worn-out house where you had to go outside to a stinky outhouse to pee and pray that the black swooping wasps would stay outside, buzzing in the hollyhocks.

We only lived there for a year or so and, since I was little, eight different houses before that. I know because I wrote down a list. Dad said he guessed he was “just a restless sort,” as if he was satisfied. He always seemed to want to be somewhere else. Me, I just wanted to be some ONE else.

We’d make new friends at our new schools, the folks always promised, but generally that wasn’t true, not for Jimmy and me anyway. I did like this one girl this past year: Janice McFarland, but I wasn’t her best friend. We’ll probably forget about each other now that our paths have separated. Liking the sound, I whispered out those words: “our paths have separated.” Mostly, the girls I really cared about were ones who lived in books, like Laura Ingalls and her sisters or those best friends in the Betsy and Tacy books. I chewed the inside of my mouth. It’d be neat to have a best friend sometime, in real life.

“Do you think that Gertie will be all right?” Jimmy asked. “Not be too lonesome over at Farmer Scott’s?”

“Beats me.”

Our goat, Gertie, got sold to our neighbor across the road. He was a real farmer, not like Dad who just felt like living in the country for a while even if he did have to drive and drive and drive to get to his job in Springfield. Gertie would figure out her goat life one way or the other. Everybody had to sooner or later.

I opened up my sketchbook and smoothed out my drawing of Sarah on the crumpled angel rubbing. Georgie watched, real serious-like, while I used a clean corner of my eraser to get rid of the worst smudges. Just as I was trying to make her nose look prettier – it’s really hard, in case you want to know, to draw the nose-holes without giving the person a pig nose – the car hit a bump in the road. Now, on top of all her other troubles, poor Sarah had an ugly pencil mark on her lip. I blew my bangs up with an angry puff of air and looked over at Georgie.

“The car’s too jiggly.”

Georgie nodded. It’s nerve-wracking to have paper in front of you and not be able to draw, so I held the sketchbook up so Georgie and I could look at page after smudgy page of ladies, all pretty solemn in spite of their beauty, their long hair and flowing gowns. The last page in my book was blank, like snow nobody’d walked on yet. I glided my hand across the smooth paper. The most excellent picture I’d ever draw might happen there.

A fresh thought came into my head, how white paper was like moving to a new address. Anything was

possible there. What was it like, this new house? I hadn’t seen it yet. All’s I knew was where it was on the globe of the world and that it wasn’t far from Dad’s new factory job. Anyway, maybe my family and I could be different, living at 715 North Cottage.

“We’re going to live pretty close to where a genuine used-to-be President of the United States lives,” Dad said, looking back at all of us in the rearview mirror. “Can any of you guys tell me who that might be?”

“Harry S. Truman,” I muttered. Not that people like us will ever get to see a real president out walking around, just being a guy.

“Independence was where the Oregon Trail started,” Jimmy told us all. “Back in the pioneer days.”

Big deal. Maybe it was an exciting place about a hundred years ago IF you were wanting to join up with a wagon train and go on a bumpy, scary, disgusting, ox-poopy, frontier trail. I could just imagine Dad saying, ‘Let’s go to California! It’ll be an adventure!’

Thank goodness we didn’t have to do that.

Now Clark stabbed me in the arm with his finger. “Carmie, look at this one!” He held his joke book two inches away from my eyeballs.

“Leave me alone.”

“’How do you tell if a elephant was in your refrigerator?’ Do you know?” When he couldn’t stand me ignoring him even one more second, he blurted out, “’When you find footprints in the Jell-O!’”

Laughter exploded out of him.

The twins began fighting over graham crackers, spilling them over the checker game they were trying to play. When Harry accidentally elbowed Larry in the head, they tipped over a sackful of Mama’s old magazines onto Georgie who began to howl. Oh man, how’d I end up in Gene’s and Dorothy’s Traveling Loony Bin? Somewhere up in heaven I must’ve gotten on the wrong bus.

“You kids pipe down right now, I mean it!” Dad yelled.

“Pick up those crackers, you boys,” said Mama. “And don’t eat them if they’ve been on the floor. Throw

‘em out the window for the birds and the critters.”

Boy, that got their minds off their troubles: throwing all the crackers and a few checkers out the window. I hoped the rabbits or raccoons wouldn’t be squashed into hash, trying to gather up smashed graham crackers all over the highway. And what would some poor hungry robin do when all he got was a checker?

“Mama!” Harry shouted. “Georgie peeing his pants!”

“Oh gross!” Clark yelled. “Don’t get any on me!”

“Carmen,” said tired-sounding Mama, “you wanna change him? His red shorts are in that grocery sack.”

If there was one thing I knew for sure it was that no matter where we lived, I’d always be changing some little boy’s disgusting wet pants. Once a long time ago, I changed Harry’s diaper and he peed right in my eye! Clark thought this story was the funniest joke in the world. It made Harry very happy and proud.

“Let’s all sing, okay?” Dad suggested. “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain,” he began, and even Mama

and Georgie, sort of, were singing dumb stuff like “we’ll all

have biscuits and gravy when she comes.”

“How come Carmen’s not singing?” Larry asked.

Dad tossed me a glance over his shoulder. “She thinks she’s too old.” Then he pushed back his ballcap and began singing, “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair,” loud and deep, high-pitched Clark joining in. When the last note trailed off, Mama said, “You sang that for me the first time we ever met when you came bumming ‘round our diner, lookin’ for a handout.”

“Handout?” Dad retorted. “Bumming! Didn’t I sing for my supper?”

I looked at the back of Dad’s head and tried to see in my mind the way he was in the 1930s hard times. Imagining my dad as a teenaged hobo, running, panting, jumping onto a moving boxcar train -- it made me shiver. Maybe that was how he got to be a restless sort, being on his own after his mom died out in California. “After my daddy lost his business, he went and got drowned in the Pacific Ocean. I hit the road, saw the whole entire U.S. of A., I did, AND met your Mama.” I didn’t mind at all hearing Dad tell his story even a million times.

Mama was working in her family’s diner when her father found my tired, hollow-in-the-belly dad sleeping out back, on one of the picnic tables. Instead of telling him to ‘go along and git outta here’ like some people did, my Grandpa said, “Go out and wash up at the pump. I’ll have Dee bring you out a sandwich.” Dee: that’s my mom. I tried to imagine him, the black-and-white Grandpa in the photo album, the Grandpa in the graveyard under the peonies.

“Kids,” Dad said, “that’s how I met your mama.” He smiled in her direction. “I sang to you, remember? A half a dozen songs, I bet, for two ham sandwiches and a glass of lemonade!” His open hand swirled in the hard highway wind out the driver’s window. A harp with angel-wings was tatooed on his sunburned arm.

“Didn’t we throw in a piece of cherry pie?” Mama asked him.

“Well, your sister baked that pie. Bev’s a beauty

and a pistol -- but a baker? No MA’AM! And didn’t I write to you anyway? Every week, even when I went off to save the world from Hitler and the Japs and nearly gotmyself killed? Didn’t I come home and marry you and help you make all these babies?” Dad’s light eyes blazed as he waved his window arm and our old Rambler swerved there for a second, throwing all us “babies” into each other.

“Gene, you wanna be watching for a gas station?”

“You feelin’ okay, honey?” Dad gave Mama a worried look.

“I’m fine.”

We pulled off the blacktop into a podunk, one-pump gas station just outside our new hometown. Mom came out and Dad was paying a blue overalls-guy for the gas when I went inside the joint. Probably the hick teenage boys hanging around the counter didn’t see me go in there or else, maybe, the pimply one wouldn’t been yacking to his greasy-haired buddy about “the hillbilly family in that rustbucket out at the pump.”

“The mom looks like she’s got another bun in the oven,” said Goop-head, lighting up a smoke.

“What a cow,” Crater Face sneered. “Like they don’t got enough kids already.”

I stalked out of the Ladies restroom and yelled at them. “Shut up, you blockheads!”

Boy, I ran out of there before the surprise drained out of their stupid faces, but they pulled their sorry selves together enough to laugh at us some more as we drove away.

I met Dad’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “What’s the deal?” he asked.


“What happened in there?” Jimmy wondered.

“Leave me alone,” I muttered.

Mom aimed a questioning glance at me, then went back to window-gazing at the houses going by.

Me, I just looked down at my balled-up fists.

“Must’ve been something,” Dad said, “the way you came tearing out of there.”

Clark began practicing his reading. “’Wel-come to In-de-pen-dence, Queen City of the --’ Dang! Dad! You’re going too fast! I was reading the sign!”

“Of the Trails,” Jimmy offered. “Trails, Clark. Because of the wagon trains.”

Dad ignored them, repeated his ‘Musta been somethin.’ I looked up from my lap to the back of Mama’s head. Her hair glowed a beautiful red in the last of the sunset light. I could’ve stuck up for her better. Maybe said, ‘She is not EITHER going to have another dumb baby. You don’t know what you’re talking about. She’s just -- I don’t know, big, okay?’ I could’ve told those jerks. ‘ She doesn’t have no stupid bun in the oven, you morons!’

“Are we almost there?” Larry hollered from the back of the station wagon.

“Yeah, Daddy,” Harry called out from right under my feet, trying to find a checker. “We’ve been in this dumb car all day! Aren’t we at our house yet?”

“The house is just a little ways from here now,” Mama said.

“Three hours,” Dad griped. “Been on the road for three hours. Is that all day?”

“Root beer!” Clark shouted. He tugged at the back of Dad’s seat, pulling himself up so he could holler in his ear,

“See the sign up there, Daddy? Can we get some? Can we?”

“Can’t we just keep going?” I grumbled, but I was drowned out by chants of “Root beer! Root beer!”

Dad seemed to get Mom’s permission. “Okey-doke, then!” he exclaimed. “Root beer, in honor of our first evening in town and...“ We came to a stop in an empty space in the crowded drive-in. Dad gave my mom a lovey-dovey look then reached over to bring the back of her hand to his lips. “Well,” he said, “just in honor of...summertime.”

I leaned my head out the car window. There was the night’s first star, all by itself in the warm, blue twilight. I could be that star. I could be a space traveler. If I were up there in the sky, I could appreciate this evening from far, far away. The thought orbited around and around inside my hot tangled head.

Cars full of old couples and normal families surrounded the orange and white-painted drive-in. A couple of shirtless high school boys in a pickup truck honked and yoo-hooed at the tired-looking, pony-tailed

waitress. Dad switched off the engine and flipped on the

dome light so Mama could dig around in her purse and, as a bonus, everybody at the root beer stand could get a really good look at me and my messy, goofy family. I hunched my shoulders and tried to smooth my hair.

“Dad, turn the light off, please?” I asked politely.

“Your Mom’s looking for something.”

“Leave it on,” Clark said loudly. “I’m trying to read my joke book. Listen to this one: if a cabbage and a carrot are in a race, who wins? The cabbage -- get it? It’s ahead. A head! Oh yeah, Daddy, I wanna BIG mug.”

“I like the light,” said Larry, sticking his tongue out at me.

After a whole lot of noisy figuring out what everybody wanted, the twins climbed over the back seat a few dozen times, banging up against us other kids until Clark punched them and Dad started yelling. It gave them something to do while we waited for the waitress to bring her tray full of heavy, slippery mugs. Everybody in the cars beside us heard Dad smacking his lips: “Man, that hits the

don’t it?”

Georgie: “I can hold it!”

Mama: “No, let me hold your mug. You don’t want to spill it, now.”

Clark: “Hey, you brat, listen! I’m telling a JOKE! What do you call a ...”

Harry: “You bumped me on purpose! Mom!”

Larry: “Daddy, he made me spill my drink!”

Jimmy: “Don’t get any on my book!”

Mama: “Everybody be nice, now.”

Dad: “All of you just put a sock in it, settle down, hurry up, and drink your drinks!” Then he turned to Mama and softened his voice. “Dee? You okay, honey?”

“What’s the matter?” Jimmy asked.

Mama sighed. “I’m just… oh, we’re all tired out.”

“Your mama’s not feeling good,” Dad said.

“Me neither,” I muttered.

“Maybe Mom’s gonna have another baby!” Clark hollered, as if it was the best joke yet. A mom, dad, and their only child in their shiny car looked over at us Cathcarts like Mama was the old woman in the shoe.

“A baby?” Harry called out.

“Mommy’s going to have a baby?” Larry shouted from the very back of the stationwagon, just as the waitress appeared at Dad’s window to take away the tray full of mugs. She rolled her eyes, more people in the other cars chuckled, and Dad glared at all of us in his mirror. “Maybe,” he said, like somebody had dared him to say it.

“Is that true?” The boys were all asking, “Mama, is that true? Are you going to really? Are you? When Mommy? A new baby? Is that really true?”

Their flutey ‘trues?’ and ‘are yous?’ sounded like hooty owls. I saw Mama bow her head and Dad leaned over to kiss her cheek. “She sure is“ he said, his voice all soft, his face all proud, “later on this summer.”

“What?” My voice came out too angry and too loud. Before I could stop them, hard words popped out of me like snakes out of a can. “Another dumb, stupid, bawly baby? Don’t we have enough, for crying out loud?”

Dad whipped his head around in my direction. “What was that you said?”

It seemed like slow-motion but it only took a

second for Dad to lunge back from the steering wheel. “You ashamed of us, Carmen? You ashamed of your own family?” His long arm whipped over the front seat and I saw the back of his hand coming for my face.

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